Previous article in this series: December 1, 2020, p. 106.
Our last two articles served as an interlude of sorts in which we demonstrated that the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not minimize the importance of a holy life of good works. About this holy life we will have much more to say when in due time we take up a consideration of the relation between good works and sanctification. We concluded last time by affirming the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism that the believer’s good works serve as confirming evidence to him that his faith is genuine (“that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof,” LD 32). Now we return to our main point: In the matter of justification, all our good works are and must be excluded.
While good works serve a positive function for the believer with respect to his faith, those same good works do not serve the believer with respect to his justification. Faith is one thing—a living bond with Christ so that the partaker of Christ consciously knows and trusts Christ. Justification is another thing—God’s legal act of declaring the sinner perfectly righteous with the righteousness of Christ. Faith and justification are inseparably related because the believer is justified by faith. Nevertheless, while the believer may find some assurance of the genuineness of his faith by beholding the good works that spring forth from his faith, he does not derive from those good works any confidence of his justification.
As soon as we enter the realm of the courtroom, as soon as we address the reality of our legal standing before God, as soon as we concern ourselves with the remedy for the testimony of a guilty conscience, then we are dealing with the doctrine of justification and all our good works are excluded. The believer does not find in his good works the basis for his justification before God. From his good works the believer does not derive any confidence of his legal standing before God. He does not look to any of his good works for assurance that he is acceptable before God.
To be sure, when the believer goes home from the temple enjoying a peaceful conscience quieted by God’s justifying of him, he always goes forth walking gratefully in the way of sanctification, eschewing what is evil and delighting in what is good. To be sure, as the justified believer walks in the way of holiness, all his lovely, Spirit- wrought fruits of obedience spontaneously confirm to him the genuine character of his faith. Nevertheless, as soon as that believer consciously thinks of his legal status before God, he does not turn to any of his good works in order to confirm his status or bolster his assurance that he is righteous. Especially when his conscience begins to trouble him again, and he starts smiting his breast again, turning to his good works will only intensify his growing concern. When the issue is justification, that is, when the issue is the sinner’s legal status before the thrice Holy God, the sinner will not give to his good works any place or function but will renounce them.
The Scriptures testify in the plainest language that justification is by faith alone to the exclusion of all good works (Rom. 3-5, especially). Thus the Scriptures do not ascribe to our good works any role with respect to our justification. James 2:14-26 does not teach that the believer looks to his good works to help assure him that he is justified. The Holy Spirit ascribes one function to good works in James 2:14-26, namely, good works demonstrate to other people that the believer’s claim to possess saving faith is true. A believer says, “I am a believer and I have faith,” and he adds, according to James 2:18, “and I will show thee my faith by my works.” A believer is “justified by works” in the sense that his claim to have faith is demonstrated to be true (“justified”) by his works.
When the Reformed confessions speak to the relation between our good works and our justification, the confessions always exclude good works and give them no function whatsoever. First of all, the Heidelberg Catechism treats the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Lord’s Days 23 and 24. Lord’s Day 23 explains that we are righteous before God “only by a true faith in Jesus Christ.” When the Catechism does give consideration to our works, it puts this confession of misery on our tongues, “…my conscience accuse[s] me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil.” Should we object and say, “But, those are my sinful works. My sinful works accuse my conscience. What about my good works?” then the Catechism firmly instructs us in Lord’s Day 24 “that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.” Therefore, our good works cannot be the whole or even part of our righteousness before the tribunal of the absolutely perfect God. Even when Lord’s Day 24 goes on to give a positive description of good works as the “fruits of thankfulness,” the Catechism is still advancing its argument on behalf of justification by faith alone apart from works, only now defending justification by faith alone from the calumniators’ incessant charge that such a renouncing of good works makes men careless and profane.
Moreover, the Belgic Confession treats the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Article 23, and then proceeds to explain sanctification and good works in Article 24. It is there in Article 24 that the Confession explains the impossibility of a holy faith being unfruitful in man, and thus a justifying faith never makes men remiss in a pious and holy life. But, then, to ward off any notion that all the lovely fruits proceeding from the good root of faith in sanctification can somehow serve some positive role in our justification, the Confession sees fit to add this reminder regarding our good works, “howbeit they are of no account towards our justification.”
