By Rev. Paul Treick, Editor The Reformed Herald
[This article appeared in the October, 2003, issue. Used by Permission]
As Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” That’s what comes to my mind with the recent resurgence of the doctrine that our works somehow contribute to our righteousness before God. As I understand its basic tenets, for faith to be true faith the fruit of works is required. Therefore these two are inseparable, and thus, we are justified by faith plus works. Can you imagine Luther’s and Calvin’s reaction to this? While our works are the fruits of true faith (James 2:14-22), they are not perfect or meritorious and cannot be mixed with faith as the basis for righteousness before God. Works truly are a part of our justification – however, they are not our works, but Christ’s alone!
More than an intriguing scholarly debate, this discussion takes aim at one of the most precious and guarded teachings of the Scriptures – grace through faith alone (Rom. 3:28). This is not some new discovery that cries out for serious consideration. Jesus and the Apostles condemned these teachings in the Pharisees and Judaizers, and Luther and others denounced it at the time of the Reformation. So, here we are in 2003, 486 years after the Reformation, still hearing a confusion of the doctrines of justification and sanctification.
As with most new innovations in theology, the first thing that must be done is to redefine all the terms: covenant, justification, sanctification, faith, works, righteousness, etc. Space here will not permit a thorough discussion of all the errors involved, but be sure that all our rebuttals have already been made before by others – the Reformers and many who have walked and still walk in their footsteps.
It is the contention of the proponents of this view that the Reformers really had it wrong. The Roman Church pretty much had it right – our works can contribute to our justification. As a result, lots of blood was shed in vain by folks following the teachings of the Reformation.
After observing in recent years the almost exclusive emphasis by the evangelical church on the passive obedience of Christ (ie. His perfect, substitutionary death), it is not surprising that questions and doubts would arise about what merit our works might have when we stand before God. Christ actively obeyed all the will of God (ie. by His perfect, substitutionary life), and this righteousness has been imputed to us. The failure to understand this truth leaves us with little comfort. This was also Luther’s dilemma.
That truth is that our imperfect, sinful works are always like “filthy rags” before a holy God. Our sins are not somehow less sinful once we have faith. What God has promised believers is this: “For the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, he will no more remember my sins, not the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long, but graciously imputes to me the perfect righteousness of Christ.” See Heid. Cat. Q. 56)
And, even though my conscience accuses me that all my works are sinful before God, “yet God, without any merit of mine grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ . . . if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.” (Heid. Cat. Q. 60)
No, it is not the worthiness of our faith or the worthiness of our works that proceed from faith, but the perfect death and perfect life of Christ imputed to us that is our cleansing and righteousness before God. This is what the Reformation was all about. This is what the Reformers discovered when they examined the Scriptures.
How can the average person wade through this recent heretical teaching? Do we have to do all the work of the Reformers over again? No, we have the Scriptures as our authority. The Bible’s teachings have already been set forth in the creeds of the church, so we can see them systematized and summarized. With Luther, we too must say, “This is the teaching of Holy Scripture; here is where we stand; we can do no other.”