GOOD WORKS; PERSEVERANCE; ASSURANCE.
SHORTER CATECHISM, 36; LARGER CATECHISM, 78-81; CONFESSION OF FAITH, XVI., XVII., XVIII.
Three important topics are now reached. In regard to them the Shorter Catechism says little directly, though it implies a good deal indirectly, while the Larger Catechism has not a little to say about perseverance and assurance, but has no distinct treatment of good works. It is the Confession alone which deals at length with good works, and it has a chapter of some length upon each of the topics at the head of this chapter. The Confession, therefore, must now be our chief guide in this exposition.
I. Good Works is the First Topic to be Considered.
Strictly speaking, good works are the outward result of sanctification which appears in the conduct of life. They imply effectual calling, justification, and adoption on the divine side, and faith and repentance on the human side. An attempt will now be made to sum up what the Confession has to say upon this great subject, which has caused so much controversy among theologians.
1. Good works are those only which are done according to the rule of God's Holy Word. The Scriptures, as we have seen, are the only rule to direct us how we may glorify God. These Scriptures are the norm of the life of the believer; and, hence, they are also the rule for the good works which he is to do. Only those things which God has commanded are of the nature of good works. Mere human devices framed out of blind zeal, no matter how much pretence of good intention they may exhibit, cannot be good works, inasmuch as they have no warrant in the word of God. This strikes at the root of many things which have been done in the name of religion, and for which holy Scripture gives no warrant whatever. Religious persecution illustrates this point in several ways.
2. Good works are at once the fruits and the evidences of a true and lively faith. Where there is such faith there is peace with God, and a filial spirit towards him, on the one hand; and on the other, union with Christ, and the renewal of the heart. Out of this renewed heart faith, the inner principle of good works, comes. Hence, good works are done only by a regenerate heart, and they are the fruits of the faith of such a heart. This indicates one of the radical differences between the truthfulness and honesty of are generate and of an unregenerate heart. Thus good works become the practical evidences of regeneration, and of a true and lively faith. We thus show our faith by our works, and prove that our faith is not a dead faith. A faith that is alone is dead, but faith followed by good works thereby evinces its vitality.
3. Further, good works exhibit some important results in heart and life. By means thereof believers manifest their thankfulness to God for all his benefits, and especially for the riches of his grace toward them in Jesus Christ. Then, good works serve to strengthen the assurance of believers that they are really God's children. Having the fruits of the Spirit apparent in heart and life, they properly conclude that God's renewing and sanctifying grace is working in their hearts, and then their hearts assure them before God. Then, too, by means of good works believers edify their brethren, and so become helpers of their faith. By bringing forth good works in daily life, others seeing our good works are led to glorify our Father in heaven. And, further, by good works believers adorn the profession of the gospel which they make, and exhibit the beauty and excellency of the Christian life and conversation. In like manner, good works stop the mouths of adversaries who speak against the religion of Christ. By this means believers may commend the faith of Jesus to a wicked and gainsaying world, and supply the very strongest evidence for the truth and power of Christianity. To crown all, good works minister to the glory of God. This is the very highest result in the case. Since believers are created anew in Jesus Christ unto good works, when they exhibit good works, these glorify their true author. Believers are thus the workmanship of God, and having their fruit unto holiness and the end eternal life, the good works which they are enabled to do redound to the glory of him whose workmanship in holiness they are.
4. In regard to the source of the ability to do good works, the Confession plainly teaches that it is not of the believer's own ability, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ that they are enabled to do good works. In order to do good works, the grace already received and improved is not sufficient, but there is ever needed an actual influence of the Holy Spirit to work in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. The believer never reaches a stage in the spiritual life wherein of his own ability he can bring forth truly good works. In every case good works have behind them the sanctifying Spirit of God. Then, on the side of the believer, the Confession points out, with wonderful care and caution, that he must be in earnest about the matter, and not indolent nor negligent in seeking to bring forth good works. Much less are believers to sit still under the feeling that they are not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit. They are to be ever diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. While God is working in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure, they are to be diligent in working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Thus, the Spirit's grace and the believer's diligence produce good works.
5. A brief paragraph in the Confession is directed against the Romish doctrine of works of supererogation. The truth here is stated in a twofold way. First, They who attain to the highest possible excellence in good works in this life cannot possibly do more than God requires of them, or supererogate a single element of good works. The standard of God's absolutely perfect moral law has not been in any way lowered, or abrogated, as the rule for the believer's conduct, so that, even when he has obeyed perfectly, he has but done his duty; and it is never in his power to do more than his duty in the case. On the other hand, instead of going beyond what is required by the perfect law of God, believers constantly come short of much that they are in duty bound to do. The remnant of indwelling sin always brings this sad contingency upon them; and, when they have done their best, they are unprofitable servants, and imperfect in their good works.
