The Relation of Good Works and Justification to God

A historical survey of the Church’s understanding of the relation between the doctrines of justification and sanctification

During the Reformation, intense debate centered on how and when people gain right legal standing before God.  The understanding of this doctrine, justification, directly affects the theological understanding of how (and for what purposes) a person is brought to Christ-likeness and sanctified over the course of the Christian life.  On one side of the debate, theologians contend that justification is contingent upon a person’s progress in sanctification.  People are motivated to (by the aid of grace) make efforts to grow in righteousness, and achieve righteous character through good works, so that, in achieving righteous character, people can by their own nature be justified before God.  At the other extreme, theologians make justification a legal matter in which sanctification becomes an unnecessary redundancy and an afterthought to God’s clearing of legal guilt.  In this case, Christians rest in the belief that, because God has given them pardon and made them positionally justified, the pursuit of holiness is not requisite to salvation, and sanctification depends primarily on the Spirit’s work and requires little of their own effort.  This paper will broadly survey the history and development of the doctrines of justification and sanctification by key historical theologians, surveying the theological thought of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin.  While there are many notable heirs to the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin has been chosen because he is considered by many as the most precise theologian in the Protestant tradition.  The comparison of these surveys will help to show how the Church has come to understand the doctrine of justification, and demonstrate that, while Calvin’s understandings of justification and sanctification are iconic representations of Reformation thought, they are fairly unique among historical theology.

Pre-Reformation – Augustine and Aquinas

Because it is sometimes asserted that Augustine changed theological course midway through his life, this paper will work exclusively from Augustine’s Retractions, collected and edited in his final four years.  It is common to hear Augustine referred to as the first of the Reformers (because of his doctrine of predestination), but this survey will clearly demonstrate that despite any consistencies with the Reformation tradition, Augustine’s temporal ordering and  understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification are more closely echoed by Aquinas than by Luther, Calvin, or the Protestant tradition.

A prime motive of Augustine’s work on the doctrine of justification was to address concerns raised by the teaching of his heretical contemporary Pelagius.  A vehement opponent of predestination, denier of the doctrine of depravity, and ardent moralist, Pelagian was accused by Augustine of denying the necessity of God’s grace for the performance of righteous works or the attaining of salvation. Conversely, Augustine contended that it is only when the will has received grace that man can freely will good rather than evil.  Thus, salvation can only be achieved by the grace of God.  Referring to the Pelagians, Augustine said, “They, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself; can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it,” [1] and, “The works of righteousness [man] never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain [of grace].” [2]  It was not, however, Augustine’s contention that God’s grace necessitates man’s certain response.  Saint Augustine wrote in his Retractions, “There are some persons who so defend God’s grace as to deny man’s free will, or who suppose that free will is denied when grace is defended,” [3] but it is the “free will of man [Paul] appeals to . . . when he says . . ‘We beseech you that you receive not the grace of God in vain’” (2 Cor 6:1), suggesting that God’s grace could have been in vain, but “neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it [Paul] alone, but it was the grace of God with Paul.” [4]  Hence, upon the receiving of God’s grace, the power of decision becomes truly free with respect to all possible choices (good and evil) that the circumstance allows.  For Augustine, Man does not attain the power to will good apart from grace, and grace opens the freedom of man to will to good, but Augustine is clear in stating, “Nowhere . . . in Holy Scripture do we find such an assertion as, There is no volition but comes from God, And rightly is it not so written, because it is not true. . . . [Christ says,] ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’ (John 19:11).  But still, when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed.” [5]  Thus, for Augustine, good works require volitional agreement between God’s grace and the will of man.

