Are good works necessary for Christians? If so, in what sense? There was an enormous historical dispute among Protestants about whether it is right to say good works are “necessary for salvation.” After a long debate among themselves, the Lutherans rejected the language of good works as “necessary for salvation,” and opted instead to say that they are “signs of eternal salvation.” The Reformed, on the other hand, believed the dispute was largely a debate over words, and they couldn’t see any significant difference between saying, “good works are necessary for salvation,” and it is “impossible to be saved without good works.”
The Marrow Men of Scotland, including James Hog, Thomas Boston, and Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, jointly composed a document of answers to questions from the Commission of the General Assembly, which in part, addressed the question of the necessity of good works. They said they preferred not to speak of good works as being “necessary for salvation” because of “the danger of symbolizing with the Papists and other enemies of the grace of the gospel.” They feared that to say good works are “necessary for salvation” might imply that human beings cause their own salvation or that they save themselves by their good works.
The Marrow Men did, however, affirm that good works are “consequents and effects of salvation already obtained, or antecedents, disposing and preparing the subject for the salvation to be obtained,” but they denied that good works are “causes or proper means of obtaining the possession of salvation.” They would rather say, “holiness is necessary in them that shall be saved than necessary forsalvation; that we are saved not by good works, but rather to them, as fruits and effects of saving grace; or that holiness is necessary unto salvation, not so much as a means to an and, but as part of the end itself.” In other words, good works are not necessary in order to obtain salvation, but God saves us in part by giving us good works as gifts purchased by the merits of Christ. God saves us from sin and disobedience by giving us holiness and good works.
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Tom Hicks serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He's married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.