Selfishness is so deeply rooted in man’s heart that at the moment it becomes plain that there is no merit of ours in doing good works we stand aghast and say: why must we still do good works? The Heidelberger proposes this question, not because he himself is not plain on the issue, but he is engaged in showing us that we are by nature a very selfish lot.
If our good works could merit us something, if they could gain us something, then we would gladly do them, yes we would be eager to do them. But, now, if there is no merit in them then why must we still do good works? The very touch of His grace has exhausted us. We had gotten so far that we did good works, so far in fact, that we became rather zealous in doing good works. Now however it becomes evident that there is no gain or merit to be sought in the doing of them and at once we are exhausted, we cry out: why must we still do good works? By nature we can conceive of no other reason for doing them than for personal gain and merit, if that possibility is shut out we have come to our wits end. The fault is that we have fallen short of the glory of God. The error is that the one motive for doing good works was so far beyond the reach of our minds that we did not even give it a thought. We did not even conceive of the possibility of doing good works out of any other consideration than selfishness and gain. Therefore we are somewhat shocked when the grace of God exhausts us and clearly lets us feel how selfish we are by nature.
Consider with me the following:
First, when sin entered the world we followed in the footsteps of our deceiver, Satan. Satan sought himself and intended himself and in his selfish pride he aimed at the overthrow of God’s anointed. By nature we are equally selfish. Not God, but ourselves. Not God’s glory but own advantage. That the worldly man ever seeks himself is abundantly evident from Scripture and social life. Even in their so-called benevolence enterprises the slogan is: serve others and you serve yourself. Not only the worldly man, however, also the renewed man remains by nature selfish. And this selfishness is most pronounced when it comes to doing good works. God has prepared us these works beforehand with the express purpose that we should walk in them and glorify Him in them, but the principle of selfishness seizes upon these good works as so many opportunities to advance ourselves.
Secondly, how evident it is that the so-called good works of the natural man are but manifestations of selfishness. If there must be some other motive for doing good works than the motive of selfishness the natural man withdraws himself. As long as there is something to gain by obeying the Law, as long as there is something to earn, some personal benefit to be accrued, he is willing to do it; but if it appears that good works may not and cannot be done out of a motive for self-glorification, they drop off one by one, and the God-centered believer is left alone. But even in his heart he feels a question arising: why must we still do good works?
Thirdly it is evident how extremely difficult it is for the regenerate to really do good works. We believe according to Titus that the unbeliever is “unto every good work reprobate” i.e., he is unfit, not useable for good works. He can indeed do many things that seem good and that approach the obedience of God’s Law (and men will praise thee when thou doest good to thyself, Ps. 49:18) but it is impossible for him to escape selfishness. He does all things, whether according to or contrary to God’s Law, with an eye to his own gain. And just that makes his works true works of darkness and covetousness. Impossible as it is for the unbelieving to do good works, so extremely difficult it is for the believer to do them. It is difficult for him to crucify himself, difficult to put self aside. He is a creature that delights in earning power and wants to entertain a feeling that if he does what God commands he is amassing merit with God. Or, in other words, he still proceeds toward self.
How easily we serve God with the thought in our hearts that we will be rewarded for doing. The consideration of reward is scriptural but reward as a matter of merit is not scriptural. How easy it is for us to make long prayers out of the principle of self-gain. How easily we go to divine services with the thought of personal benefit uppermost in our minds. How readily we give of our material things to the Kingdom with the consideration in the back of our minds that somehow, sometime we will get a recompense for our sacrifices. How naturally we give gifts with our minds on a gift in return. How easily we approach the Law as a step-ladder to heaven of enjoyment. We serve God because we want to go to heaven, are afraid of evil because we fear the results. We easily send our children to catechism and the Christian school as a guarantee that they may enter heaven, etc.
Sometimes, indeed, our considerations may even reach an apparently higher level. We do good works to acquire ease of conscience, a sense of well-being because we seemed to have done our duty. Or perhaps we rest in the contemplation that we have done this or that man a favor and we reflect on it with serene satisfaction.
But still we have ended in ourselves. We have not got beyond our very selves. It still is man seeking himself.
And just there we fail.
Is there nothing more to consider than ourselves?
God condemns such works.
Christ has merited all, there is nothing to gain, nothing to merit.
Then still do good works?
Yes, just then. When we realize that all things are of Him and are through Him, then shall our works aim to have all things be unto Him. Our good works then come as a contemplation of this problem: What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits unto me? Because Christ has merited all things and because He is the God of my salvation gratitude replaces selfishness. Instead of doing them with an eye to self we begin to do them with an eye to God and His glory. Then do good works out of the principle of gratitude. Out of gratitude proceeds obedience. God commands that we shall pray, render mercy to the poor, give for the Kingdom, fast, etc. etc., and we would walk in these good works because they are the God-given means whereby we shall express our gratitude.
Not self, but God, not own advantage, but God’s glory.
That unto Him be all things. The more we contemplate His goodness and the immensity of the salvation which He has freely given us, the more we shall be a people zealous of good works.