Of Good Works

Paragraphs 1–3 of Chapter XVI of the Second London Confession

Both saving faith and repentance unto life imply a heart that is alarmed at the evil of sin and attached to the beauty of righteousness. Faith sees the beauty as well as the absolute necessity of the perfect righteousness of Christ and goes to Christ for life, righteousness, sanctification, eternal life. Repentance arises from heart-repulsion at the ugliness and evil of sin and expresses itself in continual turning from every evidence of sin that dwells deeply in the flesh. Both of these aspects of saving union with Christ flow from a sight of the goodness of the law of God, peculiarly as expressed in the death and righteousness of Christ, and press the believer toward embracing that same goodness—“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). The desire to have our thoughts and actions conformed to the principles of true righteousness undergirding the revealed law, the commandments of Jesus Christ, drive believers in their lives. Good works—we put no trust in them but nevertheless pursue them.

The first three paragraphs of this chapter point to the Bible as our source and authority for knowledge of good works, synthesize passages describing spiritual advantages of doing good works, and argue for the necessity of human exertion in full dependence on the Spirit for the performance of good works.

Good Works Conform to Biblical Revelation

As a doctrinal statement birthed in the Reformation one would expect the kind of distinction drawn in the first paragraph of this chapter. “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy word; and not such as without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions.” This statement embodies two of the most compelling and revolutionary ideas of the Reformation. The first principle is that of sola scriptura and the second is sola fide.

In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin wrote, “Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command.” Calvin found this to be particularly true in efforts to reform the worship of the church. “I know,” he wrote with the confidence of present experience, “how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” He along with other advocates of reform sought to remove from corporate worship all things that had been added to the simple, clear propositions of the Word of God.

He found the same thing true in dealing with concepts of “good works.” Calvin observed that the state of religion in the sixteenth century included “laws and regulations made binding on conscience which obliged the faithful to things not commanded by God” [Geneva Confession, art. 17]. Instead they established “another service of God than which he demands.” Such invented acts of obedience Calvin condemned as “perverse doctrines of Satan,” specifically violating “our Lord’s declaration that He is honored in vain by doctrines that are the commandments of men.” So Zwingli agreed, that “no Christian is bound to do those things which God has not decreed” [67 Articles” 24]. 

As a result, many of those actions required by the church as indicative of a pious and meritorious life, including work of supererogation, were condemned as needless, insulting inventions imposed on Scripture, derogatory of the true goodness of the law, and contradictory to the gospel. Such practices as pilgrimages, the wearing of certain types of clothes, fastings, canonical alms, showing reverence to images of the saints, were not good works at all (for God never required them). These, in fact, fall into the category works “without the warrant” of Scripture, but “devised by men, out of blind zeal.” Such blind zeal served to hide from people both their desperate condition of sinfulness before the law of God and the perfect merits of Christ.

This effect was prominently displayed in the writings of the Reformers. Zwingli wrote, “That Christ is our justice, from which it follows that our works insofar as they are good, so far they are of Christ, but insofar as they are ours, they are neither right nor good” [67 Articles, 22]. The Augsburg Confession stated, “We begin by teaching that our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace for us, for this happens only through faith, that is, when we believe that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who alone is the mediator who reconciles the Father. Whoever imagines that he can accomplish this by works, or that he can merit grace, despises Christs and seeks his own way to God, contrary to the Gospel” [Augsburg Confession, XX.] In pointing out the error of Rome on this issue, Calvin lamented, “On no account will they allow us to give Christ the honour of being called our righteousness, unless their works come in at the same time for a share of the merit.” He did not want to be understood as minimizing the moral absolute of the law or of the necessity of Christians, yea, all persons, seeing that perfect obedience is certainly required. “The dispute is not,” he explained, “whether good works ought to be performed by the pious, and whether they are accepted by God and rewarded by him, but whether by their own worth they reconcile us to God.” Can we, he inquired, “acquire eternal life as their price,” and do they serve as “compensations which are made to the justice of God, so as to take away guilt.” Can they, indeed, “be confided in as the ground of salvation?” [The Necessity of Reforming the Church] No one can plume himself on the merit of works “as if they laid God under obligations by them.”

