Reformation: the Gospel versus three ‘buts’

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When Luther finally ‘discovered’ that those who put their trust in Christ alone receive salvation, he was exuberant. His heart was filled with overwhelming joy. God had opened his eyes to see the wonderful, liberating, inexpressibly great heart of the gospel. Salvation in Christ alone means you don’t need to, indeed cannot, contribute anything toward your salvation. Having earlier tortured himself till his body wasted with grief and uncertainty about whether he’d done enough to avert the just judgement of a righteous God, the Holy Spirit gave Martin Luther to understand that Jesus Christ had obtained salvation for him through His one sacrifice on the cross. And not only for him but for all who believe. Glorious, amazing grace!

Antique print of Martin Luther in his study at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach (lithograph), 1882. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Not surprisingly, Luther’s preaching changed radically. He now taught that salvation did not depend on people’s efforts but only and completely on Christ’s work of salvation. People now flocked to hear his preaching, to hear the gospel of salvation through Christ’s redeeming work alone. And the Holy Spirit who worked faith in their hearts through this preaching also worked the fruits of faith—love, and joy, and obedience to God’s commands.

Yet for many this was unacceptable and, let’s face it, even our sinful hearts are so often disinclined to embrace it completely. Once we see fruits of faith, that old sinful nature inclines us to think that the good works produced as fruits of faith somehow, in some way, contribute to our salvation and we end up back in Romanist waters. Rev vanderJagt, in a recent sermon on Lord’s Day 24,[i] referred to three ‘buts’ which this Lord’s Day anticipates.

“God is gracious? But, Lord, that is not really necessary! What about our good works! Surely we ourselves can pay a little bit! [Q/A 62].

God’s grace for free? But Lord, you did promise to reward didn’t You? to reward when I do what You say? For free … that is for the murderer on the cross, … for harlots …. for the really bad people in church. Surely, it is not for nothing that I do good works (Q/A 63).

And for a third time: God is gracious? But Lord, that would spoil everything. We believers may as well give up; for if so, it no longer matters how I live? God’s free grace gift of righteousness will make people careless and wicked! [Q/A 64].”

The Romanists of Luther’s day also raised these ‘buts’; and who will deny that they lie close to our sinful hearts?

The first ‘but’: But can’t our good works contribute a little bit?

Rev vanderJagt said:

“We just cannot get it through our hearts and our heads that we can make no contribution to our salvation; that we cannot help Christ make payment for our sins. We know we cannot earn our way into heaven. We are told and we tell ourselves that salvation is a gift from God.

But our hearts are so treacherous. Before we realize it, our heart twists things around so that we get some proud satisfaction out of our spiritual struggles. But our sighs and tears and trials cannot bring us one millimetre closer to God. Yes, indeed, the Lord does lead us at times through deep valleys and dangerous rivers, but our journey does not entitle us to salvation. It is by grace alone that we are saved. We have absolutely nothing to offer.”

It’s those words—it is by grace alone that we are saved—that the Jews in Jesus’ days could not grasp and that Luther and later Hendrik deCock and Abraham Kuyper were given to see. The reason why our good works cannot contribute anything to our salvation is because our hearts remain sinful. The good we do is never good enough because it is still defiled with sin. As James 2:10 says: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Quoting Rev vanderJagt:

“To earn salvation by good works we must never ever sin; we must always perfectly love God above all and our neighbour as ourselves. Against the yard stick of the law our deeds must be perfect in order to save us and get us into heaven. And this, of course, is impossible for us poor, miserable, sinful creatures.” Or, as we confess in the catechism, “even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin”.

Rev vanderJagt illustrates this with an anecdote about a counterfeit one-hundred dollar note:

“A rich man gave a needy woman a hundred-dollar bill as a gift. She, in turn, used it to buy groceries for her hungry children. The grocer used the same bill to pay his rent. The landlord used it to pay his dentist. The dentist dropped the same bill in the collection plate at church. The deacons deposited the bill in the bank. The bank took one look at the bill and declared it to be counterfeit.”

