Good Works—Yes, No

The subject of good works has given rise to confusion in the minds of some of God’s people. The reason for that is not difficult to understand. On the one hand, the Word of God and the Confessions speak of good works and admonish the saints to perform them. On the other hand the Word of God and the Confessions stress that our good works are not “the whole or part of our righteousness before God,” “and also that our best works in this life are all imperfect, and defiled with sin” (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 24). Since the emphasis of the Scripture is upon salvation by grace alone without works, one could ask “Does not that truth make one careless with respect to performing good works?” 

Part of the cause for confusion concerning good works may also lie in the difference between what man accounts a good work and what God accounts a good work. 

Let us try to shed some light from the Word of God on this subject by first considering the positive aspect (Good Works—Yes) and then considering the negative aspect (Good Works—No) and finally considering the relation between the two. 

The Scripture clearly teaches that the saints can do and must do good works. In Matthew 5:16 we read “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Jesus is here teaching us that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven do perform good works. A more powerful text concerning good works we find in Eph. 2:10. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Here the deepest cause for good works is seen in the foreordained purpose of God, to glorify Himself through the good works of the saints. The only possibility of good works is presented here to be through recreation in Christ Jesus. 

The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 33 asks the question “But what are good works? and it answers, “Only those which proceed from a. true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.” So often we judge works according to our imaginations and the institutions of men. Do not we often think of good works from the point of view of their external value or how they will look in the eyes of men? We like to think that a good work would be something great, spectacular, and easily appreciated by men—for example, to give $50,000 to the cause of Missions or for the construction of a new church or some other building. That may or may not be a good work, for that depends on the motive of the heart, and only God can see the heart. By far the majority of the good works of the saints are not evident to men because they take place in the regenerated heart of the child of God. 

The “heart” in Scripture denotes the center of the spiritual life of a person. A regenerated heart is the seat of a true and living faith. In the new hearts of God’s children dwells the new, eternal, and heavenly life of Christ Jesus. With new hearts God’s people love God and the neighbor. In that reborn heart there is a desire that, above all things, the name of God be glorified. Out of that regenerated heart the saint walks in the way of all of God’s commandments. 

The child of God has this new life now in principle, that is, in seed form. He has a beginning of heavenly, eternal life now. But when we say “in principle” that does not deny the reality of good works that proceed from the new heart. Often it seems that we are inclined to deny the reality of spiritual things simply because we cannot touch them. That is due to the weakness of our faith. Let us use an example to show the reality of “in principle.” When we plant a seed, a bean seed in this case, soon the kernel swells. Something is happening inside which we as yet cannot see. If we take that swollen seed and break it open we will see a bean plant “in principle.” Small, tender, immature but nevertheless the complete beginning of a mature plant. So it is with the child of God; in principle there is a complete beginning of a mature life of good works. 

The whole life of the child of God as he lives out of a true faith involves good works. Believing in God through Jesus Christ is a good work. Praying properly to God is a good work. Confession of sin before God and the neighbor is a good work. Trying to walk according to all of God’s commandments and to His glory are good works. Good works are real. God has before ordained that we should walk in them. Saints doperform good works. That is briefly the positive aspect of good works. (Good Works—Yes)

Turning now to what we termed the negative aspect of good works (Good Works—No) we will consider two questions. In the first place, “Are good works the whole or part of our righteousness before God?” Or, in other words, “Do we gain merit by our good works?” Secondly, “Do the good works of the child of God come to manifestation perfectly, that is, without the defilement of sin?” The answer to these questions is, of course, negative. 

It is not difficult to show from the Word of God that by good works we do not merit righteousness before God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8, 9) “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” (Rom. 11:6) “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) All the righteousness of God’s people is in Christ Jesus. His is the only righteousness that God will receive as satisfaction for sin. If a man tries to merit righteousness by performing good works, the terrible weight of the law crushes him. There is only one possibility of righteousness before God and that is in and through the cross of Jesus Christ. All attempts to merit righteousness are odious to God, a stench to His holy nostrils. “. . . All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6) It is forever impossible for a man to merit anything before God, for God has created man to serve and to glorify Himself. If a man does not do what God requires, then he becomes disobedient and guilty before God. If a man does serve and glorify God perfectly through good works (which he cannot do after the fall) then he still does not merit anything because that is what his Maker requires. “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10

Secondly, we consider the question “Do the good works of the child of God come to manifestation perfectly, that is, without the defilement of sin?” We have seen that the child of God does perform good works in principle, but the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 25 teaches “that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.” In Rom. 7:19 we read: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It is when we look at these two truths side by side that we can become confused. 

The child of God with a regenerated heart has a desire to glorify God through good works, but he finds that the good works that he wants to do, he does not. And the evil works that he does not want to do, he does. The explanation for this miserable situation is that the regenerated heart of the saint lives yet in the flesh. The new heart is designated as the “inward man” in Rom. 8:22. Scripture also speaks of the “new man,” which, of course, implies rebirth through Christ Jesus. The “flesh” referred to in Romans 7 and elsewhere denotes the “outward man,” “the old man,” or “carnal mind which is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” The “flesh” surrounds the “heart.” The “heart” can only come to expression through the agency of the “flesh.” The problem is that the “flesh” is corrupted through sin and is the enemy of all good. It is always disobedient to the will of God and always obedient to the will of the devil. The “flesh” is filled with pitfalls and ruts of sin. The “flesh” is crooked and perverted. When the child of God, therefore, seeks to perform good works he finds that, as they pass through the flesh, they become defiled and corrupted by the ways of sin in the flesh. Even our best works and our loftiest motives cannot come to expression without corruption. For example, a child of God has sinned against a brother and therefore against God. By grace he knows that the way to forgiveness and peace lies in repentance. By grace he is able to carry out that good work, but not perfectly. Even while the child of God is on his knees before God in prayer confessing his sin he has a mental picture of himself: he views himself as a truly humble man doing now just the right thing. You see, pride creeps in and spoils the good work. Or one saint sees another saint in need. He, is motivated by his new heart to manifest the mercy of Christ to that one in need. That is a good work. But at the same time there is a burning fleshly desire for someone to become aware of his deed of mercy. He may carry out his good work in a way that men can see. You see that again the good work is tarnished with pride and self-glorification. That is not satisfying to the saint; in fact, it makes him miserable and leads him to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24) There is in this present life not one moment in which the “flesh” ceases its corrupting influence upon us. There is not one good work that can come to expression without becoming ensnared in the ruts of sin. This is the negative aspect of good works. (Good Works—No) 

Finally, what is the relation between our desire to bring forth good works and our inability to do so perfectly? Shall we despair and give up the struggle against our flesh? May we take the attitude that it makes no difference how we live since we are foreordained to good works? Never may we do that! 

The calling of the child of God is to be a faithful soldier and to war against the world, the devil, and his own sinful flesh. He is called manfully to fight against and overcome sin, the devil and his whole dominion. He must struggle mightily to bring forth good works to the glory of God. The very fact that he cannot do that perfectly makes him see his own wretchedness and cry out for deliverance. 

There is, however, comfort and victory for the saints—comfort in that they do good works because God has graciously chosen them to be vessels of honor. God by His Holy Spirit has given new life, and God upholds that new life because He has foreordained that His people should walk in good works. God leads the saints to the glorious victory so that they receive the reward of the faithful—life eternal. Presently God will free us from the corruption of our sinful flesh and bring us to glory. Glory for the child of God will be that he is able perfectly to bring forth good works without the opposition of the flesh. Is that your only comfort?