ACR Journal

Are we antinomian? Final salvation and good works


In the preface of the book A Faith that is Never Alone, Andrew Sandlin asks the question, ‘does the Protestant idea of justification negate the necessity of good works?’.[1] This indeed has been a common accusation against the reformational teaching of justification by faith alone. If I can caricature the position a little: if good works play no role whatsoever in the believer’s justification, then let us eat, drink, and be merry because what we do as Christians matters little! Given the resurgence of this charge against the reformation dictum of justification by faith alone, some recent scholarship has begun to revisit this understanding of justification. In an attempt to find a ‘real’ place for good works in the Christian life, some have posited if it might be more appropriate to speak of a ‘present justification’ by faith alone followed by some type of ‘future justification’ by faith and good works.

Now, before we jump up and down too quickly and pick up our pitchforks in defence of the reformational teaching, we need to understand why some are questioning the old dictum.

In holding unswervingly to justification by faith alone, are we flying the flag for antinomian behaviour? This seems to be one of the great concerns for those who want to revisit the old dictum – does teaching justification by faith alone lead to license and lawlessness (antinomianism)? Indeed, when was the last time you heard a local preacher speak about the place of good works in the Christian life? Or the necessity of obedience? Or the place of holiness and holy living in those who belong to Christ? There is a fear in some preachers of sounding like a legalist in their teaching that they never talk about the place of good works in the Christian life or teach their people about holy living.

However, does this mean that we need to revisit the doctrine of justification by faith alone? Is the old dictum responsible for antinomian behaviour? I say no. Rather, what is needed is a return to the Bible’s teaching on the place of good works in the Christian life. In particular, we need to understand afresh how the reformers spoke of good works as ‘ordinarily necessary’ to final salvation. This is something that is often missed in the modern debates. The reformers were very aware of the antinomian charge against them and careful in how they spoke about the place of good words. For the reformers, any ‘cheap’ kind of following of Christ void of any good works was an abomination!

Nevertheless, to properly understand how careful reformation theology was in speaking about good works, it would be good for us to firstly re-engage its teaching on justification and its relation to modern discussions concerning ‘present’ and ‘future’ justification.

‘Present’ and ‘future’ justification

Rich Lusk states the biblical doctrine of justification accordingly: ‘Initial justification is by faith alone. But it is faith that will prove itself in works. Final justification is by faith and works together’.[2] For Lusk, initial justification by faith alone begins the process of how one will finally be justified on the last day by faith and works. Justification is thus a two-stage process.

One of the key texts that is often put forward to argue this viewpoint is Romans 2:13. Here Paul clearly states that it is the ‘doers of the law who will [future tense] be justified’. The reason this verse is so instrumental to the notion of future justification is due to Paul’s use of righteous/justification (δικαιοω) language in the future tense. Paul here does not use his usual salvation (σωζω) language in speak- ing of a future event, but justification language. For some, like N. T. Wright, they take this passage as referring to the believer’s judgement.[3] Thus, Wright would claim that ‘Paul means what he says’.[4] Paul, in ‘referring to the future justification’, makes it clear that only the doers of the law will be [future tense] justified, and thus ‘for Paul, future justification will be in accordance with the life that has been lived’.[5]

However, there are two points to make at this stage about this notion of future justification. Firstly, Romans 2:6-16 need not be read in regard to the believer’s judgement. Douglas Moo makes a very clear case (and in my mind a convincing case) of how Romans 2 is speaking in regard to God’s impartial judgement of all people, not of believers.[6] For Moo, Paul’s point in Romans 2 is not to speak of a believer’s judgement in accordance with the doing of the law, but to put forward the notion that if one were indeed to fulfil God’s law, then that person would indeed be ‘justified’ in the sight of God. The problem is, nobody (except the Lord Jesus of course!) is capable of fulfilling God’s law. As Paul concludes in the flow of his argument through Romans 1–3, ‘no one, not even one is righteous’ (3:9), ‘no one will be justified in God’s sight by the works of the law’ (3:20).

Secondly, even if one were to hold to a ‘judgement of believers’ understanding of Romans 2, doctrinally the reformers were very careful in holding to one, unified, and single moment of justification through faith alone in Christ alone. While the doctrines of justification and sanctification do go hand-in-hand, the reformers were careful in keeping the distinct nature of each and denying any two-stage justification process. Famously, this can be seen in Calvin’s refutation of Osiander’s doctrine in his Institutes.[7] This was not because the reformers rejected the notion of a future judgement of believers. The New Testament clearly has things to say on this matter. However, they were very careful to make a distinction between our justification and the ongoing process of our sanctification that follows our justification by faith alone. To mix the two together was to make a categorical error. Good works play absolutely no role in one of these doctrines (justification) while good works were necessary and part of the other (sanctification).