The Confession, as an expression of Reformation doctrine, rejects any invention of men as binding either as a mark of spirituality, morality, righteousness, a sin to be repented of, or a doctrine to be believed. When the Pharisees exalted their unwarranted standard above the law of God, Jesus upbraided them as people like those the Lord reprimanded in Isaiah 29 who honored Him with their lips while their hearts were far away. They worshipped God emptily, for they taught as “doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:8, 9). They wanted Jesus to repent for he had offended them (Matthew 15:12) by ignoring their invented standard of holiness. Jesus wanted them to repent because they had ignored the true requirements of the law. 


Though Not Saving, Good Works Bear Fruitful Witness

In Scripture, good works all flow from a proper understanding of the law of God and those clear implications within the law that emerge from the power of the gospel. The Confession in paragraph 2 gives several vital advantages to the performance of good works. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:22, 23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Certainly, there is no law against them for they are immediate implications of the law. All of these beautiful traits of character and conscience arise from love for God, trust in the perfect purpose of God, satisfaction with his providence, and love of neighbor as ourselves. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul pointed to the law as good when used in the right way. It is the true standard of righteousness, and therefore does not correct a truly righteous person, if there were such. But for all others, each of the commandments condemns actions that are prominently practiced in all cultures. The actions Paul mentions are all violations of the Ten Commandments in some way and thus are “contrary to sound teaching.” In addition, this “sound teaching” is in accord with “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:8–11).

The teaching of “Good works,” therefore, helps inculcate a proper understanding of the relationship between law and gospel and serves to highlight the true power of the gospel in the life of a sinner. “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits, and evidences of a true, and lively faith.” This accords with the teaching of James that a true believer shows his faith by his works and gives evidence of an active and maturing faith (James 2:18, 22). 

In addition, works according to the true spiritual strength of the law manifest gratitude to God for His salvation. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift,” Paul exclaimed as he pointed to the leading motivation for giving a generous gift to the Christians in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 9:15). God gave His Son in order to honor His law for both vengeance and righteousness; in gratitude for such a gift we honor the law by joyous, sacrificial love for our neighbors, particularly those of the household of faith.

Good works done out of love for the law strengthen the heart’s assurance of salvation. Peter saw an advancement in conformity to the holy spirituality of the law as vital for discerning that efficacy of one’s call and thus for assuring one of his or her election (2 Peter 1:8–11). The Psalmist in effusive celebration of the goodness of the law and of his love for it, comfort in it, and its driving him to trust in God alone for forgiveness and righteousness, wrote “I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I do your commandments. My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly” (Psalm 119:166, 167 ESV).

Good works edify our brothers by prompting them to glorify God for producing such fruit in the hearts of sinful, selfish people. “In the same way,” so Jesus instructed, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). A profession of the gospel and the lifestyle that follows, Paul found as a motive for giving instruction to slaves; “Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” Paul did not allow deviation from this instruction for it was consistent with the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6: 1, 3). 

The doing of good works also gives opponents of the gospel nothing condemning to say: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). Not only will cantankerous criticisms be put to silence, but the pursuit of the excellence that arises from attention to the works and spirit required by both the Law and the gospel, will result in extended praise to God. This will happen to some degree in increasing measures in this life, but will explode into praise when Christ comes. Those who give sincere attention to approving what is excellent will be found “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1: 9–11; cf 4:8).

Good works are a manifestation of saving grace, not that they save in the sense of justification, but that they arise from the steady removal of the corruption of the heart that also is involved in the comprehensive purpose of God in cleansing His people from sin. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of yourselves, but the free gift of God; this salvation does not arise from works, so that no one will ever boast. For you are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works which God made ready beforehand purposing that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10). As we are elect in Christ Jesus to be “holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4), these prepared good works constitute one aspect of that blamelessness. A. T. Robertson wrote in his comments on this passage, “Good works by us were included in the foreordination by God.”

