We obey. We do. We labor. We work. We must work. We can work. We do work. By the power of Christ’s Spirit we elect believers who have been called into communion with Christ do good works. But what is the relation between our doing of good works of obedience according to the law of God and our salvation—our justification and sanctification? What is the relation between our doing of good works and our experience and assurance of the love of God in His covenant?
With this article we take up a biblical and confessional examination of the massive, fascinating, and critically important subject of the good works of the believer. And while we intend to say something about the nature of good works, we want to focus on the historically contentious issue of the function of good works. In explaining good works we must draw as precisely as can be the line of orthodoxy that runs between the works-righteousness of legalism (salvation by works) and the works-carelessness (salvation without fruit) or works-licentiousness (salvation with evil works) of antinomianism. We do not want to attribute to good works a place that is unwarranted by Scripture and the confessions, for then we slight and deny Christ’s work for us; but neither do we want to fail to give to good works the place assigned by Scripture and the confessions, for then we slight and deny the Spirit’s work in us.
Our purpose in this soteriological examination is, first, to defend and promote the God-honoring and soul- comforting Reformation gospel of salvation by grace alone (not by our works), through faith alone (not by our works), in Christ alone (not our works but His). Without this gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation in the revelation of His righteousness, the church is not the church and neither has she any purpose in the world. Since the time of the first revelation of this gospel in Paradise, this gospel of grace has been threatened and attacked by some form of the teaching (usually subtle teaching), of salvation by our good works. The first purpose of an examination of good works must always be the defense and maintenance of the gospel of grace.
Secondly, our purpose is to confirm and sharpen our understanding of God’s truth in the matter of our good
works. Although this subject is always controversial in the history of the church, it is not hopelessly complicated. We know the ABC’s of it:
- I do not do good works in order to get something from God.
- My Savior’s perfect work obtained everything I receive from God.
- I (yet not I, but the grace of God that is with me) do good works in order to give grateful praise to my gracious God for all His benefits to me.
While we know the fundamentals, we can always be sharpened and mature in our understanding of the details.
Thirdly, our purpose is to inspire a thankful life of holiness unto the God of our salvation by loving Him, His precious truth, and our neighbor. While the doctrine of salvation by works is an ever-present doctrinal threat to the church, worldliness, as the antithesis to a holy life, is the ever-present practical threat. Worldliness characterizes the life of the professing Christian who has an intellectual apprehension of the gospel but “the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). Even as it was in the days of Noah and shall be in the days of the Son of man (Luke 17:26), worldliness is not only gross wickedness but also giving to things that are perfectly legitimate in themselves too much of our time, interest, and enthusiasm, so that our hearts and homes start leaning toward Babylon while our love for God, His Christ, His church, and His truth waxes cold.
As every believer knows, the solution to the perilous threat of worldliness is not, never has been, and never shall be a doctrine of works. A doctrine of works produces pride and “the pride of life is not of the Father but of the world” (I John 2:16). The solution is grace. The Spirit accomplishes the goal of godliness in teaching us that “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2:12) when He works in us the gift of faith so that we can believe the gospel. And what is the gospel but the declaration of everlasting covenant friendship with Jehovah for unworthy law-transgressors by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone! The fount of godliness is the cross of the everlasting love of God where our Lord “gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Gal. 1:4).
The benefit of selecting good works as our subject in this soteriological exam is that we do not have to choose between justification or sanctification as our subject, but will examine both from the viewpoint of good works. Reformed theologians in their systemization of biblical doctrines typically do not elevate good works to the dignity of a special article. In classic Reformed soteriology the subject of good works is not a distinct chapter or article. Rather, the subject of good works is informally treated under the heading of “justification,” when from a strictly negative point of view Reformed soteriology emphatically denies that good works contribute anything to the elect sinner’s righteousness before God. Justification is by faith and not works. Moreover, the subject of good works is formally treated and positively developed under the heading of “sanctification” as a logical explication of the details of sanctification (thus Belgic Confession, Art. 24 is entitled “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works”). By taking good works as our subject, we will take heed to the doctrine of justification and the importance of faith alone, as well as the doctrine of sanctification, which is also by faith alone, and where the positive benefits of good works as blessed fruits are to be explained.
Furthermore, the benefit of focusing on the concept of works is that we can emphasize what works do save us. In repudiating our good works as the ground for our righteousness before God and that upon which any part of our salvation depends, we can still be positive regarding certain works. The gospel declares the holy works of Christ on our behalf. We fail to vindicate sound doctrine if we do not highly exalt works—not ours, but all those perfect works God’s incarnate Son performed in fulfilling all righteousness under the law on our behalf through His lifelong obedience and sacrificial death of infinite worth. He, the Lord from heaven, lived the life no son of Adam could ever live, and triumphed over death, bringing life and immorality to light so that He is not only the Way and the Truth, but also the Life (John 14:6) by whose life we are and shall be saved (Rom. 5:10). He satisfied divine justice on our behalf, not only by suffering all that the law threatened but also by rendering all the obedience that the law required. He is our righteousness (Jer. 23:6, Rom. 3:22), in whom we have a right to every blessing of God. He was sent to accomplish full and free salvation, and He did when He cried from the cross what no man may ever dare deny: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Salvation is by faith in Him. If we do not do justice to the work of Christ, then no matter how often we condemn salvation by our works, or repeat that “salvation is by grace,” our works will subtly creep in somewhere, somehow, and find a place in our doctrinal expressions or in our thinking that they may not have. It is not enough to oppose salvation by our good works; we must be positive, and believe and teach salvation by the perfect works of Christ. Those who are saved by grace alone through faith alone sweetly repose in Christ and what He has done. Necessarily, then, our doing and working cannot be anything other than the fruit of thankfulness to the praise of God’s grace in Christ our righteousness.
