Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
by Bob Burridge
Subjective Soteriology: Lesson 8 – Good Works
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©1999, 2010, 2012
Good Works defined
Our Duty in Doing Good Works
The Means of Grace
The Benefits of our Good Works
Westminster Confession of Faith XVI
I. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.
II. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.
III. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of his good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.
IV. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.
V. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.
VI. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
VII. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.
Good Works defined
A good work is not just anything we imagine being good. It is limited to that which is truly good in the eyes of God. This can only be known by what our Creator has revealed to us in his word. In Scripture we are commanded to certain duties and attitudes which please God. The Bible identifies these things either by direct statement or by principles presented. These alone constitute good works.
As seen outwardly, good works are those actions which agree with God’s revealed precepts in the law. Even the unsaved may appear to do things considered to be “good”. Our Sovereign King often holds back sinful actions for the sake of their effects upon his people and to display his awesome power over evil. As Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-15, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts … ”
This civil goodness keeps the sinful world from being as sinful as it could be and otherwise would be in its fallen estate. Such behavior may bring outward benefits to society and to God’s covenant people. However, they are not pleasing to God in any way that merits forgiveness of sin or blessings other than the outward benefits of living within the created patterns built into our universe. They do nothing to improve acceptability before God.
As seen inwardly, good works are motivated by a love for God with the purpose of honoring Christ who alone produces good in his people. The imperfection of every human heart in this life rules out true purity in any work that is done. Even the most holy of God’s people are unable to do good in this perfect sense. Isaiah 64:6 says, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment … ”
True good works are a fruit of regeneration. Therefore believers alone do good works by the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit which enables them. While God moves us and enables us, we are the ones really doing the good works as his agents. Good things done by the redeemed in Scripture are truly attributed to them as their deeds, and are accepted upon the righteousness and perfection of Christ who enables them. Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
The unbeliever may by the restraint of God comply with the outward demands of the law, or perform acts that relieve outward suffering. However, he does so from a selfish heart and is motivated by a misdirection of glory from the Creator to the creature. Therefore his works are not good but are inherently evil since they do not honor God from a pure love and desire to gratefully serve Christ.
Our Duty in Doing Good Works
The Scriptures make it clear that the duty toward which every believer must strive is to produce good works as evidences that his profession of Christ is true, and that the work of regeneration has been accomplished in him by grace. He does them to show his thankfulness to God, and to be an agent in the display of his Creator’s power and grace. Our Lord Jesus Christ said …
Luke 3:8, “Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance…”
Matthew 7:16, “You will know them by their fruits…”
John 15:8, “By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”
Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Colossians 1:10, “so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;”
2 Timothy 3:17, “that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Titus 2:14, “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”
James 2:17, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”
Good works are obviously not mere options for the Christian, nor are they extras to add to our spiritual lives. They are part of our duty, and necessary evidences that we are redeemed. But these works are not the ground or cause of our salvation. They are its proof.
1 John 3:17-18, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
The Means of Grace
God has commanded that we should be active in our obedience. Our enablement comes only through his grace, and the goodness of any of our always imperfect works is possible only in those upon whom the righteousness of Christ has been imputed. Yet it would violate his direct instructions if we simply waited around to be moved to do good works by externally imposed urgings. Our desire to improve in holy living is an obligation toward which we must work diligently.
To direct us, and to enable us to good works God has ordained certain means by which the work of his grace improves in us. Means to an end are not the direct cause of that end, nor are they mere artifacts of the work of him who moves our hearts. They are the real activities of human persons drawing life from a personal God through Christ the Redeemer. The means are ordained of God to no less degree than are the ends which they produce. God speaking in his word makes it clear that he has not ordained the ends to be ordinarily achieved aside from these established means.
A. A. Hodge comments, “this doctrine of the absolute dependence of the soul is not to be perverted into an occasion to indolence, or to abate in any degree our sense of personal obligation…. we can never honour the Holy Spirit by waiting for his special motions, but that we always yield to and co-work with him when we, while seeking his guidance and assistance, use all the means of grace, and all our own best energies, in being and doing all that the law of God requires.” (Confession of Faith pg. 224)
Generally the Reformed Churches recognize four particular means of grace. They are the use of God’s word, regular prayer, engaging in the proper elements of worship (particularly the sacraments), and the mutual care of one another under the discipline of the church.
By the faithful use of God’s word we learn about him, and grow in how to please him in our lives. The power of the word is always in conjunction with the power of the Holy Spirit. These two work together in such a way that helps us to grow in holiness as we submissively read, study, meditate upon, and hear expounded the words of Holy Scripture.
By the regular and diligent exercise of prayer to God we express our wonder at his revealed nature and glory. We also seek his help, provision, strength, and blessing. We bring the needs of others to him. Sincere prayer shows our full trust in him as the source of every good. We must pray instantly in the secret moments of our own thoughts, with our families and friends, as we gather as a church in times of fellowship or worship, and on occasions of public gatherings when Christ is honored by proper prayers.
By engaging in proper worship we partake of the elements God has ordained for his special praise. Though we worship as individuals and as families, the special times of worship of the family of God under the call and the direction of duly examined and ordained Elders allows for the fullest expression of worship. There on the Sabbath the word is read and expounded, prayer is offered, songs are sung to God, creeds are recited, blessings are pronounced, special oaths and vows are taken, the tithes and offerings of the saints are gathered, and the sacraments are guardedly administered. When God is honored in worship, the saints grow in grace.
By the mutual care of the members of the body of Christ we grow together in Christ likeness. As brothers and sisters in a spiritual family we must positively encourage one another by regular fellowship, by loving and humble admonition, and, when needed, by the faithful censures of the church.
These are the means God has ordained by which we grow in grace and improve in the works we produce for his glory.
The Benefits of our Good Works
Though the prime motivation behind all truly good works is the promotion of God’s glory, there are also benefits for the believer. God has given and secured them as promises of his covenant which is sealed by the blood of Christ.
Our works enable us to show our gratitude to God for his mercies toward us. When we learn what behaviors and attitudes are Christlike, and when the Holy Spirit has given us life enabling us to embrace our loving Heavenly Father, we are compelled to return thankfulness to our Creator-Redeemer by obeying the things he commands of his children. Obedience is not a burden. It is a joyful privilege to all who do it out of heart-felt gratitude.
When believers engage in good works they show the workmanship of God upon their otherwise stubborn, blind and rebellious hearts. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Our works evidence the work of regeneration in us. By this proof of our eternal election we improve our perception of our assurance of eternal life and union with the Father through Christ. This visible evidence encourages others to see God at work in us and provides for a more godly and joyful environment within our families, workplaces, churches, and communities. As the world observes our work, the profession of the gospel is adorned and confirmed. Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Those who work against the gospel are silenced by the good we do for the glory of God. They are either brought repentantly to the Savior, or by their anger and rebellion display that they rightly deserve their condemnation under God’s justice.
Question 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?”
Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, renews us also by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He may be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win others also to Christ.
[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]