It seems that good works as it relates to final salvation/final judgment is once again the talk of the town. Therefore, I am pleased to have in my hands this book by Bradley G. Green entitled, Covenant and Commandment (Works, Obedience, and Faithfulness in the Christian Life).
The ff. is from the Introduction, and it portends a book that is bound to be both clarifying and enabling:
Among the heirs of the Protestant Reformation there has been an emphasis on salvation by grace in general and sola fide (by faith alone) in particular. These were proper biblical recoveries during the Reformation era. It was important for the church to recover the central truth that we are justified by God, that this is an act of God’s grace, and that faith – apart from works – is the means by which we are justified. It is striking that evangelicals have had to ‘fight’ the battle of justification many times, and this issue continues to divide Protestants and Catholics today in intriguing ways. Related to the question of justification is a key issue in biblical interpretation and evangelical church life: the nature of works, obedience or faithfulness in the Christian life. While evangelicals can generally agree that one enters into a covenant relationship with the God of the Bible by grace (even solely by grace) apart from works, there is often much more disagreement over how to construe the nature of works, or obedience, inside this covenantal relationship. My argument is that in the new covenant, works are a God-elicited and necessary part of the life of the converted person, a constant theme in the New Testament (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10; Rom. 2:13–14; 11:22; 1 Cor. 15:2; Phil. 2:12–13; Heb. 3:6; 3:14; 4:14; 1 John 2:3–6; 3:24; 5:3; Rev. 12:17; 14:12). In short, ‘works’ are ‘necessary’ for salvation because part of the ‘newness’ of the new covenant is actual, grace-induced and grace-elicited obedience by true members of the new covenant. When the New Testament documents are read against Old Testament texts such as Jeremiah 31:31–34 and Ezekiel 36:22–29 (cf. Ezek. 11:19; 18:31), this obedience is seen as a promised component of the new covenant.
The heirs of the Reformation have struggled at times to affirm the necessity of obedience conceptually while simultaneously affirming passionately sola fide. As Berkouwer wrote, ‘One who has pondered the far-reaching significance of the “sola-fide” doctrine – justification by faith alone – is immediately faced with the question of whether this cardinal concept does not make all further discussion superfluous.’1 My contention is that indeed there are resources within Scripture that affirm both sola fide and the necessity of works, obedience and faithfulness.
Berkouwer’s note, perhaps, rings true with those of us in evangelical churches. We are rightly concerned to affirm a central truth like sola fide, but have not always articulated what it means to live obedience-filled lives, and to see practical faithfulness as a part of what it means to be a Christian. I suspect that some of our difficulty arises from simply saying that Jesus paid it all, while also saying that we must do something. This is understandable, but it is unwise not to address this issue. Indeed, there are solid biblical grounds for affirming a biblical theology of grace-filled and grace-elicited works, obedience and faithfulness as essential components of membership in the new covenant – that is, of being a Christian.
It is important to be clear what is being argued and what is not being argued. All throughout the New Testament documents there is the expectation of actual obedience. This obedience is generally linked to ‘faith’ or to loving Jesus truly. It might be possible to argue that some of these texts should be read as commanding obedience, without necessarily meaning that obedience is possible. We might call this a (hyper, although truncated) ‘Lutheran’ reading. But it is very unlikely that all of the New Testament commands or expectations of real obedience can be read that way. One is simply begging the question to read all of the New Testament texts calling for obedience in such a manner.
Also, I am not arguing that these ‘works’ or acts of obedience are somehow autonomous. I argue, following Philippians 2:12–13, that we truly do act, work and obey, and that at the same time it is God who is truly, efficaciously and actually eliciting and bringing about this obedience. I will also argue that this power for obedience is – ultimately – something that flows from the cross, from the gospel itself (cf. Heb. 10:10, 14), and is linked to our union with Christ. The New Testament teaches that members of the new covenant are marked by an actual obedience, a real internal change and holiness.2
‘Works’ or ‘obedience’ appears to be expected in the new covenant. As John Owen writes:
there is another kind of sanctification and holiness, wherein this separation to God is not the first thing done or intended, but a consequent and effect thereof. This is real and internal, by the communicating of a principle of holiness unto our natures, attended with its exercise in acts and duties of holy obedience unto God. This is that which, in the first place, we inquire after.3
Similarly, as J. C. Ryle wrote, ‘Saving faith and real converting grace will always produce some conformity to the image of Jesus (Col. 3:10).’4 Martin Luther could write of the one who trusts Christ, ‘It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.’5 Luther continues, ‘the second kind of righteousness [real growth in holiness] is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness.’ 6 Indeed, ‘this [second kind of ] righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence’.7
There is a real and meaningful and necessary obedience – a changed life that includes my obedience – in the here and now. This is not a perfect obedience or perfect law-keeping, but it is real obedience, an obedience that (1) flows from the cross, (2) is a partial fulfilment of the promised blessings of the new covenant (e.g. from Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27), and (3) is sovereignly and graciously elicited by the God of holy Scripture (e.g. Phil. 2:12–13).8
The summary of my argument in this monograph is as follows.
