Beth Turner's article--"Saved by Love Alone: A Seminary Wife's Journey"--describes her conversion from the Reformed faith to Romanism. In the course of the article, she describes how she came to see the Reformed view of the good works and the general moral character of the saved:
What I seemed to hear from many a sermon and lecture on the topic was: “Nothing you do is ever good enough to even bring a smile to God’s face. You are culpable for all your sins, but God is responsible for all your good deeds. Everything good that appears to come from you is, in fact, something bad dressed up to look good. In fact, God is so disgusted by you and your sin that He placed Jesus in front of you, like a curtain, to avoid having to even look at you (*or maybe not, if you are not one of the elect, in which case His angry gaze is upon you still).”
She contrasts this with what she came to see as the Romanist view:
The good things I do are pleasing to God! It’s not only the bad things that make Him angry and affect our relationship. The good things I do please Him, and are actually the manner in which faith saves me! The faith that begins as a seed in my soul must necessarily flower fully in good works. Faith is a gift, but inseparable from the good work God commands. These flowers bear fruit for the life of the world, and these same good works are necessary fruit to sustain the life He graciously bestowed upon me.
God is not looking at Christ between us because He can’t stand to look at me, He actually looks at me with great pleasure! He longs to see my life and my good works, not simply Christ’s works instead of mine!
Jason Stellman, in his article entitled "The Mediocrity of the New Covenant?", gives a similar description of the supposed Reformed view:
According to Reformed Theology, even the “good works” which Christians are called to do are “tainted by sin”. And on top of that, Reformed theology says these “good works” are only pleasing to God in so far as they are “covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ”. But if you stop and think about what this is saying, no Christian should be comfortable with such teaching. Why would God give us a new heart and give us the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit if at the end of the day our “good works” are still as inadequate in God’s sight as before our conversion? Something isn’t right.
Such an understanding ultimately makes a mockery out of not only the new life which Christians are called to, but also the plain wording of the Scriptures which speak of “good works” without any qualification that they’re actually woefully imperfect works that are merely (graciously) imputed to be good. What happened to God’s unwavering standards of perfection that Reformed individuals like to brag about? Why is God all of the sudden fine with turning a blind eye to sin?
Jesus used the analogy of how a good tree produces good fruit and how a bad tree produces bad fruit, but this makes no sense if the good tree really doesn’t have the sufficient goodness within it to produce truly good fruit. Reformed theology would have us believe that the “good fruit” from the “good tree” is actually infested with at least a maggot or two (if not more), but that God is still pleased to impute goodness to the fruit.
Before we evaluate these claims about what the Reformed faith teaches in this area, let's look at a classic statement of the Reformed view from the Reformed themselves, from the Westminster Confession, Chapter 16, "Of Good Works":
1. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.
2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.
3. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.
4. They, who in their obedience attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.
5. 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.
6. Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
7. Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner according to the Word;a nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet, their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God.
Of course, it is the ideas expressed in #5 and #6 that are causing the problem.
I propose that the Romanist authors above have misunderstood the Reformed view at this point, and that the Reformed do indeed hold that the good works of believers are truly good and that the character of believers (partly in this life, entirely in eternity) is indeed truly pleasing to God. But I must add that I think their mistake here is partly understandable and has been in part facilitated by Reformed people not speaking as clearly as they ought in these matters. I remember my first encounter with a statement of the Protestant doctrine of the believers' acceptance on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, and I had a reaction similar to Turner's and Stellman's. It seemed like what was being said was that we are never truly pleasing to God in our own natures and lives, but that we are accepted only because Christ stands in front of us so that God doesn't have to look at us. It is good that Christ stands in front of us, because, even after regeneration, and even after the perfection of sanctification in eternity, we are and will forever be nothing other than morally disgusting creatures who are an offense to God's sight. It is only by Christ's blocking us from view that we can be accepted by God and stand in his presence.
