Good Works

June 4, 2018

Paragraphs 4–7 of Chapter XV of the Second London Confession

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was summoned to a meeting by a disgruntled deacon. His concern? Habitual tardiness by various members who held leadership roles in the church. I listened sympathetically because I shared his concern. Then the conversation took a turn I was not expecting. It became apparent that his frustration was not due to the fact that habitual tardiness on the part of leaders set a bad example or hindered the effectiveness of various ministries on the Lord’s day and beyond. He began pounding his fist on my desk and said, “This is not fair. My family gets here at least fifteen minutes early every Sunday. We meet all the expectations. We keep all the rules. And we are treated just like all those families who come in late every Sunday!” I realized that I was face to face with a Baptist deacon who was a Pharisee. What made this particularly troubling is that in order for a person to serve in leadership in this particular church he had to express publicly (among other things) that he was in “wholehearted, non-divisive agreement with The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.” It was fairly obvious that this man’s thinking on the matter of good works in the life of a Christian was not being informed by Chapter 16 of this Confession, much less the teaching of Scripture. 

The value of a good confession of faith cannot be overstated. In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, B.H. Carroll asserted, 

“A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness. The modern cry, ‘Less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jelly fish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy.”1 

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith affords the serious Christian the tool which Carroll thought to be so valuable for the health and vitality of a church. Charles H. Spurgeon led the congregation he pastored in London to adopt this confession in 1855 and said of it, 

“This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby ye are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of the scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.”2 

I am so very grateful to Dr. Stan Reeves for his careful labor in taking this venerable Confession and presenting it in language better suited for the 21st century reader.3 Before I undertake an explanation of paragraphs four through seven in the Confession’s statement on “Good Works”, I will briefly comment on the first three paragraphs. Paragraph One makes it clear that the idea of good works is defined by Holy Scripture. We are not at liberty to make up our own list of good works. I am reminded of a “Deeper Life” teacher who decades ago was explaining to an audience his understanding of what the Scripture meant in teaching that Christians are declared righteous in Jesus Christ. He said that his first righteous act that day was to brush his teeth. Aside from the silliness of this claim, God’s Word alone is the arbiter regarding what constitutes “good” works. Paragraph Two makes the case that good works are the fruit, not the root of the gracious salvation by grace through faith that God offers to sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paragraph Three applies the doctrine of sanctification to the expression of good works. While it is the responsibility of every believer to engage in and manifest good works, the capacity to do this comes from the Holy Spirit dwelling in the life of the believer. This fact does not let the Christian “off the hook,” however, since he or she is responsible for manifesting good works as the inevitable expression of having been saved. Sam Waldron, in his excellent book, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, makes the keen observation that it is only in “the gospel economy”4 that good works have any spiritual value and then only for the Christian. 

Paragraph Four of the Confession states:

16:4 Those who attain the greatest heights of obedience possible in this life are far from being able to merit reward by going beyond dutya or to do more than God requires. Instead, they fall short of much that is their duty to do.13

asupererogate. 13Job 9:2, 3; Galatians 5:17; Luke 17:10.

This paragraph asserts that the highest obedience one has ever achieved, or the greatest demonstration of obedience one has ever observed, are woefully inadequate to “merit reward” from God for one’s efforts. Even though we have been delivered from the condemnation of sin (and its attending dominion) in our justification by faith, we have not been altogether delivered from the condition of sin. To say it another way, we have been delivered from reigning sin, but we still fight a war with remaining sin. For this reason, our very best efforts as Christians are mixed with sin.

This paragraph serves to remind us that progressive sanctification is an inseparable grace with its twin, justification. It also challenges and brings a corrective to the harmful teaching of sinless perfection. Roman Catholics teach that if a Catholic endeavors to add practices such as celibacy, a vow of poverty, and/or a commitment to monasticism then he or she can exceed God’s righteous requirements. The word used for this is “supererogation.” This means going above and beyond what is required. This, however, is not possible. Jesus taught in Luke 17 that such an idea was irresponsible.

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7–10, ESV).

When a servant has done “all” that he or she was “commanded,” that obedience has not added one thing to his or her standing before God, because of the great gulf that exists between God’s holiness and the Christian’s remaining sinfulness.

