“Plausible are the ways in which men are seeking to justify this circulation of counterfeit currency in the spiritual sphere; it is perfectly right, we are told, so long as it is not found out. That principle has even been ingeniously applied to the ordinary currency of the realm; if a counterfeit note were absolutely perfect, it has been said, so that by no possibility could it ever be detected, what harm should we be doing to a man if we passed it out to him with his change? Probably it will not be necessary to point out—at least to the readers of the present book—the fallacy in this moral tour de force; and that fallacy would really apply to the spiritual currency as well as to five-dollar notes. By circulating bad money we should be diminishing the value of good money, and so should be robbing the generality of our fellow-men. But after all, that question is purely academic: as a matter of fact counterfeit notes are never sure not to be found out. And neither is bad currency in the spiritual sphere. It is a dangerous thing to encourage faith in what is not true, for the sake of the immediate benefits which such faith brings: because the greater be the building that is erected on such a foundation, the greater will be the inevitable crash when the crash finally comes.”J. Greshem Machen, What is Faith? page 179.
The above paragraph by Machen can be explained by looking at the function of money in an economy. Every good and every service that might be purchased with currency has its value based on the currency. One could add up into a sum the price of every good and every service in that economy. Then he could figure out the total amount of money available for the purchase of all these goods and services. There is a resulting relationship between the two. That relationship works in both directions. A price is given to the various good and services available. In the other direction, the money that a man possesses has its power because it can be used to purchase those goods and services available. He knows he can get so much for the money he has. When a man gets his paycheck, he knows that he can buy the food he needs to feed his family.
Suppose that a counterfeiter has produced and passed into this economy exactly the same amount of the money already existing in an economy. At first, prices remain the same, and the individuals who at first successfully pass off this counterfeit currency as genuine obtain the goods and services they produce for free. But as this counterfeit currency works its way into the whole economy, all currency loses half its value. Consequently, goods and services will double their cost.
Even more, suppose the counterfeit currency is discovered. The economy is further damaged because people will no longer trust their currency. They will not trust it when they receive it in the form of a paycheck, nor in business transactions.
What is the currency whose value is damaged by its counterfeit in our spiritual economy of salvation and assurance of salvation?
The believer’s assurance is grounded upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone, which righteousness is received through faith alone.
The teaching of assurance by good works diminishes the value of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It also diminishes the importance of faith alone by which that righteousness is received. Assurance is by faith and good works. Assurance is by the righteousness of Christ and good works.
Christ loses His value when good works are placed next to Him. Faith loses its value when good works are placed next to faith. Gratitude for salvation freely received into the heart and mind as the wondrously powerful motivation for all good works suffers. Why do good works? No longer because the believer has received, but because the believer must obtain. What one thought he possessed fully by grace alone through faith alone is cast into doubt. He must now get busy and perform necessary good works to get what he thought he already had.
“The doctrinal error . . . then compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ, for when our good works are given a place and function they do not have, the perfect work of Christ is displaced.” (Acts of Synod 2018, Article 62, page 70)
We must also look at the very heart of the error. “Our good works,” when they displace “the perfect work of Christ,” have two damaging effects on the work of Christ. First, the work of Christ is no longer sufficient. The believer’s good works must be brought in in to complete the ground for assurance. Second, the believer’s good works are imperfect. They do not match the perfection of God’s perfect law. They are defiled with sin. When those good works are brought next to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and both together made the cause or reason for assurance, the results are damaging. Damage is done to perfection of the law, of Christ’s righteousness, and the believer’s assurance. Not only does perfect assurance become impossible, as the believer attempts to gain better assurance by doing more good works. His assurance must become weaker and weaker as he tries to pursue more and more imperfect good works.
This counterfeit currency also does damage to the doctrine that is precious to the church of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of salvation and assurance of salvation by grace alone, from Christ alone, by faith alone. The addition of good works to this doctrine throws the word “alone” into doubt. When the currency of “faith and good works” is passed along as genuine, and believers are told that their assurance depends on their faith and their good works, the doctrine that they have been taught before becomes questionable. They may not trust what they have been taught, and what they had held as dear. Questions arise in their minds about the old currency. They can only doubt that their assurance, formerly based on Christ alone, was solid and true. Now they must obtain an assurance that is true by good works that they must now perform in order to obtain this assurance.
Damage of Counterfeit Currency (2)
Damage of Counterfeit Currency
Properly to understand the damage of the teaching of doing good works in order to obtain assurance, the relationship between faith and good works must be clear.