All this is to say that the reformers wanted to uphold very clearly the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Works, when it came to our status and justified state before God, played absolutely no role. One is declared righteous before God on the basis of faith alone (which faith itself is a gift and not a work) in the work of Christ alone. To insist anything other would be to undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s work on behalf of the believer. If we are declared right with God now, and have peace with God now, through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1), then nothing additional need be demanded of the believer in the future. In this sense, we should not speak of any two-stage process or any future notion of justification which is grounded – even partly – upon our efforts. Justification is a present reality for those who belong to Jesus. We are now declared righteous in Him. Praise God!

Good works as ordinarily necessary to final salvation

How then does early Reformed theology speak of the place of good works? For the reformers themselves, they spoke of the place of good works in a variety of ways. For example, Calvin speaks of three uses of the moral law, with the third use showing the ongoing place of the law in the believer’s life.[8] However, for our purposes we will focus in on the necessity of good works in final salvation, for this is important in light of the modern debates.

What must be made clear from the outset is that the conversation here takes place within the broader category of ‘salvation’. This often seems to be the error for those who quote New Testament passages regarding the final judgement as proof for some kind of future justification by works.[9] In quoting those passages they begin to speak in terms of our justification, where in fact it is the broader doctrine of salvation that is in view.[10] It will be important for us to have this distinction in mind as we now proceed to hear the reformers speak about good works.

Thus, on the place of good works in final salvation, Calvin writes, ‘[t]hose whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads in possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works’.[11] Calvin continues, ‘[i]n this way he sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them; but because he justifies those whom he has chosen in order at last to glorify them’.[12] Before we misunderstand what Calvin is saying here, we must be clear on what he is not saying. Calvin in no way is describing works as meritorious in obtaining eternal life. For the past twenty sections of his Institutes, Calvin has been at pains to describe (using Aristotelian causality!) the efficient and material cause of our salvation as the Father and the Son respectively. In section 21 he goes on to describe works as ‘inferior causes’ and that ‘when- ever the true cause [of eternal life] is to be assigned, he [the Lord] does not enjoin us to take refuge in works but keeps us solely to the contemplation of his mercy’.[13] What Calvin is saying is that good works are the way into possession of eternal life. They are the way to salvation. Not that works are co-operative or co-instrumental in obtaining eternal life and salvation, but that they are co-incidental.[14] Good works are the normal path for the believer on the way to final salvation. Eating, drinking, and being merry (in the hedonistic sense) is not the path of the believer!

Commenting on this notion within reformation teaching, Mark Jones summarises by saying ‘in short, good works are not only the believer’s way of giving thanks to God, but also his duty on the way to salvation’.[15] What Jones is attempting to combat here is the idea that good works are purely evidential on the last day. He wants to say that they are more than simply evidential, but also necessary. This is why Jones uses the language of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’. This is helpful commentary in regard to reformation teaching as the reformers never shied away by talking about the necessity of good works. Works do have an evidential role, but they are also ordinarily necessary.

However, we must be careful of pushing Jones’ language of ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ too far. This is where English theologian and Bishop of Salisbury, John Davenant (1572–1641), is helpful in his careful language. In his debates against Roman Catholic theologian and cardinal, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Davenant carefully writes that ‘good works are necessary in all the faithful and justified, who have the use of reason, and are of an age to practise them’.[16] His qualification of those who have the ‘use of reason’ and being ‘of an age to practice them’ is an important one. Davenant wants to insist on the place of good works but is cautious not to go beyond what the Scripture says. For example, what about those who experience serious mental health issues or the chronically sick? Or at what age are the young ‘obliged’ or ‘duty’ bound to perform good works (I’ve got four young children and they don’t come naturally!)? Qualifying the language helps us remain within the bounds of what Scripture itself says. This also becomes a question of the definition of ‘good works’ (which we do not have the space to unpack here). For some, their ‘good work’ of remaining faithful to Christ amidst severe illness or suffering is a great work indeed. We couldn’t accuse these faithful brothers and sisters, impacted as they are by the sinful effects of our fallen world, of antinomian behaviour or a kind of ‘cheap’ following of Christ.

Just as helpful is Calvin’s language above of God’s ‘ordinary dispensation’. The ordinary means by which the believer enters into eternal life is via the path of good works. In this way, good works are the ordinarily necessary way to salvation. A classic example of the helpfulness of this distinction is the thief on the cross. He obviously was restricted in his ability to perform good works. His time was very short! Or, perhaps another example is that of the church leader mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:15. Obviously his ‘work’ was shown for what it was and was burned up. It wasn’t very good (though we must assume his motives were)! In this example this man has very little to show in regard to ‘good works’, and yet he himself is still saved.