Augustine’s “view was not Pelagian because the Spirit is the effectual cause of this renewal.  Yet, in his schema, God declares believers righteous because they are, in fact, being made righteous through the holiness [gradually] imparted and infused by the Spirit.” [6]  Augustine’s further contention is that while justification precedes the justified as doers of the law, it is still the believers’ grace wrought good works that accrue to their realized justification. [7]  “It is well known that Augustine does not distinguish between justification and sanctification,” but Augustine instead “emphasizes the necessity and priority of God’s grace as an antecedent condition to a person’s justification.” [8]  For Augustine, God, in his election, determines to justify those he chooses.  God then extends grace to his chosen, allowing them to perform the meritorious works which bring them progressively (by a lifelong process) to a regenerate state, and consequently renders them finally justified before God.  Augustine corrects those who afford themselves too much credit in obtaining their salvation, saying, “You did not obtain favor by yourself so that anything should be owed to you.  Therefore, in giving the reward of immortality, God crowns his own gifts, not your merits.” [9]  Thus, for Augustine, the righteous nature which justifies the elect is not imputed, nor is justification a heavenly change in legal status. For Augustine, justification is wrought within the individual by the gift of imparted grace.  Succinctly, Augustine suggests, “Whosoever shall put his trust in [Christ] . . . shall have good works by [God’s] grace; and by them he shall be even in his body redeemed from the corruption of death . . . not temporal but eternal.” [10]  Unlike the Reformers, Augustine’s thought is colored by realism, and Augustine does not treat justification as a forensic declaration. [11]  Commenting more extensively on the means by which God works to sanctify the believer, Augustine suggests that “God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions . . . either externally by evangelical exhortations . . . the commands of the law . . . or internally, where no man has in his own control what shall enter into his thoughts.” [12]  “God acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him,” and “to yield or consent . . . to God’s summons is the function of our own will.”[13]  Hence, for Augustine, a person aided by God’s grace, must by his contrary free volition, become truly righteous by his own merit, before he can be declared righteous by God.  Justification thus hinges upon the precedent sanctification of the believer.

Working from the view of justification inherited from Augustine, theologians of the middle ages continued in a tradition that saw “righteousness not as a state, but as a continuous process.” [14]  Boniface explained that Medieval Christians “never suppose that we are righteous enough, but constantly beseech God to increase our merits.”[15]  “Like Augustine . . . Aquinas does not distinguish between justification and sanctification.  For Aquinas, justification is a process by which man grows in his sanctification.”[16]  Reflecting the prevailing thought of the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian language to pen the theology that would become the Roman Catholic understanding for several hundred years.  Aquinas explained justification as a movement initiated by a prime mover that is “brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other.” [17]  In this movement, man travels from the state of sin to the state of justice.   Rejecting full-scale Pelagianism, Aquinas explains the necessity of grace as follows:  “Eternal life is an end exceeding the proportion of human nature. . . . Hence man, by his natural gifts, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to eternal life; and for this, a higher force is needed.” [18]  Aquinas continues, “Without grace man cannot merit eternal life; yet he can perform works conducting to a good which is natural to man.” [19]  Thus, for Aquinas, a person can perform good acts apart from grace, but without the infusion of grace man cannot perform the quality of good works that accrue to righteousness and render him justified.

Sharing similarities with Augustine, Aquinas stated, “That which flows from free will is also of predestination,”[20] and further agreed that justification was preceded by sanctification.  Where Aquinas ventured beyond Augustine was in more clearly defining the metaphysic that prescribes to man the important role of cooperation in obtaining salvation, ascribing to man the necessity of achieving remission for sin, and carrying these efforts beyond death into purgatory.  In Aquinas model, God moves the person by his initiating grace, and correspondingly the person moves toward God and away from sin and into forgiveness.  God “so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time he moves free choice to accept the gift of grace.”[21]  This cooperative effort is clearly a synergistic work between God and man in a life-long process (and into purgatory if necessary) of moving toward justification. [22]    For Aquinas, justification (into which sanctification is collapsed) can be understood as a four-stage movement from sin to righteousness.  This process requires (1) the infusion of grace, (2) the movement of the free will directed towards God through faith, (3) the movement of the free will directed against sin, and (4) the remission, or forgiveness, of sin. [23]  By this understanding, justification is in no way the product of an imputed alien righteousness, but is the product of an infused grace that actually brings about the righteous nature of the person, whose subsequent actions and nature, qualify his justification.  Aquinas says, “Grace is given to us that we may do good and keep from sin.” [24]  For Aquinas, it is by the infusion of grace that the will is moved away from sin and toward God by faith; and the recipient of grace is ultimately declared righteous based on the person’s own merit, having achieved remission for sin and having been made righteous both in nature and deeds.


