Causes vs. Conditions
The New Testament plainly presents a conditional covenant in which God’s redemption is reserved for those who have met the proper and necessary terms for receiving and retaining it.(1)
What are these God-appointed conditions for acquiring and guarding our inheritance?
First, it’s helpful to make a distinction between causes and conditions.
Broadly speaking a cause is anything which influences the existence of another thing. Aristotle in his work Physics distinguishes 4 types of such causes: Efficient, Material, Formal and Final. Thus, a wood table has the efficient cause of the carpenter, the material cause of the wood, the formal cause of the design, and the final cause of dinning. In terms of salvation, causes refer to the triune God’s direct work in bringing about redemption (e.g. the incarnation, the cross, the sending of the spirit, the justification and regeneration of man, etc.).
Conditions, on the other hand, are not properly causes since they do not bring about an action, but simply remove what might prevent it. For instance, citizenship is usually a condition required for voting, but it does not, as such, induce one to vote.(2) Like causes, there are varying kinds of conditions (e.g. instrumental, occasional, etc.) We will begin with the principle priviso, the instrumental condition.
The instrumental condition of justification is the specific means by which the gift of pardon can be received. It is the receptacle into which that gift is placed, or even more pointedly, the specific condition which makes contact with the blood of Christ.
Faith as Sole Instrument
According to the Apostle Paul, the instrument by which a sinner receives justification is faith.(3) Both initially:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith.(4) And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.(5)
1 Cor 15:1-2
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.(6)
In addition to this, faith, for Paul, is not just an instrument for receiving and retaining justification, it is the instrument:
28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of law.(7)
Thus, according to the apostle, law works are incompatible as a necessary precondition for justification. Only faith is compatible.(8) But, why is this the case? Why are works of law unsuitable for acquiring the gift of redemption? Why does Paul say that only faith is in “accordance with grace”?(9)
The answer emerges from the very nature of grace salvation itself. Because the accomplishment of justification is grounded solely upon the obedience of Christ on the cross(10), which is to say that because God accomplishes the law work Himself concerning our legal standing, it would be incongruous for Him to then turn around and demand law works from us in exchange for such salvation.
Let me provide an illustration that will hopefully clarify this point.(11)
If a doctor treats me for a sore throat, there are any number of things he could tell me to do that will directly bring about a cure (e.g. gargle, take pills, avoid certain foods, etc.). In fact, this is often the kind of illustration preachers employ to describe man’s part in salvation. However, it actually presents a combined, direct (or active) effort in accomplishing healing. Such collaboration is contrary to the gospel.
Rather than cooperating with God in the law work of justification, man is to surrender to the truth that salvation has already been accomplished on his behalf. Such simple submission to our Savior’s satisfaction through substitution is how one receives salvation. It is not that he doesn’t have to take the great Physician’s prescription, he does, however it must be in a manner consistent with the cure he is receiving.(12)(13)
A better analogy is this: Let’s say that instead of a sore throat, the doctor must perform a heart transplant operation on me. In such a case (i.e. if my situation is that dire and it requires that level of care) the only means by which I can receive such life saving treatment is to passively surrender myself to the doctor and trust him to do what he has promised to do. In a similar way, then, the very nature of justification through Christ’s blood suggests that faith in His life-giving work is the only consistent means for receiving its benefits.
Rom 5:6, 8
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
It was when we were weak, says Paul, that Christ died for us. Such was the nature of our condition, utter helplessness. Thus, my own works could no more be the means of justification than a surgeon could require me to cut open my own chest and hold my split rib cage apart while he performed the transplant. Such would be contrary to the very nature of the procedure. And just as I can only trust the skill of my surgeon, so the only consistent means of justification is faith in the blood of Christ (Rom 3:25).
But if such is the case, how can we reconcile what James says concerning our works justifying us? And what about baptism? If faith is the sole instrument, does this mean that it is the sole condition?
Such questions will be address in future episodes, Lord willing.
1. For example, Paul teaches the conditionality of both covenant reception: Gal 3:7-9 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith; and covenant retention: Col 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
2. These definitions come from Charles Coppens, Logic and Mental Philosophy, (https://www3.nd.edu/~maritain/jmc/etext/lamp11.htm).
3. This is also true of salvation understood more broadly as both the present (i.e. justification, regeneration, etc.) and future (i.e. resurrection, glorification, etc.) deliverance from sin.
4. The preposition “through faith” (διὰ πίστεως) in this passage speaks of instrumentality.
5. See also: Rom 1:16-17; 3:22, 28, 30; 4:3, 5, 16; 5:1; 9:30; Gal 2:21, etc.
6. See also: Rom 11:17-24; Col 1:21-23; 1 Pet 1:5; etc.
7. See also: Isa 45:22; John 1:12-13; Rom 3:9, 19, 20, 22; 4:3-7; 5:17, 18; 8:3, 4; 9:31, 32; 10:3; Gal 1-5; Eph 2:8-9; Phil 3:9; etc.
8. The Bible does speak of works as an indirect condition of justification (e.g. James 2:14-26). As James notes, faith is what saves (vs. 14), but the evidence of that saving faith is law works (vs. 18). Thus, works of law are evidential, not instrumental.
9. Romans 4:26
10. Hebrews 10:14: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
11. i.e. that the nature of grace salvation demands faith as the sole instrument. This illustration was originally conceived by Jack Cottrell, Set Free: What Does The Bible Say About Grace.
12. Meaning that it must be done passively (and indirectly) by trusting in God’s promises. Gal 3:2-18: 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith…5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?…11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them… 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
13. Similarly, what is the fitting response to hearing the good news that your King has been victorious in battle? One can either believe it and rejoice, or reject it and morn.