By Rich Lusk
Elsewhere, I have argued that there is grace in the so-called covenant of works (see, e.g., my colloquium essay, “A Response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, edited by Calvin Beisner (pages 118-148). It may be equally surprising to find justice in the so-called covenant of grace. Consider four examples:
What are we to make of these sorts of passages? In what sense can imperfect good works be worthy of blessing, reward, and repayment? In what sense can this be a matter of justice?
Those who advocate a meritorious covenant of works scheme makes God’s “justice” (or “righteousness”) a terrifying word because it can only condemn. But once again this is an unfortunate imposition of an alien theological system on the Scriptures. It wrongly pits God against himself by making his justice and grace antithetical. It reads these passages in terms of a “works principle” instead of a “faithfulness principle.”
“Justice,” biblically defined, is simply God’s covenant faithfulness. It is God’s unswerving commitment first and foremost to himself – to his own honor and glory. But because of that self-commitment, it is also an unswerving dedication to keep the covenant he has made with his people . In other words he has staked his own reputation as a righteous God on the outcome of his covenant bond with us. That is to say, biblical justice/righteousness is thoroughly grounded in the covenant and cannot be abstracted from the covenant. It is a relational concept. It is giving each his due, in terms of the covenant.
This means God’s justice is always good news to the faithful. His righteousness is not a synonym for his wrath or for just punishment (though it includes those things for covenant breakers); frequentlyly in both testaments of Scripture, justice is set in poetic parallel with faithfulness or covenant loyalty (e.g., Ps. 143:1; 1 Jn. 1:9). Repeatedly, we are told God’s righteousness is his salvation (e.g., Ps. 31:1; 35:24; 71:15; Isa. 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1-2; Dan. 9:7ff). In terms of the covenant, God’s justice obligates him to graciously redeem his people and reward their labors on behalf of his kingdom.
This obligation, of course, does not come from the outside as if we had some intrinsic claim on his salvation or as if our works could somehow put God in debt to us. I argued in the aforementioned colloquium essay against merit, showing especially the incoherencies of strict merit. Rather, God’s obligation comes from within, from his own determination to be trustworthy and to make good on his covenant pledge no matter what. He “gives us our due” and “repays” us in accord with the provisions of the covenant bond. But this is not arbitrary; rather it is fitting because it arises from God’s own nature as a good, gracious, and trustworthy being.
In the covenant of grace God becomes a Father and Husband to us. He evaluates us and our works in terms of these relational categories. If my five year old son draws me a family portrait of stick figures, I do not judge him for failing to measure up to the standards of Rembrandt or another of the masters. I have no need for his drawing and could even give a devastating technical and aesthetic critique of it. But instead I hang it on the refrigerator. Why? I am pleased with his work because of the covenant context in which it was offered to me. The father-son relationship qualifies everything else. It provides the lens through which I evaluate him. I may not be satisfied with his work (and may find ways to encourage him to do better next time), but I am pleased with it. I may even reward him with verbal praise and a bowl of ice cream for his efforts. We might describe such a blessing as just (because, after all, he had done work for me and I was acting as a righteous father in taking note of it) or as gracious (because, strictly speaking, the reward was disproportional to the work done). Such is the nature of life in the covenant.
Jer. 10:24 is a good illustration: “O Lord, correct me, but with justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.” Asking God to correct us in justice seems suicidal if justice is taken as an abstraction (absolute justice). But if taken covenantally (in relational context), it makes good sense. It’s a way of saying, “Lord correct me in your covenant faithfulness.” Insofar as “meritorious covenant of works” advocates juxtapose God’s grace and justice in absolute antithesis to one another, they are at odds with Scripture’s own worldview. Biblically, speaking, grace and righteousness can be distinguished, but both ultimately resolve into the same fundamental reality: namely, God’s unbreakable commitment to keep his covenantal word. His covenant keeping is gracious because the provisions of the covenant are undeserved; but his covenant keeping is also just because justice (biblically defined) requires him to honor his word and satisfy his relational commitments.
In Dan. 9:16, after confessing the sin of the people, the prophet asks, “O Lord, according to Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain.” This is just the opposite of the way the law/gospel antithesis and covenant of (meritorious) works paradigm would train us to pray. How dare we ask to God to deal with us righteously! But Daniel prays this way because he has a different understanding of righteousness, one totally defined in terms of the covenant. To ask God to deal with us as his sinful people righteously is to ask him to keep covenant with us. To appeal to God’s righteousness is another way of “pleading the promises” .
All of this shapes the way we understand God’s evaluation of our works. To ask God to “repay” obedience is to ask him to graciously reward it, as he’s promised. To say that his rewarding of our works is “just” is to say it is in accord with the covenant provisions. And so on. This is just Calvin’s conclusion, after surveying passages like those we have looked at in this essay: “To confirm us in this expectation [of a reward for our services, e.g., Heb. 6:10], the apostle declares that God is not unjust but that he will keep his pledge once given. This justice, then, refers more to the truth of the divine promise than to the equity of rendering what is due . . .” (Institutes 3.18.7). God’s justice is simply his pledge-keeping, or his promise-fulfilling. Long before the “New Perspective on Paul,” Calvin had already taken note of this fact.
