Can We Be Saved By Our Good Works?
Stephen Newdell, with notes drawn from John Piper Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
This is the big, deep, difficult, painful, socially distressing subject the Christian world should (and doesn’t like to) confront – because it’s so important.
How Catholics and some Protestants disagree about “good works.”
Between 1522 and 1700, thousands of Protestant believers, often entire families, died in more than 30 wars and conflicts between kings and their armies doing the bidding of Popes. In same cases entire small villages were wiped out and laid waste. Likewise across Europe many Jews were murdered because they would not bend to the demands of the Papacy. Should anyone even remember this, now over 300-years later? Perhaps yes, considering that The Vatican has always had its problems with corruption and is now apparently brewing more European and Middle Eastern conflict.
This only extends to Catholic parishioners to the extent they determine that the Pope has all the answers and to the extent, they truly believe The Pope is God’s representative, God’s voice, on Earth. Some do believe that many do not. Many Catholics in America accept much of older Catholic doctrine, seek confession, hear a Mass and receive Holy Eucharist but do not accept all the Pope says as God’s perfect word. There are conflicts over this issue in America of course. Older people don’t fight over it. Younger people have less and less interest in the Catholic churches.
American Protestant doctrine has since the 1700’s been steeped in the doctrine that only faith in Jesus Christ can save you. This is the meaning of “Justification.” In summary, as I understand it; We are “justified” (cleansed of our sins and made worthy to stand before God) by our faith – but never by our works or gifts. Therefore, when we do good works, it is because the Holy Spirit has inspired us to want to do these good deeds or bring these tithes and offerings to our church.
The Papacy has often at very least intimated that your good works and monetary contributions are seen by The Pope and God and these “works” bring you merit or favor, by which you can be allowed to skip Purgatory (a lighter weight Hell – but for how long it lasts no one knows) and enter The Heavenly Kingdom sooner.
Protestantism has never accepted this doctrine, and calls it “heretical.”
One way to approach the historic division between Roman Catholic and Reformation teaching about justification is to focus on how justification by faith relates to ongoing practical love and righteousness in the Christian life.
Protestant Reformers affirmed that justification by faith alone would always be followed by practical love and righteousness. The Roman Catholic Papacy sees in the Reformers’ doctrine a threat to the holiness of Christian living and the undermining of Christian love. That’s what they say. The truth is, most Protestants are skeptical. It appears The Papacy wants all the control over money, political power, and religion. ALL – across the entire world. And that is a source of skepticism and antagonism.
One classic text of the Reformation that tried to protect against this misunderstanding of justification by faith was the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement on justification:
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)
Or to use the words of James: “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). “Faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). It does not justify.
Faith Without Works Is A Dead Faith. It’s one thing to say, “Be ye warmed and filled” and quite another to feed the cloth the hungry. Lukes parable of the Good Samaritan is another expression of this view. It comes to us directly from the lips of God. From God’s lips to our ears beginning here Luke 10:29 NIV translation.
he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Roman Catholics Warned
Sixteenth-century Roman Catholics saw the danger as more serious. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was convened as a kind of “counter-reformation” to the Protestant Reformation. Here the Catholic views of justification were expressed so as to protect against the errors and dangers perceived in the Reformers’ teaching. You can hear their concern in these excerpts from the Council’s Decree on Justification:
No one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments. (Chapter XI)
Personally, I agree. It is not “legalism” to keep God’s commandments, but they snuck in The Pope’s commandments as an implied statement. To what degree can one step over the line into doing works in an attempt to buy his way into Heaven? (Well…it cannot be done!)
The Papist decree was as follows:
If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema. (Canon XIX)
This is very strong language. To be Anathema is to be banned, shunned, cursed! If a king were so cursed and excommunicated, the pope would receive a report that he had been murdered, and everyone knew that. The next king would be Catholic or he also would be dead! Remember, Bibles were unavailable. People either accepted what they were taught under a church roof or they simply didn’t participate in “otherworldly” thought.
If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church . . . let him be anathema. (Canon XX)
If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema. (Canon XXI)
I agree that we should do our best to keep The Christ’s commandments. Jesus told us, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” But we well know, most of England and Europe, certainly even the populations of Rome, were overt sinners. Every commandment you can name was broken and the Catholic high-level clergy was the most sinful of all! They were not banned, so long as they continue to pay money and do other works for the Catholic Church.
