Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

The Reformed religion has the biblical understanding of the place of good works in God’s scheme of salvation for His chosen people. There is in Reformed religion a proper emphasis on the need for good works because of this understanding. God has redeemed us in order that we might be zealous of good works. “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). God has before ordained the good works of His elect. “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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). In the day of judgment God will judge every man according to the works he has done, whether they are good or evil. He will reward them according to those works (II Cor. 5:10).

Good works contribute nothing to the basis of our salvation. They cannot. We are saved by grace alone, without works, otherwise grace is no more grace. The only basis for our righteousness before God is the perfect righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ, merited by Him on the cross and freely given to us by His grace. Any imagination that good works contribute to the basis of our salvation is a denial of the perfect righteousness of Christ. When we boast of our own good works, we are guilty of robbing the Lord of the glory for our salvation that belongs alone to Him. Good works are the fruit of His work of salvation in us. They are performed by the redeemed child of God out of gratitude to God for His great salvation, not out of the vain imagination that we can still somehow do something to earn our own salvation. History has proven again and again that man is terribly inclined to the imagination that he will at least in part merit his salvation through his own good works. Many heresies have arisen in the past because of this sinful inclination of man.

The Heidelberg Catechism, the great confessional statement of the Reformed faith, clearly defines the purpose and nature of good works. It states absolutely that good works are the fruit of conversion in Lord’s Day 33. Conversion, rightly understood, is the mighty work of the Spirit of God in the heart of the elect child of God according to which he is radically changed, changed in his innermost being. The whole direction and course of his life is turned around from sin and death and wickedness, rebellion against God, to the love of God and righteousness, holiness and obedience, and the fear of God. The twofold application of this truth is that there can be no good works without conversion. Butalso, there is no man who is not interested in good works who can claim himself to be a true child of God. Good works are the mark of the true child of God. Our Lord declares in the Sermon on the Mount that a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, and a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. By their fruits ye shall know them.

But what are good works? Man has, since the Fall, debated the question of what is truly good. Believing the lie of the devil, man always wants to argue that goodness is possible without God. Pagan philosophers have boasted that they know morality and virtue. Modern godless society prides itself in being the champion of what is good and virtuous. Each man has his own understanding of what he imagines to be truly good. False religion always insists that goodness is possible without the grace of God. This is one of the greatest errors of the heresy of common grace. According to this heresy the grace for doing good works is common to all men. Therefore all are able to do good works, even the unconverted. How contrary to Scripture this teaching is.

The Heidelberg Catechism sets forth the absolute teaching of God’s Word regarding good works. God alone is good. He is absolutely good. There is none good beside Him. There is no good that does not come from Him. He is infinitely good. He is the source and standard and judge of what is good. All of this has tremendous implications, practical implications for Christian living. We humbly confess as Reformed believers that the good works which we do are no reason for our boasting in ourselves, because no one can perform such good works except by the grace and Spirit of God.

I was impressed again by the clear and absolute definition of the Heidelberg Catechism of what good works are when I recently preached on Lord’s Day 33 in our congregation. 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 the imaginations or institutions of men.” This definition is soundly and sharply biblical.

Good works can be done only through faith in God and faith in Christ Jesus. Listen again to just a few passages of God’s Word. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). There is no neutrality possible. One either does good or he sins. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Our Lord Himself has the same absolute teaching. He commands us: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4 and 5). The sum of Reformed doctrine regarding the relationship between faith and good works is as follows. Faith is God’s gift to His elect. Faith is the personal, living bond that unites the believer to Christ. The power to do good works comes to the believer through relying on the Lord Jesus Christ, by abiding in Him and He in us. Therefore there is no reason for boasting in good works but only for glorying in Christ. When we walk in good works, the glory of the power of Christ in us is revealed. God is glorified by the good works that we do because they reflect His own work in us through His Son Jesus Christ.

The inspired apostle James, really in his whole epistle, teaches the truth that good works are the fruit of faith. “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:17). James teaches that good works involve sincere and true love for the neighbor, which is revealed in genuine care and concern for our neighbor’s welfare. Good works include the careful control of our tongues, so that we do not speak evil to or about the neighbor. Such good works must be the fruit of faith. Only when this fruit is evident is our faith true and genuine. “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?… Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works…. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:14-24). Taken out of the context of the whole argument of James, such language might be construed to be heretical and to contradict the clear teaching of the rest of the Word of God regarding good works. James, of course, was not heretical. He did not contradict the teaching of the inspired apostle Paul concerning good works. Works are not the ground of our justification before God. Works are, however, the infallible and necessary fruit of justifying faith, which is the only faith that is living and true faith. God’s people must be constantly admonished to bring forth good works in their lives.

The law of God is the perfect standard of good works. It is God’s standard. Good works are not those performed according to the imagination and institutions of men. How prevalent this latter idea is in our modern society. Consider the feminists of our day who insist that the greatest good is a woman’s so-called right over her own body. This “right,” according to the instructors of this evil philosophy, allows her even to murder her own unborn child if this child interferes with her freedom to live life according to her own selfish interest and pride. Goodness, according to modern philosophy, is concern over the environment, gay rights, freedom of the press even to produce pornography, and all sorts of other vile evils. What a warped standard of good man has when he departs from God! Jesus accused the Pharisees of neglecting the law of God and putting in its place the standards of men. Read Matthew 15:1-9. How abominable this was to the Lord.

