In light of some recent online controversy surrounding the place of good works in the lives of Christians, I am engaged in this series of posts with the aim of encouraging zealousness (rather than mere theological debate) for good works. In the previous post, I began to discuss what we mean by “good works” by attempting to clear out some misconceptions. This post turns in a more positive direction, seeking to answer the question more directly—soon enough we will be on to examining excerpts from historic Reformed preaching and writing.
But first, what are good works?
- Good works are actions done in obedience to God’s commands. Very simply, good works are the things God has commanded of us in his Word (Micah 6:8). The Word of God is sufficient for us to be instructed and corrected “in every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). No area of human life is left unaddressed by the commands of God, which are “exceedingly broad” (Psalm 119:96) and form an all-encompassing ethic under God for all of life. The moral realities seen refracted in the glory of creation, the flow of human history, and the conscience of men (Psalm 19:1-6, Romans 2:12-16) come to us in clarity, vivifying power, and divine perfections in the Bible (Psalm 19:7-11). The Bible comes to us as a word from heaven, the most precious treasure, sweet to our souls, warning us as God’s servants and promising us great rewards for obedience (Psalm 19:10-11). The one who believes God’s Word then lives his life then as if under the call of Abraham, “Walk before me faithfully and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1) and with a desire to more and more “find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10), having our thinking renewed by God’s Word so that we can discover what is pleasing, acceptable, and perfect (Romans 12:2). There is a kind of zealous religious activty that is without knowledge of what pleases God (Romans 10:2) and actually ends up doing evil in God’s name (John 16:2). But the Christian does good works, leaving “the secret things... to the LORD our God” and clinging to “the things that are revealed.... unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
- Good works are done in faith. In fact, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:1). Adam had to believe God’s Word to please and remain in the pleasures of God; since the fall, the need for faith is doubly great! We are not merely creatures who need our Lord to direct us. We are great sinners who have done no completely pure and full righteousness, nothing that could earn or deserve God’s mercy or favor, “no not one” (Romans 3:10). We were “sinful at birth, sinful from the time [our mothers] conceived” us (Psalm 51:5). “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and through faith alone, “the blood of Christ... cleanses [our] consciences from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). In fact, our good works may be rightly described as the fruits of the empty and open hand of faith continuing to lay hold of Christ. As faith alone looked to Christ and received justification and the Spirit, the believer now lives the life of sanctification as “faith working by love” (Galatians 5:6) “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). By faith we not only believe that God is, but “that he is the rewarder of those who seek him”, and so are called forward and motivated to obedience (Hebrews 11:1).
- Good works arise from a renewed will and God’s continued supply of the Spirit. As the Westminister Confession of Faith Chapters 10 describes, the roots of both faith and good works are found in a mighty work of the Spirit called “effectual calling.” This work of the Holy Spirit brings a person out the fallen state of sin and death into a state of grace and salvation. This work is described by Christ as being “born again” and “born of the Spirit”(John 3) so that one can see (vs. 3) and enter (vs. 5) the kingdom. Without this work we remain blind to Christ and unable to come to him for salvation, but with this work we not only come to Jesus certainly but also freely. Having renewed wills, and being determined to what is good, we now “volunteer freely in the day of [God’s] power” (Psalm 110:3). This initial work is only the beginnings of a glorification which continues on in sanctification by the ongoing work of the Spirit of Christ within the believer, causing him to actively, personally, “will and do” the things that please God (Philippians 2:13), conforming him more and more in the “practice of true holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (WCF 13.1). The believer until consummated glory, will be in an “irreconcilable war” yet by the same mighty Spirit who first raised the believer to life, “the regenerate part does overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3).
- Good works are sincere, please God, and are progressive in nature. Everyone who has been made alive in Christ in the work of regeneration accomplished in our effectual calling now has “a new heart and a new spirit created in them” (WCF 13.1). They by faith have “cleansed consciences from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). They are those who now worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24), cleansed on the inside what comes out of their lives is also clean (Matthew 23:25, John 15:3). They now work to “carefully determine what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10), so that growing in godly wisdom they may “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work” as they increase in knowledge and are strengthened by the Spirit to keep on going (Colossians 1:9-12). This life of sincere, God-pleasing obedience is seen as a progressive journey from which those who have a true faith do not “shrink back and are destroyed” (Hebrews 10:39). This is because “through him who loved us” the justified are made “more than conquerors” even as they face all kinds of trials and temptations. God is faithful and provides the way of escape so they do not utterly fall (Psalm 37:24, 1 Corinthians 10:13). They conquer, “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony” loving Christ even when faced with death (Revelation 12:11). Then having “fought the good fight... finished [the] course... and kept the faith” they inherit a crown of life. So, we see in the sincere, pleasing, and progressive obedience of the believer the beautiful wisdom of the Proverb: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” (Proverbs 4:18)
That’s enough for now. The next post continues to answer the same question...