Patrick Ramsey – Good Works and Sola Fide

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In my last article I discussed that the puritans believed that good works are more than the fruit of faith, justification and salvation in that they are the way to eternal life and an antecedent condition of glorification. The minority of puritans labelled as “antinomians” not only rejected this view, they characterized it as a form of legalism. They were by no means the only ones to have done so. A noted 20th century scholar wrote that you didn’t have to be an antinomian to regard this view of good works “as a betrayal of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.” Indeed, more recently John Piper sparked something of an outrage by his statement that we do not attain heaven by faith alone, which essentially is no different from the puritan view.

I do not believe that the critics are right. The puritans didn’t betray justification sola fide (by faith alone) by their doctrine of good works. Nonetheless, I can see why people might think that they did and so in this article I want to make a few observations to demonstrate that they were able to maintain a high view of works without falling into works-righteousness or subverting the precious the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone.

First, the puritans were quick to point out that good works are non-meritorious. They do not “merit pardon of sin or eternal life” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.5). Despite their necessity, good works are not the grounds or basis for entering into eternal life. When John Davenant affirmed that good works “have a relation to the attainment of eternal life,” he did not fail to qualify that relation by noting in the very same sentence that it was “not as merits by the value and worth of which we attain it, but as the intermediate courses, or paths, by which we advance towards the goal of eternal life, according to the appointment of God.” Similarly, John Ball said: “Without observation in some measure to all the Commandments of God, we cannot enter into the kingdome of heaven: but we enter not for the obedience we have performed.”

Second, the puritans emphasized that the ability to do good works is “wholly from the Spirit of Christ” (WCF 16.3). Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 32 says that the Holy Spirit is given to the elect “to enable them unto all holy obedience…as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” The puritans didn’t neglect the role of the Holy Spirit or the unconditional promises of God. They believed and taught that obedience is a condition and a benefit of the covenant of grace. In other words, they affirmed that God gives what he requires of his people. Hence, they expounded the condition of sincere obedience within an Augustinian — and not a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian — framework of salvation.

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