Where the Reformation was in many ways a revival of Augustinianism, and more specifically the Augustinian doctrines of depravity, grace, and predestination, the Reformers saw themselves as providing a corrective to Augustine’s formulations of justification and sanctification.  Where Augustine explains justification as being contingent upon the life-long internal regeneration of the believer by grace, Luther argues that justification refers to a change in God’s judgment toward believers based not on the result of the individual’s internal transformation, but on a change in legal status afforded them by the external alien righteousness of Christ, and accounted to believers by faith. [25]  Rather than the temporal impartation of grace seen in the Augustinian and medieval tradition, this alien righteousness is, in a single moment, imputed to the believer via union with Christ.  “The language of imputation moves from the imagery of medicine to that of the law court.  God accepts the righteousness of Christ, which is alien to our nature proper, as our own.  Though our sins are not actually removed, they cease to be counted against us.”[26]  Further, where Augustine espoused that, “when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed,” [27]  the Reformers suggest that the justified, while not justified by their works, do necessarily grow in sanctification.

Calvin, a second-generation member of the Reformation movement, inherited the doctrine of justification by faith through grace alone, as well as the basic conviction that justification is “God’s declaration of Christ’s external righteousness upon the believer, making the internal process of [sanctification] notionally distinct from justification.” [28]  Calvin follows Luther’s lead in abandoning Augustine’s definition of justification as an internal transformation and instead sees justification as a change in status before God owed to the alien righteousness of Christ.  Calvin is particularly notable among the Reformers, however, for his broad application and heavy emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ. Calvin calls the multivalent sum of the gospel the double grace of justification and sanctification and locates the source of this double grace in the believer’s union with Christ via the Holy Spirit.    For Calvin, justification incorporates forensic and transformation images of salvation together, with no temporal gap, holding justification and sanctification as inseparable yet distinct, “not because one necessarily causes or motivates the other, but because the benefits cohere” in Christ.[29]  Thus, Calvin states, “Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. . . . He cannot be divided into pieces. . . . [Christ] bestows both of them at the same time. . . . Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works.” [30]  Thus, because Christ cannot be divided into pieces, there is no salvation without justification, and there is no salvation without sanctification.  The Christian’s legal pardon is of grace in the same way that his good works and obedience are.  Calvin says, “In this way [God] sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them . . . but he makes the prior grace [justification], which is a step to that which follows.” [31]   Unlike other Reformed thinkers, who see sanctification as subsequent to justification, and good works flowing from gratitude and gradual healing by the Spirit, Calvin does not place the elements of salvation in a temporal chain, but as united and hierarchically ordered in the aforementioned union with Christ.

Being that Calvin was an exegetical theologian, rather than a systematic theologian, “there is a sense in which Calvin did not have a sharply defined ‘theology’ of ‘union of Christ’ as a distinct doctrinal locus.” [32]  There is, however, a definite emphasis on union that runs throughout Calvin’s theology, and the terms “adoption, engrafting, and participation in Christ” are among many terms he uses to image justification.  For Calvin, there is a “distinctly communal accent to these images for salvation (incorporated into Christ means being incorporated into Christ’s communal body, the church).” [33]  Thus, union with Christ is not merely an individualistic faith relationship with the person of Christ, but the incorporation of the Christian in God’s covenant community.  Calvin emphasizes that justification belongs to God alone, but is adamant to emphasize that there is no salvation apart from sanctification.  For Calvin, salvation consists of a fourfold causality.  In this fourfold metaphysical distinction, Calvin explains (1) the efficient cause is God’s love and mercy, (2) the material cause is Christ’s work and obedience, (3) the instrumental cause is faith, the instrument by which man receives the Spirit’s illumination, and (4) the final cause is God’s divine justice for the praise of His glory.[34]   While giving justification priority (in hierarchical order) over sanctification, Calvin describes good works as an inferior cause of salvation, though salvation ultimately comes by God’s determination to save the sinner.[35]  Calvin says, “The whole value of works is derived from no other fountain than that of gratuitous acceptance. . . . Not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified. . . . Justification of works depends on the justification of the person.” [36]  Therefore, on Calvin’s account, salvation is not conditioned upon works, but does not happen without the simultaneity of works.  Salvation comes by the sovereign grace of God, in which justification and sanctification concurrently and inseparably cohere in union with Christ, and are hierarchically ordered by metaphysical distinction.

