Previous article in this series: September 15, 2021, p. 489.
In this series of articles, we are concerned to understand the proper relation between the assurance of salvation and good works.1 The Word of God and our Reformed confessions make plain that there is a relation between them. What is that relation? How do our Reformed confessions set forth the relation between assurance and the believer’s life of holiness? What can we learn from the confessions regarding the relation between assurance and good works?
In previous articles, we have seen that the relation is not that good works are the cause of our assurance. Good works do not work assurance. The believer’s assurance of salvation is not grounded in his good works, so that he can point to his good works as the reason for his assurance. That would give to our good works a function that is out of harmony with our confessions. A young man’s hard work may be the cause of his promotion in the corporation that employs him. A young woman’s pleasing personality may be the cause of her popularity in the office. But the good works of the believer are never the cause of his assurance. Who he is and what he has done are not in whole or in part the basis for the salvation of the child of God—not any aspect of his salvation, including the assurance of salvation. Rather, the cause of our assurance is Christ and His finished work, which is appropriated by faith alone.
Although good works are not the cause of assurance, good works do play a confirmatory role in assurance. This is clearly the teaching of Scripture, as we have seen in previous articles. In I John 2:3, the beloved disciple of Christ teaches, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” Similarly, he writes in I John 3:18-19, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.”
The teaching of Scripture is also the witness of our Reformed confessions. Good works serve to confirm the believer’s assurance of salvation. This is so because good works always arise out of true faith, the faith by means of which we are saved. No unbeliever but only the saved child of God can perform good works. Therefore, the good works that the believer produces are the fruit and evidence of his faith. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 33, Q. 91 asks, “But what are good works?” The first part of the answer is: “Only those which proceed from a true faith….” Arising out of true faith, therefore, good works confirm the faith out of which they arise.
In the last article, we began to take note of the teaching of our Reformed confessions on the proper relation between the assurance of salvation and good works. We examined the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21, Q&A 54. In the present article, we will continue to explore the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, turning now to Lord’s Day 32, Q&A 86.
Why must we still do good works?
Lord’s Days 32 and 33 introduce the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the Ten Commandments. Q&A 86 takes up the objection of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others who oppose the truth of justification by faith alone apart from works, that such a doctrine undermines the necessity of doing good works. If good works do not merit, so goes the argument, there is no motivation for the Christian to do good works. That objection is incorporated into Q. 86. “Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” Salvation by grace most emphatically does not rule out the necessity of good works in the life of the Christian. In fact, not only is a life of good works consistent with salvation by grace, but salvation by grace also establishes the Christian life of good works as the expression of gratitude to God.
The Heidelberg Catechism’s answer includes three reasons on account of which good works are necessary in the Christian life. Along with the fact that good works are an important part of the believer’s expression of gratitude to God, and along with the fact that good works serve as a witness by which “others may be gained to Christ,” A. 86 states: “Also, that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.” From the perspective of the answer, the child of God has faith. Out of that faith flow good works, which then serve to confirm the faith that he has, so that he is “assured in himself of his faith by [its] fruit.”
Some have explained A. 86 to be teaching that there is one and only one reason for doing good works. The one reason is “that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God…that He may be praised by us.” That we may be assured within ourselves of our faith and that others may be gained to Christ are not proper motivations for doing good works, they contend, but are only the effects (by-products or fruits) of a life of holiness.
It certainly is true that the outstanding reason for doing good works is that we may express our gratitude to God. Purposely, this reason is mentioned first in the 86th A. God and the glory of God must always be first in the Christian life. Consciously, the child of God must have God’s glory uppermost in his mind at all times. It certainly is also true that under the blessing of God our life of good works has the effect that we are assured of our faith. And it is also true that God may also be pleased to use our good works in such a way that their effect is that unbelievers are gained to Christ.
However, that the glory of God is the primary motivation for a life of good works does not preclude the desire of the believer “to be assured in himself of his faith” and the desire that “others may be gained to Christ,” as secondary motivations. We may draw a parallel to the means of grace. The truth that the preaching of the Word is the primary means of grace does not rule out that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also means of grace, albeit secondary means of grace. As secondary means of grace, they are always subordinate to the preaching of the Word as the chief means of grace. Apart from the preaching of the Word, they are not independent means of grace. In a similar way, the glory of God is the primary motivation for a holy life, while the confirmation of our personal assurance of salvation and the gaining of others to Christ are secondary motivations. But as secondary motivations, they are nonetheless real motivations to a life of holiness.
The teaching of Q&A 86 is that, in addition to the glory of God, the desire for our own assurance and for the salvation of the neighbor ought to motivate us to do good works.
Motivations for doing good works
That the Heidelberg Catechism sets forth three reasons on account of which the child of God ought to do good works is plain from the language of A. 86. Our English translation is consistent with the original German. After stating that first of all we ought to be motivated to “testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God,” the Catechism adds “also that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith…and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ” (emphasis added). The answer of the Catechism makes the three reasons on account of which we must do good works coordinate. They are joined by “and” and “also.” Each part of A. 86 is a response to the question, “Why must we still do good works?” First of all, and most importantly, we ought to be motivated to do good works in order to demonstrate our gratitude to God for salvation. Secondly, we ought to be motivated to do good works “that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.” And thirdly, we ought to be motivated to do good works “that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.”
There can be no question that the glory of God ought to motivate us to do good works. The Scriptures make this plain. The apostle says in I Corinthians 6:20, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” He adds in I Corinthians 10:31, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
There is also little question that the third reason on account of which we should do good works ought also to be a motivation for a life of holiness. The third reason for doing good works, according to A. 86, is that “by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.” If we love our unbelieving neighbor, co-worker, or relative as we ought, we should be motivated to do good works out of the hope that God would be pleased to use “our godly conversation” that they may turn from their life of sin to a life lived in God’s service. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls the citizens of the kingdom of heaven to “[l]et your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
In support of this third reason for doing good works, the Heidelberg Catechism cites I Peter 3:1-2: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.” Who can question that this was properly a heartfelt motivation to Christian wives in the days of the apostles to live godly in their marriages? This was the very thing for which they would undoubtedly be praying fervently every day—likely several times each day—that God would be pleased to work true conversion in the life of their unbelieving spouse. And now the apostle Peter holds this before godly wives as a motivation to live holily in their marriages, that their husband may be won to the gospel.
In keeping with the fact that these two parts of A. 86 are properly motivations to the child of God to live a life of good works, so too is the reason sandwiched in between these two reasons, namely, that “everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.”
Neither should such a motivation be regarded as a selfish and self-centered reason for doing good works. For one thing, it never stands alone as a reason by itself for doing good works. Neither our own confirmation of assurance nor our desire to gain others to Christ can be divorced from the outstanding motivation for doing good works: the glory of God. But in addition to being motivated by the glory of God, the gaining of others and the strengthening of our own assurance of faith are legitimate motivations for doing good works.
Next time, we hope to take note of what others have said concerning Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 86, and in particular what they have said about this matter of good works confirming true faith.
1 In this series of articles, I am using the expressions “assurance of faith,” “assurance of election,” and “assurance of salvation” as expressions that are nearly synonymous. That may properly be done because our salvation, both our present salvation and our final salvation, has its origin in election and is enjoyed by faith.