Chapter 1 briefly surveys a number of New Testament passages where we see the centrality of works, obedience and faithfulness in the life of the Christian. I summarize these in several categories, which of course cannot help being somewhat artificial and imperfect.
In chapter 2 I attempt to do two things. First, I look at key Old Testament passages where a new covenant is foreshadowed and/or obedience from the heart is pictured as a coming reality. In particular, I turn to a number of Old Testament texts, primarily texts in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We see the promise of a new covenant, and one of the features of this new covenant is the reality of Spirit-induced, efficaciously wrought heart-obedience. Secondly, I look at key New Testament texts that in some way affirm the reality of the new covenant and pick up on the Old Testament promises of a new covenant and the kinds of promises of obedience from the heart portrayed in the Old Testament.
What we see is that the New Testament writers recognize these same new covenant themes – that is, there is certainly something very new about the new covenant. And clearly, they see the new covenant as an existing reality during the first century. Interestingly, we see a number of passages and themes from the Old Testament, particularly from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, surfacing time and again in the New Testament.
In chapter 3 I broach some of the key biblical-theological issues a study like this must face. First, I raise the hermeneutical question of continuity and discontinuity across the canon – a question that can be dealt with meaningfully only over the course of the entire book. Secondly, I raise the perennial issue (at least for Protestants) of the law–gospel relationship, as well as the question of the salvation of Old Testament saints. Thirdly, I raise the issue of how best to think of grace existing across the entire canon.
Chapter 4 takes up the issue of the relationship of the atonement to works, obedience and faithfulness. While it is imperative to think through the relationship of the atonement to the initiation or beginning of salvation, we also must think through the relationship of the atonement to the ongoing life of the Christian – an ongoing life that by necessity includes works, obedience and faithfulness.
Chapter 5 explores union with Christ, and its relationship to works, obedience and faithfulness. In particular, we are united to Christ by faith alone, apart from works, and because of this union Christ is being formed in us. So we should expect to see works, obedience and faithfulness in the life of the Christian.
Chapter 6 engages the thorny issue of judgment according to works. While justification is a past-tense reality for the Christian, there is also a future judgment according to works.
Chapter 7, the final and summative chapter, introduces several issues that have virtually begged for treatment throughout the book. In particular, I turn to the nature of the covenant in Eden, the believer’s relationship to Adam and his transgression, and the relationship between Christ’s obedience and our obedience.
1 Berkouwer 1952: 17.
2 I am indebted to David Peterson and his excellent work Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (1995). He argues persuasively that NT teaching on sanctification emphasizes what is sometimes called definitive, or positional, sanctification. While I agree that definitive or positional sanctification is often in mind when the NT deals with sanctification, I argue that a real and transformative change occurs in the new covenant believer. The believer demonstrates actual obedience. This real obedience is rooted in and flows from definitive sanctification.
3 Owen 1965, 3: 370.
4 Ryle 2002: 132.
5 Luther 1962: 88.
7 Ibid. 89. Luther elsewhere writes, ‘If we believe in Christ, we are considered absolutely just for His sake, in faith. Later, after the death of His flesh, in the other life, we shall attain perfect righteousness and have within us the absolute righteousness which we now have only by imputation through the merit of Christ’ (quoted in Piper 2002: 13). Luther says that after physical death, believers obtain ‘absolute righteousness’. He does not clarify whether there is any real and meaningful and necessary obedience in the life of the believer whose sins have been imputed to Christ, and to whom Christ’s perfect righteousness has been imputed. 8 Turretin (1997, 2: 702–705) asks the question, in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ‘Are good works necessary for salvation?’ His answer: ‘we affirm’. They are not required in a meritorious sense, but are nonetheless necessary for salvation. Turretin writes, ‘Are they required as the means and way for possessing salvation? This we hold’ (702). Indeed, ‘Although the proposition concerning the necessity of good works to salvation’ can certainly be misunderstood and misapplied, ‘it can be retained without danger if properly explained’ (702–703). Again, ‘although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them . . . ’. Turretin is clear: ‘Although God by his special grace wishes these duties of man to be his blessings (which he carries out in them), still the believer does not cease to be bound to observe it, if he wishes to be a partaker of the blessings of the covenant’ (703). For Turretin, Christ frees us to obey him: ‘Christ, by freeing us from the curse and rigor of the law, still did not free us from the obligation to obedience, which is indispensable from the creature. Grace demands the same thing’ (704). Works are necessary to the obtaining of glory, ‘For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Matt. 5:8); of the “way” to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil. 3:14); of the “sowing” to the harvest (Gal. 6:7, 8); of the “first fruits” to the mass (Rom. 8:23); of labor to the reward (Matt. 20:1); of the “contest” to the crown (2 Tim. 2:4; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)’ (705).