To keep The Biblical commandments is well. To keep The Pope’s commandments has always been questionable, especially when it involved burning entire Protestant, Irish, Scottish, and Jewish villages to the ground. Raping young women, murdering men and boys, carrying away anything of value – and calling these acts “good” and beneficial to God and the church was condoned and that is why Protestants today remember with some fear and anger about what The Papacy did and might do again.
Two Different Ways to Secure the Place of Sanctification
- To “Sanctify” means to make holy. The only one truly Holy is God and The Holy Spirit and Jesus the Christ. BUT, if you accept the doctrine that YOU shall be made part of God’s family, then when you are adopted into his family you were set aside as holy. You are seen as “sin free” because of the “work of Jesus on the cross” and therefore, you are Holy, you are Sanctified.
All four of those statements are legitimate warnings against an unbiblical view of justification by faith alone. Both Reformers and Roman Catholics were zealous to preserve the biblical connection between justification by faith and a life of obedient love and righteousness — that is, both aimed to preserve a necessary connection between justification and sanctification.
- Imputed righteousness is a concept in Christian theology which proposes that the “righteousness of Christ … is imputed/given to [believers]. The righteousness is treated as if it were theirs through faith.” … Thus this doctrine is practically synonymous with justification by faith.
The difference lay in how this connection would be conceived and preserved. Roman Catholicism conceived and preserved it by defining justification so that it includes sanctification. The Reformers conceived and preserved the connection by defining justification as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through faith — while pointing out that this faith is of such a nature that, by the Holy Spirit, it sanctifies (Acts 26:18).
Said in another way, the necessary connection between justification and sanctification was preserved in Roman Catholicism by saying justification is the infusion or the inherence or impartation of Christ’s blood-bought gift of righteousness in the believing soul. And the Reformers preserved the connection by saying that justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by means of a faith that would necessarily lead to sanctification. For the one justification is sanctification. And for the other justification leads to sanctification.
Perhaps to you and me, this is splitting hairs. Are we saved or not? My view, the view of most Protestant churches is, if you have confessed you know you’re a sinner and asked for salvation through prayer to Jesus, you SHALL be saved.
Trent’s Definition of Justification
For example, the Council of Trent in the Decree on Justification puts it like this:
Justification . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace. (Chapter VII, emphasis added)
That righteousness which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the righteousness) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. (Chapter XVI, emphasis added)
Thus Roman Catholicism speaks of believers as being “made righteous” through justification, as opposed to “counted righteous”:
If they were not born again in Christ, they never would be justified; seeing that, in that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made righteous. (Chapter III)
It follows, then, that our justification, like sanctification, is progressive. It may grow. We may be “further justified” since justification consists in our own measure of goodness brought about by a new birth.
They, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that righteousness which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified. (Chapter X)
Three Reasons the Reformers Rejected the Roman Catholic View
The Reformers considered this a very serious error. First, it was not what the Bible taught about justification. Second, contrary to its own designs, it did not serve hope or holiness in God’s people. Third, it obscured the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.
If these definitions were all the difference between Catholicism and Protestant denominations, it would for most of us, be no difference worth considering. But this was 500 and more years ago and there are a great many other differences between the two as of now.
- Conflating Justification and Sanctification Is Unbiblical
What the Bible teaches about justification is that it is an act of God experienced by the “ungodly.” In other words, justification is not the infusion of godliness, but the declaration that an ungodly person is counted righteous.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him (the Christ Jesus) … his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:4–5)
Without going into more philosophical detail, “ungodly” in this passage would mean those who had not yet accepted and believed upon The Christ.
When a person is “born of God,” and brought from spiritual death to living faith (1 John 5:1), in that instant God’s justifying act is a receiving of Christ, in whom the believer is counted righteous. Anyone, everyone, fall into two camps. They who are believers and they who are not. Jewish people of the Orthodoxy, begin study into following the True and Living God from about age 5 or 6 and by age 12/13 should be capable of reading and writing Hebrew, perhaps also Aramaic, and they have in some way dedicated their lives, their soul and their beliefs to God forever.
