I have been calling attention to the Puritans’ high view of good works in a number of past posts. If I could read my readers’ minds, quite a tale could be told. Undoubtedly, reactions would range from disbelief to delight to disgust. Then I got to thinkin’ that it might be helpful to know the wherefore and the why. Okay, okay, I’ll stop making references to the great Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. His lyrics have served my purpose anyway in introducing my topic as I want to look at three reasons the Puritans emphasized such a high view of good works.
The first reason is exegetical. The Puritans knew their Bibles very well and so they were acutely aware of the many passages that make a positive connection between a believers’ obedience and salvation/eternal life, including but not limited to the following: Genesis 22:16-18; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 8:1; 28:15; Psalm 84:11; 50:23; Matthew 3:10; 7:14; 25:31-46; John 14:23; 15:2; Romans 2:6-7; 6:22; 8:13; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Timothy 4:8; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:25; Revelation 2:10. The Puritans did not believe that all of these passages could be conveniently explained away as mere fruit of salvation or interpreted hypothetically. Yet, they also did not believe that these passages contradicted the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The distinctions and expressions that we have mentioned—and some others—enabled the Puritans to exegetically handle what the Bible taught about faith and works in salvation.
The second reason is polemical. The Puritans were extremely sensitive to the charge that sola fide nullifies the necessity of and the incentive to do good works. They, therefore, emphasized and articulated a high view of good works in part to answer the critics. Ezekiel Hopkins believed that their understanding of good works as the way and means to obtain salvation was more than a sufficient response to the detractors. After explaining the position, he wrote: “Let their mouths, therefore, be for ever silenced, who exclaim against the doctrine of Justification and Salvation by Faith, as that, which destroys the necessity of Good Works.” Interestingly, Herman Witsius scolded Tobias Crisp’s defenders because the way they spoke about good works was detrimental to “not only their own character, but also of the reformed religion.” Witsius then shuddered to think what Anthony Arnauld, a Jansenist, would have done if he had seen their “unusual phrases” and if had known that “their authors were teachers in the reformed church.” Witsius was clearly not pleased by a low view of good works because it provided an opportunity for critics to charge them with being “hostile to piety and good works.”
The third reason is pastoral. If sincere obedience is not necessary as the way to life or as an antecedent condition of glorification, then the call to perseverance and holiness has lost a significant sting in its tail. As we noted in a previous article, John Ball said that we may “grow overbold with God” without the warnings. Moreover, Daniel Williams, a Puritan pastor for over fifty years, believed that it was necessary to preach the mainstream Puritan view of good works so that people would not be encouraged in their sin and ministers would not be hindered from being able to impress upon people the need to pursue holiness. In his fine study of Puritan thought, John von Rohr observed that Puritan theology “was concerned with good works—and was genuinely and consistently so.”
It is important, however, to note that the Puritans had their exegetical, polemical and pastoral reasons. We should also note that these same three reasons remain true today.
We still need to wrestle with the same passages, particularly the verses that make a promise of eternal life to obedience, without subverting sola fide or the conditional necessity of good works for eternal life. Douglas Moo is an example of a contemporary author who seeks to do justice to what the Bible says about faith and works in relation to eternal life. Commenting upon Romans 8:13, Moo writes, “Paul clearly affirms that his readers will be damned if they continue to follow the dictates of the flesh…In a way that we cannot finally synthesize in a neat logical arrangement, Paul insists that what God has done for us in Christ is the sole and final grounds for our eternal life at the same time as he insists on the indispensability of holy living as the precondition for attaining that life. Neither the “indicative”—what God has done for us in Christ—nor the “imperative”—what we are commanded to do—can be eliminated. Nor can they be severed from one another; they are inextricably connected.”
The Reformed still need to answer the critics, including new ones such as the proponents of the New Perspective on Paul. One pastor and theologian, Dr. Mark Garcia, has insightfully observed that “the less capable we are of accounting for the positive, biblical role of obedience and perseverance in salvation within a Reformed theological model, the more attractive the alternative positions of the New Perspective, Rome and Constantinople will appear.”
Finally, Christians still need to be exhorted to endure and to do the will of God so that they may receive what it promised. Thus, as we continue to interpret the text of Scripture, engage critics, and shepherd God’s people, we would be well served to recover the (mainstream) puritan doctrine of good works.