The Holy Spirit and Good Works in Reformed Theology

N.T. Wright, Interview with N.T. Wright – Responding to Piper on Justification

Trevin Wax: What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper’s view instead of yours, what would they be missing?

N.T. Wright:
What’s missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says again and again (but as Reformed theology is shy of lest it smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again).

Michael A. G. Haykin, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (to be reviewed here in the future):

Historically, the Reformed tradition has had a passionate interest in the Holy Spirit. A key source for this pneumatological passion was John Calvin himself, who had ‘a constant and even distinctive concern’ with the person and work of the Spirit. B. B. Warfield, the distinguished American Presbyterian theologian, even spoke of Calvin as ‘preeminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit.’

In the English-speaking world, Calvin’s deep interest in the Spirit and His work was passed on to that Reformed tradition associated with the names of the Puritans and their successors, and the Calvinistic Dissenters and evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In discussing the work of the Spirit, Calvin’s heirs emphasized the Spirit’s sovereignty in every area of the salvation of sinners. The early Stuart Puritan, John Preston, for instance, maintained that spiritual fortitude comes from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who is ‘the only means to strengthen the inward man.’ But he also could argue that there are various means of godliness that the Christian must be diligent in using to attain this spiritual strength, such disciplines as ‘hearing the word, receiving the sacrament, prayer, meditation, conference, the communion of saints, particular resolutions to [do] good.’

ARTICLE 24, Belgic Confession:


We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit,1 regenerates him and makes him a new man.2 It makes him live a new life and frees him from the slavery of sin.3 Therefore it is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life.4 On the contrary, without it no one would ever do anything out of love for God,5 but only out of self-love or fear of being condemned. It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls faith working through love (Gal 5:6). This faith induces man to apply himself to those works which God has commanded in His Word. These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, since they are all sanctified by His grace. Nevertheless, they do not count toward our justification. For through faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do any good works.6 Otherwise they could not be good any more than the fruit of a tree can be good unless the tree itself is good.7

Therefore we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit? We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do,8 since it is He who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13). Let us keep in mind what is written: So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty (Luke 17:10).” Meanwhile we do not deny that God rewards good works,9 but it is by His grace that He crowns His gifts.

Furthermore, although we do good works, we do not base our salvation on them. We cannot do a single work that is not defiled by our flesh and does not deserve punishment.10 Even if we could show one good work, the remembrance of one sin is enough to make God reject it.11 We would then always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented, if they did not rely on the merit of the death and passion of our Saviour.12

1. Acts 16:14; Rom 10:17; 1 Cor 12:3. 2. Ezek 36:26-27; John 1:12-13; John 3:5; Eph 2:4-6; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 1:23. 3. John 5:24; John 8:36; Rom 6:4-6; 1 John 3:9. 4. Gal 5:22; Titus 2:12. 5. John 15:5; Rom 14:23; 1 Tim 1:5; Heb 11:4, Heb 11:6. 6 Rom 4:5. 7. Mat 7:17. 8. 1 Cor 1:30-31; 1 Cor 4:7; Eph 2:10. 9. Rom 2:6-7; 1 Cor 3:14; 2 John 8; Rev 2:23. 10. Rom 7:21. 11. James 2:10. 12. Hab 2:4; Mat 11:28; Rom 10:11.

Question 86, Heidelberg Catechism:

86. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace alone through Christ, without any merit of our own, why must we yet do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit to be His image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits,[1] and He may be praised by us.[2] Further, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits,[3] and that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.[4]

[1] Rom 6:13; Rom 12:1-2; 1 Pet 2:5-10. [2] Mat 5:16; 1 Cor 6:11-20. [3] Mat 7:11-28; Gal 5:22-24; 2 Pet 1:11-21. [4] Mat 5:14-16; Rom 14:17-19; 1 Pet 2:12; 1 Pet 3:1-2.

7 Responses to “The Holy Spirit and Good Works in Reformed Theology”

  1. 1 Jillian

    I have just today found your bog, while Google searching “They rod and thy staff.” (exactly what I needed to read!)

    Recently my hunger for the word was ignited, and I believe God brought me to your blog at precisely the right moment. I’ll be reading your posts from now on, and hope the Lord blesses your surgery recovery with speed.

  2. 2 Scripture Zealot

    Jillian, thank you very much. Nice to see new people stop by.

  3. 3 rogermugs

    Jeff… I’m fascinated by this post… but I’m unclear of your point… can you give a 2 sentence deal about why you’re juxtaposing these? Are you defending the Reformed view or laughing at it? I’m unclear

  4. 4 Scripture Zealot

    Hi. Sorry if I was unclear. I didn’t want to do any writing of my own at the time. Basically I’m saying that I don’t think N.T. Wright understands Reformed theology and wish he just wouldn’t say anything at all if he doesn’t. So I have given three examples to rebut his statement.

  5. 5 Stan McCullars

    Jeff, I agree with you. N.T. Wright should keep quite about Reformed theology. I would add justification in general.

  6. 6 Douglas K. Adu-Boahen

    Is it me or does Wright assume that LUTHERAN theology and REFORMED theology are one and the same? Having had time to read his book and note some of his articles, he at times explicitly says he is reacting to a LUTHERAN reading of such passages as Romans 3-5 and Galatians. As a Reformed person, I would stand with Wright in denunciation of the weak understanding of sanctification found in contemporary High Church Lutheranism – but Reformed theology is vastly different on this point, as you so clearly demonstrated.


  7. 7 Scripture Zealot

    Douglas, that’s an interesting observation. I don’t know enough about Lutheran theology, especially in its many contemporary forms, but since Luther was part of the reformation I wouldn’t doubt he might lump Lutheranism in there.

  1. 1 Mark Driscoll's "New Calvinism" - Time Magazine | Scripture Zealot
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