Lord’s Day 24
Question 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?
Answer. Because that the righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Question 63. What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
Answer. This reward is not of merit, but of grace.
Question 64. But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?
Answer. By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
In the previous Lord’s Day we learned that our righteousness is in Christ alone. The justice of God requires perfection from man, and only Christ’s righteousness is perfect. Lord’s Day 23 also showed us the relationship of faith to justification, faith being the gift of God by which we receive and rest in Christ’s righteousness. We are not righteous because of the worthiness of our faith, and faith is not a substitute for righteousness.
In this Lord’s Day we are taught what the relationship of good works is to justification. Good works are essential in the life of every one who is saved, but good works are not the reason for our justification, not even in part.
Lord’s Day 24 answers three common objections to the truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Each of these objections is asked from the point of view of our good works.
A Proud Objection
The first objection comes from a person who is rather proud of his achievements and thinks that surely his works deserve some recognition from God. This is not only the objection of false teachers who want to attribute some part of salvation to man, but is often an objection that will come up in our minds too. Perhaps we think that our lives, which are “more holy,” distinguish us from the world of the ungodly and make us more worthy of salvation than others. Or maybe when God brings suffering and pain into our lives we ask, “Why me?” as though we deserve something better.
All false religions teach that man can help to save himself by doing good things. For example, Islam teaches that if you do enough good things, they will outweigh your evil deeds. Only true, biblical Christianity teaches that man cannot save himself, not even in part, by doing good deeds. This teaching has been under constant attack throughout history, and is still being assaulted today by those who teach conditional theology.
There are three reasons our good works cannot be of any help in making us righteous and acceptable with God. The first is that God Himself is perfectly righteous, and so our righteousness, if it is to be accepted by God, must also be “absolutely perfect” and “in all respects conformable to the divine law.” And the law is inward, so for a work to be perfect it must be done with perfect love to God and with absolutely no trace of sin in our hearts either towards God or man. It is impossible to find such righteousness among man.
The second reason is that, even though by grace we do do good works, our best works are still “all imperfect and defiled with sin.” We sing God’s praises, but not always from the heart. We pray, but our minds wander. We ask for forgiveness and the power to overcome a particular sin, and then turn to it again. All our best works are as “filthy rags” (). The only person whose works were perfect in God’s sight was Jesus Christ, and we can be righteous only by the gracious imputation of His righteousness to us.
The third reason is that good works are the fruit of salvation (sanctification follows justification), and so good works cannot be the reason that God justifies us. If our works were the reason or foundation of our justification, then salvation would be man’s work, and man would have reason to boast. But because salvation is all of free grace, all human boasting is excluded (). Our works only make us more corrupt and defiled, and so to trust in them as a ticket to heaven is absolute folly.
A Second Objection
The second objection comes from the camp of false teachers who want to insist that man is saved, at least in part, by his works. Every heretic has his proof texts, and so the argument is that the Bible says we will be judged according to our works, and that our good works will be rewarded by God with eternal life (; ; ; ). If God rewards our good works, then doesn’t that mean that our good works have earned a part of our salvation?
How do we answer this objection?
First, the Bible teaches very clearly that the power to do good works comes from God. We never do a good work by our own strength. Jesus says, “Without me, ye can do nothing” (). Paul tells us that “it is God that worketh in you to will and to do of his good pleasure” ( ). And so our Belgic Confession says in Article 24, “We are beholden to God for the good works that we do, and not He to us.” God planned our good works ( ) as the fruit, evidence, and purpose of our salvation ( ). If our own good works are not produced by us, then God owes us nothing for them.
Besides, the Bible teaches that if we would live a perfect life without any sin, still when we would come to the end, we would not have earned anything from God. Jesus says to His disciples, “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” (). God created the birds to sing. Do they earn something by singing? God created fish to live in water; does He owe them a reward for staying in the water? God created man as His friend, to love Him and to serve Him perfectly; does He owe man anything should he fulfill his created position? No! God is in no way indebted to man.
And yet, God does reward His people for their good works. The reward, then, must be of grace, undeserved and yet freely given. Just as the ability to do the good works is of grace, so the reward is gracious. The rewards are never earned. Our good works are always deficient and insufficient, and yet God rewards them. With his father’s help and coloring supplies, a little child colors a picture. It’s far from perfect, and yet the father praises the child and rewards him. Similarly, God rewards us, though we are unworthy.
A Careless Christian?
The third objection is again both theological and practical. The theological objection is that the teaching of salvation by grace alone makes it impossible to teach the requirements of the law of God with any weight. The practical objection, which can sometimes arise in our minds as an excuse for sin, is that if salvation is all of grace and I can contribute nothing to it, then it does not really matter at all how I live; I am saved anyway, so I can go right along with the world in its sin, satisfying my every sinful pleasure—why do we even bother to talk about good works?
People who argue like this are not Christians, do not understand the gospel, have not personally experienced the work of God’s grace in their lives, and are despisers of the requirements of God’s Word.
The sinner who is justified is also sanctified. When God saves a sinner, He sets him free not only from the penalty of sin (justification), but also from the power of sin (sanctification). The Bible has as much to say about our sanctification and godly living as it does about our justification and forgiveness.
The experience of salvation—knowing that I personally am justified and forgiven—produces a heart of gratitude and love for God in the sinner. As Christians, we not only see that obedience to God in the life of good works is necessary, but we want to do good works. These are the “fruits of thankfulness.”
And further, this argument presents an impossibility. It is impossible that a saved child of God would use free grace as an excuse to sin. It is impossible that a regenerated believer not produce works of love to God. It is impossible because we are implanted into Christ. As Paul says in Romans 6:2, “How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
Saved by grace, I am free from the guilt of sin, and my heart swells with thanksgiving and love to my God, and so I love to live to Him! And when I sin, I don’t say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, I’m justified.” No, then I say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Questions for Discussion
1. What are the three objections to the truth of justification by faith presented in this Lord’s Day?
2. Where do you hear these objections? Do you recognize them also in your own proud and sinful heart?
3. How do you answer each of these objections?
4. What is the attitude of the natural (unsaved) man towards his works? How does this contrast to the attitude of the child of God toward his good works? (Seeand .)
5. Is it correct to speak of God “rewarding” us for our good works? How does this reward come? What does this teach us about God, and how is it an incentive to good works?
6. Why does the Bible talk about God judging us according to our works on the Last Day? ()
7. Can a person be saved if he has no good works?
8. How doeshelp us in the struggle with sin? How, according to verse 12, should we think of ourselves?
9. In light of this lesson, how do you evaluate modern funerals and their extensive eulogies concerning the dead? What should our focus be at the funeral of a believer?