(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 16)
(Excerpted from my eBook Holding Fast Our Confession)
One of the major stumbling blocks, (humanly speaking), preventing non-Christians from repenting and believing in the Gospel lies in the idea of good works. It’s widely taught among non-Christians that man is inherently good. And so it is believed that if man is good at heart, then he is able to do good works. And so it is widely believed that “good-hearted” people are able to produce good works.
But, the question we are seeking to answer in the following is this: How are we to define good works? What makes a work that we do a good work? Who gets to decide a good work from a bad work? Well, in the following we are talking about good works as they are defined by God in His Word.
This is important because, for instance, some people think that legalized abortion is a good thing. Some people think that legalized homosexuality is a good thing. Some folk think that abstaining from meat on Friday is a good thing. Some think that rattling off Hail Mary’s on a set of rosary beads is a good thing. Therefore we need to define good works in terms of what the Bible says.
Good Works Reviewed
Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” So we see then, that God has shown man what is good. He wants man to be just in all his dealings with others. And He wants man to be merciful in all his undertakings. And He wants man to humble himself before God.
Jesus calls these three things the “weightier matters of the law.” For He says in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
So we see that Jesus is saying (along with His Spirit-inspired Prophet Micah) that the Law of God defines for us what are good works. For doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God in Micah, is the same as the justice, mercy, and faith that Jesus speaks of. But notice that though Jesus regards these scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, He does acknowledge that they have at least been doing some good. Notice that the scribes and the Pharisees have been scrupulously paying their tithes. “These you ought to have done,” says Jesus, “without leaving the others undone.”
So, there’s no dispute, even non-Christians are able to do certain outward good works. But, keep in mind that only those things that God in His Word has revealed as good works are good works.
Now, Jesus said the following to the scribes and Pharisees as recorded in Matthew 15:7-9, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” We see that drawing near to God, honouring God, and worshipping God, may be defined as good works because they are according to the commandments of God. And we see that there is something else that poses as good works, but, is according to the commandments of men, such as the scribes and Pharisees. Therefore, what might seem like a good work according to man might not necessarily be a good work according to God.
To illustrate this further, consider, for instance, the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector in Luke 18. The Pharisee said, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” Luke 18:11&12. To be sure, we see here the Pharisee boast of his own self-righteousness. He is the cockerel strutting around the farmyard crowing away. He is the peacock showing off his tail feathers. However, there’s no reason given that we should doubt that he was not – in the broad sense of the words – an extortioner, or unjust, or an adulterer.
So again, we must concede that even this Pharisee, of all people, was able to do some outward good works. But the problem lies with his heart – the very core of his being. This Pharisee was certainly not walking humbly before God as Micah says he ought. Rather he was exalting or puffing up himself before God. He was like one of those wee fish that you catch off the pier at Hervey Bay in Queensland. It bites your yabby on the hook and when you reel it up it puffs itself up like a balloon! That’s what the scribes and the Pharisees were like – they puffed themselves up. They puffed themselves up with their own version of good works.
The Pharisee was thinking that the good works he was doing were pleasing to God. He thought that what he was doing was what God was after. He thought he was without sin before God. The Pharisee was exalting himself. He was most unlike the tax collector he had sinned against by slandering him. That tax collector’s prayer was, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” He was humbling himself.
So we see then that good works can be done only by those who have a right heart attitude – like the tax collector. If you don’t have a right heart attitude toward God all your works are as filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6). But only God can give a person the heart attitude that is needed to do good works as they are laid out in Scripture.
That is exactly what God promises to do for His elect: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” Ezekiel 36:26&27. This new heart and new spirit is simply a soft heart and a humble spirit. Therefore only those who have been given a new heart and a new spirit by God can truly do good works according to God’s definition of good works.
These good works are summarized in the Ten Commandments, which is a summary of God’s Moral Law. The Moral law is summarized again in the words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength ... you shall love your neighbour as yourself” Mark 12:30&31.
Having reviewed what good works are according to the Bible, let’s look at some aberrations of good works, i.e., good works according to the commandments of men.
Good Works Reversed
There are some folk in the church even today who, like the Pharisee in the Parable, turn Biblical good works into sin. They make the good works as described in the Bible to be the exact reverse of what they really are. For there are people in the churches today who, like that Pharisee in the parable, believe they are without sin, i.e., sinless. They believe that every work they do is a good work. We call them “Sinless Perfectionists.” These belong to the “Holiness Movement.” They are the “Higher Life,” “Second Blessing” people.
Though this kind of teaching is in the Protestant Church, it comes from Rome, i.e., from the Romish Church. Here’s how: the Church of Rome believes in works of supererogation. The word supererogation means “more than is demanded.” Rome believes that some people are able to do more than God demands in His Word.
If you think back to the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector you’ll see that that Pharisee believed in this doctrine too. Keep in mind that he thought he was not like other men, i.e., sinners. He believed he was without sin. And he says, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” God’s Law, for example, says in Leviticus 16:29 & 31 that a man should fast once a year on a certain month. But this man fasted twice a week. In this he was doing way more than was demanded by God in His Law!
GI Williamson comments on the Roman Catholic doctrine of works of supererogation,
This teaching is that sinful men, having received divine grace, are capable of doing, not merely all their duty, but more besides. The Baltimore Catechism (Art 1125) speaks of the “superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.” This “superabundant satisfaction” is defined as “that which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow-members of the communion of the saints.” It is this superabundance of works of merit which fills the “treasury of merits,” from which the less fortunate may draw. (The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes, p. 122).
Have you got that? Rome believes that some people are so sinless to start with, that any works they do can be stored up as credit points for others. It’s kind of like getting “Fly Buy” points every time you use your credit card; with the added bonus that your credit points may be shared with others!
