Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
The subject of good works is often considered under the heading of sanctification. Article 24 of the Belgic Confession, for example, is entitled “Of Man’s Sanctification and Good Works.” When God sanctifies us, He causes us willingly to perform good works. In fact, if God did not sanctify us, we would be completely unable to do good works. It is only by the sanctifying grace of God that we are able to begin to perform the works that are pleasing to our God.
This truth concerning the inseparable relationship between sanctification and good works is commonly denied. Most teach that sanctification is not necessary for a man to perform good works. It is the position of many, that the natural man outside of Christ is able to do much good. Thus they deny the truth concerning what good works are and concerning what is required for a man to perform them.
What Works Are Truly Good
We believers are performing good works whenever we are doing that which God commands us to do. It is easy to fall into the error of thinking that good works are only those for which we receive praise, or for which we might receive praise if someone knew about them. But we are doing good works whenever we are doing the work of the Lord, which means performing the work that God has called us to do. One of the main words for work in the Old Testament has as its root idea “doing that which one is sent to do.” Whenever we are doing what God has sent us to do, we are doing what is referred to in Scripture as “the work of the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58). Such works are referred to in Scripture as good works. Whenever we are faithfully performing the duties of our station and calling, whether in the home, the school, or in a workplace outside the home, we are doing good works, the works that God has sent us to do.
This means that it is our calling to perform good works constantly, without ceasing or ever taking a break. We are either doing good works or we are sinning. There is nothing in between. It is very important that we grasp and confess this truth. Sometimes those who are taught this truth will object to it. They may point out something that they know believers frequently do, and then say about that activity, “Now, I would not refer to that as a good work. But I also do not believe that it is a sin.” The fact is, however, that it is either one or the other. If it was done by faith, according to the law of God, and to His glory, then it was a good work. If it was not, then it was a sin.
Those who truly hold to the Heidelberg Catechism confess from the heart that good works are:
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. (Answer 91)
For a work to be good it must be done according to the law of God and to His glory. If a work was not done according to the law of God, then it could not have been done to God’s glory. The reverse is also true. If it was not done to God’s glory, then it could not have been done according to the law of God, for God commands us to do all things to the glory of His holy name.
For a work to be good it must proceed from a true faith, which means it must be done by someone who is trusting in God for the grace to perform the good work. If the person who performed a certain work does not even have a true faith, then it is certain that whatever he did was a sin. This is the explicit teaching of Scripture, when it says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). When this passage speaks of “whatsoever is not of faith,” it is referring to any thought, word, or deed that does not arise “out of faith.” The phrase “of faith” literally means “out of faith.” Only those thoughts, words, and deeds that come forth out of faith are good. All other activity is sin.
Sanctification Necessary to Perform Good Works
It is obvious, then, that only those who have been engrafted into Christ by faith, and who have the life of Christ within them, are able to perform good works. It is God’s gracious act of sanctification that causes us willingly to perform these works. When God sanctifies us, He delivers us from the dominion of sin and causes us more and more to walk by faith, performing works that are done according to God’s law. He gives to us the desire to please not ourselves, but the God who has saved us, so that we long to glorify not our own name, but His.
The relationship between what we are and what works we perform is often illustrated in Scripture by the relationship between a tree and its fruit. We read of this, for example, in Luke 6:43-45:
43)For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
44)For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.
45)A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.
An unbeliever is a corrupt tree, and a corrupt tree can produce only corrupt fruit. A believer still has a depraved nature, out of which arises only evil. But in the new man the believer has become a good tree, and is able to perform only that which is good. Now, out of the good treasure of his good, regenerated heart, he is able to bring forth thoughts, words, and deeds that truly glorify the God who has saved him.
The theory of common grace, however, denies this truth. According to this theory, there is another grace besides sanctifying grace, and this grace of God is given to those outside of the body of Christ. This grace is said to restrain sin in the very nature of man, so that he is not as bad as he otherwise would be. They go on to say that by the restraining power of this grace, the unbeliever is able to perform some good works — works, they say, that although they are not “spiritually good” are nevertheless “naturally good.”
False teachings often involve the confusing of two things that must be kept distinct, or the inventing of a distinction when none exists. The latter is clearly done by those who maintain common grace. Since Scripture and the Catechism so clearly state that a work must proceed from a true faith to be a good work, they invent a distinction between spiritual good and natural good. Then, when Romans 14:23 or Answer 91 of the Catechism is brought to them, they will say, “Here Scripture and our confessions are referring to works that are spiritually good. It is true that an unbeliever cannot do these. But he can do works that are naturally good.” But if man by nature is a corrupt tree, then all his fruit is corrupt. There are no “naturally good works” that arise out of the nature of sinful man. To teach otherwise is to deny the truth of total depravity.
In addition, we must not overlook the beginning of this ninety-first answer. It says that good works are “only those” which are described in this answer. Here we explicitly deny that any other works can rightly be referred to as good. Yet, even though this is so clearly set forth in Scripture and our confessions, there are many in “Reformed” churches who maintain that there are some good works besides those described in Answer 91.
Those who hold to the theory of common grace claim that only their teaching gives glory to God. “It is obvious to all,” they say, “that unbelieving man can do much good. He can willingly help those in need, even giving his life for another person on some occasions. Now, when we see this, we must not give unbelieving man the glory for it. We must give God the glory for it, by maintaining that these unbelievers are able to do this good not of themselves, but because of the common grace of God that has been given to them.” So the argument often goes. But this thinking arises out of the sinful reasoning of man, and is based on the false teaching that the natural man can do something that is good. They claim it is “obvious” that he can. But the Scriptures say that he cannot.
How then do we explain the works of unbelievers that outwardly may appear to be good? These are works done not out of a love for God, but either out of a love for oneself or out of a fear of the punishment for sin. This again is the explicit teaching of our confessions. In Article 24 of the Belgic Confession, we state that we believe that without a true faith, unbelieving men “would never do anything out of a love for God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” Even if they give their life to save another person, they do it out of self-love or fear of damnation, and thus it is not a good work, but a sin.
Only those being sanctified are able to do good works. They are the only ones who have the law of God written in their hearts, which is necessary for someone to obey from the heart. God says to us, “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14). If it were not in our heart, we would not be able to keep it from the heart. It is only those who are sanctified that have this law written within their new heart, so that they love that law and desire to keep it.
Preaching on Sanctification and Good Works
I end this article with a few words about preaching on this glorious work of God. Some people describe man-centered preaching as preaching that is too much about sanctification and not enough about justification. But it is not only justification, but also sanctification, that is not being sufficiently preached by those who place all or most of the emphasis on the calling of man. To hear about sanctification in the preaching is centrally to hear about what God is graciously doing within us, rather than what we are called to do. Oh, to be sure, when the truth of sanctification is preached, God’s people are also exhorted to keep the commandments of God. There is no question about that. But God’s work is central in preaching that is truly God-centered. Although God-centered preaching includes the strict preaching of God’s commandments (Lord’s Day 44), it does so while declaring that our act of doing good works is not a condition that we must fulfill, but a gift that God graciously works within us.
Such preaching does not lead God’s people to walk in sin. Rather, it causes them to be more thankful, and to walk in obedience. Such preaching empowers them actively to repent and believe, knowing all along that it is the work of the Spirit producing this obedience within them.