The teachers of the Roman Catholic Church have given their own standards for good works. They insist that priests and nuns must remain celibate. They teach that such a state is superior to marriage for priests and nuns. They glory in the monastic life style and the life of asceticism. They extol pilgrimages to Rome and rendering homage to the images that fill their churches. In doing these things they become guilty of teaching the doctrines of devils, laying burdens upon people that God’s Word does not lay upon them. At the same time they lead men away from true piety and godliness. In their churches they are guilty of promoting the gross idolatry of image worship. Through history foolish and sinful men have always argued that they can themselves set the standard for what is good. Man, in keeping with the lie of the devil, sets himself up as judge of what is good and evil. At the same time he rejects the only and perfect standard of God’s law.

The law of God is not something arbitrary. It is not true that God could just as well have given us another set of commandments than those He gave to us. The law of God reveals the absolute perfection of God Himself in His very nature and being. Therefore in His law God Himself declares what is good in His sight and what is pleasing unto Him.

The psalmist often extols the goodness of the law. He makes many earnest prayers to God. “Teach me thy way, O Lord. Teach me thy way. Lead me in the way of thy commandments. With thy law to be my guide I will never turn aside.” The law of God is absolutely perfect. Read the masterful Psalm 119 and learn how the psalmist extols the law of God and how earnestly he desires that his whole life be ordered according to its perfect standard. What an example of true godliness!

The law of God is perfect because it requires first of all that we love God. There can be no good that does not follow from love for God. Humanism is not something which God calls good. Goodness cannot have its end in man’s welfare alone. The law of God requires that we love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind. The law of God is not a set of cold, formal principles but a guide for walking in the love of God. The law of God as it was given at Mount Sinai is introduced by the mighty foreword, “I am the Lord thy God which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The law is God’s will for His redeemed people that they may learn to walk in obedience before Him in the way that pleases Him and brings glory to Him. In the way of keeping His law they enjoy His favor and goodness and blessing. By keeping God’s law, His people show that they are a peculiar people, different from the world. We are called to be holy and separate and consecrated to God through the keeping of His law.

Obedience to the law of God is the supreme manifestation of love for God. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the great example of this. He kept the law of God perfectly, without compromise, because He loved God perfectly and it was His purpose to fulfill all righteousness. Through His death Christ exalted the glory of the law of God. He died for the righteousness of the law of God. By honoring the law of God He honored God. Jesus fulfilled the righteous demands of the law of God on our behalf because we were wholly incapable of keeping God’s law, being prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor. But it is also true that the righteousness of the law of God is fulfilled in us through His Spirit. So all things are according to the law of God. There cannot be any goodness independent from the law of God.

The glory of God must be the purpose for which we do all things. Only when the purpose of all our works is the glory of God are these works truly good in God’s judgment. God created all things for His own glory. “Thou are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” Man, the greatest of all God’s earthly creations, was created a personal, moral, rational creature. He therefore has the moral obligation consciously and willingly to seek in his whole life the glory of God his Creator and Lord. God has redeemed His people by calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light, in order that they might show forth His glorious praises. Jesus teaches us this truth. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8). We must abide by faith in Christ so that through good works we might glorify His Father in heaven. God is glorified when His truth is maintained in the church and when it is faithfully confessed by her members. This is of course in itself one of the greatest of good works. God is glorified when His people, by His grace and Holy Spirit, walk in the good works which He has before ordained for them.

To have the glory of God as the purpose for good works is absolutely contrary to every inclination of the natural man. He glories in himself. He is hopelessly devoted to seek his own honor and glory in the world. One need only pay a little attention to the modern-day media in its portrayal of man, the movie stars, the sports greats of the world, the rich and famous, to be convinced how shockingly wicked man is in seeking his own glory in the whole of his life.

Our sinful nature is contrary to the purpose of God’s glory in the doing of good works. We are still terribly inclined to seek our own glory and to have the praise of men as the motive for the good works that we do. Many of the good works that we do are spoiled by the evil motives for which we do them, especially the motive of our own vain glory before the world and even in the church. The real test of good works must be this, how we live when we are all alone and only God is watching us. We need often to confess before God the sins that we commit in connection with our attempted good works even in His church.

The glory of God must be the motive of our heart first of all. God is not pleased with mere outward works of righteousness, which are the occasion for boasting and glorying before men. If we love God we must live our whole life for His glory. How different the works of men are before God. They might appear outwardly the same. Two men may both put the same amount of money in the offering plate during the worship service. One will do it for his own glory, perhaps even for secret self congratulations. Such a man has utterly spoiled his work. Another man, with grace in his heart, will do the same deed humbly in thankfulness to the God who has given us all things. Only this man has performed a good work before God.

Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, we must do all to the glory of God. All the so-called common works of our life, whether in our personal life, in our life in the home with our families, at the work place, and in society, have moral dimensions to them. The great moral issue is: are we living for our own glory and aggrandizement, or for the glory of God?