6. In another aspect the Confession guards its doctrine against a serious Arminian error. Good works, even our very best good works, cannot merit the pardon of our sins, or obtain eternal life for us at the hands of God. Good works are possible only after our sins have been pardoned in justification, and the title to eternal life has been thereby secured; hence, these good works cannot possibly be the ground of pardon, acceptance and the title to reward. In addition, the Confession says that, by reason of the great disproportion there is between them and the glory to come, and on account of the infinite distance there is between us and God, and owing to the fact that by our own works we cannot in any way profit him nor satisfy for our former sin, good works done by us cannot possibly merit the pardon of our sins, or procure for us the title to eternal life. And, finally, the consideration is urged, that so far as our works are good they proceed from the Spirit of God, and so far as they are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment. Owing, therefore, to the mixed and defective nature of our good works they cannot possibly be the ground of merit before God.
7. From another point of view good works are, nevertheless, acceptable to God. Since the persons of believers are accepted through Jesus Christ, their good works are also accepted in him, who is the ground of all merit for pardon and acceptance. These good works are accepted in Christ, not as though they were in this life unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight, but because God, looking upon believers in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although marked by many weaknesses and imperfections. Here, again, is seen the well-balanced statement of the Standards. Good works are not acceptable in the sense that they are the ground of merit for our pardon and acceptance, but in the sense that believers, being accepted as to their persons in Christ, their good works are also acceptable in and through him.
8. A statement regarding the works of unregenerate men concludes the chapter. These works, for the matter of them, may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others, as, for example, truth, honesty and charity; but since they do not proceed from a heart purified by faith, that is, from a regenerate heart, nor are done in a right manner according to the word of God, the only rule, nor directed to a proper end, nor prompted by a right motive in the glory of God, they are sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. Such works, not done by a renewed heart, nor according to a right rule, nor from a proper motive, are not pleasing to God, even if the subject-matter of them be that which is in itself right. With great propriety it is added, that to neglect good works is more sinful and displeasing to God. This simply means, that while the honesty and charity of merely moral men cannot commend them to God's favor or acceptance apart from Christ, still the thief and the miser are more displeasing in his sight. The propriety of this statement is evident.
II. The Perseverance of the Saints is Next Explained.
Concerning this important topic, information is given in several questions in the Larger Catechism, in a single clause in the Shorter, and in a chapter of some length in the Confession. It may be remarked in passing that this is what is known as the last of the five points of Calvinism. The term preservation merely means keeping, as the text, "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation," implies. The term preservation is one which would, in some respects, more accurately express the truth here. Believers persevere because they are preserved; they follow because they are led by grace divine. What the Standards teach upon this subject may be summed up under three or four heads.
1. It is distinctly taught that those whom God has accepted in Christ, and who are effectually called by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere unto the end and be eternally saved. This signifies that all the elect, being called, justified, adopted, and sanctified, shall persevere and attain unto salvation. They cannot at any time totally fall away from their state of grace, so as to lose their standing in Christ as accepted before God; nor can they finally fall away from their gracious state, so that they cannot be restored, and at last perish. Then, positively, the doctrine is that believers shall certainly persevere in grace and good works to the end, and be surely saved at last. All the means to this end, as well as the end itself, are provided for in the purpose or plan of God's grace.
The grounds or reasons for this perseverance are stated with care in the Confession. Negatively, the perseverance of the saints does not depend upon their own free will. It is not the strength of their own purpose, resolution, or effort which produces their perseverance. Positively, it depends upon a series of divine facts, which lay a sure foundation for perseverance.
First, There is the immutability of the decree of election, which flows from the free and unchangeable love of God. God's loving purpose cannot fail. His eternal gracious plan shall be accomplished. Christ, having loved his own which were in the world, loved them unto the end. Hence, as God's plans and purposes are all immutable, so his purpose to save his people secures their perseverance to the end.
Secondly, The efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ secures the perseverance of all those who believe in him. It is through the merit of his all-sufficient sacrifice that they are pardoned and accepted. This basis can never change nor fail; and the intercession of Christ is constantly available on their behalf, and this secures all those spiritual agencies of wisdom, grace, and strength, through the ministry of the Spirit, which assures the perseverance of believers to the very end. As Christ and his merit are always acceptable to God, so all those who are in Christ are accepted in him.