A doctrinal examination of the believer’s good works must necessarily be historical in accounting for what God has already led the Reformed faith to say about good works, including and especially what God has led the PRC to say about good works. An official summary of what the PRC have said on good works is found in the “Declaration of Principles,” which Synod 1951 adopted as a systematic statement of what the Three Forms of Unity teach on the doctrines of grace and the covenant.
The first truth the PRC have affirmed about good works concerns the nature of good works: works are only good if they proceed out of a heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit. In the third point of common grace, Synod 1924 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) declared that the unregenerate are capable of performing certain kinds of works that are good and pleasing in the eyes of the Lord. In his writings Herman Hoeksema argued extensively and persuasively that the works of the unregenerate, glittering though they may be to our eyes, are not good works. The “Declaration of Principles” later gave expression to the Protestant Reformed and confessional repudiation of this error of common grace, stating, “That the unregenerate man is totally incapable of doing any good, wholly depraved, and therefore can only sin.”1
The second confessional truth the PRC have affirmed about good works concerns the function of good works: good works never function as prerequisites or conditions for the reception of covenant membership, the covenant promise or any blessing in the covenant, but are necessary and inevitable in the Lord’s covenant friend-servant as fruits of thankfulness. In the early 1950s the PRC repudiated the teaching that the covenant promise of God is given to every baptized child with the fulfillment of that promise conditioned upon the faith and obedience of the child. The “Declaration” states, “That faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.”2 Although the subject of our good works of obedience was not explicitly addressed, the implication is crystal clear: if the instrument of salvation—faith—is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, then most certainly the fruits of salvation—good works—are not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation.
After repudiating a conditional covenant, the “Declaration” wards off the charge that the denial of conditions in salvation is inherently antinomian, minimizes the importance of good works, and leads to the loose living of antinomianism, by adding:
The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.
All those who are not thus disposed, who do not repent but walk in sin, are the objects of His just wrath and excluded from the kingdom of heaven.3
An examination of the good works of the believer must be conducted carefully with precision of expression. We have no desire to press the church into a hopeless quagmire of endless distinctions that stifles the pulpit, pew, and pen. Our desire is faithfulness to God and His Word. Almost every Reformed believer knows by memory a passage full of fine soteriological distinctions: Ephesians 2:8-10, which teaches, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” We are not saved by works, but by grace. We are not saved through works but through faith. We are not saved, nor do we have faith of ourselves or of our works, but as the gift of God. We are not created by (our) good works but unto good works, and not that we should occasionally do some, but that we should walk in them.
If the surgeon or airline pilot makes fine adjustments to his instruments for precision of movement in the interest of physical lives, then the teacher of sound doctrine will want careful precision in rightly dividing the Word of truth for the sake of spiritual lives.
An examination of good works is not something abstract or remote; it touches our personal experience. It is our experience that God, through His Holy Word, takes us down into the dark valley of the knowledge of sin where there are two tables of stone, and off opposing mountainsides the constant pronouncement, “Blessed are they that do,” and “Cursed are they that do not.” Not every preacher or congregant wants to go down there, but we know we must and the pain administered by a sharp and deep law will serve our good. With all of our works exposed as sinful, we stand trembling before the just Judge of heaven and earth and we cry, “The evil that the law forbids and that I would not, that I do! And the good that the law requires and that I would, that I fail to do! Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?!”
But we do not stay in that dark valley. To stay there would bring despair. The same Spirit that works conviction of sin through the law leads us up out of the valley of darkness to a little gospel hill. Running into the hill is a trail of inexpressible sorrow. Under the shadow of the hill sits an empty tomb. Standing on the hill is a cross that once carried a bloody, crying, dying Lamb without blemish. To that hill we come by faith under the light of God’s Fatherly countenance and unload at the foot of that cross all our transgressions, while beating our breasts and crying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” God declares what the good but impotent law of the dark valley could not, “Grace, mercy, and peace be richly multiplied unto you. For the sake of my Son and His perfect work on your behalf, I declare you pardoned of all sin and I impute to you His perfect righteousness. You are an heir of everlasting life.”
But we do not stand idle before the hill. The same Spirit that worked in us repentance of sin and faith in the glad tidings quickens us to go forth from that hill motivated by a heart of gratitude. To the Gentiles in the streets who cry, “Come run with us to the same excess of riot!” and to the devil who whispers, “Christ has paid the price, you are free to run with them and enter those worldly tents of wickedness without any penalty!” we say, “Never! I love the Lord who heard my cry! My life will I render unto Him for all His benefits toward me! The “must” of His law is the sincere desire of my grateful heart!” Avoiding the streets and tents we go off to the beautiful hills beyond, the little hills that skip like lambs where the light of God’s countenance continues to shine. There, with the law written on our hearts, we are free. We run in the Spirit, offering ourselves in praise and thanksgiving to God in a life of good works.
This is the ongoing, repeated experience of the sinful, redeemed, thankful believer.
Now what about those good works?
1 “Declaration of Principles,” in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 413.
2 “Declaration of Principles,” 423.
3 “Declaration,” 426.