The proper relation of good works to the gospel is a common discussion in Christianity, especially since the Protestant Reformation which confirmed so powerfully the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It’s been the subject of a recent controversy between several Reformed blogs- a letter from Pyromaniacs warning the White Horse Inn blogger Michael Horton about encouraging antinomianism, a response from Michael Horton, and some related thoughts from Professor R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary.
I have a great deal of respect and sympathy, really, for all of the people involved here. There are, however, some important distinctions to be made and I think underlying this discussion truly is simply some real differences of opinion regarding the nature of the gospel itself. Here is a video of Dr. Lane Tipton making this very point- demonstrating that we can make some pretty basic assumptions about the gospel without even realizing it, and those assumptions will very powerfully affect how we answer a whole bunch of questions. Tipton asserts (and I agree) that the gospel is not simply justification by faith alone. It includes that essential doctrine, of course. But the gospel itself, he says, is the good news of union with Christ, meaning that the gospel is the fact of my union with Him, and all of the benefits associated with that- justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, are all included.
Jesus said He came to save His people from their sins. If Dr. Tipton is correct, then the salvation which Jesus is offering is not just rescuing from the punishment of sins, but from the sins themselves. The old hymn sang, “Be of sin the double cure; cleanse me from its guilt and power.” So we are rescued from the condemnation, but also from the tyranny, of sin.
Heidelberg Catechism q. 86 says,
“Question 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?
Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, (a) and that he may be praised by us; (b) also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ. (d)”
I want to point out that phrase “…that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof.” This teaches that one part of our assurance of faith is by our works. Our sanctification is never the grounds of our merit before God. But it does demonstrate that God is at work in us, and therefore shows that the promise of God is true. God’s claim to be able to save me from my sins is shown to be true by the beginning of that process. I think this points us to the fact that the gospel encompasses more than simply justification, that the gospel includes all of Jesus’ benefits, and that therefore an exhortation to good works as a thankful response to God’s forgiveness belongs properly to the preaching of the gospel.
Now one school of thought really downplays or outright denies this doctrine that good works have a role in assurance of faith. They say that this breeds legalism on the one hand and despair on the other. How good is good enough? How many good works actually demonstrate that I have true faith? My answer would be, how many apples growing on the tree does it take to show that the apple tree is alive? Just one. Any good work at all in the believer demonstrates the work of faith. The unbeliever is incapable of good works. Also according to the catechism, only those works which proceed from faith are truly good works. The Pharisee, the outward religionist, cannot produce any true fruit, but only a fake version.
This doctrine is not in the least a burden to me. It is a great comfort. I can look at myself and see clearly that I am very far from what I ought to be. I cannot claim to have the least merit to produce before God and say, I am worthy of salvation. But I can look at myself and say, I am not what I was, and I am not what I would be without Jesus. I know that I could not have done this good work in me by my own power, and therefore I recognize the work of the Spirit in me. This gives me comfort when I am downcast over my sin. The Spirit is at work in me, and God will finish the good work which He has begun.
We can therefore challenge ourselves and challenge each other, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” If you are plagued with doubt, despair and uncertainty about the gospel, my encouragement to you is, lay hold of the promises of the gospel and start striving to live in the light of that blessed freedom. Bathe yourself in the word of God and prayer. Remind yourself constantly of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And endeavor to live in a way that reflects that truth. God will work in you. God will grant you power and strength to overcome sin, when you have faith in Him. You will taste God’s goodness in your life, and this will grant you a stronger assurance of the truth of God’s promises.