Thirdly, The indwelling of the Spirit of God secures the same end. The Spirit is bestowed on the ground of the meritorious advocacy of Christ, and the Spirit in the heart subdues and preserves it, by the incorruptible seed, the living word of God, unto life everlasting.
Fourthly, The nature of the covenant of grace is also such that all whom it embraces shall not fail to receive its full benefits. Christ, having made good the conditions of that covenant as its mediator, all that the Father gave to him in covenant shall receive the benefits which he has procured for them, and not one of them shall fail of attaining unto eternal life and glory. Upon these four foundation-stones the preservation of the saints rests, and their perseverance is thereby assured.
3. Still, believers may backslide for a time. This fact is clearly taught in the Confession and the Larger Catechism. The latter speaks of the imperfection of sanctification in believers, and of their falling into many sins, from which, however, they are recovered. But the Confession speaks more distinctly upon this subject. It says, in substance, that owing to the temptations of Satan and the allurements of the world, the prevalency of the corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means appointed for their preservation, they may fall into grievous sins, and may continue for a time therein. This teaching of Scripture and fact of experience is not to be regarded as falling from the gracious state, but it is backsliding for a time into sin. The result of this falling into sin for a time is that believers incur the displeasure of God, and grieve his Holy Spirit. Further, they may be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts under the fatherly discipline of God. Their hearts may be hardened and their consciences wounded, so that for a time they may seem to have lost all grace and hope of salvation. They may even hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves. But from all these things they will eventually be recovered, if they be true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, for he will bring them off more than conquerors in the end. Believers are, therefore, secure, and their perseverance is assured, because they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, ready to be revealed at the last day.
III. The Assurance of Grace and Salvation is the Last Topic for this Chapter.
Its basis is found chiefly in the Larger Catechism and the Confession. The latter has a long chapter upon assurance.
1. This chapter opens by admitting that hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and in the estate of salvation, which hopes shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and live in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in a state of grace, and may rejoice in the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. The Larger Catechism states the same thing in a somewhat different way. Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, but by faith grounded upon the truth of God's promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in a state of grace, and that they shall persevere therein unto salvation. The doctrine here clearly taught is that the assurance of grace and salvation is the privilege of believers, and that it is theirs to seek to rejoice in this high honor and happy privilege. It is a common blessing to which all believers may look and in which they may rejoice.
2. The grounds of this assurance are also set down in order, showing that it is not a bare conjecture, nor a probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith resting upon good grounds. It is, therefore, no mere perchance, but a well-grounded conviction or persuasion. The main grounds for it are mentioned as follows: First, The divine truth of the promises of salvation upon certain conditions which have been embraced. Secondly, The inward evidence of the possession of those graces to which these promises are made. Thirdly, The testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God. Fourthly, The Spirit dwelling in believers is the earnest of their inheritance, and by means of his work they are sealed unto the day of redemption. He that has begun the good work in them will carry it on till the day of Christ Jesus. These grounds are all alike divine and gracious. They do not consist in our own feelings, which ebb and flow like the restless tide of the ocean, but they rest on divine promises, on the graces produced by the Spirit, and the witness of the Spirit himself. This constitutes a sure basis for assurance of a very definite kind.
3. But this infallible assurance of grace and salvation is not of the essence of faith. This simply means that there may be true faith without this assurance, and a true believer may wait long and contend with many difficulties before he is made partaker of it, yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain unto full assurance of grace and salvation. Hence, it is the duty of every believer to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure. Again, to guard against looseness in living, which some may suppose that this doctrine of assurance genders, the Confession says that this assurance enlarges the heart of the believer in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience. These, we are rightly advised, are the proper fruits of assurance, and that they tend to holiness and not to laxity of life.
4. The last point noted in the Standards is, that believers may at times have this assurance shaken, diminished, or intermitted. They may not always have it. They may even lose it, and yet not lose their salvation. Negligence, some special sin, some sudden temptation, the withdrawing of the light of God's face so that they walk in darkness, may affect for a season the believer's assurance. Still, believers never become utterly destitute of the seed of God in their souls, of the life of faith, of the love of Christ and of the brethren and of the sincerity of heart and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, their assurance may in due time be revived, and by which in the meantime they are supported from utter despair.
It is added, in conclusion, upon this topic of assurance, that the Standards have been allowed to speak almost entirely for themselves. Only here and there has any additional comment or exposition been made. That this is wise all will agree.