Sola Fide, Grace, Obedience, and Perseverance

Excerpted from Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd, edited by P. Andrew Sandlin and John Barach (Mount Hermon, California; Kerygma Press, forthcoming).

Sola fide … cannot denote an exclusion of persevering obedience and good works as in a consequent sense conditions of eternal life.[1]

Just as Lordship Salvation creates an apparent conflict with sola fide, so these statements about perseverance seem to threaten assurance, which is part and parcel of sola fide,[2] and which the Reformers held to be of the essence of saving faith — no assurance, no salvation.[3]  Yet, as with Lordship Salvation, the conflict is merely apparent.  Christians can — and should — enjoy an inflexible assurance of their salvation (Rom. 8:27–39; 1 Jn. 5:13).  Because Jesus is both the Founder and Finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2), we look to him as our security (Heb. 7:22).  Eternal life is a gift bestowed on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death and victorious resurrection; therefore, assurance of eternal life is suspended on his redemptive work.  But this fact provides cold comfort if it can’t specify exactly who benefits from that redemptive work: in the line from the hymn “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place,” “It is enough that Jesus died/And that he died for me,” the “for me” is non-negotiable.  What, then, is the tether between the objectivity of Jesus’ redemptive work and the subjectivity of our assurance?

The answer to this conundrum is simple, if not always easy: we constantly look outside ourselves to the objective work of Jesus on our behalf, and we equally realize that the Bible never promises assurance to individuals whose lives are not characterized by persevering obedience and resultant good works, because one benefit of salvation is perseverance. These persevering good works have nothing to do with merit but, rather, constitute one benefit of eternal life itself.  Put another way: perseverance in good works is a gift of grace, just as are adoption, sanctification, forgiveness, justification, and glorification.  Good works don’t earn eternal life; nor are good works merely an evidence of eternal life.  Good works are a gift of eternal life.[4]  This fact is often obscured by mistaken inferences from bold statements of Paul’s that “if [election is] by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6), and “[n]ow to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.  But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:4–5).  Paul posits the sharpest possible contrast between grace and works as the basis on which God bestows (or the instrument by which man appropriates) eternal life.  But Paul would be the last to agree that good works are not a gift of that very eternal life, for he plainly teaches that they are (Rom. 6:22, 8:28–29; Eph. 2:10, 4:24; Tit. 2:14).  The contrast, therefore, is never between good works and eternal life, but always between good works and the basis on and manner in which God bestows eternal life.  Eternal life is not a reward for good behavior, but persevering good works are a gift of eternal life.  Faith in Jesus Christ is faith in God’s revelation about Jesus Christ, and that faith includes trust not just in his promises but also his precepts: “[F]aith must perform its vital action in both the spheres of obedience and trust,” writes Dabney, “or it cannot live.”[5]  This equation presupposes the necessity of faith-enriched works that do not elicit God’s warnings of a quest for eternal life that sinfully includes works.  In short, not all works are self-justifying, autonomous and meritorious.[6]

[1] John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), 210.

[2] G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Perseverance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 39–124.

[3] William Cunningham, “The Reformers and the Doctrine of Assurance,” The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1862, 1967), 117.

[4] Alan P. Stanley, Salvation Is More Complicated Than You Think, 30.

[5] Robert Lewis Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1891, 1967), 97.

[6] Paul A. Rainbow, The Way of Salvation (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2005), 79–88.