Previous article in this series: August 2019, p. 475.
Scripture is a book of works, the works of God and the works of many other creatures that the sovereign God works together to serve His glorious purpose in Jesus Christ throughout history. In understanding our good works as works, it is helpful to survey the whole Bible in its presentation of works and then relate our good works to all other kinds of works.
1. The works of Christ
In briefly outlining the vast biblical category of works, we begin with the works of God. The entire Bible, beginning with its opening words, “In the beginning God created,” tells of God’s works. The Bible is God’s revelation to us of His works: His marvelous works of creation—for example, building Eve out of Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:21); His ongoing, all-controlling, powerful works of providence—for example, feeding young lions with meat (Ps. 104:21) or moving the heart of the king (Prov. 21:1); and His great work of salvation in quickening us dead sinners (Eph. 2:1–5) in the Lord Jesus whom He raised from the dead (Eph. 1:20). One biblical book in particular, the Book of Psalms, exhorts us to extol the matchless worth of God for His mighty acts of fame. Just think of Psalter 197, a familiar doxology commonly sung at the close of public worship, “Now blessed be Jehovah God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous works, in glory that excel.”
All the works of God proceed from the counsel of His own will as He does whatsoever He pleases (Ps. 115:3; Acts 2:23; Eph. 1:11). All His works are verity (Ps. 111:7) so that whether He rains fire from heaven upon Sodom in judgment (Gen. 19:24) or comforts His prophet Elijah in a still small voice (1 Kings 19:12), each work is in perfect harmony with His holy being, and therefore morally perfect in conception, commencement, performance, and accomplishment. All of God’s works are completed with perfect delight, so that even when God rests from His works (Gen. 2:3), it is not because He seeks relief from toil and fatigue but because He is enjoying His perfect accomplishments as the ever-blessed I AM. God’s works are beheld by all and everything that has breath is commanded to praise Jehovah (Ps. 150:6) for His works in which His “power, wisdom, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth, are clearly displayed,” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 47). What great works our God does!
2. The works of Christ
The Son of God incarnate in human flesh said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” (John 5:17). Are not the four Gospels of the New Testament thrilling to read as they tell of the wonderful works our Mediator performed during His earthly ministry as the servant of Jehovah? To Israel John the Baptist introduced Jesus and His outstanding work when John declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). Each of the four Gospels then relates the history of this great work of Jesus in offering His body and soul unto God as a once-for-all propitiatory sacrifice on the cross—a morally perfect sacrifice of grueling labor, consciously and willingly offered out of a heart of perfect love for God and the whole world of elect humanity. Then the book of works called “The Acts of the Apostles” tells of the wonderful acts of the ascended Lord from heaven, working in His church by His Spirit and through the apostles. The Bible concludes with the book of Revelation teaching us that the Lamb worthy to open the book (Rev. 5) is busy right now in heaven controlling all those things that the apostle John was told would shortly come to pass in order to bring to fulfillment the word of the angel, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever,” (Rev. 11:15). What great works Christ does!
3. The works of angels
Angelic works are of two kinds, even as the angels themselves: wicked and holy. First, the devil and all of his demons are fallen angels who willingly exert themselves unto the performance of desperately wicked works. The works of the Tempter (Matt. 4:3) include all “lies and deceit” (HC, LD 43), “deceiving the whole world” (Rev. 12:9), the persecution of the woman (church) after he (the dragon), failed to devour the Christ-child brought forth by the woman (Rev. 12:13), taking from hearts the preached word (Mark 4:15), taking sinners captive (2 Tim. 2:26), and buffeting believers in their thorny afflictions (II Cor. 12:7). How comforting is the conclusion of 1 John 3:8, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.”
Secondly, the holy angels willingly exert themselves unto the performance of holy works as “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). They steadfastly behold the face of God in heaven (Matt. 18:10), and soon they shall come with the Son of Man in glory from heaven (Matt. 25:31, 2 Thess. 1:7). In former days their great work was to deliver messages from God as is indicated by the name “angel” which means “messenger.” What great works the angels are capable of, for once there was “war in heaven, Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels,” (Rev. 12:7)!
4. The sinful works of men
Unregenerate men consciously and willingly exert themselves unto the performance of works that are inherently sinful because “the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). There is no grace of God toward the wicked enabling them to perform good works. Of the ungodly, Scripture declares, “but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16); and that “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Some works of the wicked are more abominable to God than others. For example, God’s wrath is more hotly kindled against the act of despising and rejecting the gospel of the mighty works of Jesus than it is against the perverse works of pagan sodomites who work that which is unseemly (Matt. 11:20–24). Nevertheless, all the works of the wicked are sinful, whether those works appear to have no moral character—like plowing the field (Prov. 21:4), or whether they appear to be good and done with seemingly good intentions—like Saul’s offering burnt offerings or sparing of the chief things of the Amalekites for sacrifices (1 Sam. 13:13; 15:17–23), or whether they are atrocious crimes against the God-fearing—like the murder of Stephen (Acts 7:54–60). How wicked are the works of the sons of men!
