As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, some may wonder if the Reformation still matters today. We don’t face the same problems today in the church that they did back then, right? No one is selling indulgences. No one in in the evangelical world is teaching salvation by works and certainly not in the Reformed world! Right?
Last week, Desiring God ran an article by John Piper on sola fide, Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone? The article is a rerun of older material by Piper. It makes the rounds every couple of years and receives a wide range of responses. The point of the article seems to be to encourage believers to have an active faith as described in James 2. This is a worthy aim. There are many today, even in Reformed circles, who speak and act as though believers should not be expected to live godly lives and to struggle against their sins.
The problem in many responses to such antinomianism is a trend towards moralism, pietism, or legalism. Such a reaction to antinomianism is not surprising, but it is equally dangerous. And this is the ditch Piper’s article falls into.
Piper rightly says that believers are justified by faith alone, but then he makes a distinction between justification and salvation by faith alone:
If you substitute other clauses besides “We are justified . . .” such as “We are sanctified . . .” or “We will be finally saved at the last judgment . . .” then the meaning of some of these prepositional phrases must be changed in order to be faithful to Scripture. For example,
In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us.
In sanctification, faith receives an ongoing power of Christ that works inside us for practical holiness.
In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (emphasis added)
He goes on to say that works are necessary for “final salvation”:
Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. (emphasis added)
Piper is saying that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone but that there is also a final salvation separate from justification that includes our works. In this way, he says, we are saved through faith AND works. This is not simply sloppiness or poor wording. This is what he is teaching, and it is clear from the context of the article. And it is contrary to Scripture, to the Reformation, and to the Reformed confessions and catechisms.
In Scripture, Paul says clearly that we are SAVED, not only justified, by faith alone and not by works:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB, emphasis added)
In Galatians, Paul addresses a very similar concern. He asks:
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3, NASB)
In Romans, Paul explains that we are saved through faith in Christ:
if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Romans 10:9-10, NASB)
Paul goes on to say that grace is only grace if works are excluded:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. (Romans 11:6, NASB)
The Scriptures do not distinguish between an initial salvation (or justification) and a final salvation. It does distinguish between justification, sanctification, and glorification. However, all are said to be the work of God.
Romans 8:29-30 says that God is the one who predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30, NASB)
In Philippians, we are told to work out our salvation, but even here it is clear that God is the one who works in us and through us:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, NASB, emphasis added)
In 2 Thessalonians, the passage Piper quotes above, Paul does say that salvation is through sanctification and faith. But notice who does the sanctifying:
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB, emphasis added)
The Spirit sanctifies us, part of the work of sanctification is to change us so that we are willing and able to obey as God has called us to. We do good works, but the merit is all God’s and not ours:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10, NASB)
It is absolutely true that without sanctification, without holiness, no one will enter glory. Hebrews tells us so:
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NASB)
But since sanctification is the promised work of the Spirit in the life of a believer, all who are justified will be sanctified and will ultimately be glorified. It is God’s work from beginning to end, and He will bring it to completion:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6, NASB)
But what about our actions? Won’t Christians be lazy and sinful if their works don’t have any part in saving them? Again, the Scriptures anticipate every argument. Paul writes in Romans:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2, NASB)
Because we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified. Our salvation is secure because God is the One doing the work. And because the Spirit is at work in us to sanctify us, we will see changes in our lives and in our actions. That is what James 2 is explaining. Justifying faith will always be accompanied by good works.
Justifying faith will always be accompanied by good works. Those works are evidence and absolutely necessary, but they do not earn us any part of our salvation. The evidence is for our sake and for the sake of others in the church. It’s a means of assurance and a means of confirming who are believers in the church.
God does not need proof to know who of us is saved. He knows! He chose us before the foundation of the world. He has called us by our names. We are His! He will not lose a single one of us.
The Reformers fought and many died to restore the truth of SALVATION by faith alone through Grace alone in Christ alone. They wrote the catechisms and confessions we have today, not to displace the role of Scripture alone, but to lay out what the Scriptures teach in such a way that all might understand. So many of the current problems and troubles in the church today would be resolved if people would study the Scriptures and catechize themselves and their children.
For example, the Heidelberg catechism questions could have been written with this very discussion in mind:
Q & A 60
Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments,
of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
Q & A 61
Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.
Q & A 62
Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.
Q & A 63
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
Q & A 64
Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.
This is the consistent message of Scripture and all the Reformed confessions and catechisms. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God alone be the glory! By all means, we need to struggle against the sins in our lives and encourage others to do the same. We should look for evidence of the work of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of our children. We should press on and serve God faithfully and honorably in all we do.
But if we sell our birthright of salvation by faith alone for the pottage of moralism, we will have lost all our Reformed ancestors fought for, and we will do great damage to our own faith, to the faith of others, and to our churches. As we vow when we profess faith and join the church in the PCA, we must receive and rest on Christ alone for salvation. Beginning to end, the work is God’s. Here we stand, we can do no other.