Commenting on the current dispute over John Piper’s view of final salvation, Pastor Chris Gordon notes
Just because past and current theologians use certain words to make distinctions, this does not mean they made Christ’s work of salvation plain to the sheep. Just because one can cite a thousand Reformed theologians, and ten thousand Puritan ones, it doesn’t mean they are were always helpful or clear. We have to decipher who are the most helpful theologians in making Christ’s work of salvation clear in our time and in our day.
This is especially true when the language of the theologians confuses them with regard to Christ’s work. It’s no longer merely an academic “debate” over language, it has now morphed into a serious theological problem among our people who are now confused in thinking salvation is by works.
Someone in the comment section provided a helpful quote from Ursinus about the use of language.
What Ursinus actually says about “whether good works are necessary to salvation” (pp. 484-485 of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism):
“The…expression must be explained in this way; that good works *are necessary to salvation*, not as a cause to an effect, or as if they merited a reward, but as a part of salvation itself, or as an antecedent to a consequent, or as a means without which we cannot obtain the end. In the same way we may also say, that good works are necessary to righteousness or justification, viz: as a consequence of justification, with which regeneration is inseparably connected.”
Now listen to what he says in the very next sentence:
“But yet we would prefer not to use these forms of speech, 1. Because they are ambiguous. 2. Because they breed contentions, and give our enemies room for cavilling. 3. Because these expressions are not used in Scriptures with which our forms of speech should conform as nearly as possible. We may more safely and correctly say, *That good works are necessary in them that are justified, and that are to be saved.* To say that good works are necessary in them that are to be justified, is to speak ambiguously, because it may be so understood as if they were required before justification, and so become a cause of our justification. Augustin has correctly said, ‘Good works do not precede them that are to be justified, but follow them that are justified.’…For good works are necessary…in them that are to be saved…as a part of salvation itself”
It may be proper next to inquire what is the meaning of the word necessary, and in what sense good works are so. That they are necessary to be done, or ought to be done, by all that hope to be saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is readily granted; but not in point of salvation, in order to that, or with a view to obtain it…
True indeed, I cannot say that good works are necessary to salvation, that is to obtain it; which is the only sense in which they can be said with any propriety to be necessary to it, or in which such a proposition can be understood…
And as it will be difficult to fix any other sense upon the phrase, and persons are and will be naturally led so to conceive of it, this, and this alone, is a sufficient reason why it ought to be rejected and disused.
He recounts the Majoristic Controversy amongst the Lutherans about the use of the phrase.
Melancthon at length allowed that “good works were not necessary to salvation;” nor did he dare to assert it: “For these reasons,” says he, “we teach that good works; or new obedience, are necessary; yet this must not by any means be tacked to it, that good works are necessary to obtain salvation and eternal life.” In his answer to the pastors of Saxony, he has these words: “Nevertheless, let us not use this phrase, good works are necessary to salvation.”
The Formula of Concord addressed this controversy.
[T]he propositions are justly rejected, that to believers good works are necessary for salvation, so that it is impossible to be saved without good works… they take from afflicted, troubled consciences the comfort of the Gospel, give occasion for doubt, are in many ways dangerous, strengthen presumption in one’s own righteousness and confidence in one’s own works…
Accordingly, and for the reasons now enumerated, it is justly to remain settled in our churches, namely, that the aforesaid modes of speech should not be taught, defended, or excused, but be thrown out of our churches and repudiated as false and incorrect.
So why are there so many instances of reformed theologians using this language?
In short, because of their covenant theology. The Lutherans (and Gill) recognized that the Old covenant was a law covenant of works for temporal life in Canaan distinct from the New Covenant gospel of salvation through faith alone. The reformed, however, mistakenly think the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace. So they have to figure out a way to explain how Leviticus 18:5 can be a condition of the Covenant of Grace. They wind up making unhelpful, very qualified, and highly nuanced statements that just don’t need to be and should not be made – especially when there are people who profess to be reformed who use that same language and actually do mean that our own inherent righteousness will be judged on the last day to determine if we are saved (if you haven’t read O. Palmer Robertson’s The Current Justification Controversy, you’re likely misunderstanding the nature of the current concerns).
For further reading:
- John Gill: Good Works Necessary for Salvation?
- Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?
- Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5
- Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works?
- Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate
- OPC Report on Republication – Background
- Are Good Works More Than Fruit?