5. The sinful works of believers
The mark of a believing Christian is that he “crucifies the flesh with the works thereof,” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). The elect believer still has a sinful flesh that is sold as a slave unto sin and in which there dwells no good thing (Rom. 7:18); therefore, the believer is capable of performing both good deeds that arise out of a heart made new by the Holy Spirit but are tainted by the flesh, and completely evil deeds that are the works of the flesh. We confess as much in Lord’s Day 38 when we pray, “that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works and yield myself to the Lord to work by His Spirit in me.” Galatians 5:19–21 teaches that “the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”
Our sinful deeds of the flesh are not of a qualitatively higher moral degree than the similar sinful deeds of the unregenerate, as if the presence of the Holy Spirit in us somehow mitigates the evil character of our sinful deeds. In fact, our sinful works of the flesh bear a greater moral repugnance to God than the same works performed by unbelievers. David’s adultery with Bathsheba was worse than Ahasuerus’ pleasing of himself with a fair young virgin in the absence of Vashti. Aaron’s leadership in making the golden calf was worse than the most shameless act of any unregenerate reprobate Israelite who may have been dancing naked around that calf. The taking of God’s name in vain by a believer on the jobsite or on the ballfield is worse than the same profanity that proceeds from an unbeliever. For the believer sins against grace and greater knowledge, grieving the Spirit and demonstrating ingratitude for all that God has done for him in Christ. How repugnant are the evil deeds of the believer! The believer knows this. He knows he is the chief of sinners, and it humbles him in the dust at the foot of the cross.
6. The good works of believers
The good works of a believer are yet another kind of work to be distinguished from all of the foregoing works. The believer consciously and willingly exerts himself in the performance of works that are commanded by God. For example, Hebrews 13 begins by exhorting us, “Let brotherly love continue” (v. 1), and then illustrates what these acts produced by a heart of brotherly love are: acts of hospitality toward strangers (v. 2); acts of Christian care toward those in chains for the gospel (v. 3); acts of respect and love in the honorable marriage bed (v. 4); acts demonstrating contentment with our possessions (vv. 5–6); acts of obedience to our officebearers in the church (v. 7); and the defense of the gospel in resisting apostasy and the divers and strange doctrines that carry souls away in apostasy (v. 9). How wonderful that the believer is able to work that which is good!
7. Relating the believer’s good works to all other works
There is a relation between God’s works and our good works, and the Canons of Dordt expresses it beautifully, calling God, “the admirable author of every good work wrought in us.” God’s operation of grace in our hearts does not treat us “as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away [our] will and its properties, neither does violence thereto.” Rather, God “spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends [our will] that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign” (III/IV, Art. 16). Thus we are “beholden to God for the good works that we do” (BC, Art. 24). All our good works are wrought in God (John 3:21), who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), so that by the grace of God that works in us (1 Cor. 15:10) we do good works.
The relation between the works of Jesus Christ and our good works is taught in the Belgic Confession, Article 22: “But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which He has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness.” There are meritorious works that accomplish salvation for elect sinners—Christ’s works! Having the righteousness of Christ, we are the legally adopted children of God who have a right to the operations of the Spirit of Christ; therefore, God sheds forth the Spirit into our hearts so that we are sincerely willing and ready (HC, LD 1) to walk in the Spirit, bearing the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–25).
There is a relation between the works of angels and our good works. “The devil and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing” (BC, Art. 12). They are opposed to us and our good works, so we must be empowered by God to do good over against the constant opposition of these spiritual murderers. In what ways the works of holy angels relate to our good works is mysterious. Scripture does say that the angels are given charge over us to keep us in all our ways (Ps. 91:11). Most importantly, the holy angels’ absolute devotion to God is a model of obedience for the believer so that he might “attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven” (HC, LD 49).
The evil works of unbelievers relate to the good works of believers in that those evil works can be a temptation and snare to us and a hindrance to our good works (Ps. 141:9; Prov. 13:20; 2 Cor. 6:14–18); or they serve as an occasion for us to produce good works in witnessing against their evil works (Eph. 5:7–11); or they are an occasion for us to vex our righteous souls (2 Pet. 2:7) and plead with God to keep us separate, distinguishing us by working good works in us more powerfully that we may be a bright light in this world of darkness; or they serve as an occasion to move us to gratitude for the cross that has delivered us from the evil in which the world is swallowed up (Gal. 1:4).
There is a relation between our good works and our evil works, and the relationship is that our evil works are the indisputable evidence that we have yet only a small beginning of obedience and must “constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come” (HC, LD 44). There is then, yet another kind of work—the perfect works of glorified saints in a life to come!
Next time we will continue our examination of the nature of good works by looking at what makes them good.