Good works are necessary for salvation. Thus says http://new.hornes.org/mark/ on 12/16 while channeling Norman Shepherd.
Well, it is true that the post mentioned Norman Shpeherd. But was I channeling him or others?
What I wrote is that Shepherd prompted me to investigate Reformed Orthodoxy.
What bothers me a great deal looking back at the accusations that were made against Norman Shepherd is how much the source material was kept out of view of the public who were told he should be condemned. Back when I first heard of him I didn’t know Zacharas Ursinus’ lectures on the theology of the Heidelberg Catechism had been reprinted (virtually photocopied from an older book), Francis Turretin’s second volume was still not published, and Benedict Pictet remains unpublished. Shepherd was a scholar in the Protestant Scholastics, but this was a world I was told nothing about.
The only authority who gave me support back then, in the early nineties, the only authority who seemed to be seeing the same material was John Gerstner in his Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. He wrote,
good works may be said to be a condition for obtaining salvation in that they inevitably accompany genuine faith. Good works, while a necessary complement of true faith, are never the meritorious grounds of justification, of acceptance before God. From the essential truth that no sinner in himself can merit salvation, the antinomian draws the erroneous conclusion that good works need not even accompany faith in the saint. The question is not whether good works are necessary to salvation, but in what way are they necessary. As the inevitable outworking of saving faith, they are necessary for salvation (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p. 210).
Unaware of the confusion that is being propagated today, Gerstner was naively certain that confusing a merely necessary condition with a meritorious necessary condition was a specifically dispensational mistake and thus writes, “That Ryrie cannot grasp the distinction between a necessary condition and a meritorious condition is apparent” (p. 256).
Sadly, Gerstner himself was to cross this line (though I don’t think he did so in the book), teaching that the good works of justified believers merited heavenly rewards. But I knew that was wrong and it is certainly something Shepherd has always denied.
In 1995 I went to seminary and got to discover Reformed Theologians who were mainstream to the heritage but have been forgotten. Specifically, I found the nineteenth-century translation Christian Theology by Turretin’s nephew, Benedict Pictet’s consistent position is revealed again in his chapter “of good works” (pp. 331-334). He writes:
As to the necessity of good works, it is clearly established from the express commands of God, from the necessity of our worshipping and serving God, from the nature of the covenant of grace, in which God promises every kind of blessing, but at the same time requires obedience, from the favors received at this hands, which are so many motives to good works, from the future glory which is promised, and to which good works stand related, as the means to the end, as the road to the goal, as seedtime to the harvest, as first fruits to the whole gathering, and as the contest to the victory… (pp. 332; emphasis added).
Not only did this portrayal of the life of faith (and the good works that were part of that) as means to coming into possession of salvation, blow my mind, but I realized it sounded quite familiar. Eventually I figured out why. I re-read chapter 16, paragraph 2, of the Westminster Confession, “Of Good Works”:
These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.
I have no idea if Pictet was reflecting on the Westminster Confession when he wrote his passage, or if both documents reflect a common heritage. In any case, they both use Romans 6 to justify what they say:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I had already found plenty of backing for (what was passed on to me as) Shepherd’s position. But I had missed this. It was especially interesting because I had heard often that obedience was not a means to salvation but a fruit of it. This dichotomy was simply not considered valid by the Reformed Scholastics and the Westminster Divines.
But, thanks to P&R I finally got to look through volume 2 of Turretin’s Elenctic Theology (P&R has published Francis Turretin, Peter Leithart, and Norman Shepherd and have since been trying to stuff the smoke back in the bottle). In his Seventeenth Topic, “Sanctification and Good Works,” Turretin’s third question is “Are good works necessary to salvation?” His answer is straightforward: “We affirm” (17.3; p. 702). He claims we need to teach such a formulation, saying,
still we think with others that it can be retained without danger if properly explained. We also hold that it should be pressed against the license of the Epicureans so that although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of our salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them—that thus our religion may be freed from those most foul calumnies everywhere cast mot unjustly upon it by the Romanists (as if it were the mistress of impiety and the cushion of carnal licentiousness and security) [emphasis added].
For Turretin, Reformed Orthodoxy occupies the proper middle ground between the errors of the “modern Epicureans and Libertines who make good works arbitrary and indifferent” and the Roman Catholics who “press the necessity of merit and causality.” Holding “the middle ground between these two extremes” The Reformed orthodox, he writes, “neither simply deny, nor simply assert; yet they recognize a certain necessity for them against the Libertines, but uniformly reject the necessity of merit against the Romanists” (17.3.2; p. 702). This third way between two extremes holds that good works are necessary for salvation according to “the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order.” Good works are “the means and way for possessing salvation” (17.3.3; p. 702).
It wasn’t too long before I also found the original American publication of an English translation of Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. While Ursinus, writing many decades before Turretin, was more cautious about being misunderstood, he came to exactly the same position as Francis Turretin.
We may, therefore, easily return an answer to the following objection:
- That is necessary to salvation without which no one can be saved.
- But no one who is destitute of good works can be saved, as it is said in the 87th Question.
- Therefore, good works are necessary to salvation.
We reply to the major proposition, by making the following distinction: That without which no one can be saved is necessary to salvation, viz: as a part of salvation, or as a certain antecedent necessary to salvation, in which sense we admit the conclusion; but not as a cause, or as a merit of salvation. We, therefore grant the conclusion of the major proposition if understood in the sense in which we have just explained it. For good works are necessary to salvation, or, to speak more properly, in them that are to be saved (for it is better thus to speak for the sake of avoiding ambiguity,) as a part of salvation itself; or, as an antecedent of salvation, but not as a cause of merit of salvation (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 484-485, emphasis added).
I’ve written up all this and a great deal more here (pdf download). Please forgive the typos.
I’m curious if there is any way that Dr. Hart could possibly be unaware that prominent, mainstream, and orthodox Reformed Scholastics taught that good works were necessary to salvation as means to an end. What exactly is the point of making people think that Norman Shepherd is the source of that so that I would need to channel him when I’m pointing out that a great deal of the Reformed heritage would have remained, as far as I know, hidden from my eyes if Shepherd had not been willing to reflect on it and teach it.
I don’t know anymore how much I agree or disagree with Shepherd’s positions. I do know I appreciate not remaining ignorant, which is greatly due to his willingness to teach honestly, suffer for it. Ironically, I also have to thank his enemies for lighting up a flare.