There are two places in the Heidelberg Catechism that declare this relationship. The first is Lord’s Day 32, Q&A. 86, which addresses the necessity of good works. According to the answer Christ “also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image . . . that everyone may be assured of his faith by the fruits thereof.” The other is Lord’s Day 33 which gives a definition of good works. It is that first element of this definition that stands on the foreground: “only those which proceed out of a true faith.”
From these places the truth about good works is clearly established: good works proceed out of faith.
This simple and glorious truth about good works has several implications that are important to observe and keep in mind. One implication is that faith is always prior to good works. Another implication is that the sole source of good works is faith in the heart, and that faith as producing the good works. Yet one more is that faith possesses Christ as the complete Savior before producing any good works. In other words, faith resting in Christ alone produces good works because of Christ alone in that believer through faith. He is the vine. We are the branches.
Faith must be first, and faith alone must be first, before all the good works the believer does.
This truth is brought out in Reformed doctrine in two distinct ways. First, the Reformed order of salvation is that of faith, justification, and sanctification. This order means that justification and sanctification are by faith alone. Second, good works proceed from the heart of the believer as the believer places his trust in Christ for all his salvation, justification, and sanctification, and glorification. Another way to put the same thing is that the believer proceeds to his life of good works out of gratitude. He has received by faith all the blessings of salvation that are in Christ Jesus his Lord. Out of gratitude for what he has consciously received by faith alone, he lives a life of gratitude filled with good works to the glory of his Redeemer.
Thus, faith and the assurance of faith the believer possesses and enjoys prior to all the good works that he does.
The question becomes obvious: how can the believer work for that which he already possesses? How can he possibly work to obtain that which he already has and enjoys by faith alone in Christ alone, without his works?
Turning now to the error that assurance is to be obtained by good works, the damage becomes evident. The error makes good works occupy the same territory that faith alone is meant to. As faith is simply trust and rest in the complete work of Christ as the only and the complete Savior, good works done by the believer are put into the same realm where the fullness of Christ alone is supposed to be. This was the understanding of Synod 2018 when it decided this error displaced the perfect work of Christ.
First, damage is done to faith itself, and the nature of faith as rest and trust in Jesus Christ.
Good works become the standard for faith. Faith is seen as another good work, alongside the good works of the law. The command to believe the gospel stands alongside the other commandments of the law of God. Faith then becomes obedience to that commandment to believe. The deed of believing obtains the gifts of forgiveness of sin and eternal life, just as good works themselves are said to obtain assurance of salvation.
The damage is that faith as resting in the work of Christ as finished and complete fades into the background, along with the finished and complete work of Christ. The damage is that faith as the spiritual bond that joins the believer to Jesus Christ ceases to have a place in the heart and mind of the believer. The damage is that faith can no longer be seen as the distinct and glorious work of the Holy Spirit. Faith becomes only a choice, a decision, a mere act of the will.
Second, damage is done to the spiritual character of good works.
Because faith and good works exist side by side in the believer’s life, good works will tend more and more to have the supremacy. The believer can see his diligent efforts having their payoff in his good works. They are more readily apparent to him as he does them. Keeping the commandments outwardly he can note real progress in his life. He finds the approval of men and is encouraged by it to continue in his pursuit of good works. He is able to argue from his life of good works his claim to more assurance of faith. What he sees comes to have more and more priority over what he believes, the visible over the invisible.
Focus moves to the external character of good works. The law is seen more and more as a code of outward conduct, merely ruling over and regulating visible behavior. The law speaks less and less of what the believer cannot do, and more and more of what he can do. The law less and less points to the sins and depravity of the believer, to lead him to his need of Christ and His perfect righteousness and fulfillment of all the law of God.
Third, damage is done to the understanding of the church of Jesus Christ. The church is moved from being the gathering of believers and their spiritual seed, to being the gathering of doers. The gospel of salvation from sin through the blood of Jesus Christ loses its central place as satisfying the deepest need of God’s people and the wellspring of their life. Taking over that central place is exhortation and motivation to live according to God’s law. Practice becomes the theme instead of belief of the truth.
Similarly it becomes inevitable that certain good works become lauded and praised rather than others. The second table of the law receives priority over the first. Donations of large sums are praised and extolled over the widow’s mite. Service trips and special projects receive much attention. On the other hand, godly sorrow over sin, true conversion, and simply carrying on in one’s tasks in school, work, home and family to the glory of God is downplayed and can even be despised. Such is the damage of the counterfeit currency of the doctrine of assurance by good works. Understanding this damage must make us so grateful for the decisions of our Synod that identified and rejected this doctrine. But it must also make us vigilant to ensure that this counterfeit currency never has any place among us.
(Rev. Martin VanderWal Posted on March 23, 2019)