We have been looking at the nature of the believer’s good works as works, but now turn our attention to the nature of those works as good. Scripture denominates some of our works “good.” While Matthew 5:16 is representative of those biblical passages that speak of the good works of elect believers in general, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” Acts 9:36 specifically identifies one individual believer who did good works, “Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.” The figure of choice in Scripture for the Holy Spirit in speaking of these good works is “fruit” (Ps. 1:3; Matt. 3:10; John 15:1–8); and the prayer of every pastor for the congregation is that the members be “fruitful in every good work” (Col. 1:10).
The biblical adjective good is applied to something that is excellent in quality, beautiful in character, and useful for its intended ends. In the physical realm of the earthly creation a bad fruit is an orange that fell from the tree and is darkened, mushy, rotten within, and useless for eating or selling. However, a good fruit is a ripe orange that is bright in color, shapely in appearance, wholesome in substance, sweet in taste, and profitable for the seller. The sinful works of the flesh are bad or evil because they are spiritually and morally corrupt in character, they contribute to the misery and destruction of the doer of the deed and those affected by it, and they are a contradiction of God’s expressed will. Scripture calls a believer’s work “good” because in principle that work possesses a beautiful spiritual character and is well adapted to certain ends.1
But what exactly makes a work good? What accounts for the fact that some works are not merely good to the human observer in his limited capacity for observation and fallible assessment, but good according to the judgment of God so that Scripture teaches that a woman like Tabitha was full of works that were good?
The source or origin of a work is determinative for the work’s good character. If a work is good, it is good only because it originated from a good source. Lord’s Day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that a work is a good work if it passes three tests. First, as to its source, it must “proceed from a true faith.” Second, as to its standard, it must be “performed according to the law of God.” Third, as to its aim, it must be done “to His [God’s] glory.” The first test is the fundamental and determinative test because, if a work proceeds from a good source, then it will be good in principle, and in its initial conception it will necessarily spring forth from the motive of love for God and the desire for God’s glory. If a work does not proceed from a good source, it will never be done according to God’s law or for God’s glory. That the source or origin of a work is the most important factor in determining whether it is good is the teaching of our Lord who preached that “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good…” (Luke 6:45).
If good is determined by the inner source from which the work springs, then good is not a matter of the outward appearance. Satan himself can be taken for an angel of light if all one considers is his profile picture. Anyone can make himself and his works look good. There may be a teacher in the church who appears to be the sincerest of all believers and meek as a lamb, who evidently loves God and the congregation for whom he labors as he passionately preaches grace, and who wraps up every sermon and speech with a petition that God’s name be glorified. If anyone’s works appear good, surely his do. But he is a wolf. So hungry for self-advancement and the praise of men is he that on Sunday his conscience allows him to stand in the pulpit and preach “Lord, Lord!” though he does not honor the Lord in his heart. During the week he has no scruples about devouring widows’ houses and offending little ones if it furthers his aspirations for power and pleasure. According to Jesus, the false prophet who comes in sheep’s clothing but is inwardly a ravening wolf (Matt. 7:15) epitomizes the truth that fruit can only be good if its source is good (Matt. 7:16–19). Since we can know a tree by its fruits (Matt. 7:20), that is, since we can know the nature of a teacher by the works he produces, it is only a matter of time before the “sheep,” through his disorderly walk and false doctrine, reveals to men the wicked wolfish nature that God beheld all along.
Preaching during the zenith of religious hypocrisy in Caiaphas’ Jerusalem, Jesus Christ repeatedly taught that good is not determined by outward appearance but by the spiritual source. Even as it is true that it is not the things without that enter a man and defile him (Mark 7:18), but that which is within and proceeds from the heart of man (Mark 7:21), so also it is not that which is without—not even a man’s Christian upbringing, familiarity with Scripture, pious-sounding words, and impressive actions—that makes a man’s works good, but the nature of his heart.
Since every sinner has a corrupt heart as the source of all of his working, nothing less than a wonder of grace is necessary for a sinner to produce good works. Scripture passes a devastating judgment upon our race: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy, there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:1–3). If not one doer of good can be found, then how can there be a Tabitha “full of good works?” Can a thorn bring forth a grape, a thistle a fig, corrupt fountains sweet waters? No. Can a spiritually dead God-denier bring forth the fruit of good works? No.
The sinner must become a new creation in union with Christ (“Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature…,” 2 Cor. 5:17). The sinner must be created in Christ Jesus as the workmanship of the Divine Workman (“For ye are his worksmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works…,” Eph. 2:10). While a spiritually dead God-denier cannot bring forth the fruit of good works because the internal spiritual source of his heart is totally depraved, a spiritually dead God-denier can be made to bring forth the fruit of good works. Jesus taught that a bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit, but He did not teach that a bad tree cannot be made to bring forth good fruit (Matt. 7:18). With men, bringing good out of corruption is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:26).