But, as I said, this is not actually the Reformed view. The problem, I believe, arises from not adequately distinguishing between the good works of believers as truly good and pleasing to God on the one hand, and as not meritorious for salvation on the other. The good works of believers do not merit to believers salvation or eternal life. It will be helpful to look at why that is. In order to do that, we need to distinguish between the goodness of the good works themselves, produced by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the good works considered as our works, coming from us. Let us also define "merit." Without getting into too much unnecessary detail, the concept of "merit" in this context means that something is such that it deserves some particular response, such that if that response is not given something inappropriate has been done.
Protestants claim that believers cannot offer up to God good works such that eternal life becomes a thing owed to them, as opposed to being a gift of divine grace. There are several reasons for this:
1. Their good works are not ultimately produced by themselves, from their own native power as creatures, but are produced by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, man's good works are ultimately gifts from God. This would have been true even if Adam had persevered in the Garden of Eden, for even then all that he had was a gift from God. This is true in an even more profound way for us fallen sinners. From our own fallen, creaturely moral powers, the only thing that we can produce is sin (although we can still, at least in this life, also produce actions done from various natural affections which are not truly virtuous in the strict sense). Not only do we not have goodness from ourselves absolutely and apart from God's gift, which would have been true also of Adam, but goodness is not even a part of our intrinsic created human nature since the Fall. Goodness has to be given to us as a superadded gift of divine grace which comes from outside of us and overcomes our native sinfulness. Since all our goodness and our good works are an unmerited gift from God, overcoming the demerit of our sins which do come from us by virtue of our native powers, any rewards given to our good works are also gifts of grace. This is why Augustine famously said (I'm paraphrasing) that "when God crowns our works, he is crowning not our merits but his own gifts." If someone gives me money freely, as a gift, and then I use that money to buy something, I cannot say in an ultimate sense that I earned my purchase by my own money. Rather, the purchase itself was a gift to me, because it was the consequence of a gift.
2. Considering good works as actions performed by us and as offered up from us to God, there is a great disproportion between the good works and eternal life. The merit of our act of offering good works to God must be measured by our worth or value as the individuals doing the offering. But we are infinitely inferior to God in worth or value. We are finite beings, and our finite act of offering good works to God cannot be compared to the infinite value of sharing in God's eternal life and blessedness. Therefore, our good works cannot merit eternal life.
3. As sinners, we deserve eternal damnation. Our sins are our own, produced by our own native powers and not at all a "gift" from God. Our goodness and good works, on the other hand, as I've pointed out, are not ours intrinsically but are superadded gifts of God's unmerited grace. Therefore, we cannot satisfy for the debt of our sins by offering up the good works that God has given to us. To try to do this would be like robbing a grocery story and then trying to pay back what was stolen by borrowing more money from the store and then giving back the newly borrowed money. By nature, we owe God righteous love and service. Having utterly failed to give him what we owe him, and therefore stealing from him, through our sinful condition and acts, God has graciously given us the righteousness that we lack. We cannot pay the debt of our own intrinsic lack of goodness by offering up to God a goodness that he himself has given us in response to that lack. To put this another way, we owe God a goodness that is our own, and we cannot pay that debt by giving to God a goodness that is his and ours only as a free gift.
4. We must also note that our sins are infinitely heinous, deserving infinite punishment, because we have offended a being of infinite dignity and worth. Our sins are aggravated by the fact that we, who are puny, finite beings, nothing in comparison to God, have insulted and offended a being who is infinitely great and infinitely greater than we are. On the other hand, as I've pointed out, our good works, as coming from us finite beings, are of no worth at all compared to the glory of God, for the very same reason of God's being infinitely greater than us. And here arises another reason why our good works cannot remove the debt of our sins--not only are our good works God's gift, but they are infinitely disproportionate to our debt. Trying to make up for our sins by means of our good works is infinitely more absurd than trying to pay a debt of ten billion dollars by means of a penny.
5. Our goodness is never perfect, in two ways. Considering the record of our whole life, there are sins as well as good works, so our overall record is imperfect. Also, while we are in this life, we will never be morally perfect but will always be committing sins and therefore in need of fresh forgiveness. In the judgment of God, therefore, looking strictly at our personal merits, our sins will always deserve eternal damnation and our good works will never be able to make up for them or merit for us eternal life, and therefore we must always be said in justice to merit eternal death and not eternal life. In other words, if God were to judge our record as our record, to determine our own intrinsic merits, our mix of goodness (coming from the Spirit as a gift of God) and wickedness (coming from our own intrinsic powers as fallen creatures) would amount to a record that cannot stand the severity of God's judgment but deserves eternal damnation and not eternal life.
All of these reasons why our good works cannot merit eternal life are mentioned or alluded to in the Westminster Confession's statement on good works I quoted above and in pretty much all the classic Protestant theological accounts of this subject.
However, as I said earlier, we must distinguish between our good works in terms of the merit they accrue to us considered as offerings from our fallen finite persons to God on the one hand, and the intrinsic nature of the goodness of those works on the other considered in themselves. The Confession gets at this distinction when it says that "as they [that is, our good works] are good, they proceed from His Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, etc." As the fruit of the Holy Spirit, applying the merits of Christ to us internally, our regenerated nature and the good works that it produces are truly good, truly pleasing to God. They are not sinful. Here is how Francis Turretin, the great 17th century Reformed theologian, put it:
X. That the works of believers are truly good is proved: (1) because they are not performed only with the general concourse of God, but by a special motion and impulse of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of believers and excites them to good works. Hence these works are usually ascribed to him as the primary cause (Ezk. 36:27; Gal. 5:22; Rom. 8:9, 10; Phil. 1:6; 2:13). Nor are they done only by the Holy Spirit exciting and impelling, but also by the qualities of infused grace mediating (which overcome the order of nature). Hence Paul ascribes all his works to the grace of God (I Cor. 15:10) and Christ asserts that we can do nothing without him (Jn. 15:5). Now what is produced by the Spirit and the grace of Christ must be truly good. Nor does the flesh, which still remains in us, hinder this because its presence can indeed take away the perfection of sanctification, but not its truth.
XI. (2) Such works please God; therefore they are truly good. For what is properly and by itself sin, cannot please him. The passages are obvious (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:4-6; 12:28; Rom. 12:1; 14:18; Phil. 4:18). I confess that the first cause of their acceptance is Christ, in whom we are pleasing to God (Eph. 1:6) because the person is rather pleasing to God and is reconciled to him by the Mediator. In this sense, God is said to have had respect to Abel rather than to his sacrifice (Gen. 4:4). But this does not hinder God from being pleased with the works also, on account of the true goodness which occurs in them (flowing from the regeneration of the heart and the restoration of the divine image). For wherever God beholds his own likeness, he deservedly loves and holds it in honor. Thus not without a cause is the life of believers (regulated according to holiness and righteousness) said to please him.
XII. (3) A reward is promised to them, which could not be done if they were not truly good. For although works have nothing in themselves which can deserve and obtain such a reward (which on this account is merely gratuitous, as will soon be shown), still they have a certain ordination and aptitude that they are ordained to a reward, both from the condition of the worker, who is supposed to be a believer (i.e., admitted into the grace and friendship of God), and from the condition of the works themselves, which although not having a condignity to the reward, still have the relation of disposition required in the subject for its possession. This condition being fulfilled, the reward must be given as, it being withheld, the reward cannot be obtained. For as without holiness, no one shall see God and, unless renewed by water and the Spirit, cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Jn. 3:5; Heb. 12:14); so, holiness being posited, glory is necessarily posited from the inseparable connection existing between them.
XIII. Our affirmation that all works (even the best) are not free from sin in this life does not destroy the truth of the good works of believers because although we affirm that as to mode they are never performed with that perfection which can sustain the rigid examination of the divine judgment (on account of the imperfection of sanctification), still we maintain that as to the thing they are good works. And if they are called sins, this must be understood accidentally with respect to the mode, not of themselves and in their own nature. So there always remains a difference between the works of the renewed and the unrenewed. The latter are essentially and specifically evil and so destitute of those circumstances and conditions which are requisite to the essence of a good work (which accordingly are only good as to sight and appearance). On the other hand, the former are essentially good works because they have all things from which the goodness of an action results and so are truly and not apparently such (although as to degree they may fail and have blemishes mixed up with them). (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, Eleventh Through Seventeenth Topics, trans. George Musgrave Giger and ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994], 708-709.)
I particularly like these sentences: "But this does not hinder God from being pleased with the works also, on account of the true goodness which occurs in them (flowing from the regeneration of the heart and the restoration of the divine image). For wherever God beholds his own likeness, he deservedly loves and holds it in honor. Thus not without a cause is the life of believers (regulated according to holiness and righteousness) said to please him."
It is like this: Considered as to our own personal merits as finite, fallen creatures, we merit only eternal damnation and never eternal life for all the reasons I went through above. But God, in his grace, imputes the righteousness of Christ to believers. That is, the righteousness that is essentially Christ's by nature--his own moral character displayed in his own good works--is, by grace, transferred to us and declared ours by the declaration of God. (Protestants call this "justification".) As a result of this, the virtue of Christ's righteousness is infused into us by the power of the Holy Spirit, making us internally holy and enabling and causing us to produce truly good works. (Protestants call this "sanctification".) All of this happens because of our union with Christ through the Spirit and by faith. By grace, God enables us to share in Christ's Sonship by adoption. (This is what the Confession and Turretin mean when they speak of our persons being accepted because of Christ--not that we ourselves are still morally ugly and God looks at Christ instead of us, but that we have been declared children of God by God's grace through our union with Christ and thus are accepted by him as such, and therefore by grace our offerings of good works to God become accepted as the offerings of the children of God instead of merely the offerings of fallen, finite creatures, making those offerings infinitely more valuable to him.)
Because the work of the Spirit in us, and the fruit it produces, is an effect of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, the whole thing is a free gift and gives us no personal merit, and yet the holiness that the Spirit produces in us is truly good and holy, and makes us truly good and holy in our internal nature, and the good works that are produced from our Spirit-wrought holiness are truly good and holy works, truly pleasing to God and thus truly worthy of being rewarded by him with eternal life. This is why the Confession, following Scripture, says that the "end" of our holiness and good works is "eternal life." Eternal life is the fitting response of God to our good works, because they are truly good. Turretin says the same when he says that "holiness being posited, glory is necessarily posited from the inseparable connection existing between them." And as we have been declared the righteous children of God, our persons are given a value infinitely above what we would have merely by nature, and so the offering up of our good works to God is infinitely pleasing to him, thus warranting the response of eternal life.
So the idea that God cannot bear to look at us because we are forever morally ugly in his sight, and only accepts us because Christ is standing in front of us blocking us from view, is a caricature of the Reformed view. The Reformed view, rather, holds that God can look directly at us as his beloved and righteous children, pleased with and delighting in the beauty of our holiness and good works, produced by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can never say that we deserve to stand in God's sight and be accepted by him as though we had earned this right through producing our own holiness from ourselves, but, as the ultimate fruit of God's free gift of salvation, we become truly pleasing to God and can enter into a true eternal relationship with him both in this life and throughout eternity.
UPDATE 1/22/15: Here's the short version of the above:
The good works of believers are truly good because they are produced by the Holy Spirit. They are truly pleasing to God. And yet we cannot gain personal merit by means of them because they are gifts to us from God and thus not ours originally. They are part of the package of salvation, which is given to us as a free gift through the merits and sacrifice of Christ.
UPDATE 1/22/15: This article got posted to the Called to Communion website yesterday (comments #496-500 so far), and Bryan Cross over there gave some response to it. A short conversation has been ensuing. Bryan asserts that the Reformed view denies that good works are truly good. Here is how he puts it:
God has only one moral standard, and that standard is absolute moral perfection. In the Reformed tradition all of our good works, even as regenerate, are as filthy rags in relation to that one perfect standard, because they are mixed with impurity. And there is no impurity so small or minute that the action does not deserve damnation, precisely because the action fails to conform perfectly to God’s one and only perfect moral standard.
So in Bryan's view, the Reformed position is that since our goodness is always mixed with badness in this life, and our overall record of actions will always be a mix of good and bad, therefore none of our good works actually qualify as a good work because they don't meet the required essential definition of "goodness" according to God's law, which is "absolute moral perfection unmixed with anything bad."
Here are some responses I've made to this so far:
The problem is that it is the not the case that the good and bad in the character of a moral life or even the character of a particular state of motivation during a particular time mixes thoroughly so as to entirely dilute the good, as if our sanctified state were like a chemical solution in which a solvent has dissolved a solute. Rather, it is more like oil and water, which can be mixed but which are always distinct. Similarly, believers do have truly good moral character, truly good motives, truly good actions, etc., and also truly bad ones. Sometimes more than one kind of motivation comes together at the same time or nearly the same time, but the good and bad are still distinct. The good is truly good, conforming perfectly to God’s law, while the bad is truly bad, breaking God’s law–just like when oil and water are mixed, the oil is truly oil, conforming to the essential definition of oil, and the water is truly water, conforming to the essential definition of water.
There is nothing in Reformed thought that requires the “chemical solution view” of how good and bad mix in the believer and his works, and the Reformed insistence on the true goodness of the good works of believers (as contrasted with the not-strictly-speaking “good” works of the unregenerate) requires rather an “oil and water” view.
When the Reformed say that our good works cannot “withstand the strict severity of God’s judgment” and cannot merit eternal life, they do not mean that our good works are not truly good. They make a distinction between the intrinsic and true goodness of good works on the one hand and the ability of those works to cause believers to personally merit salvation or satisfy for the personal demerit of their sins on the other. I discuss this distinction more thoroughly in my article.
Briefly, another way of putting the last thing I said:
When the Reformed say that our good works cannot “withstand the strict severity of God’s judgment,” the question has to be asked, “withstand the severity of God’s judgment for what?” And the answer is not, “to meet the essential requirements to be truly good works,” but rather “to cause believers to merit eternal life.” These are two distinct things.
The goodness in the moral character of believers and their works truly conforms to God’s essential requirements as to what “moral goodness” really is, because it truly conforms perfectly to God’s law (this not being changed simply because badness also exists in our character and actions). But it doesn’t cause believers to gain personal merit for eternal life for various reasons (discussed in my article, for example).
Bryan, what I would say is that the good works of believers do meet the absolute perfection of God’s standard, because they are truly and fully good. As Turretin put it: "But this does not hinder God from being pleased with the works also, on account of the true goodness which occurs in them (flowing from the regeneration of the heart and the restoration of the divine image). For wherever God beholds his own likeness, he deservedly loves and holds it in honor. Thus not without a cause is the life of believers (regulated according to holiness and righteousness) said to please him."
The bad works that we also do (sometimes bad works and good works even going together at the same time to make a more complex action) are truly bad, entirely breaking the law of God. Good works deserve God’s favor; bad works deserve God’s displeasure.
In judging our personal merit, God takes more into consideration than simply whether or not our works are good works. You are confusing the question of whether our works are good with the question of whether our works give us personal merit. We Reformed affirm the former and deny the latter. Our good works do not fail to give us personal merit because they are not truly good, but because they are gifts and not ours intrinsically, etc. (I discuss this in depth in the article).
Again, you are putting forward what I would call a “chemical solution” view of how God evaluates the goodness of works–God looks at our whole lives as a single unity, with the good and bad mixed together, and then declares the whole thing “bad” on the basis of his standard for “moral goodness” being a life of absolute moral perfection. But this is not the Reformed view. The Reformed view holds, rather, an “oil and water” view of the goodness of works, as is exhibited both in the Westminster Confession and in Francis Turretin. In that view, God evaluates our acts and motivations on a case-by-case basis, declaring what is good good and what is bad bad. It is true that he also declares that our bad works merit for us eternal death and our good works do not merit for us eternal life, so that in terms of personal merit we deserve hell and not heaven, but this is separate from the question of his evaluation of the goodness and badness of the individual acts themselves.
Thus, while we cannot gain personal merit for eternal life by our good works or the good moral character that is given to us in sanctification, yet that good moral character and the works that flow from it are truly good and pleasing to God.