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Sometimes our systematic theology creates an illusion of precision. For example, we distinguish the ground and instrument of justification. Justification is grounded in Christ’s work alone, and is instrumentally received by faith alone. That makes good sense and guards us from thinking that faith itself is somehow meritorious. All the saving power is found in Christ himself, not at all in us. We do not achieve salvation, we receive it.

But the concept of instrumentality is a bit fuzzy. We can legitimately ask: Are there other instruments of justification? Paul says we are justified by faith. But James says we are justified by works together with faith. James uses the same preposition for works that Paul uses for faith. He does more than simply qualify the kind of faith that justifies (though he does do that!). He says that works, along with faith, have justifying value. Thus, in some way works are instrumental in justification as well as faith.

How should this be understood? Faith certainly has a unique role in justification. After all, only faith can lay hold of Christ and unite us to him. No work can do that [1]. In that sense, faith is the “alone instrument” of justification (cf. WCF 11). But works can be instrumental in another sense. The final declaration God passes over us at the last day will be in accordance with the pattern of life we have lived. There will be congruence between the life we have lived and the final verdict we receive. Those who have lived lives of faith — meaning lives characterized at their core by loyalty to God — will be justified. Those who have lived in unbelief will be condemned. The good works believers have done will not merit final justification, but they will be instrumental in that there will be basic match between the verdict rendered and the life lived. This is why Calvin called works a “means” and “inferior cause” of salvation.

There are other complicating factors as well. For example, several NT passages connect baptism with justification (e.g., Acts 2:38: baptism is “for” the remission of sins). In Reformed theology, it has been common to speak of the instrumental efficacy of the sacraments. But how can baptism’s instrumentality in justification be understood vis-à-vis faith’s instrumentality? Do baptism and faith compete with one another or do they work together? I think the solution is easy enough if we remember that baptism is really God’s action, not a human work. God is the Baptizer, ultimately. He may use the minister and the water as his agents, but it is his Spirit who does the work (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).

The Westminster Standards point in this same direction. On the one hand the Confession says no one is actually justified until Christ is applied to them (11.4). But the Shorter Catechism specifically says one function of baptism is to apply Christ to the believer (92). Putting these two statements together yields this conclusion: Baptism is the instrument through which Christ is applied to us unto justification.

Thus, we can say that faith is the instrument of justification on our end, while baptism is the instrument on God’s side. God offers Christ and applies Christ to us through the instrument of baptism. We receive Christ as he is offered in the sacrament with the outstretched and open hand of faith. Baptism is not a good work we do to earn justification; it is a gift of grace through which God grants justification to faith.

I would not claim that this sort of formulation clears up all the difficulties, but hopefully it points towards the kinds of solutions we need to be striving for.

Copyright © 2003


1. Perhaps it would be best to speak of faith as the “alone instrument” of union with Christ, and then reformulate our doctrine of justification accordingly.

2. Consider Calvin: “But as baptism is a solemn recognition by which God introduces his children into the possession of life [e.g., regeneration], a true and effectual sealing of the promise, a pledge of sacred union with Christ, it is justly said to be the entrance and reception into the church. And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what he figures.” Elsewhere, Calvin wrote, “There is a union complementary with the thing figured, lest the sign be empty, because that which the Lord represents in sign he effects at the same time, and executes in us by the power of the Spirit . . . What indeed do we abrogate or take away from God when we teach that he acts through his instruments, indeed, he alone . . . God works . . . through the sacraments as instruments… The Spirit is the author, the sacrament is truly the instrument used.”

from his Institutes of Elenctic Theology

(emphasis added)

Although the sacraments are external means and instruments applying (on the part of God) the promise of grace and justification, this does not hinder faith from being called the internal instrument and means on the part of man for receiving this benefit offered in the word and sealed by the sacraments [16.7.20].

The question is not whether faith alone justifies to the exclusion either of the grace of God or the righteousness of Christ or the word and sacraments (by which the blessing of justification is presented and sealed to us on the part of God), which we maintain are necessarily required here; but only to the exclusion of every other virtue and habit on our part…. For all these as they are mutually subordinated in a different class of cause, consist with each other in the highest degree [16.8.5].

…. although the other virtues do not justify with faith, still faith cannot justify in their absence, much less the opposite vices being present. For faith cannot be true except in connection with the virtues (which if they do not contribute to justification, still contribute to the existence and life of faith, which the presence of vices would destroy) [16.8.14].

Hence it is evident that the question [“Are Good Works Necessary to Salvation”] here does not concern the necessity of merit, causality, and efficiency–whether good works are necessary to effect salvation or to acquire it by right. (For this belongs to another controversy, of which hereafter). Rather the question concerns the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order–Are they required as the means and way for possessing salvation? This we hold [17.3.3].

…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)… [17.3.4].


  1. You are claiming we receive “grace” by works in your answer to baptism as God’s vehicle ino Christ. Paul’s gospel (which is the only one) simply states “we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, so that no one can boast”. The Spirit is thus imparted an indwelt by a simple transfer of trust. It is that simple…no need to confuse the issue. As far as Calvin goes, he has it all wrong on his thinking concerning election, and thus polluting the whole gosple message! You are saved by faith and then, and only then, you are elected into service for Christ. The gifts are are means of fullfilling the call by God…just because He is so Good!


    Comment by Rich — November 3, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

  2. Rich falsely pits faith against our response of faith. No where does the Bible say that baptism is a work we do. Baptism, in Romans 6, is a work that God does as we respond in faith to the Biblical injunction to be baptized. James clearly teaches that with no action, faith is dead. Thus if someone claims to have faith in Christ but makes no effort to be baptized according to the Biblical command, then they actually don’t have faith. Baptism is not a work for someone responding to grace by faith, rather baptism is a privilege.

    Comment by Skip — January 1, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  3. Jesus was Baptized for the same reason we are…

    Baptism is a witness of the declaration of God to the authority he ordained in Christ, prophesied in Genesis and believed on throughout antiquity.

    Baptism is a work that follows effectual faith (real faith) Baptism is not in any way essential for justification from transgressions (salvation). It is a work of obedience AFTER salvation.

    Calvin , as Rich correctly stated, has this and MUCH doctrine wrong..in fact he embraced the doctrine created by man (Eve) in Eden when she , as Calvin, was beguiled.
    Eve omitted from the decree of God for all things pertaining to life physical and eternal, the words and principles in it, of “every” and freely”, she also added to the declaration of God, that she (man) had not the inalienable ability or power and duty to “touch” or to interact with that which ONLY God possessed (Sovereign rights), and finally she changed the meanings of the decree of god that some only need “fear’ (lest ye die) the condemnation of transgression, but that she only give honor and respect knowing that that condemnation was not for her, but for all others.

    Calvinism IS the doctrine of man that plunged the whole world into sin.

    Comment by Jeff — July 15, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

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