In order for the sinner to have a new and holy heart as the pure source from which good works can spring, nothing less than a spiritual re-creation in Christ Jesus is necessary. The sinner must be created, not again as a natural man in Adam or in his mother’s womb, but as a new heavenly man of heavenly glory in Christ Jesus. To create, which is what God did in the beginning, is the stupendous wonder-work of making something out of nothing—to bring something into existence that was not there before. To create in Christ Jesus is even more astonishing because it is the wonder-work of the Divine Workman in taking the already existing totally depraved sinner and bringing something spiritual into existence where its antithesis formerly thrived—a holy heart of heavenly, spiritual life where carnal rebellion and hatred for God did dwell.
Before any sinner can be “created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” he or she must have been chosen by God in Christ Jesus in God’s eternal decree of predestination, a fundamental element of which decree is that God not only appointed the individual to salvation but ordained each good work that the elected son or daughter will ever perform. The ultimate source of a good work, therefore, is the sovereign will of the predestinating God. “For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). No election, no good works. As we confess in Canons of Dort, I.9,
…but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to that of the apostle: “He hath chosen us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy, and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).
Moreover, the necessary judicial basis and only possibility for an individual’s spiritual creation in Christ Jesus is redemption through Christ Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. Christ Jesus must go to the cross carrying the guilt of the individual’s sins and sinfulness, and must pay for those sins. He must also obtain for the sinner the judicial right to the wonder-work of recreation in which Christ’s own glorious, heavenly, immortal, resurrection life is implanted. Unredeemed slaves of sin and death have no right to a glorious spiritual creation and must be cast away in punishment. Creation must be “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:10), “in whom we have redemption through his blood…” (Eph. 1:7). No cross, no good works.
Finally, the sinner as he lives in this earthly creation in his depraved nature must actually be created. This act of being “created in Christ Jesus” is the sinner’s salvation. In this he plays no role. No more than Adam participated in the creation of himself out of the dust of the earth, no more does the sinner participate in his spiritual creation.
In the work of creation that is salvation, the person who is the Spirit of Christ Jesus comes into the stony-cold and obstinate heart of the elect sinner and breathes into him the vital spiritual warmth of the vigorous resurrection life of Christ Jesus. The moment Christ’s Spirit enters, Christ establishes an unbreakable, saving union between Himself and the sinner so that the sinner is for time and eternity organically one with Christ Jesus. The moment Christ’s Spirit possesses the sinner and makes the heart of the sinner His eternal dwelling place, the sinner becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17). Old things are passed away! Behold, all things are become new! Into the heart is planted a new thing, a new root of new heavenly life, a gift called faith! By faith the new creature not only is one with Christ but will be brought to the conscious knowledge and enjoyment of Christ Jesus and will trust in Christ Jesus as He is proclaimed in the holy gospel. As this new, regenerated, believing creature lives by faith in the Word, knowing God as the God of his salvation, he lives a new life in all good works. He sees new things, speaks new words, and walks new paths. He has been created in Christ Jesus, not by the good works he now does, and not because of the good works he now does, but unto good works which are always the fruit of his salvation. Exactly because these works are performed from the source of a true faith, they are performed in the consciousness that they are not perfect, having passed through the corrupt flesh of the old man, and therefore, they are acceptable to God only on the merits of Jesus Christ. Created in Christ Jesus, the new man finds all his life and sufficiency in Christ Jesus.
No creation, no good works. No union with Christ, no good works. No indwelling of the Holy Spirit, no good works. No faith as root, no good works as fruit. Created in Christ Jesus unto good works the believer can, must, will, and does walk in all those good works before ordained of God.
Created in Christ Jesus, the believer is God’s workmanship (may we say wonder-workmanship?). Tabitha was God’s workmanship in Joppa. She was certainly God’s workmanship after being brought back from the dead by a resurrection in the upper room of Joppa. But even before that resurrection, Tabitha was God’s workmanship as a “disciple” created in Christ Jesus unto the good works of supplying the poor and needy widows with coats and garments. Except a woman be created in Christ Jesus unto good works, she cannot do good works. But on the other hand, if a woman be created in Christ Jesus unto good works, she cannot but do good works. It is a remarkable demonstration of both the supernatural power and saving grace of God the Divine Workman that ought ever to provoke us to a sense of holy wonder that there should be even one Tabitha on this earth who is “full of good works.”
1 In a future article, when we examine the function of good works, we will explain that although some of our works are “good,” not one of them is yet “perfect,” without sin.