Lastly, there was another most pestilential error, which not only occupied the minds of men, but was regarded as one of the principal articles of faith, of which it was impious to doubt, viz., that believers ought to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil, the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the salvation of men overthrown. For, as Paul declares, that faith only is Christian faith which inspires our hearts with confidence, and emboldens us to appear in the presence of God, (Romans 5:2.) On no other view could his doctrine in another passage be maintained, viz., that
“we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father,” (Romans 8:15.)
But what is the effect of that hesitancy which our enemies require in their disciples, save to annihilate all confidence in the promises of God? Paul argues, that
“If they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect,” (Romans 4:14.)
Why so? Just because the law keeps a man in doubt, and does not permit him to entertain a sure and firm confidence. But they, on the other hand, dream of a faith, which, excluding and repelling man from that confidence which Paul requires, throws him back upon conjecture, to be tossed like a reed shaken by the wind. And it is not surprising that after they had once founded their hope of salvation on the merit of works, they plunged into all this absurdity. It could not but happen, that from such a precipice they should have such a fall. For what can man find in his works but materials for doubt, and, finally, for despair? We thus see how error led to error...It would seem that the error Calvin refers to was similar to the one Paul confronted in his letter to the Galatians. Those first century believers had reverted to a grace plus works understanding of salvation, i.e. faith in Christ's death and resurrection for forgiveness of sins and justification - to which was added grace-enabled works under the Law for final salvation. Concerning the Judaizers and those who followed their teaching, J. Gresham Machen wrote:
They, believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they also believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer's own effort to keep the Law..
Paul saw very clearly that the difference between the Judaizers and himself was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace..
The difference which divided him from the Judaizers was no mere theological subtlety, but concerned the very heart and core of the religion of Christ. "Just as I am without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me" - that is what Paul was contending for in Galatia; That hymn would never have been written if the Judaizers had won. And without the thing which that hymn expresses there is no Christianity at all...
If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. The guilty soul enters again into the hopeless reckoning with God, to determine whether we have really done our part. And thus we groan again under the old bondage of the law. Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all. (Christianity and Liberalism)For Paul, though believers in Christ are obligated to do good works as evidence of their faith and thankfulness in Christ (faith working through love), their good works of themselves contribute nothing of moral weight, acquittal, or vindication in their final salvation.
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." (Ephesians 2:8-10)So then how are we to think about the good works of believers who are justified through faith alone? How do they contribute to their sanctification? Do they contribute in any way to salvation that is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? And in what way are the good works of believers judged? Again, Calvin:
... Our third and last exception relates to the recompence of works — we maintaining that it depends not on their own value or merit, but rather on the mere benignity of God. Our opponents, indeed, admit that there is no proportion between the merit of the work and its reward; but they do not attend to what is of primary moment in the matter, viz., that the good works of believers are never so pure as that they can please without pardon. They consider not, I say, that they are always sprinkled with some spots or blemishes, because they never proceed from that pure and perfect love of God which is demanded by the Law. Our doctrine, therefore, is, that the good works of believers are always devoid of a spotless purity which can stand the inspection of God; nay, that when they are tried by the strict rule of justice, they are, to a certain extent, impure. But, when once God has graciously adopted believers, he not only accepts and loves their persons, but their works also, and condescends to honor them with a reward. In one word, as we said of man, so we may say of works, - they are justified [i.e. accepted] not by their own desert, but by the merits of Christ alone; the faults by which they would otherwise displease being covered by the sacrifice of Christ. This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works that which proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, and so preventing them from giving way to despondency, when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it. (The Necessity of Reforming the Church)I doubt that on that wonderful Judgment Day any who are Christ’s will be thinking about, looking upon, or even dare to offer up their best works of sanctification. Then we will be robed both within and without in only the Righteousness of the Lamb; and yet even our blood-washed garments of righteousness will not draw our attention. Rather, all eyes will be fixed on him who died for us.
“The Bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of grace:
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory,
And my eternal stand!”
– O Christ, He is the Fountain
[emphasis added in above texts]