That good works are not merely optional, but constituent in the very marrow of saving grace, is emphasized in the confessional phrase, “that having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life.” The proof text is Romans 6:22: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” The slaves of sin receive the wages of death, but God’s intended outcome for his slaves is a life fit for eternity in his presence. Not only are we God’s slaves, but His sons. As such, He disciplines us to produce His intended outcome the “peaceful fruit of righteousness,” and, at the same time, admonishes us to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:11, 14). Though good works do not justify, God will save no one that he does not sanctify.


Good Works are the Proper Fruit of the Indwelling Spirit

The production of these good works arises from the personal operation of the Holy Spirit in us. So the confession reads, “Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves; but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.” The confession points to John 15:5, 6 summarizing this doctrinal assertion. There Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in Him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Those who do not abide in Him do not bear fruit, but wither, and are gathered up to be cast away. This comes after Jesus has given a lengthy explanation about the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces obedience to Christ as a fruit of engendering love for Christ (John 14:18–24), and by revealing the truth about Christ and His work of obedience to the Father (John 14:25–31).

Not only has the Spirit changed our disposition from one of hatred toward God and holiness and given us love for Christ in the fullness of his obedience to the Father—not only has the Spirit revealed the true standard of righteousness and given us motivation to drive toward it—but he also operates within us moment by moment secretly enlightening, clarifying, strengthening, guiding us toward more purity in thought and life, more zeal for the glory of God, more knowledge of conformity to the truth, and more hope in the prospect of finally being like Christ. The confession points to Philippians 2:12, 13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation’s richness should produce holy fear and mental trembling—a nervous fixation on eternal things that will let us rest with nothing less than an increasing sense of the divine glory in all the things that have conspired to grant to sinners eternal life. We reach down into the very depths of all our mental perceptions, our manner of establishing values, our intense distrust of ourselves, along with a growing awareness of the subtle and destructive power of the flesh and exhaust our energies to live with consistency what we have professed in the gospel. We cannot relax, we cannot let go, we must be ever watchful. We must maintain a sober suspicion, not of others, but of our own souls. A. T. Robertson comments:

Paul has no sympathy with a cold and dead orthodoxy or formalism that knows nothing of struggle and growth. He exhorts as if he were an Arminian in addressing men. He prays as if he were a Calvinist in addressing God and feels no inconsistency in the two attitudes. Paul makes no attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human free agency, but boldly proclaims both.

Of course, I disagree that one of these is more “Arminian” in its emphasis, but the admonition still is plain and perfectly consistent with Paul’s concern. Human agency and responsibility, human motivation and exertion of energy, human perception and determination all operate in perfect harmony with divine power and divine decree. God superintends all things at each successive moment by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself. This superintendence moves forth according to His eternal decree so that not one motion of the wind or drop of mist in the raging waters falls accidentally but obeys His power and prior determination while at the same time each follows a pattern of cause and effect intrinsic to the relations of all the elements of the universe. Even so, we exert all of our energies to achieve the highest of all callings—actually to conduct ourselves according to the originally implanted law of God in the heart, to love God supremely with no rival and to love our neighbors as ourselves—while we know that apart from His effectual operations by His Spirit, we truly can do nothing.

The confluence of these realities, divine effectuality and human agency, means that we do not wait for some inner promptings before we do what we know, by divine revelation, is right. Even when we recognize utter dependence on present operations of grace, Christians are “not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith contains this simple plain statement on the relation between faith and good works.

It is also taught among us that good works should and must be done, not that we are to rely on them to earn grace but that we may do God’s will and glorify him. It is always faith alone that apprehends grace and forgiveness of sin. When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works… Consequently this teaching concerning faith is not to be accused of forbidding good works but is rather to be praised for teaching that good works are to be done and for offering help as to how they may be done [Augsburg, chapter XX].

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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