I recently had a gospel conversation with an agnostic woman who is seriously considering the claims of Christ. On a purely intellectual level, she finds the Christian worldview compelling. She admits that Christian theism offers a better rational explanation of the natural world and a better grounding for moral virtue than the more rigid brand of atheism she formerly espoused.
But a deeper, more existential issue bothers her still. Some years ago, when she went through a very public personal crisis, none of the people in her life who professed to be Christians said or did anything to minister to her.
“I was very clearly crying out for help,” she said, “but none of the Christians I know offered to lift a finger—or even an encouraging word—to help me in my time of need.”
Like many others in our secular age, this young woman grew disenchanted with a version of the Christian faith that is often talked about, but rarely lived out in practice. Like the apostle James, she could ask, “What good is it … if someone claims to have faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14, CSB).
Unfortunately, many within American evangelicalism practice what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Since Christ has “paid it all,” they act as if nothing is owed: no repentance, obedience, or service to neighbor. The authors of The Doctrine of Good Works: Recovering a Neglected Protestant Teaching seek to expose the flawed theological assumptions behind this type of negligent Christian witness. “Good works,” the authors insist, “are actually integral to the Good News.”
Jointly written by a renowned systematic theologian (Thomas McCall), a New Testament scholar (Caleb Friedeman), and a professor of evangelism and discipleship (Matt Friedeman), this book offers a unique examination of one of the most downplayed aspects of evangelical theology: the relationship between salvation and good works. The volume offers historical, biblical, and theological treatments of this doctrine, concluding with case studies and practical applications for pastoral ministry.
Possible and necessary
Following John Wesley, the authors define “good works” as “works of piety”—loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength—and “works of mercy”—loving our neighbors as ourselves. To be truly biblical (and truly Protestant), they argue, is to see good works as a necessary aspect of the Christian life and even our salvation. As they observe, the Reformers and other major Protestant thinkers “are convinced that good works are both possible and necessary for those who are justified, regenerate, and sanctified, and they challenge those who follow Christ to good deeds of piety and mercy.”
As the authors note, many evangelicals tend to overlook the Bible’s extensive teaching on good works, often reducing obedience to a mere byproduct of saving grace. Others take a borderline antagonistic approach toward this doctrine, suspecting that talk about good works in salvation corrupts the pure gospel recovered in the Protestant Reformation.
But did the Reformers reject the necessity of good works in salvation? The authors answer with a resounding “no”—and bring receipts to back that claim up. While the Reformers clearly taught sola fide—that we are justified or made right with God by faith alone—they also understood good works to be the necessary consequence of justifying faith.
One of the most frequently cited Reformers in the book is the 17th-century scholastic theologian Francis Turretin, who wrote, “Works … are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it.” In other words, we are made right on the basis of our faith in Christ not by our own works—but good works will necessarily follow justification by faith. We are also sanctified, or gradually made holy, through our good works.
The book notes that there are intramural disagreements between the Reformers about whether our works cause our sanctification. Yet all Protestant evangelicals can agree that our obedience plays a vital role in this process. Good works also play a crucial role in our future glorification—when we are finally and completely delivered from sin at death.
The authors describe God as a “working God” who has created his image-bearers to work in the same manner. They describe the law as a good gift “meant to guide Israel into [a] right relationship with God and neighbor so that God’s blessings can flow through them to the nations.” Obedience to the law did not make Israel right before God, but obedience to the law was the response God expected from his covenant people.
Contrary to “cheap grace” theology, the biblical idea of grace is not a gift with no strings attached. Following recent trends in biblical scholarship, The Doctrine of Good Works asserts that the biblical concept of grace cannot be fully understood apart from the background of Greco-Roman culture. In the ancient world, wealthy patrons showed “grace” or “favor” to their needy clients. (A modern parallel might be getting a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress or an entry-level job from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.) Sometimes this free grace was given to clients completely undeserving of such favor. But even when undeserving clients received remarkable gifts they could never pay back, their gratitude and service was expected in response.
It is in this context that we understand Paul’s idea of divine “grace” or “favor.” When Paul says that we are “saved by grace through faith” and that this salvation is “God’s gift” to us (Eph. 2:8), he paints a clear picture. God is the infinitely rich and honorable patron; we are the undeserving clients who could never earn his favor. We receive a completely free gift, yet our divine patron expects an appropriate response, grounded in the fact that we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10). We respond to this free gift of salvation with works of piety that magnify our divine patron and works of mercy that serve his mission in this world.
The authors don’t shy away from addressing one of the more controversial issues of evangelical theology in recent years: the idea of “final” or “future justification.” Biblical scholars and theologians have observed that justification, like many other aspects of salvation, has an “already but not yet” tension. In one sense, if we have placed our faith in Christ, we are already declared right before God. But there is another, “not yet” sense in which we await the Day of Judgment, when we “will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13). We have been justified, but we also look forward to the future when we will be justified. This event, the authors argue, is completely consistent with what the Bible says about being judged according to our works (Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12).
Putting faith into practice
One theological topic closely related to good works and salvation is conspicuously absent in this book: the debate over apostasy and the perseverance of the saints. Can born-again believers commit apostasy if they do not continue on in good works, as many within the Arminian tradition claim? Or will truly regenerate believers persevere until the end, kept eternally secure, as Calvinistic traditions assert?
I suspect the authors, all of whom hail from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, sidestepped this issue to produce a broadly evangelical treatment of good works and their role in salvation. While I appreciate that irenic spirit, it seems that no account of the relationship between these topics is complete without making sense of texts like the warning passages in Hebrews (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–19). Though I affirm the more Calvinistic idea that all true believers will persevere to the end, much of the blame for “cheap grace” theology can probably be laid at the feet of overly simplified teachings like “once-saved, always-saved.”
The Doctrine of Good Works is an excellent model of how to do theology for the church. It will challenge pastors and ministry leaders to think carefully about how we express the gospel. On the one hand, we do not want to leave any of our hearers with the impression that sinners can make themselves right before God by their works. We must stress that we are declared righteous by faith alone. Yet at the same time, we cannot speak about obedience and personal holiness as if they are inconsequential to the Christian life.
The authors connect the dots between biblical, historical, and systematic theology and the life and ministry of the local church. How should individual disciples and local churches practice works of piety and works of mercy? The Doctrine of Good Works provides several concrete examples of local churches and ministries faithfully loving God and loving their neighbors.
In a time when Christians are losing their moral credibility in the eyes of an unbelieving world, The Doctrine of Good Works make a clear case that we can show the beauty of our faith by putting it into practice.
Rhyne Putman is professor of theology and culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and vice president for academic affairs at Williams Baptist University. He is the author of When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity.