31But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. 32Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; 33As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
One of the Reformed criticisms of Catholicism is its emphasis on works, i.e. on legalism. On the other hand, Reformed apologists have had to address those erring in the other direction, the antinomians. The Antinomians acknowledge the futility of works, but then improperly conclude that consequently the law is to be ignored.
Less dramatic than either of those departures from orthodox theology is the Arminian position. One of the consistent Reformed criticisms of the Arminian position is that it converts faith into a work, and makes faith the meritorious cause of salvation. Thus, while Arminians would affirm the futility of works for salvation, they inconsistently undo that affirmation by converting faith into a work. It should be noted that some of the papists have done the same more boldly by substituting "faithfulness" (i.e. obedience) in place of faith.
The Arminian error in this regard seems to stem from a lack of appreciation of the relation both between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, as well as from a lack of appreciation of the difference in the way in which life is received in the two covenants. But it is not Arminians alone that seem to have this problem.
I recently came across comments from two pastors (both of whom signed the Federal Vision Joint Statement - and both of whom apparently are pastors at a PCA church - link) that exhibited something of the same misunderstanding. These men, of course, would not be considered Arminians, and I suspect would be gravely offended if someone were to call them such a name.
Here are their comments:
Jeff Meyers wrote:
If all you mean by “meritorious” is that an act or action fulfills the terms of a particular covenant, then faith is meritorious in the covenant of grace because it is required, according to the terms of the covenant, for attaining eternal life. If Adam’s obedience “would have been the meritorious cause of his obtaining life,” according to the terms of that pre-fall covenant, then our faith is the meritorious cause for obtaining life in the covenant of grace. After all, we’re not talking about “strict merit.” That is one of Mark’s major problems with all this merit talk.(source)
Mark Horne likewise wrote:
Finally, whether or not the Westminster Standards ought to claim faith is a condition of the covenant of grace, the [sic] do so. This means that faith is pactum merit, and would allow us to say that faith is “improperly” meritorious.(source - same combox)
The parallel these gentlemen are making (1) demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Westminster standards, and (2) undermines the law/grace distinction.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, I'll provide a quotation:
3. Nevertheless, the good works of sincere believers are, like their persons, in spite of their imperfections, accepted, because of their union with Christ Jesus, and rewarded for his sake. All our approaches to God are made through Christ. It is only through him that we have access to the Father by the Spirit. Eph. ii. 18. "Whatever we do, "in word or deed," we are commanded to "do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." Col. iii. 17.(A.A. Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith, commentary on Sections IV-VI of Chapter XVI of the WCF, pp. 226-28, 1870 ed.)
As to the relation of good works to rewards, it may be observed —
1.) The word "merit," in the strict sense of the term, means that common quality of all actions or services to which a reward is due, in strict justice, on account of their intrinsic value or worthiness. It is evident that, in this strict sense, no work of any creature can in itself merit any reward from God ; because — (a.) All the faculties he possesses were originally granted and are continuously sustained by God, so that he is already so far in debt to God that he can never bring God in debt to him. (b.) Nothing the creature can do can be a just equivalent for the incomparable favour of God and its consequences.
2.) There is another sense of the word, however, in which it may be affirmed that if Adam had in his original probation yielded the obedience required, he would have "merited" the reward conditioned upon it, not because of the intrinsic value of that obedience, but because of the terms of the covenant which God had graciously condescended to form with him. By nature, the creature owed the Creator obedience, while the Creator owed the creature nothing. But by covenant the Creator voluntarily bound himself to owe the creature eternal life, upon the condition of perfect obedience.
It is evident that in this life the works of God's people can have no merit in either of the senses above noticed. They can have no merit intrinsically, because they are all imperfect, and therefore themselves worthy of punishment rather than of reward. They can have no merit by covenant concession on God's part, because we are not now standing in God's sight in the covenant of works, but of grace, and the righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone, constitutes the sole meritorious ground upon which our salvation, in all of its stages, rests. See chapter xi., on Justification.
In the dispensation of the gospel, the gracious work of the believer and the gracious reward he receives from God are branches from the same gracious root. The same covenant of grace provides at once for the infusion of grace in the heart, the exercise of grace in the life, and the reward of the grace so exercised. It is all of grace - a grace called a reward added to a grace called a work. The one grace is set opposite to the other grace as a reward, for these reasons: (a.) To act upon us as a suitable stimulus to duty. God promises to reward the Christian just as a father promises to reward his child for doing what is its duty, and what is for its own benefit alone. (b.) Because a certain gracious proportion has been established between the grace given in the reward and the grace given in the holy exercises of the heart and life; but both are alike given for Christ's sake. This proportion has been established — the more grace of obedience, the more grace of reward — the more grace on earth, the more glory in heaven — because God so wills it, and because the grace given and exercised in obedience prepares the soul for the reception of the further grace given in the reward. Matt. xvi. 27; 1 Cor. iii. 8; 2 Cor. iv. 17.
What A.A. Hodge is explaining is that there is:
a) Strict merit (which man can never have); amd
b) Pactum merit (which Adam had).
Neither is applicable to a believer, because the covenant of grace is all of grace. Thus, it is written:
John 1:16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
And this is essential to the law/grace division, as John's gospel continues:
John 1:17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
But perhaps some more explanation would be helpful:
In entering upon the exposition of this section, it is proper to remark, that, at the period when our Confession was framed, it was generally held by the most eminent divines, that there are two covenants connected with the salvation of men, which they called the covenant of redemption, and the covenant of grace; the former made with Christ from everlasting, the latter made with sinners in time; the righteousness of Christ being the condition of the former, and faith the condition of the latter covenant. This distinction, we conceive, has no foundation in the Sacred Scriptures, and it has long since been abandoned by all evangelical divines. The first Adam is said to have been a figure of Christ, who is called the second Adam. Now, there was not one covenant made with Adam, the condition of which he was to perform, and another made with his posterity, the condition of which they were to fulfill; but one covenant included both him and them. It was made with him as their representative, and with them as represented in and by him. In like manner, one covenant includes Christ and his spiritual seed. The Scriptures, accordingly, everywhere speak of it as one covenant, and the blood of Christ is repeatedly called "the blood of the covenant," not of the covenants, as we may presume it would have been called, if it had been the condition of a covenant of redemption and the foundation of a covenant of grace. — Heb. x. 29, xiii. 20. By the blood of the same covenant Christ made satisfaction, and we obtain deliverance. — Zech. ix. 11. We hold, therefore, that there is only one covenant for the salvation of fallen men, and that this covenant was made with Christ before the foundation of the world. The Scriptures, indeed, frequently speak of God making a covenant with believers, but this language admits of an easy explication, in consistency with the unity of the covenant. "The covenant of grace," says a judicious writer [Wilson of London], "was made with Christ in a strict and proper sense, as he was the party-contractor in it, and undertook to fulfill the condition of it. It is made with believers in an improper sense, when they are taken into the bond of it, and come actually to enjoy the benefit of it. How it is made with them may be learned from the words of the apostle, — Acts xiii. 34 : 'I will give you the sure mercies of David,' which is a kind of paraphrase upon that passage, — Is. lv. 3 : 'I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.' God makes the covenant with them, not by requiring anything of them in order to entitle them or lay a foundation for their claim to the blessings of it, but by making these over to them as a free gift, and putting them in possession of them, as far as their present state will admit, by a faith of his own operation."(Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, pp. 88-92, Eighth ed. 1867, commentary on Chapter VII, Section III of the WCF)
The supposition of two covenants for the salvation of mankind sinners, is encumbered with various difficulties. One is obvious. In every proper covenant, there are two essential parts — a conditionary and a promissory. If, therefore, there be a covenant made with sinners, different from the covenant made with Christ, it must have a condition which they themselves must perform. But though our old divines called faith the condition of the covenant made with sinners, they did not assign any merit to faith, but simply precedence. "The truth is," as Dr Dick has remarked," that what these divines call the covenant of grace, is merely the administration of what they call the covenant of redemption, for the purpose of communicating its blessings to those for whom they were intended; and cannot be properly considered as a covenant, because it is not suspended upon a proper condition." The "Westminster Assembly, in this section, appear to describe what was then usually designated the covenant of grace, as distinguished from the covenant of redemption. But, though they viewed the covenant under a twofold consideration, as made with the Surety from everlasting, and as made with sinners in time, they certainly regarded it as one and the same covenant. "The covenant of grace," say they, "was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." The doctrine of our standards on this deeply interesting subject, may be summed up in the following propositions: —
1. That a covenant was entered into between Jehovah the Father and his co-eternal Son, respecting the salvation of sinners of mankind. The reality of this federal transaction, appears from Ps. lxxxix. 3: "I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant." The speaker, in this passage, can be no other but the Lord, who is mentioned in the beginning of the Psalm; and it cannot reasonably be questioned, that the words spoken have their ultimate and principal fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and assert a covenant made with him, of which the covenant of royalty made with David, King of Israel, was typical. In other places of Scripture, though the word covenant does not occur, we have a plain intimation of all the essential parts of a proper covenant. In Is. liii. 10, we have the two great parts of the covenant — the conditionary and the promissory; and the two glorious contracting parties — the one undertaking for the performance of its arduous condition — the other engaging for the fulfillment of its precious promises: "If his soul shall make a propitiatory sacrifice, he shall see a seed which shall prolong their days; and the gracious purpose of Jehovah shall prosper in his hands." — (Bishop Lowth's Translation.)
2. That this covenant was made with Christ, as the head, or representative, of his spiritual seed. This is confirmed by the comparison between Christ and Adam, which is stated by the apostle, — Rom. v.; 1 Cor. xv. 45, 47; which clearly establishes the truth, that Adam and Christ severally sustained a public character, as the federal heads of their respective seeds. Christ and his spiritual seed are called by the same name (Isa. xlix. 3), — a plain evidence of God's dealing with him as their representative in the covenant. Christ is likewise called the Surety of the covenant (Heb. vii. 22); and the promises of the covenant were primarily made to him — Gal. iii. 16; Tit. i. 2.
3. That this covenant originated in the free grace and sovereign will of God. The Scriptures uniformly ascribe this transaction to the good pleasure of Him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will, and represent it as conducing to the praise of the glory of his grace. — Eph. i. 3-6. On this account this covenant is, with great propriety, called the covenant of grace, because it originated in the free grace of God, and conveys the blessings of salvation to sinners in a manner the most gratuitous.
4. That this covenant was established from eternity. The covenant of grace is called the second covenant, as distinguished from the covenant of works made with Adam; but though the second in respect of manifestation and execution, yet, with respect either to the period or the order in which it was made, it is the first covenant. The Head of this covenant is introduced (Prov. viii. 23), saying, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, ere ever the earth was;" i.e., he was set apart to his mediatory office and work, covenant of grace from everlasting. The promise of eternal life is said to have been given us in Christ "before the world began" (Tit. i. 2); and the covenant is frequently styled an everlasting covenant. — Heb. xiii. 20.
5. In the administration of this covenant, God "freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved." Though Christ, in this covenant, represented only a definite number of mankind, who were "chosen in him before the foundation of the world," yet, in the administration of the covenant, a free offer of salvation by Jesus Christ is addressed to sinners of mankind indefinitely and universally. — John vi. 32; Is. lv. 1; Rev. xxii. 17. This offer is not restricted, as Baxterians allege, to sensible sinners, or those who are convinced of their sin, and their need of the Saviour; for it is addressed to persons sunk in total insensibility as to their own miseries and wants. — Rev. iii. 17, 18. This offer is made as really to those who eventually reject it, as it is to those who eventually receive it; for, if this were not the case, the former class of gospel-hearers could not be condemned for their unbelief. — John iii. 18, 19.
That God "requires of sinners faith in Christ that they may be saved," admits of no dispute. The part assigned to faith, however, has been much controverted. Many excellent divines, in consequence of the distinction which they made between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, were led to speak of faith as the condition of the latter covenant. But the term, as used by them, signifies not a meritorious or procuring cause, but simply something which goes before, and without which the other cannot be obtained. They consider faith merely as a condition of order or connection, as it has been styled, and as an instrument or means of obtaining an interest in the salvation offered in the gospel. This is very different from the meaning attached to the term by Arminians and Neonomians, who represent faith as a condition on the fulfillment of which the promise is suspended. The Westminster Assembly elsewhere affirm, that God requires of sinners faith in Christ, "as the condition to interest them in him." But this is very different from affirming that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace. That faith is indispensably necessary as the instrument by which we are savingly interested in Christ, and personally instated in the covenant, is a most important truth, and this is all that is intended by the Westminster divines. They seem to have used the term condition as synonymous with instrument; for, while in one place they speak of faith as the condition to interest sinners in the Mediator, in other places they affirm, that "faith is the alone instrument of justification," and teach, that "faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness." As the word condition is ambiguous, apt to be misunderstood, and is frequently employed in an unsound and dangerous sense, it is now disused by evangelical divines.
6. That God promises his Holy Spirit to work in his elect that faith by which they come to have a special interest in the blessings of this covenant. This implies, that a certain definite number were ordained to eternal life, and that all these shall in due time be brought to believe in Christ. — Acts xiii. 48. It also implies, that they are in themselves unwilling and unable to believe (John vi. 44); but God promises to give them the Holy Spirit to make them willing and able. — Ezek. xxxvi. 26. Faith, therefore, instead of being the condition of the covenant of grace, belongs to the promissory part of the covenant. — Rom. xv. 12. It is the gift of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.— Eph. ii. 8; Phil. ii. 13.
I would draw the reader's attention particularly to the following excerpt from the above discussion:
Many excellent divines ... were led to speak of faith as the condition of the latter covenant. But the term, as used by them, signifies not a meritorious or procuring cause, but simply something which goes before, and without which the other cannot be obtained. They consider faith merely as a condition of order or connection, as it has been styled, and as an instrument or means of obtaining an interest in the salvation offered in the gospel. This is very different from the meaning attached to the term by Arminians and Neonomians, who represent faith as a condition on the fulfillment of which the promise is suspended. The Westminster Assembly elsewhere affirm, that God requires of sinners faith in Christ, "as the condition to interest them in him." But this is very different from affirming that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace. That faith is indispensably necessary as the instrument by which we are savingly interested in Christ, and personally instated in the covenant, is a most important truth, and this is all that is intended by the Westminster divines.
Perhaps I should conclude this post with a last selection:
5. Lastly, The covenant of grace doth so exclude our boasting, as the covenant of works did not. This is clear from Rom. iii. 27. "Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith." But if any deed or work of ours be the condition of the covenant of grace, in whole or in part, our beading is not excluded, but hath place therein, as in the covenant of works; the difference being at most but in point of degrees: for, according to the Scripture, it is working, or fulfilling the condition of a covenant, that gives the ground of boasting ; Forasmuch as "to him that worketh, the reward is reckoned of debt:" and life being of or by works in the covenant of works, though not in the way of proper merit, but in the way of paction or compact only, this gave men the ground of boasting in that covenant, according to the Scripture. Therefore, so far as life and salvation are of or by any work or deed of ours, as fulfilling the condition of the covenant of grace, our boasting is not excluded, but hath place therein as in the covenant of works. Wherefore, since the covenant of grace is so framed, as to leave no ground for our boasting, no work or deed of ours, but Christ fulfilling all righteousness, even that alone, is the condition of the covenant of grace: and our life and salvation are neither of works, nor by works, as fulfilling the condition of the covenant: Tit. iii. 5. Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. Eph. ii. 9. Not of works, lest any man should boast.(Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Grace from the Sacred Records, p. 74, 1797 ed.)