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July 6, 2007 / vivator

Luther and Calvin’s view on reward of good works

How the Reformers view merits from our good works?   In the words of John Calvin:

All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain.  Should the Lords therefore bring to judgment the best of human works, he would indeed behold his own righteousness in them; but he would also behold man’s dishonour and disgrace.

Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, III.15.3

Calvin’s teaching that our good works are defiled is echoed in Westminster Confession of Faith.  Westminster Confession is confession of faith of English-speaking Presbyterians. It was completed in 1646 and approved after some revisions in June 1648.

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.

Westminster Confession XVI.5

Martin Luther went even further by declaring that our good works are not only imperfect but are also sinful acts.  To the believers in Christ, His perfect righteousness will cover and hide this imperfection.  In Luther’s own words:

Thus we sin even when we do good, unless God through Christ covers this imperfection and does not impute it to us.  Thus it becomes a venial sin, though the mercy of God, who does not impute it for the sake of faith and the plea on behalf of this imperfection for the sake of Christ.  Therefore, he who thinks that he might be regarded as righteous because of his works is very foolish, since if they were offered as a sacrifice to the judgment of God, they still would be found to be sins. . . . . . Therefore iniquity will be found in his righteousness, that is, even his good works will be unrighteous and sinful.  This iniquity will not be found in believers and those who cry to Him, because Christ has brought them aid from the fullness of his purity and has hidden the imperfection of theirs.

Luther’s Works, Vol. 25, pages 276-277

What is the position of the Catholic Church on merit of good works?   Catholics believe that we do not deserve any reward from our good works because we cannot do it unless we are first moved by God’s Grace.   When God rewards us for our good works, which He does (Psalms 18:20, Proverbs 13:13, 25:21-22, Matthew 6:3-6, 2 John 8, Revelation 22:12) – his reward is a gift from him, i.e. it is not something we deserve.   Because the reward is a gift then it may come in the form of increase of grace and even eternal life.  Scripture testifies that God rewards us with eternal life for our good works (Matthew 25:34-40, John 5:28-29).

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2 Comments

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  1. Newchasm / Jul 23 2007 11:40 am

    It seems that this talks about total depravity with respect to merit. As for the last two verses, Protestants can argue that it is result of not the works but the righteousness shown by them.

    Verse 37 seems to indicate that the righteous people did not do it for the end of clothing and feeding christ. This means that they did it outside of the context of salvation. They did it outside of God rewarding us with eternal life for our good works. So why is it one aught to work to that end. The reward would no longer be gracious but a due. Read all of Romans 4.

    Romans 4-
    Abraham was justified by his faith before his works. It remains that he is reward by such. His reward did not come from the works.

    Romans 9-
    Jacob over Esau, so that God’s purpose of election might stand.
    You may redefine election here all you want. I am not arguing for it. It remains that Jacob also was blessed outside and before works. It does not deny that the works of Jacob outweigh Esau’s. It is right to say that the one with works was blessed. It is just the works are not a cause of it. God always is apart and before them.

    I can continue but I prove my point but it boarders the protestant/catholic rift on justification. I made it clear my view elsewhere. It is not always as simple as forensic/not.

    As for the OT covenant, it did provide blessings based on obedience but then again the perfect standard that Jesus used for adultery, murder, and theft were not used. God stretched out his hands to a disobediant people all day long. The state of Israel existed by grace not works. It seems that this standard of God’s obedience is what Calvin and Luther rant over. It is the standard used for Total depravity. Perfection.

  2. vivator / Jul 23 2007 10:20 pm

    Catholics also believe that faith is a gift from God and He gives it to us not because we did something to deserve it – there is no problem with Romans 4. Catholics do not believe in justification by works, but by grace. God’s grace is manifested in both our faith and works. Thus when James 2:21 says that Abraham was justified by works, Catholics understand that unless God gave him His Grace, he would not be able to offer his son. Protestants who try to reconcile this verse with Romans 4 end up saying “justification by faith alone but not by faith that is alone”. Then why call it “by faith alone” if it is not by faith that is alone?
    As for Election, Catholics do believe that God chose who will end up in heaven but He does not predestine anyone to hell. Thus He provides His Grace to all (Titus 2:11) and “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Those who end up in hell do so because of their response to His Grace.

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