More Than Fruit
May 5, 2016
In my last article I referenced the evangelical understanding of the Scriptural phrase “do this and live” among some puritans. Such an understanding implies that good works are more than the fruit of salvation. We don’t engage in good works merely because we live or are saved, we are to do them in order to live or to salvation. While there was considerable disagreement over the interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, there was widespread agreement among the puritans that good works or Spirit-wrought obedience was more than the fruit of salvation. In fact, John Davenant (1572-1641) strongly repudiated the merely fruit position, seeing it as a Romanist caricature, and affirmed that “good works have, in reference to salvation, a necessity of their own, not significative only, but active…” How then did the puritans view good works as active or more than fruit?
One of, if the not the most common way the puritans expressed the active role of good works was to portray them as the way to salvation/eternal life/kingdom/etc. For example, John Ball wrote “Obedience to all God’s commandments is covenanted…as the qualification and effect of faith, and as the way to life.” Also Francis Roberts (1609-1675) argued that “the Covenant of Faith in Jesus Christ required all sincere Obedience…As a proper fruit and evidence of true faith in Christ, And as God’s beaten path towards the attainment of the Blessings Covenanted and Promised.” This popular expression even found its way into the Westminster Standards: “…all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith…and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation (WLC 32).”
The image painted by these and similar phrases is that of a traveler walking along the road that leads to heaven. In contradistinction to ancient Rome, there is only one road that leads to heaven and it is the “narrow way, namely, that of virtue and holiness: not the broad way of iniquity and lust (John Davenant).” Thus you need to take this road and stay on it if you would enter into glory. If you take a different road or if you turn back, then you will not be saved. As John Downame (1571-1652) once wrote: “a godly life…is the way that leadeth us thereunto [everlasting happiness], in which, whoso travaile, shall at the end of their journey surely attaine to eternall blessednesse. And they who neglect it, being quite out of the way, can never come unto that place of joy: For without holinesse wee shall never see God.” Indeed, Ezekiel Hopkins (d. 1690) was not hesitant to say that “should it be supposed that an elect or a regenerate person should forsake this way of obedience, and betake himself unto the broad way where in the most walk, we affirm that he is going the direct and ready road to hell; and hell he cannot escape, unless he stop and return.”
Another common way the puritans articulated this same point was by covenant conditions. Sincere obedience is a consequent condition of justification and an antecedent condition of glorification. In other words, good works must follow justification and precede glorification. Commenting on Romans 8:13, John Davenant freely admitted that “we have always granted that the act of mortification, and the desire of sanctification, is necessary to salvation, as an antecedent condition.” Similarly, George Downame acknowledged that good works are necessary antecedents to glorification, and John Ball (1585-1640) noted that “good works of all sorts” are necessary as a “condition to finall forgivenesse and eternall blisse.”
Good works, therefore, are more than fruit in that they are necessary for salvation as the way to eternal life and as an antecedent condition of glorification. Not all puritans, however, agreed with this. A few of them, pejoratively called antinomians, denied the conditionality of the covenant of grace and strongly objected to the phrase “way to salvation.” Tobias Crisp (1600-1643) is a case in point. He believed in the necessity of good works for salvation but only in the sense that good works are necessary fruits of salvation. True Christians ought and will produce good works, but they are not required to and indeed they shouldn’t pursue holiness in order to avoid damnation and to possess heaven. Good works, he said, are “the business of a person that he hath to do in his Way, Christ; but it is not the Way it self to Heaven.” Westminster Divine Anthony Burgess (1600-1663) responded to Crisp by stating the mainstream puritan position: “Good works are both our way, and imployment also.”
The nineteenth-century Scottish theologian James Buchanan (1804-1870) remarked that when Reformation teachings began to be abused by antinomians “the Puritans were raised up, in the good providence of God, to give the same prominence to Sanctification as Luther had given to Justification.” Regardless of the accuracy of this observation, it is true that the puritans were keen on sanctification as evidenced by their understanding that good works or Spirit-wrought obedience is more than the fruit of salvation.