One final important distinction is to speak of works as a ‘way of life’ rather than a ‘way for life’. To speak of the necessity of works for salvation may not be the most helpful language. For example, Davenant, as he speaks of the necessity of works, is careful in speaking of them as ‘a necessity of order’ to salvation, not ‘of causality’.[17] He speaks of them as ‘the way appointed to eternal life, not as the meritorious cause of eternal life’.[18] For Davenant, if the believer were to cease in their good works for a time or in moments of temptation, they are not excluded from salvation.[19] What is important is the pursuit of good works, for ‘it is plain, that a certain sure way is laid down to the Kingdom of heaven by God himself […] namely, that of virtue and holiness’.[20] Thus, keeping this language of ‘the way appointed to’ or ‘ordinary dispensation’ helps clarify the right place of good works in final salvation. They are indeed ordinarily necessary (Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:17-23 is real – false faith will be seen for what it is, and the believer will be held to account (2 Cor 5:10)), and yet to insist on the necessity of good works for salvation, or for eternal life, even if speaking under the broader category of ‘salvation’, may be to go beyond the witness of the Scriptures.

Thus, we can see that the Reformed tradition speaks very clearly on the real place of good works in the Christian life. And not only does it speak clearly on the matter, but it also speaks very carefully, knowing how quickly the human heart tends towards works-based salvation.

Rightly upholding and preaching good works

While only so much can be said and explored in a piece of this length, hopefully we have seen that any charge of antinomianism against the reformers is unfair. There is no doubt that those like Calvin, and Davenant after him, held strongly to the place of good works in the life of the believer, especially when speaking of final salvation. Furthermore, they did this in a way that upheld the doctrine of justification by faith alone. There is no need to do away with the old reformation dictum – it is a biblical one! Rather, as hearers of God’s word (and for those of us who are teaches and preachers of God’s word) we need to come once more to the Scriptures and see how well the Bible holds together our justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone and the real place of good works. One might even say that due to our justification won for us in Christ, we are now truly free to serve and walk in the path of good works. Our job now as believers and as those who are created in Christ Jesus is to do those good works which God has prepared for us to do (Eph 2:10). And for the preachers and teachers amongst us, we need to learn anew how to preach rightly the place of good works in the Christian life. To do so does not undermine the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Indeed, to do so is our great responsibility and privilege in exhorting those under our care to the life of holiness we’ve all been called to live.

[1] P. Andrew Sandlin, ‘The Polemics of Articulated Rationality’, in P. Andrew Sandlin (ed.), A Faith That Is Never Alone: A Response to Westminster Seminary in California (La Grange, Calif.: Kerygma Press, 2007), ix.

[2] Rich Lusk, ‘Future Justi cation: Some Theological and Exegetcial Proposals’, in P. Andrew Sandlin (ed.), A Faith That Is Never Alone: A Response to Westminster Seminary in California (La Grange, Calif.: Kerygma Press, 2007), 354.

[3] N. T. Wright, ‘New Perspective on Paul’, in Bruce L. McCormack (ed.), Justi cation in Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998).

[4] Wright, ‘New Perspective on Paul’, 253.

[5] N. T. Wright, ‘Justi cation: Yesterday, Today, and Forever’, J. Evang. Theol. Soc. 54/1 (2011): 61. Remembering that ‘that life’ is ‘in Christ’ and a result of the ‘indwelling of the Spirit’.

[6] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

[7] John T. McNeill, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), III.XI.5–12.

[8] McNeill, Calvin, II.VII.12–13.

[9] This seems to be a big weakness in Matthew Bates’ recent book. For one, he doesn’t clarify his terms. And for two, he often fails to distinguish between salvation and justification. See: Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017).

[10] As detailed above, the only possible exception would be Romans 2:13 (cf. James 2:14-26). However, we must understand those verses correctly in their own context and within the flow of the argument that is being made.

[11] McNeill, Calvin, III.XIV.21.

[12] McNeill, Calvin, III.XIV.21.

[13] McNeill, Calvin, III.XIV.21.

[14] R. Scott Clark, Through Good Works? (2),, cited June 8 2018.

[15] Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2013), 66.

[16] John Davenant, A Treatise On Justi cation; Volume 1 (Andesite Press, 2017), 290.

[17] Davenant, A Treatise On Justification; Volume 1, 302.

[18] Davenant, A Treatise On Justification; Volume 1, 302.

[19] Davenant, A Treatise On Justification; Volume 1, 302. He does go on to say that those who persist on the path of temptation ‘will never arrive at the heavenly city’ (303). However it is not clear if he means that this person was never in Christ, or that they had fallen from Christ.

[20] Davenant, A Treatise On Justification; Volume 1, 302.