Other groups teach a similar possibility of achieving sinless perfection, only with different wrinkles. Our Baptist forefathers were keenly aware of their religious surroundings and, like their Presbyterian (the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1637) and Independent (the Savoy Declaration of 1658) brethren, they wanted to set themselves apart from those who espoused such a pernicious error.

Paragraph Five states:

16:5 We cannot, even by our best works, merit pardon of sin or eternal life from God’s hand, due to the huge disproportion between our works and the glory to come, and the infinite distance between us and God. By these works we can neither benefit God nor satisfy Him for the debt of our former sins.14 When we have done all we can, we have only done our duty and are unprofitable servants. Since our good works are good, they must proceed from His Spirit;15 and since they are performed by us, they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot withstand the severity of God’s punishment.16

14Romans 3:20; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 4:6. 15Galatians 5:22, 23. 16Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 143:2.

The first reality stated in this paragraph is that our very “best works” cannot and will not give us any ground or gain us any advantage in attaining to eternal life from God’s good hand. The reason given for this is that there is an unfathomable gap between the nature and expression of our works now and the glorious arena in Heaven where all those who have been declared righteous in Jesus Christ will dwell on day. As the prophet Isaiah declares in Isaiah 64:6, “…all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Our very best endeavors do not add anything of value to the being or character of God, because He is “wholly other” and does not depend upon us for anything. Again, the prophet Isaiah is very clear in helping us come to grips with the fact that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts and His ways (i.e., His works) are not like our ways.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV).

Horatius Bonar begins his work, How Shall I Go To God? with the answer to that question. “It is with our sins that we go to God, for we have nothing else to go with that we can call our own.”5 The conclusion from Luke 17:10 (see previously) is that the best we can call ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ when we have engaged in the sincere undertaking of what has been taught us and exemplified for us in God’s Word is “unworthy servants.” This is as it should be. For God declares, “I am the LORD (Yahweh); that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8, ESV). For mere mortal man, whose best stature on this earth can be described as a sinner saved by grace, to expect to get credit for “only doing our duty” is a subtle, but nonetheless real, attempt to take from (or at best share in) God’s glory. We do not, by anything good accomplished by us, increase God’s satisfaction with us or diminish our debt owed to God. God’s satisfaction with us and His willingness to cancel the inestimable debt we owed to Him is based solely in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to the law of God and His substitutionary, sin-bearing, wrath-appeasing, sacrificial death on the cross at Calvary, whereby He (without our help) satisfied divine justice, by His suffering and death in the place of every sinner who would repent of sin and trust in Him. This is the understanding set forth in various catechisms. We read in C H. Spurgeon’s A Catechism with Proofs:

24. Q. How does Christ execute the office of a priest?

A. Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice (Heb. 9:28), and to reconcile us to God (Heb. 2:17), and in making continual intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).

The second point made in this paragraph is that the follower of Jesus Christ must recognize that anything that can be called “good” that we practice or accomplish while we live has its origin in the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is what Paul refers to as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 2:22–23, ESV). This is, in fact, what makes our works “good.” This wonderful truth is tempered, however, with the reality that as followers of Jesus Christ, born again by the Holy Spirit, living by the Holy Spirit, walking in the Holy Spirit, being continually filled with the Holy Spirit, we still struggle with remaining sin. Therefore, in our very best expressions of good works, sin is nevertheless mixed in all that we do. The seventh chapter of Romans shows this in bold strokes. Paul could rejoice that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV) and declare “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV). These hope-filled truths did not negate the reality for Paul that “…I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18a, ESV). This is the Christian’s “dilemma.” Even though we have been delivered from the punishment of sin (Justification), and are presently being delivered from the power of sin (Sanctification), we have not yet delivered from the presence of sin (Glorification) and will not be until we are with the Lord in glory. Were it not for the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us, our very best works would not withstand the fiery blast of God’s wrath at the judgment.

Paragraph Six of the Confession sets forth good news for the follower of Jesus Christ and the value of engaging in good works.

16:6 Nevertheless, believers are accepted through Christ, and thus their good works are also accepted in Him.17 This acceptance does not mean our good works are completely blameless and irreproachable in God’s sight. Instead, God views them in His Son, and so He is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, even though it is accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections.18

17Ephesians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5. 18Matthew 25:21, 23; Hebrews 6:10.

