Good Works

Lord’s Day 32

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?

A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for His blessings, and that He may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?

A. By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

This Lord’s Day begins the third major section of the Heidelberg Catechism, “Of Thankfulness.” After guilt and grace comes gratitude. How grateful we should be for our salvation! Jesus once said that the person who has been forgiven much will love much in return (Luke 7:47). Everyone who has experienced the saving grace of God knows that he owes an eternal debt of gratitude to God. We show this gratitude by always presenting ourselves to God as living sacrifices of obedience (Rom. 12:1).

The subject of this Lord’s Day and the next is “good works.” We are taught here that even though we are not saved by our good works, still we must do good works. Salvation by grace does not free us from the obligation of obedience. The law of God is necessary, not only to demonstrate to us our sin and need of repentance, but also to show us how we ought to live in gratitude for our salvation.

The Necessity of Good Works

When it speaks of the necessity of good works, the Catechism uses absolute language. Question 86 says that we must do good works! This is another way of saying that good works are essential to, and absolutely necessary in the life of the Christian. Q&A 87 teaches that without good works one cannot be saved and cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

We are inclined to soften this. Arguing from the position that salvation is all of grace without works, we tend to view good works as “important” and “desirable” in the Christian life, but we do not like to hear that they are demanded and essential. “After all,” we say, “we are not able to keep the law, so let the law show me what I cannot do, not what I must do.” Though we are not ready to admit it, we usually think this way because there is some sin in our lives that we are enjoying too much to let go. We see obedience as “optional” and not “necessary.” We compartmentalize the time, relationships, and pleasures of our lives—“this one for God, this one for me”—and figure that in the end God will forgive us.

If this describes you at all, then you need to repent of the sin of presuming on the grace of God, of saying, “Let us sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). In Psalm 19, David prays not only to be cleansed from his secret faults, but also to be kept back from presumptuous sins. A presumptuous sin is one of which he is aware, but he goes ahead and does it anyway. The danger, he realizes, is that if he indulges these sins, they will have dominion over him (Ps. 19:12-13). Sin gives the devil a foothold (Eph. 4:27).

The Scriptures are not indifferent to good works. Those who live habitually and impenitently in known sin show themselves not to be true Christians. Yes, we all stumble along the way (James 3:2; I John 1:8); but there is a difference between falling into a sin and jumping in with both feet. And, it does not matter what that sin is—pride, slander, theft, covetousness, sexual immorality—if we continually give ourselves to it day after day, without a fight and without repentance, the Bible says we will not and cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. So we read in Ephesians 5:5, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

The true Christian is always discovering the greater depths of his sinful heart and is continually fighting against and repenting of his sin. Good works and obedience are essential to the Christian life.

The Place of Good Works

Although the Bible teaches good works, there is always an order: first salvation, then good works. Salvation is not based upon works, but rather salvation is the sovereign work of God by His grace and Spirit and it produces good works. Good works are a part of the salvation that God works in us.

Arminian theology (and indeed all false religion—consider Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism) puts works ahead of salvation. It teaches that we are saved because of our good works, that by the exercise of our free will we are able to believe, and that this is pleasing to God and accepted by Him in the place of perfect obedience. The Scriptures teach, however, that the only possibility of our doing any good works, including believing, is that God first works by His saving grace in us (Eph. 2:8-10). When the Catechism teaches that good works are essential, it does not mean that good works are meritorious.

This order can be seen when we, on the one hand, look at salvation from God’s point of view. When God chose us in eternity, when Jesus died to redeem us, when God the Holy Spirit regenerates us, God always had our good works in view. This is the purpose of His sovereign, saving work. Titus 2:14 says that He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Similarly, I Peter 2:9 teaches that we are chosen and sanctified in order that we “should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The God who made all things for His own glory, saves us so that we might bring glory to Him by our good works.

On the other hand, looking at salvation from our perspective, we see the same order: first salvation, then good works follow. In Luke 7, Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors, one forgiven little and one forgiven much. Simon the Pharisee is the debtor forgiven little, and so loves little, whereas the woman who knows she has been forgiven much loves much. When once we have experienced the grace of God, our hearts are filled with gratitude and love to God. This gratitude shows itself in an obedient life of good works (Rom. 12:1-2).

This must be the order because, as Jesus says, “a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). Good works come from a heart that has been changed by the grace of God.

The Purpose of Good Works

“Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit” (John 15:8). The primary purpose of good works is God’s glory. In fact, this is really the only purpose, and all other purposes serve this one. In the beginning, God made us for His glory. When sin entered, we turned from glorifying God to glorifying the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). God’s purpose in re-creating us is that we again bring Him glory.

This means that we ought to live a life of good works without regard for man. We do not do good works for the recognition of man, and we live a life of godliness and good works without worrying about the displeasure of our fellow man. God does not give you the ability to do good works in order that you may receive a medal on your chest, but that He might be praised by you. Too often when we do what is good, we are checking that others are watching, we are looking for praise, and then our pride stands in the way of God’s glory.

There are two other, subsidiary purposes for good works. These too ultimately bring God the glory, but they show that good works also benefit us. There is, first, a personal benefit for the Christian who lives a life of good works. The Catechism puts it this way, “that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.” Scripture puts it this way, “And hereby we do know that we know him if we keep his commandments” (I John 2:3). This does not mean that good works are the basis of our assurance—no, that is the cross and blood of Jesus Christ. However, the believer in faith may reason this way: I do good works; good works are always the result of grace; therefore, I must be saved. The result is a stronger faith in Christ, a deeper love for and gratitude to God, and praise for the work of grace.

The other benefit of good works is the increase of the church. Not only do our good works benefit the other members of the body, but they also have an evangelistic purpose. “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (I Pet. 2:12). Our conduct—what we do and do not do; our words—both the kinds of words we use and the subject of our conversation; our deeds—kindness, service, forgiveness; and especially our attitudes—towards life and others, are compelling demonstrations of the transforming power of the gospel. By them someone who does not know Christ and the gospel can know what a Christian is, and can be induced to ask the reason of our hope (I Pet. 3:15). Of course, witnessing is more than living; it is also speaking. But if you are not living a godly life, your witness loses its power and credibility. Are you a Christian who is zealous of good works?

Questions for Discussion

1. How are we tempted to downplay the importance and necessity of good works?

2. What is antinomianism? What does it teach about good works? How might this become a danger in a Reformed church?

3. What is legalism? Is the Heidelberg Catechism legalistic in stating that we must do good works? Why, or why not?

4. Give proof from Scripture that obedience to the law of God is not contrary to salvation by grace.

5. What is a presumptuous sin (Ps. 19:12-13)? What is the unique danger of such sins (I Tim. 4:2)?

6. You are familiar with the expression “Sunday Christians.” Does God’s Word allow for this kind of compartmentalizing of our lives? Does going to church nullify a life of disobedience?

7. What is the only way into heaven for an “unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like”?

8. Are good works God’s gift to us, our gift to Him, or both? Explain.

9. Are good works possible apart from saving grace that produces love for God? What does “common grace” as adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 teach concerning good works? How do Romans 14:23 and Proverbs 21:4 answer this?

10. What is the source of our good works? Can you prove this from Scripture?

11. What moves you as a believer to want to live in good works?

12. What is the primary purpose of our good works?

13. How do our good works assure us of our salvation? Do we focus on the good works themselves for assurance?

14. Is your life a testimony to unbelievers of the power of God’s saving grace? Are you deliberately evangelistic in your living?