The Christian effort was to somehow save those cultures outside of Judea, who never educated their children and most of whom couldn’t even write their own names! They could be rescued and saved by and for God by simply praying to The Christ Jesus, admitting they know they are sinners, confessing their sins, promising to do their best to change their ways to be more as The Ten Commandments required, and then beg Christ and The Holy Spirit to redeem their soul and save them for eternity.
Those who have not accepted The True and Living God, either by Jewish study and ceremony or by Christian simple asking for salvation are not believers. They are those referred to as “ungodly” in Romans 4: 4-5. These “ungodly” can be saved if they can understand and ask for salvation. And if they cannot understand, if one who loves them will pray sincerely for them, they also will be saved.
RIGHTEOUSNESS NOT OUR OWN
Paul is at pains in Philippians 3:8–9 to distinguish his own righteousness from the righteousness that we have in union with Christ by faith.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
In this text, the righteousness we have “in him” and the righteousness we have “through faith in Christ” are the same. Therefore, we understand that faith is the instrument by which God unites us to Christ, where there is a righteousness not our own.
Paul says that God “justifies the ungodly.” (Romans 4:5)
Paul is implying that justification is an instantaneous act of declaring acquittal (judging you innocent). You are instantly seen as perfectly righteous through the power of the sacrifice of The Christ Jesus.
The ground of this declaration is not in us, but in Christ.
As by the one man’s disobedience, the many were appointed sinners, so by the one man’s obedience, the many will be appointed righteous. (Romans 5:19)
The perfect obedience of Christ is counted as our perfect obedience!
IMPUTATION AND THE PERFECT OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST
This is what the Reformers meant by “imputation.” The reason we need to be counted or imputed righteous by means of the perfect obedience of Christ is that God’s law does demand perfection, and we are certainly not perfect and are therefore doomed without this gift given to us by Christ, this “imputation of perfection.”
Of course, the law, understood in its wider sense (the Pentateuch (first 5-books), or even the entire Old Testament, made provision for imperfection by means of the sacrificial system. But that system was necessary because the law demanded perfection. It also was a system that didn’t work. Finally God said he was disgusted with it because people were seen to continue in their sins and receive forgiveness by bringing sacrificed animals to the alter. God finally called for an end to it.
|Isaiah 1:11 NIV “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.|
All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10) – yeah! But who can keep all the law? NO ONE!
Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10) Therefore, each and every one of us is a lawbreaker, a sinner, a hopeless case before God.
Therefore, God’s way of justification is to direct our attention entirely away from our flawed godliness and totally toward Christ.
If we put the slightest reliance for justification on an act that we perform, then we will have to rely entirely on our law-keeping. No Jew or Gentile can or ever has kept all the law perfectly. Paul, a high Rabbi trained by the best of high Rabbis said, this is hopeless. We all are in a hopeless condition unless we are rescued by Jesus the Christ. See Galatians 2:16 and 3:10
Again Catholic and Protestant scholars will debate these issues. We less learned will accept our only hope without question.
OUR ONLY HOPE
In the New Testament, the only hopeful and Christ-exalting pursuit of practical righteousness is based on the confidence that I am already perfectly righteous in Christ. Charles Wesley put it like this: “He breaks the power of canceled sin.” The first thing that has to happen in my warfare with sin is that all my sins must be canceled because of Christ. All of them — forever. This happened at the cross.
The entire record of debts that could have damned a believer is canceled at the cross. Therefore, all warfare with sin is against canceled sin.
Christ has died for you. This is our only hope of victory over the law and over Satan.
(I am reducing this considerably from many more complicated notes. SN)
THE CRUX OF SANCTIFICATION
Here is the crux of the matter: if we pursue sanctification (which we must, Hebrews 12:14) without relying on the completed work of God in justification, then we fall into the trap Paul warned against in Galatians 5:2. We begin to establish our own righteousness — and create our own justification. This is hopeless. It is like trying to defeat an unforgiven sin and becoming our own saviors. This leads to the endless vicious circle of thinking, “I’m never good enough” which leads to anything, including going on a mission to India just so one can be murdered there by Hindus and just before he dies he says, “Now I’m justified enough – at least I hope so!” gaaaa and he dies! So it’s a suicidal, viscious circle. The “un-forgiven” becomes the walking “undead.”
The summary of this is: Ask Christs fo giveness and to come into your life. Confess publicly that you are doing this. Do the best you can to live properly and study the Bible more from me and other teachers. Don’t worry about splitting hairs.
