John 5:28–29 seems to teach salvation by works:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (ESV)

How do Calvinists explain this passage?


3 Answers 3


The note for John 5:29 in the John MacArthur NASB Study Bible (MacArthur is Calvinist) says:

Jesus was not teaching for justification by works (see 6:29). In the context, the "good" is believing on the Son so as to receive a new nature that produces good works (3:21; Jas 2:14-20), while the "evil" done is to reject the Son (the unsaved) and hate the light, which is the result of evil deeds (3:18,19). In essence, works merely evidence one's nature as "saved" or unsaved (see notes on Ro 2:5-10), but human works never determine one's salvation.

There is no note specifically for John 5:28.


There is no more teaching a "salvation by works" in this passage than in the epistle of James: in line with Jesus' teaching that you will know the righteous by the fruit they bring forth, those who are saved will bring forth good fruit - ie good works - and those who are not will bring forth bad fruit.

Does this mean all works performed by someone saved are "good"? No. Likewise it cannot mean that all works performed by the unregenerate are "bad". But the heart is the wellspring of life, and will show its nature in how the person acts.


First, Calvinists are well aware that even in the Old Testament such a resurrection of all the dead is clear teaching. The prophet Daniel was told by the angel that, at the time of the end, some would rise from the dust of the earth "to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:1-3) However, that text does not speak of doing good works being a way of "earning salvation".

It is the same with Jesus' words in John 5:28-29. He contrasts those resurrected ones who "have done good" with those who "have done evil". Nowhere does Jesus say that one must do good works as a way of "earning salvation". The idea of "earning salvation" may be read into Jesus' words by those who believe people have to do something to merit salvation, or to contribute towards it, but to Calvinists who believe that salvation is not merited, or earned by anybody due to good things they do, that is to put the cart before the horse. Here is what Calvin himself wrote in his "Institutes", Chapter XXI, headed 'Eternal Election, by which God has predestined some to salvation, others to destruction":

"We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God's free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God's grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.

[Re. Romans 11:5-6 'Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.'] For neither will anything else suffice to make us humble as we ought to be nor shall we otherwise sincerely feel how much we are obliged to God. And as Christ teaches, here is our only ground for firmness and confidence: in order to free us of all fear and render us victorious amid so many dangers, snares, and mortal struggles, he promises that whatever the Father has entrusted into his keeping will be safe. John 10:28-29." Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 2, Ed. John T. McNeill, pp 921-2, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia MCMLX

Calvin put the "horse" of God's election before the "cart" of salvation. Salvation can only follow after God's choosing and grace then enables the person he is saving to do good works that will bring glory to himself: not rack up a credit balance of any kind. That may be why I could not spot reference to John 5:28-29 here, because that text is speaking of the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, not the matter of what saves a person.

Here is another quote from the Calvinist point of view that shows why different people see that text differently. The author is a Presbyterian minister in America, summarizing main points from Calvin's "Institutes".

"The human order is first faith, then election, but the 'divine order' according to Calvin, is first election, then faith." Knowing God and Ourselves, David B. Calhoun, p. 224, Banner of Truth Trust, 2016

Consider what Baptist C.H. Spurgeon said as quoted from his 'A Defence of Calvinism', The Early Years: The Autobiography of C.H. Spurgeon, thinking from the present backwards:

"One week night... the thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment - I should not have sought him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scripture. How came I to read the Scriptures? ...Then... I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that he was the author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me." (Ibid. p. 224)

In conclusion, here are some points Calvin wrote about regarding the final resurrection - which Jesus was speaking of in John 5:28-29. This chapter is called 'The Final Resurrection':

"In Book III John Calvin has presented at length the redemptive work of Christ, the mediator, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who creates and unites believers to Christ. They thereby receive the double benefit of justification and sanctification - acceptance with God and renewal after the image of God. 'In union with Christ, believers are justified, sanctified, and ultimately glorified. Considering the location of chapter 25 in the Institutes [at the end of Book III], it might well be titled, "The Believer's Glorification in Union with Christ" (Venema, Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, 445). Preaching on Matthew 28:1-10, Calvin said that we are nourished by Christ daily 'until we are united with him in his glory in another fashion than we are now' (John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, 123)." (Ibid. p. 239)

John 5:28-29 deals with that Day of Resurrection, when the saved will be united with Christ in glory. Calvinists don't view it as teaching how anyone is to be saved, for they are already declared the righteousness of God in Christ by having previously been elected unto salvation, their good works following. (Philippians 3:9 - "...be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.") But no amount of good works can give that righteousness that saves!

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