We are first given the right to eternal life by faith and then we are given “the crown of life in the possession thereof (Rutherford)” by means of good works. This distinction is crucial, as is the order. We aren’t justified by our good works because they do not play a role in the granting of the right to eternal life, and because they are rewarded after justification. Indeed, we can’t be rewarded with eternal life in the sense of entering into its possession if we don’t already possess it by right.
When I began to study the doctrine of good works in the Reformed tradition many years ago, I was astounded by a view that many Puritans, following in the footsteps of John Calvin, promulgated. These Reformed stalwarts taught that God graciously rewards eternal life to his people who persevere in good works to the end. I had been aware of the view that God graciously rewards good works in this life and that different degrees of rewards in glory will be measured out according to works. But I don’t recall ever being taught or thinking that God actually rewards the gift of eternal life itself to works. Yet, this is what many of our Reformed forefathers taught. Samuel Rutherford wrote that the Scriptures teach that there is “a promise of life eternall, made to Evangelike and unperfect doing through the strength of grace.” Commenting upon Romans 2:6-7, Matthew Henry said that “Heaven is life, eternal life, and it is the reward of those that patiently continue in well-doing.” George Downame argued that eternal life is “a free reward promised to our obedience.” Anthony Burgess said that good works are necessary because “there are many promises scattered up and down in the Word of God: so that to every godly action thou doest, there is a promise of eternall life.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this Puritan teaching, because eternal life, as William Cunningham wrote, “is, no doubt, represented in Scripture as the reward of good works.” The problem though—and this is why many of us may find it surprising—is that this teaching seems to clash with salvation by grace alone and by faith alone.
The Puritans were aware of this potential conflict, of course, but they weren’t troubled by it for several reasons. First, the reward is of grace. Edward Veal noted that the term “reward” can be taken in two different senses: “one proper and of debt; the other improper and of grace.” Our good works don’t even come close to deserving eternal life, and therefore the reward God promises to bestow upon them is due to his grace and kindness.