The Lutheran branch of the Protestant Reformation settled this debate confessionally with the publication of The Book of Concord
. It condemned Major’s teaching
while affirming “that good works were obligatory, in that they are commanded, as well as being an appropriate expression of faith and gratitude to God.”
By contrast, the Reformed, in the main, affirmed the necessity of good works to salvation. To be sure, differences existed, both verbal and real.
Nevertheless, numerous Reformed theologians did not hesitate to draw a necessary link between works and salvation.
Indeed, such teaching was given confessional status. The Waldensian Confession states that “good works are so necessary to the faithful that they cannot attain the kingdom of heaven without the same.”
It also avers that eternal life is the reward of good works.
According to the Westminster Standards, Spirit wrought obedience is “the way which he hath appointed them to salvation,” and good works are to be done “that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.”
This paper will attempt to unpack the Reformed understanding of the relationship between good works and salvation by examining the writings of numerous prominent Reformed theologians. In so doing we will discuss the salvific necessity of good works under three headings: the requirement
of the covenant, the road
to heaven, and the reward
of eternal life.
The Requirement of the Covenant
Since the growth and development of covenant theology occurred primarily within Reformed circles
it is not surprising that the discussion of good works is often addressed in covenantal terms. Geerhardus Vos correctly observes that the Reformed, unlike the Lutherans, are not reluctant to include new obedience as a condition or requirement of the covenant of grace since they understand the covenant and salvation to be broader than justification.
As Turretin writes: “There is not the same relation of justification and of the covenant through all things. To the former, faith alone concurs, but to the observance of the latter other virtues also are required besides faith.”
John Ball (1585-1640) in his influential work A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace
demonstrates from the Scriptures that though there are many postlapsarian redemptive covenants, there is, in substance, one overarching covenant of grace.
In this one covenant of Grace, God promises forgiveness of sins, spiritual adoption and eternal life, requiring on the part of man repentance, faith and obedience. With respect to the condition Ball writes:
“The stipulation required is, that we take God to be our God, that is, that we repent of our iniquities, believe the promises of mercy and embrace them with the whole heart, and yield love, feare, reverence, worship, and obedience unto him, according to the prescript rule of his word.”
Ball, as well as the many other Reformed covenantal theologians, carefully distinguishes between types of conditions.
Generally speaking, conditions refer to whatever is required on man’s part in the covenant; they may either be antecedent, concomitant or subsequent to the thing promised; and they may or may not be causal....