It was this false teaching about “works of merit” that led to the Reformation of the Lord’s Church at the time of Martin Luther. For the “indulgences” that Luther so intensely disliked was the Church at the time dipping into the so-called “treasury of merits” to bestow credit upon people stuck in (fictitious) Purgatory!
But you wouldn’t have a “treasury of merits” if you properly understood that no one apart from Christ is without sin! “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23. “For we all stumble in many things” James 3:2. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” 1 John 1:8-10.
So, even to this day men are deluding themselves into thinking that there are some people who are able to perfectly keep God’s perfect commandments this side of glory. But we must always remember that we still have the residue of sin within us – even after receiving divine grace. It’s as Paul says to the Philippians, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected…” Philippians 3:12a.
But God has revealed to us in His Word what good works are. Good works are only such as God has commanded, nothing more, and nothing less. There is no store of surplus merit from which men, such as the Pope of Rome, may draw and bestow upon weak believers to make up for their deficiencies. This is a complete misunderstanding of the merits of Christ in the Gospel.
It’s Christ’s righteousness that God by His grace bestows on His elect as part of the free gift of salvation. His death on the cross paid the price we owe for our filthy rags, otherwise known as sins. Included in the filthy rags are man’s good works, some of which have already been mentioned. But, if anyone is saved, he is saved by the good works of Jesus Christ alone, and not by any saint living or dead.
It is Almighty God alone who bestows Christ’s merits upon whomever He has chosen in eternity past for salvation. Therefore we need to watch out for aberrations of the Biblical doctrine of good works. We mustn’t reverse the doctrine of goods works as laid out in the Bible. We mustn’t put the cart before the horse. It’s salvation first, good works second, not the other way around. And even after salvation our good works are still tainted by sin, as pure water is tainted when passed through a dirty pipe.
I fear that the only thing some people are storing up is the wrath of God against all ungodliness! We need to hold fast to the Biblical teaching that salvation is by grace alone – not good works. Good works come after we have been saved and not a moment before. Like streams of living water good works spring from those who have been regenerated and therefore have been declared righteous by God’s grace alone.
We are saved unto good works, not because of our good works. Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Therefore Biblical good works done in obedience to God’s commandments are the fruits and evidence of a true and living faith.
As the writer to the Hebrews says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him” Hebrews 11:6a. Therefore you need the free gift of saving faith before you can produce good works. It’s as Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” John 15:5.
Without Christ indwelling us by His Spirit we can do no good works (at least as God defines good works). But those who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit are now able to do true good works. And the added blessing is that God is pleased to reward these good works done in the Spirit!
Good Works Rewarded
Jesus says in His Sermon on the Mount, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” Matthew 6:16-18.
So we see in these verses that God rewards good works done in the right spirit. Therefore only those who have had their heart and spirit renewed by God are able to do good works that will be rewarded by God.
Man-centred good works bring only man-centred rewards. But God-centred good works bring rewards from God. But the point is, that without Christ, i.e., without His Spirit working in you and through you, you are not able to do any good works in God’s eyes. Therefore it is Christ in you who is doing the good works through you.
Therefore the rewards you receive for your good works belong to Jesus Christ. This is one of the ways in which Jesus shares His blessings with you. In other words, it’s Christ’s obedience that God is blessing or rewarding. Christ is working that obedience through those whom He savingly indwells by His Spirit. Therefore our good works done in Christ are the fruit and evidence that His Spirit indwells us. Thus it is the Spirit who works the good works through the person He has regenerated.
Good works come, e.g., in the form of expressions of thankfulness or gratitude to God. Non-Christians think that they will be saved if they try to keep God’s Law. But Christians try to keep His Commandments out of gratitude to God for already having saved them. And as they find themselves more and more keeping God’s Laws as the Spirit of Christ enables them, they become more assured of their salvation. And as you become assured of your salvation you begin to experience the peace that transcends all understanding.
This peace is an inner peace that comes from knowing that it is well with your soul. This is one of the rewards God supplies to those who stir up themselves to avail themselves of the means of grace God has supplied for the building up of faith.
If any Christian neglects prayer, the study of God’s Word, and the Sacraments he will be unsure of his own salvation – at least he ought to be! Again, God rewards those who diligently seek Him. And those who diligently seek God are an encouragement to their fellow believers. For just as those who knew Paul the Apostle before his conversion were built up in the faith through watching him after his conversion, so Christians who grow in grace build up other believers.
When we see the fruits of the Spirit develop in fellow believers the Gospel of Christ begins to sparkle all the more. Even non-Christians shut their mouths when they see the transforming power of the Gospel in the lives of people they know. In this, even non-Christians inadvertently glorify God. Therefore we ought to stir up ourselves unto good works as they are laid out in Scripture.
All Christians ought to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. It’s because fallen man is not able to do this perfectly that we know that salvation is by grace alone. And those rewards God gives us for our good works done by us after He saves us are simply grace upon grace.
It’s as Jesus says in Luke 17:10, “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”
Diligent study of God’s Word is the only way we will learn what are the good works God wants us to do. And a proper understanding of the Gospel message will prevent us from transforming our good works into filthy rags. For in the Gospel is revealed the most humble Man there ever was, is, and will be. Obedience, that is good works of obedience to God, are explicitly revealed and expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He is the only One who has ever kept God’s Commandments perfectly even unto death. God has rewarded Him openly and will continue to reward Him openly for His good works. For every blessing that God gives you is God rewarding Christ openly. For the good works that any Christian does are done in, and by, and through Christ.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Philippians 2: 5-11.