When I began to study the doctrine of good works in the Reformed tradition many years ago, I was astounded by a view that many Puritans, following in the footsteps of John Calvin, promulgated. These Reformed stalwarts taught that God graciously rewards eternal life to his people who persevere in good works to the end. I had been aware of the view that God graciously rewards good works in this life and that different degrees of rewards in glory will be measured out according to works. But I don’t recall ever being taught or thinking that God actually rewards the gift of eternal life itself to works. Yet, this is what many of our Reformed forefathers taught. Samuel Rutherford wrote that the Scriptures teach that there is “a promise of life eternall, made to Evangelike and unperfect doing through the strength of grace.” Commenting upon Romans 2:6-7, Matthew Henry said that “Heaven is life, eternal life, and it is the reward of those that patiently continue in well-doing.” George Downame argued that eternal life is “a free reward promised to our obedience.” Anthony Burgess said that good works are necessary because “there are many promises scattered up and down in the Word of God: so that to every godly action thou doest, there is a promise of eternall life.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this Puritan teaching, because eternal life, as William Cunningham wrote, “is, no doubt, represented in Scripture as the reward of good works.” The problem though—and this is why many of us may find it surprising—is that this teaching seems to clash with salvation by grace alone and by faith alone.
The Puritans were aware of this potential conflict, of course, but they weren’t troubled by it for several reasons. First, the reward is of grace. Edward Veal noted that the term “reward” can be taken in two different senses: “one proper and of debt; the other improper and of grace.” Our good works don’t even come close to deserving eternal life, and therefore the reward God promises to bestow upon them is due to his grace and kindness.
Second, the promise made to works is the same one that is promised and given to faith. This is one reason good works can’t be meritorious. You can’t merit by your good works that which you have already have been entitled to by faith in Christ. Abraham is a classic case in point. Downame wrote:
“To this purpose let us consider the Lords dealing with Abraham, to whom the Lord at his first comming towards the Land of promise, made divers gracious promises, which afterwards hee often repeated. But when upon that Commandement of tryall to offer up his onely sonne, Abraham had by Gods speciall grace notably approved his faith and obedience; hereupon the Lord doth sweare, that he will bestow upon him the things which before hee had promised, as the reward of that his obedience, for so hee saith, because thou hast done this thing, and againe, because thou hast obeyed my voice. Can any man hereupon inferre that Abraham by his obedience had deserved these promises which God long before had made unto him, and oftentimes repeated? Nothing lesse, so God in his eternall Counsell hath to the Elect designed eternall life, as his free gift by Christ, Christ by his merits hath purchased it to bee our inheritance, God hath graciously promised to bestow freely this inheritance on them that beleeve in Christ: when as therefore God doth promise to reward our piety with eternall life, wee may not thinke that by our piety it is deserved, which God long before had decreed and promised, and Christ our Saviour had purchased for us. But though it bee a reward, yet it is a most free, and undeserved reward.”
Third, the puritans distinguished between the title to eternal life and the possession of eternal life (for more on this distinction, see this post). Jesus has fully accomplished salvation for us, including purchasing every grace needed to work out our salvation. Notwithstanding, God graciously promises eternal life to the one who believes and to “him that doth his commandments (Rutherford).” We are first given the right to eternal life by faith and then we are given “the crown of life in the possession thereof (Rutherford)” by means of good works. This distinction is crucial, as is the order. We aren’t justified by our good works because they do not play a role in the granting of the right to eternal life, and because they are rewarded after justification. Indeed, we can’t be rewarded with eternal life in the sense of entering into its possession if we don’t already possess it by right. God rewards the works of justified believers—the only people who are, by the Spirit, able to perform works that are pleasing to God—and not unbelievers or those outside the covenant of grace.
This is how the Puritans explained the Scriptural passages that call eternal life the reward of good works. And they were simply following John Calvin who, as Rutherford pointed out, called good works “the inferiour causes of the possession of life" (cf. Institutes 3.14.21).
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.
Grace Worth Fighting For by Danny Hyde