The issue explained
If ever we want to find in our good works some positive function with respect to justification, even if that function is merely to provide some sort of assistance to help strengthen our assurance that we are right with God, then we must return to the fundamentals of justification. Justification always puts us in the courtroom and the governing word is perfection. God is the Judge of absolute moral perfection. His law is the standard demanding absolute perfection. The spotless Lamb is the perfect righteousness of God for His people. The sinner, who stands in the courtroom awaiting his sentence before the most holy God, is the exact opposite of moral perfection. The sinner always stands as ungodly and guilty, convicted of that guilt in his conscience, and worthy of everlasting condemnation. Justification, which includes the assurance of justification, comes only by faith in God’s gospel declaration, “I forgive you and declare you perfectly righteous in Christ as I impute to you all His perfect works.” Justification always takes us into the courtroom, and the staggering act of justification is nothing less than the divine declaration that the ungodly sinner is as to his legal status absolutely perfect—as if he had with a perfect heart fulfilled every jot and tittle of the entire law of God.
What place and function could our good works as believers have in that courtroom? Even when we walk out of that courtroom, how could our good works truly be of any assistance to help secure within our hearts the firm conviction that the most staggering declaration in the universe was just uttered concerning us? Our good works are not perfect. They are good, but not perfect. The purest and most sincere act of heartfelt worship that we have ever given to God in His house is a good work that He ordained for us and works in us. That good work is rendered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the God of our salvation; it is a token of love for Him in a world that hates Him; it serves others as a testimony of the grace and power of God; it is to the believer himself a confirming evidence of his faith. That good work is the fruit of the Spirit’s operation in us and is in principle a beautiful work as it proceeds out of the new man of perfection in Christ. However, that work is not absolutely perfect. On account of our sinful flesh, that work is tainted with corruption, mingled with pride, contaminated with selfishness, and stained with world-love.
My good work of worship does not have to be absolutely perfect in order for it to function, for example, as confirming evidence to me as a believer that my faith is genuine, that I truly am grafted into Jesus the life-giving Vine, and that I really am a true believer and not a worthless hypocrite. The fact that something truly good and spiritually beautiful springs forth from me who am by nature dead in trespasses and sins provides confirmation that there is life within me and my faith is genuine. Grapes (even with their spots) are not gathered of thorns, nor figs (even with their bruises) of thistles.
However, when it comes to justification, the issue is not whether I have spiritual life, or whether the Spirit has planted something good and heavenly in me, or whether I belong to the company of believers and not unbelievers. In justification the issue is my legal standing and whether or not I am absolutely perfect before a holy and righteous God who has an infinite abhorrence of and inflexible determination to punish all sin. My conscience knows this is the issue.
What positive role, then, could my good works possibly serve in my justification? I may have more good works than all the other believers on earth combined, but it makes no difference. All my good works may be piled up like a glistening mountain of the purest, whitest, finest sugar the world has ever seen but, if there is but one molecule of a fleck of black pepper embedded somewhere inside one of the smallest granules of sugar, then the whole mountain is contaminated and condemnable. That is, if there is the smallest speck of moral taint anywhere in one of my good works, then all my good works are condemned. I am damned, and I know it. In justification, the issue is perfection. The all-searching eye of the just Judge of absolute perfection will look upon my good works and find that one black fleck, and many, many more besides, and I will hear the verdict: “Cursed!” I will not be pardoned. I will not be pronounced righteous. I will not be given a title to heavenly life. I will not be accepted and received by God. I will not enjoy His covenant communion. I will not have any assurance. When it comes to justification and finding assurance that I am right with God, all my good works are to be excluded, for as soon as I look to my good works my conscience accuses me of their imperfection and my soul is seized with terror.
The perfect work of Christ
The fundamental issue, then, is righteousness—a perfect righteousness that meets the approval of God. In the upcoming articles, we shall turn our attention to the all-important subject of the perfect work of Christ, who is our righteousness. Christ’s holy works constitute our righteousness before God. By Him and His obedience we have a way of access unto the God of covenant communion. Only when we understand and preach the significance of the perfect works of Christ, and how His works relate to our faith, our experience of covenant fellowship, and our good works, will we be free from any temptation to give to our good works a place and function they do not have in God’s covenant.