An important distinction on justification, salvation and works

Yesterday, I wrote about a question that I often get asked: what is the difference between Catholics and Protestants. You can read the full post here. I highlighted two key differences; namely, on the matter of authority and the question of justification. But I thought I would just highlight a small, but important distinction in the language today.

It is true that Catholics and Protestants have a different view of justification. The Catholic says that justification is by faith and works whereas the Protestant says justification is by faith alone. However, that position has often led to the claim that Protestantism suggests works are not necessary for salvation. But this is not true.

There is a distinction to be made here between justification and salvation. Justification is our legal standing before God. It is our being declared righteous in God’s sight and our sin no longer counted against us. Again, it is important to stress, Protestantism insists justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. The Catholic, by contrast, insists one is justified in the sight of God through both faith and works. However, Protestants recognise that salvation – that is, to be delivered from harm i.e. saved – does require both faith and works. Let me give you just two examples that make this explicit.

In Matthew 24:13, Jesus says ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved.’ Similarly, James 1:12 says, ‘Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.’ Here, then, is a requirement on our salvation. In order to be saved, we must endure to the end.

Similarly, we have to account for the explicit statements about good works in scripture. For example, James’ famous statement that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17). Similarly, Paul lists all sorts of behaviours that will keep one out of Heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Whilst listed in the negative, those who do such things ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’, these are evil works we are to keep ourselves from. Stated more positively, Hebrews 12:14 insists ‘strive for peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’ There is a clear sense of doing something involved here (whatever that may mean in practice). The fact is, without a belief in the necessity of good works for salvation, we cannot really make any sense of the commands in the New Covenant. If they aren’t required of us, why on earth does God actually command them?

Which brings us back to our Catholic and Protestant distinctions. The Catholic wishes to roll justification and final salvation together. If justification and salvation amount to the same thing, then it follows that our salvation is by faith and works. The Protestant, by contrast, considers justification and final salvation to be two different things. Or, rather, justification merely one aspect of final salvation.

For the Protestant, justification – the act of being declared righteous in God’s sight and free of sin – is entirely by faith alone. We do not need to do anything but believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and his effective work on the cross for us for our sin to be forgiven and for us to be in right standing with God. However, once we are in right standing with God – once we have entered the New Covenant in Christ – there are clearly stipulations put upon our getting into Heaven.

At this point, it may sound as though the Protestant is arguing that final salvation is by faith and works in reality. Which in a sense is true. But there are two parts to our salvation: justification (in which we are made right in God’s sight) and sanctification (in which we are made more like Jesus, both in character and behaviour). Both are required, according to the Protestant, in order for us to attain to glorification.

This raises two questions. First, if both justification and sanctification are required – faith and works if you like – in what way are we saying anything different to the Catholic? Second, if faith and works are required, how can God in any way guarantee the blessings of the covenant to those who are his?

In the first question, the Protestant argues that works are required, but they are not works worked up by us. They are works of faith produced by the Holy Spirit. In other words, though works are a requirement for final salvation, if we have been justified in God’s sight by faith, we will receive the Holy Spirit by faith also. If we have received the Holy Spirit by faith, he will work the necessary works of faith in us. Though works are required, the very receipt of the Spirit turns our otherwise ungodly lives into lives lived to the glory of God that produce works of faith.

The Protestant argues that though we are justified by faith alone, the faith that saves is never alone. It is always accompanied by works produced in us by the Holy Spirit. We are not justified by those works – our right standing with God is based on Jesus’ finished work on the cross and is received by faith alone – but the required works of faith are worked in us by the Holy Spirit received by faith. Our standing before God is guaranteed based on Jesus’ finished cross-work. The grounds of salvation is based solely on that. But the requirement to do works of faith are produced by the Spirit who enters our hearts empowers us to do the good works we were prepared beforehand to walk in (cf. Eph 2:10).

This, then, goes some way to explaining the answer to the second question here. How can God guarantee the blessings of his covenant if he puts requirements of obedience on it? The answer is in exactly the same way as he meets the criteria for our justification; namely, by meeting the requirements himself. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead for our justification. Our standing with God is secured by that act and is received by our faith in it alone. The works God requires are similarly met by God sending the Spirit into our hearts to produce them and empower us to do the works he would have us do. In effect, God guarantees the blessing of his covenant to us by producing whatever works are necessary in us himself by his Spirit, who makes us holy and empowers us to the works of service he has prepared for us to walk in.

So are good works necessary for salvation? The answer is yes. But they are not necessary for our justification and they aren’t necessary to earn us merit with God. Good works are not necessary to effect salvation, but they are required as a means of possessing salvation, as Francis Turretin put it. According to Turretin, there are duties man owes to God and blessings that come from obedience. But the good news is, God sees to it those duties are met in us both through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by receipt of the Holy Spirit. In this way, God guarantees justification in Christ and sanctification by the Spirit. Which is why the scriptures can say Heaven cannot be reached without good works (Heb. 12:14Rev. 21:27), but the good news is he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).

The Catholic insists our faith and works are required in order to make us right with God. Our salvation is, therefore, grounded in our works. Protestants reject that conceptions and say faith alone is required to make us right with God. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the grounds of our salvation. Protestants then argue that works will be evident in those who are truly saved because the Spirit will produce such good works in us. The requirements of the New Covenant – the good works demanded of God’s people – are met in us by God himself. The good works required of us are not the grounds of our justification, but effects of the Spirit at work in us who guarantees the requirement of works on our behalf in and through us.