Calvinists say that justification is by faith alone (sola fide in Latin). That is the view that God declares sinners to be in right standing with Him (“not guilty”) the moment they simply believe in Christ.
Obviously, or so it would seem to the uninitiated, there is no place for works in justification in Calvinism. Justification is completely apart from works.
Recently I re-read parts of a book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, by the late Dr. John Gerstner, a very staunch Calvinist. I saw something I had not seen in my previous reading of that book. The following caught my attention:
Thus, 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… (p. 210, italics his).
About 50 pages later Dr. Gerstner chastises Dr. Charles Ryrie (one of the best-known moderate Calvinists in our day for his many excellent books and The Ryrie Study Bible) for being unable to grasp the necessity of good works for salvation:
That Ryrie cannot grasp the distinction between a necessary condition and a meritorious condition is apparent…Ryrie simply will not give up his Antinomianism or understand the biblical doctrine of sanctification…Instead of the perseverance of the saint, [Ryrie believes in] the preservation of the sinner (p. 256).
According to Gerstner, anyone who says that good works are not a condition of eternal salvation is an Antinomian and not a true Calvinist. He evidently can’t conceive of what he calls “the preservation of the sinner.”
This is hard for me to understand. How can a person maintain that justification is by faith alone and say that good works are required for salvation? If good works are required for eternal salvation, then justification can’t be by faith alone.
What would such a Calvinist tell a professing believer who was worried about his salvation? If he was worried about avoiding hell, what would he need to do to be confident that he was going to make heaven? Surely such a Calvinist would tell him that true believers persevere in the faith and that good works are a condition, a non-meritorious condition, of salvation. The doubter would be urged to get busy doing good works. What practical difference would it make to the doubter whether the works are meritorious or not? He simply wants to make it to heaven. If it takes good works, then he will likely do his best to produce those works.
Ah, but there’s the rub. If I must do good works to be saved, then I am not saved simply by believing that Jesus is the Guarantor of eternal life to all who believe in Him for it (John 6:47; 11:25-27; 1 Tim 1:16). Then justification really isn’t by faith alone. Justification is then by faith plus works.
While it is clear in Scripture that God has exhorted all believers to holiness so that we might glorify Him (e.g., Ephesians 4-6), there is no guarantee that all believers will succeed. Consider, for example, 1 Cor 9:24-27, where the apostle Paul says that even he isn’t sure he will persevere. While failure is sad, it is not proof that one is unsaved.
I am not against God’s commands. The term Antinomian comes from the Greek for “against law.” If people used the word in the dictionary definition, “A member of a Christian sect holding that faith alone is necessary for salvation,”1 Free Grace believers wouldn’t mind the term. But it is usually used as what Zane Hodges calls a “theological cuss word,” meaning a person without moral standards.
On the gospel I think I am in agreement with John Calvin, even though I don’t believe that good works are a condition of eternal life. I know of no place in the Reformer’s writings where he taught that good works were a condition of eternal life. However, even if it could be shown that this was Calvin’s view, that would not move me, since ultimately I am indebted to God’s Word, and not to a system of theology, for my view of the gospel. If current Calvinism teaches that good works are a condition of eternal salvation, then I will formally cancel my membership. After all, men like the late Dr. Gerstner have already concluded that I’m not in the fraternity anyway.
1American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976), 57.