Vanilla Reformed vs. Federal Vision On The Role of Good Works In Justification — Pt. 1

Ian wrote,

But I have to tell you Bret, that when I read your words, “The phrase ‘non necessary condition,’ strikes me as oxymoronic since if you don’t have the condition you don’t have justification,” I almost fell off my chair. Really! I thought to myself, McAtee can’t really believe what he’s suggesting. Not the Bret McAtee I know.

Bret responds,

I prefer to think Sanctification as a necessary consequence to being regenerated, not a “non-necessary condition” for Justification.” Really, the whole idea of a “non-necessary condition” is a contradiction. (Go ahead and get up off the floor Ian.) If it is a condition for Justification it is, by definition, necessary. If it is non necessary, by definition, it is not a condition.

Ian wrote,

In your article and some of the attending comments, my real offense was apparently using the words “non-meritorious works” and applying the concept in the manner that I did. However, Bret, I think I have good biblical grounds for using that phrase. I further believe that your ordination vows and your own confessional standards require you to believe and accept the idea of “non-meritorious works.” Here’s why, and it’s something you and I discussed on more than one occasion. The Heidelberg Catechism:

Question 91. But what are good works?

Answer: Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.

Here is that most excellent summary by our 16th century forebears about the Christian life. And what a declaration. Good works, but not according to any old standard we might want to make up. No, only good works “performed according to the law of God.” But even that is not enough. They have to “proceed from a true faith.” So we see here two things linked together, faith and law. Good works are thus those, and only those, that combine a true faith with the law of God.

Bret responds,

Ian, I never said that good works were unnecessary for salvation. I said they were unnecessary for Justification. This is in keeping with Luther’s common refrain from the Reformation. “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Further, I’ve also consistently said that good works are the necessary consequence to Regeneration, and being filled with the Spirit. Ephesians 2:10 teaches,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

This move of yours to insinuate that I’m somehow an antinomian will never do. I believe that the Christian life is attendant and ornamented with good works. I just don’t believe that good works are a non necessary condition for justification. In Justification it is Christ’s good works alone that are the necessary condition. When we imply that Justification is not Justification unless we add (in your words) our non necessary something we have stripped Justification of its purely gracious character.

You will notice that the question you cite from the Heidelberg Catechism falls in the third section of the Catechism which is devoted to man’s response to God’s Free Grace (Gratitude). This section of the Catechism is not dealing with how we are made right with God, but rather how we respond to God’s solo act in graciously acquitting us because of the finished work of the Lord Christ.

Notice how the Belgic Confession of Faith (Article 22) speaks on this matter of Justification,

for any (Ian) to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Saviour. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works which he has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

Clearly, Ian, on the question of Justification I agree with the Three Forms of Unity.

Ian continues

Before that question, however, the Catechism asks:

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?

Here quite plainly two ideas are welded together. The first of these is “without any merit of ours.” That makes it very clear that the framers of the Catechism had no intention of allowing meritorious works into the plan of salvation. But they don’t stop there, they tag on the end of this the question they are posing: “why must we still do good works?” And there you have the “oxymoronic condition” that you reject.

Ian, Q. 86 is not teaching that our good works are a non-necessary condition for Justification. Did you read the answer to Q. 86?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

Note carefully Ian that the answer to HC 86 speaks of God’s people of having already been redeemed antecedent to our doing good works. Our redemption is accomplished before our response of gratitude engages. We obey and do good works from the position of one being granted life, and not from the position of one who is trying to keep what has already been freely given via filling the condition of non meritorious good works.

Ian writes,

So “good works” are necessary? Well, necessary for what? How about we try sanctification, which is the part in our theology about godly living. Another question follows, then: is sanctification an addition to the whole concept of salvation, or an integral part of it? I think I know what your answer will be. I’m glad you mentioned the terms “justification,” “sanctification,” and “salvation”. Salvation is the broader term for what God does for us, while justification and sanctification are components of it, the ordo salutis I believe you described these activities.

Bret responds,

If you know what my answer will be why are we having this conversation?

Ian writes,

So I ask, is there any point in our salvation in which the door is opened for meritorious works? I do believe I heard a resounding “no” from you. Even this far away, half way around the world, I heard that “no” as crystal clear as if we were in the same room. I know you hold this view because you made reference to Dabney’s view that even our good works require the imputed righteousness of Christ. So good works are indeed “works” but they are not meritorious. I guess you could use the phrase you called “oxymoronic” and say they are “non-meritorious works.”

And at that point, my friend, you have ascribed to “non-meritorious good works” accepting it as a teaching in the Scriptures.

Do you see how I arrived at this conclusion? I don’t think I made it up. But I conclude there are such events, events that are properly classified “good works according to the law of God” but they are not, nor can they ever be, meritorious.

Bret responds,

But in the original conversation Ian (I went back and looked) you weren’t talking about the broad category of “Salvation” but the narrow category of “Justification.” And therein lies all the difference in the world.

Still, I wouldn’t, even in terms of Salvation as a whole, speak of good works as a “non-meritorious” Condition for Salvation. I think it is far wiser to speak of good works as a necessary consequence to all that God has done for us and in us.

Ian presses on,

Now allow me to take that phrase of yours and make just one change to it: “The phrase ‘non necessary condition,’ strikes me as oxymoronic since if you don’t have the condition you don’t have sanctification.” I’m sure you’ll notice I substituted the word sanctification for the original justification. I made the change only to indicate that I think both Scripture and the confession teach “non-meritorious works”. They certainly teach there are no meritorious acts to be added by the believer in justification; but they are equally adamant that there are no meritorious acts in sanctification either. So I’ll turn your comment back to you and ask, if sanctification is essential and good works are somehow involved in sanctification, in what way does the “condition” of good works apply to sanctification? And the answer has to be such that it excludes any kind of meritorious cooperation of the sinner with God in his salvation, no matter whether we are talking about justification or sanctification.

Bret responds,

Remember … I’ve never used “non-meritorious condition” in any of my language. I’ve consistently said that good works are the necessary consequence. It is precisely because “non-meritorious condition” is so confusing that I stay away from it.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

2 thoughts on “Vanilla Reformed vs. Federal Vision On The Role of Good Works In Justification — Pt. 1”

  1. Ian is hopelessly confused. His article, filled with paragraph after paragraph of inanities, is actually painful to read. All acts of men proceed from a condition that is antecedent to the act. There are no acts of faith prior to the existence of faith. There is no faith prior to regeneration (the new birth) and there can be no regeneration prior to justification which is extra nos and the work of Christ alone.

    Good trees bring forth good fruit. They do so because they are good trees. The fruit is evidential, not causal. If Ian is actually orthodox, his entire article can be reduced to two words–faith works. If that isn’t Ian’s point then I have no idea what he is saying. And neither does Ian.

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