A 17th-century heir of the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin agreed with Calvin in attributing the benefits of justification and sanctification to union with Christ, and in subordinating sanctification to justification.  For Turretin, however, salvation is an unbreakable chain that he terms the catena salutis (or chain of salvation). [37]  In Turretin’s model, God’s effectual calling begins the sanctification process which brings about the faith response in the new believer.  By this faith, the believer is justified.  Turretin saw God’s effectual calling as the beginning of the Christian’s sanctification, and because justification comes by faith alone, sanctification thus begins (in part) temporally prior to justification. [38]  Where Turretin sees effectual calling as the beginning of a person’s sanctification, he sees glorification as sanctification’s conclusion.  Thus, it is Turretin’s contention that sanctification should not be included under justification, but instead under effectual calling, and also under glorification.  Consequent to justification the believer bears fruit by growing in righteousness and good works (further sanctification).  These good works are the means by which the believer continues down the path of salvation toward taking hold of final glory (sanctification in whole).   Turretin is adamant to exhort Christians to make efforts to grow in righteousness, suggesting that increasing in good works is the necessary means by which sanctification achieves its ends, glorification. [39]  In Turretin’s catena salutis, effectual calling is the means to the end, justification; justification is the means to the end, sanctification; and sanctification is the means to the end, glorification.

While not affirming that good works are necessary for justification, Turretin does clearly affirm the proposition that good works are necessary for glorification (and logically salvation).  J. V. Fesko explains that in Turretin’s model, works “are not necessary out of a need of personal merit or causality or efficiency, that is, that the believer’s good works somehow effect salvation or secure the right to salvation,” [40] but works are necessary to salvation as “the necessity of means,” or “the means and way” [41] of taking possession of the secured outcome.  Turretin precisely explains his catena salutis saying, “[Works] are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively.  They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end.”[42]  Thus, Turretin denies the role that good works play in justification but says good works are, however, the substance of sanctification, and without sanctification, the salvation chain is broken, and glorification lacks its means.  In this sense, one cannot be certain of their justification if they do not bear the consequent fruit; one cannot be certain of final glorification if they do not bear the antecedent works; and one cannot be certain of their salvation if they are not exercising the “required means and way” by which the secured reward (salvation) is possessed.[43]  A break in the chain of salvation is cause for the questioning of one’s salvation by faith.


Unlike his pre-Reformation predecessors, and his post-Reformation successor, Francis Turretin, Calvin resists temporally indexing the process of sanctification.  Where Augustine and Aquinas make sanctification the (temporally prior) requisite concurrent work of God and man for achieving justification, the Reformed tradition fundamentally agrees that justification takes logical precedence over sanctification.  When Richard Baxter and Jacob Arminius disturbed the priority of justification, making it contingent on sanctification, they drew the ire of their contemporaries. [44]  Calvin, like his Reformed partners, subordinates sanctification to justification, but gives unique emphasis to the duplicity of the two, seeing the dual graces as flowing simultaneously to the believer by union with Christ.  While Calvin is in some ways unique in his use of metaphysical distinctions and hesitance to assign temporal order, Calvin remains one voice in a chorus of confessionally Reformed theologians who hierarchically prioritize justification ahead of sanctification for the reasons that (1) Scripture teaches it, (2) it is the Reformed desire to protect and defend Christ’s work for sinners in their justification, and (3) this issue of the justifying work of Christ is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. [45]

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 60 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), IV.

[2]Ibid., XI.vii.

[3]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LXVI.i.

[4]Ibid., LXVI.xii.

[5]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 2 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), XXXVII.liv.

[6]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology:  On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/4 (October, 2009), 430.

[7]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, XLV.

[8]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin:  Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Bristol, CT:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprect, 2012), 106.

[9]St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 (Fathers of the Church Patristic Series) trans. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 2000), John 1:15-18.

[10]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LVIII.

[11]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 106.

[12]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[13]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[14]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2011), 505.

[15]Boniface, “Sermon 4.4,” in James Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development of Doctrine vol. 3 (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 28.

[16]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 111.

[17]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 1.

[18]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 5.

[19]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 114, art. 5.

[20]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa of the Summa:  The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.

[21]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 3.

[22]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 505.

[23]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 6.

[24]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 9.

[25]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 430-431.

[26] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academics, 2013), 70.

[27]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 2, XXXVII.liv.

[28]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 431.

[29]Chuck Colson, “Calvin:  No Salvation without Sanctification” (Mere Orthodoxy:  October 25, 2013), Retrieved May 6, 2016.

[30]John Calvin, Institute, III.xvi.1.

[31]Calvin, Institutes, III.xiv.21.

[32]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

[33]Ibid., 429-430.

[34]John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1995), 73.

[35]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 38.

[36]John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” in Selected Works vol. 7 trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1983), 3.128.

[37]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[38]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Eclenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), XVII.i.11.

[39]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.ii.19.

[40]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[41]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[42]Ibid., XVII.iii.14.

[43]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[44]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 382.

[45]Ibid., 384.

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