In spite of the fact that every Christian is plagued with the reality of remaining sin which stains everything he or she thinks, says, or does, there is good news. Because of God’s marvelous grace, believers are “accepted through Christ” (Ephesians 1:6) and enabled “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). This is what some call “evangelical obedience” as distinct from and contrary to “legal obedience.” Because salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone transforms the mind, emotions and will of the individual, the motivation of the Christian undergoes a transformation as well. Before salvation, a person looks at the precepts and examples set forth by Jesus Christ and His followers from one of two faulty perspectives. The first is a very superficial perspective that concludes these are easy to do. Usually there is a serious watering down of Christ’s teachings that results in a legalistic list of “dos” and “don’ts” and results in a functional form of antinomianism. The other approach to the precepts and examples of Jesus Christ and His followers is that they are unreasonable and place an unnecessary burden on people who “just want to be saved.” The gospel response to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ and His followers is best expressed by the Psalmist, the Apostle Paul, and the Apostle John.

While the entire 119th Psalm is a tribute to the value and of God’s precepts, verse 11 gives a sense of an evangelical attitude toward that which the Lord requires of those who have been declared righteous by the merits of Jesus Christ: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11, ESV).

Paul declared that even in the midst of the battle with remaining sin he nevertheless found himself delighting in God’s law: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Romans 7:22 , ESV). 

John taught that the new birth involves a change of the whole person so that the reality of it is manifested by a love for God, a love for those who by God’s grace have also been born again, and a love for the commands of God. In the aftermath of the salvation experience the believer finds that the commandments of God are not a burden.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:1–3, ESV).

For those in Christ, God looks upon the good works and acts of obedience and accepts them with all of their imperfections because we are in Christ. This is glorious good news for the sincere Christian.

Paragraph Seven of the Confession makes a sober observation and gives an attending warning to those who are not yet Christians as pertains to their engaging in or failing to engage good works.

16:7 Works done by unregenerate people may in themselves be commanded by God and useful to themselves and others.19 Yet they do not come from a heart purified by faith20 and are not done in a right manner according to the Word21 nor with a right goal—the glory of God.22 Therefore, they are sinful and cannot please God. They cannot qualify anyone to receive grace from God,23 and yet their neglect is even more sinful and displeasing to God.24

192 Kings 10:30; 1 Kings 21:27, 29. 20Genesis 4:5; Hebrews 11:4, 6. 211 Corinthians 13:1. 22Matthew 6:2, 5. 23Amos 5:21, 22; Romans 9:16; Titus 3:5. 24Job 21:14, 15; Matthew 25:41–43.

Because good works are defined by God and flow from His goodness and mercy, anyone who engages in such activity may well receive temporal value from participating in them. However, because the unrighteous person always falls “short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), no matter how beneficent or philanthropic his or her deeds may be, such conduct is not accepted by God. Rather it is viewed as sin. Martin Luther referred to this as committing “splendid sins.”6 Thomas Brooks called it the act of engaging in “glorious sins.”7 Even though the most noble work an unconverted person can do cannot in any way curry the gracious favor of God, the failure to do good is an even greater sin in the sight of God will be met with His greater displeasure.

One would think that Ephesians 2:8–10 makes it abundantly clear that we are saved completely and exclusively by the marvelous grace of God, so much so that any notion of our contribution by way of works is utterly excluded and thus removes any ground of boasting on our part. In addition to that, this same Ephesians passage makes it equally clear that while we are not saved by works, the nature of salvation is such that good works are the inevitable outcome of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Sadly, this is not a matter generally understood and embraced in the current Christian milieu. Thankfully, The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, in a marvelous demonstration that the Scripture is its own best interpreter, can assist the sincere follower of Jesus Christ to walk the evangelical path of living in the glorious delight that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, while at the same time recognizing the sobering truth that the same God Who ordained our salvation, also ordained that we should practice good works.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10, ESV). 

 


NOTES:

1 B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible, Volume 6 (Baker Book House, 1973), 140.

2 The Baptist Confession of Faith with Scripture Proofs (Gospel Mission, n.d.), Foreword.

3 Stan Reeves, The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English (Founders Press, 2017).

4 Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press, 1989), 209.

5 Horatius Bonar, How Shall I Go To God? (Religious Tract Society, 1881), 1.

6 Waldron, A Modern Exposition, 212.

7 C. H. Spurgeon, Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks: Being a Collection of Sentences, Illustrations, and Quaint Sayings, from the Works of That Renowned Puritan, Thomas Brooks (Sheldon and Company, 1860), 235.