Rather, the good news is that the fight for holiness is hopeful because it is based on the completed and final work of justification. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). This is going to happen. The fight for holiness would be hopeless without the assurance of this finished justifying work of God.
- Combining Justification and Sanctification Obscures the Glory of Christ
Which points to the third and final reason the Reformers thought the Roman Catholic combination of justification and sanctification was a serious error. It obscures the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.
PERFECTION IS OURS
To be sure, Roman Catholicism emphasizes that there is no sanctification without Christ’s blood and righteousness. But it does not accord Christ the achievement of a justifying righteousness that provides for the complete acquittal and vindication of all God’s people the instant they believe.
This is a glorious achievement of Jesus: namely, that he has so worked, in life and death, that in the twinkling of an eye, at the first occurrence of saving faith, every sin is forgiven (Acts 10:43), and we are considered to be eternally perfect. (Hebrews 10:14)
Faith is powerful, active, restless, effective, at once it renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing. (Sermon on Luke 16:1–9)
And it is true when the Westminster Confession says,
[Faith is] not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)
What needs attention is the actual, experiential processes of thought and feeling and willingness that move us from justifying faith to habitual love. This is what I refer to a seeking after or “reaching for” pure thought. In my opinion, the ultimate end of Christianity is Pure Thought.
Christian Hedonism comes into the consideration.
There are many ways to “receive” Christ that are not saving ways. The people in John 6received Jesus as king and Jesus escaped them (John 6:15). The brothers of Jesus received him as a miracle worker and Jesus said they had no saving faith (John 7:5). The people at the feast “believed” on him in one sense, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them (John 2:24). Simon was ready to receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter told him, in essence, to take his money and go to hell (Acts 8:20).
Receive Christ as a Treasure
Receiving Christ is saving if he is received not only as a Savior and Lord, but as a supreme Treasure.
- “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
- “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
- I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)
No Heaven Without Jesus
In other words, receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him as part of your life forever, even asking him to change you to become all He intends for you to be. This of course means you intend to let go of the steering wheel and let him drive.
Do you take airline flights? Do you fly the plane? Did you go to a doctor for a procedure, massage, Chiropractic, surgery? Do you diagnose and treat yourself or does the doctor or massage therapist do it?
When you go to God, you don’t do it. He’s the Captain, the Pilot, the Doctor. You’re the 2-year-old who knows nothing. Your place is to give yourself 100% completely to God and let Him do it.
His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him.
Therefore, in speaking about sanctification and justification, it is helpful to insist that justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him. This is true even though we cannot now see all that God will be for us in Jesus. We have seen enough of the glory of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) that we know we would like to spend eternity discovering more and more of the God who gives himself to us in Jesus.
Justifying Faith Severs Sin’s Double Power
In this way, Christian Hedonism draws attention to the nature of justifying faith that goes a long way toward explaining why it is true when Luther says that it is impossible for justifying faith not to do good. And why it is true when the Westminster Confession says that faith “is no dead faith, but works by love.”
When we experience justifying faith as being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, this new spiritual satisfaction in God severs the root of sin’s double power. Sin has power by making threats of what pain we may encounter in the path of obedience, and by making promises of what pleasure we may encounter in the path of disobedience.
But justifying faith has found all that God is for us more satisfying than all sin’s promises, and safer than all sin’s threats. Therefore, the behaviors that flow from this faith will be God-honoring, sacrificial behaviors of love.
Keys to Holiness and Love
Perhaps, then, in your conversations with Roman Catholic friends, you will be able to remove one obstacle to their seeing the beauty of justification by faith alone. You will be able to show them that you are not indifferent to holiness or to a life of love. Instead, your doctrine of justification by faith holds the double key to such holiness and love. The first key is that the biblical path to practical holiness in the eyes of man starts with the confidence that we are perfectly holy in the eyes of God. The second key is that justifying faith contains a superior satisfaction in God that severs the root of sin’s threats and promises.
Roman Catholicism does not need to conflate justification and sanctification in order to secure a place for sanctification in the Christian life. Indeed, that conflation cannot secure such a place. A better, more biblical, more hopeful, more Christ-exalting path is to affirm the imputation of Christ’s achievement through faith alone, and to see that faith as a glad receiving of Christ as the supreme Treasure that he is.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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