Thus, while our works of obedience performed as redeemed (in Christ/in the Spirit) sinners are imperfect and could never please God in their own right, nevertheless God righteously and graciously chooses to find them pleasing (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9; Phil. 2:13). The way of persevering faithfulness, repentance, and obedience is the way to blessing and life everlasting (Rom. 2:1-16). As I have pointed out repeatedly, our good works do not have merit but they do have value before God. And so in terms of the covenant, he may be said to reward us because we have obeyed. The reward is both (covenantally) just and gracious. It is a repayment for our hard service in his kingdom. Yet, it is all of grace because God enabled us to the good works and the blessings received are infinitely greater than the works deserve outside of a covenantal framework (we are “unprofitable servants” after all!).
Again, this is just Calvin’s view in the Institutes (3.15; emphasis added):
[God] examines our works according to his tenderness, not his supreme right, he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly pure; and for this reason, although unmerited, they are rewarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come. For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve the graces that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the reward of faith alone. On the other hand, so to attribute to the merit of works the fact that we are showered with grace upon grace as to take it away from grace is contrary to the teaching of Scripture . . . Whatever, therefore, is now given to the godly as an aid to salvation, even blessedness itself, is purely God’s beneficence. Yet both in this blessedness and in those godly persons, he takes works into account. For in order to testify to the greatness of his love towards us, he makes not only us but the gift he has given us worthy of such honor . . .
Finally, while they [the sophists] repeatedly inculcate good works, they in the meantime so instruct consciences as to discourage all their confidence that God remains kindly disposed and favorable to their works. But we, on the other hand, without reference to merit, still remarkably cheer and comfort the hearts of believers by our teaching, when we tell them they please God in their works and are without doubt acceptable to him . . .
Faithfulness to the Lord, demonstrated by a lifestyle of obedience, is the way into God’s richest blessings. If we are loyal to our God, he is covenantally bound to save us, give us victory over our enemies, and exalt us to glory. The righteousness he requires of us is not sinless perfection, but covenantal integrity as a pattern of life. In Christ, he accepts our persons and our works .
A final caveat should be made. This teaching does not threaten or compromise justification by faith alone on basis of Christ’s propitiatory death and his vindicating resurrection. God’s holiness demands that sin be punished, of course. But in his righteousness and grace, he has made a way of free rescue for his people. Punishing sin is part of what God must do in order to set things right and put the world back in order. In other words, the covenant required the cross. In Christ, God’s people are recipients of God’s covenant fidelity. In Christ, they receive the status of “righteous,” meaning God regards them as he regards his own Son. This status is credited to them and received by faith alone, although it is inseparable from an out-flowing life of faithfulness and obedience.
As always, we insist that our good works cannot unite us to Christ or satisfy God’s holiness. Thus, we rely entirely on Christ as our Substitute and Representative. Justification is found in him alone. At the same, time those who are united to Christ by faith alone share not only in his status before the divine law court; they also share in his new life, freed from sin’s dominion. A life of obedience does not secure justification, but it is the way the justified must travel, the path they must walk. Calvin goes so far as to say that works are inferior causes of salvation (Institutes 3.14.21). I would not want to say it just that way because causality is a confusing philosophical category; however, I do think Calvin is correct when he goes on to argue that, “Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works” (Institutes 3.14.21; emphasis added). In examining those Scriptural statements “which call eternal life the reward of works,” he writes, “That is to say, he receives his own into life by his mercy alone. Yet, since he leads them into possession of it through the race of good works in order to fulfill his own work in them according to the order that he has laid down, it is no wonder if they are said to be crowned according to their own works, by which they are doubtless prepared to receive the crown of immortality” (Institutes 3.18.1; emphasis added). Obedience is the road we must pursue on our way to final salvation. There is no final glorification apart from holiness of life (Heb. 12:14). The wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:8-11).
1. See John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical Study of Romans 9:1-23
2. See James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.; New York: Harper & Row, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 370-383; H. Seebass, “Righteousness,” in Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown; 3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), vol. 3, pp. 352ff; N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
3. Several years ago, I prayed in a public worship service that God would “answer us in righteousness” and “deliver us for his righteousness’ sake” (cf. Ps. 143:1, 11). Afterwards, I was scolded by someone: “We should ask for mercy, not righteousness.” When I pointed out that my prayer came straight from the Psalter, the critic was left dumbfounded. If our theology cannot train us to pray in the language of Scripture – if in fact it stumbles over the words of Scripture — our theology needs recasting.
4. For an intriguing study of human righteousness in the Psalms, see Gert Kwakkel, According to My Righteousness. On works and eschatological justification, see Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment According to Deeds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).