We might think the $100 note did so much good but if the bank accepted a counterfeit note as a standard for what is right it would soon lose all credibility and have to close its doors. God is holy, good and perfect and cannot accept works that don’t meet that perfect standard. Since even our best works are defiled with sin they cannot contribute to our salvation.

The second ‘but’: But didn’t the Lord promise to reward our good works?

On the one hand we’re told that good works don’t contribute towards our salvation yet on the other had we’re told that the Lord does reward them. So, if the Lord rewards them, doesn’t that mean that they must still contribute something towards our salvation?

This notion that our good works contribute towards our salvation is rampant. So many people who say they believe in God have this belief that, if they lead a good life, God will look favourably upon them.

However, we confess with the catechism that “this reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace”.

Rev vanderJagt explains it:

“What we are talking about here is not good works as a condition for salvation but as a fruit of salvation. What an immense difference there is between the two. Good works as a fruit of salvation have a completely new root. They come from a different source than good works as a condition for salvation. Good works as a condition for salvation comes from man and utterly fail. Good works as a fruit comes from Christ and are pleasing in God’s sight. Good works as a fruit spring from the grace and mercy of Christ. Such good works are the result of His work within us. Such works are not fake or counterfeit. They are the real thing.

What is the fruit of a good heart? When God makes our hearts good by the powerful inward work of the Holy Spirit, what kind of life does He produce? The Bible says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5: 22—23).”

This is also what Luther and other reformers taught. It’s the Lord who works fruits of faith in us through His Word and Spirit and then rewards those same good works He works in us. But in no way can they contribute towards our salvation for that salvation rests in Christ alone.

The third ‘but’: But won’t this doctrine make us careless?

If our salvation rests entirely on Christ’s work of salvation, why not just live it up? Why bother doing good works if they don’t help to save us in any way whatsoever? Wouldn’t carelessness then be the logical response? That’s what the Roman Catholic church thought. It was horrified by the teaching of the reformers that we are saved “by grace through faith and not by works”.

Rev vanderJagt illustrated this:

“When he saw this teaching take root in John Calvin’s Geneva, a Roman Catholic bishop predicted disaster. ‘This sort of teaching,’ he said, ‘could only bring unchecked sinfulness.’ People who don’t believe their good works can help them win salvation inevitably become indifferent about lifestyle and become wicked. According to this bishop, Geneva’s morals would go downhill fast because of this teaching.

Much to his surprise, the exact opposite occurred. When a Roman Catholic colleague of his toured the city he noted that those who slandered Geneva should be ashamed of themselves. For those who entered the city of Geneva it felt as if they turned their backs on hell and entered a little paradise.”

The same God who grants salvation in Jesus Christ, His well-beloved Son, also works renewal in us by His Holy Spirit and Word. Faith in Christ and its fruits of faith are inseparable. As the catechism says, it’s simply impossible to have faith in Christ and not to do good works. They are a visible fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in the believers.

Conclusion

This is such a wonderful and comforting gospel. Your salvation does not depend on you. As an elderly church member, Klaas Kuipenga, reportedly said to his minister Hendrik deCock: “Even if I only had to breathe one towards securing my salvation, I would be lost forever.”[ii] If Christ has paid for my sins completely, as He has, then I don’t have to pay. I am righteous. Christ is my righteousness and all my debts have been fully paid. As we read in Ephesians 2: 8,9:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

And now that Christ has purchased us completely with His shed blood, He also sanctifies us by His Spirit, renewing us so that we do what by nature we could not do: bring forth fruits of faith. Is it not all so amazing and glorious and comforting! Nothing in us in which to boast. Only to God the Father and Son and Holy Spirit be all praise and thanks now and forever!

 

[i] Sermon preached in the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura, 26th September 2021.

[ii] G Slings, Outlines in Church History, Pro Ecclesia Publishers, Kelmscott, WA, 1993, p. 96.