Knowing that good works are what are prescribed in Scripture and that good works are the fruit of salvation, we are now able to ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of our good works?”
The Confession continues, “And by [good works] believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.”
First comes thankfulness. The primary goal of good works is to express our gratitude to the God of all creation for our redemption. Psalm 116:12-13 says, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” The psalmist asks what he could possibly do to return the good that God has done on his behalf. Truly, there is nothing that could repay the Lord for him paying the debt we owed him. All we can do in turn is to call on his name in faith and repentance. That is the primary good work. We continue in faith and repentance throughout our earthly lives, and these are the good works that spring from a thankful heart.
One perennial issue for believers is the confidence they have in their faith. Truly, our confidence should be in our Lord’s work, not in our own faith. But we should, however, seek to strengthen our faith. That comes in obedience to his commands. John tells us, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). Even in our great weakness and inability to perfectly obey the law of Christ, in seeking greater conformity to his likeness and obedience to him, we make our calling and election sure. Unbelievers may seek the good things that come from God, but they never seek to please him.
The other good works we do are for the purpose of edifying our fellow believers. We do not do good works for bragging rights but to build up the faith of others. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “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). Any good work we do that is seen by anyone else is for the purpose of bringing glory to God. That includes what we do in worship. Is our worship a performance for others or for God? Our are prayers shining a light on our vast vocabulary or the glory of God?
To adorn our profession of the gospel, The Confession means that we confirm it. As Peter tells us, “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). Good works both give us assurance of faith in our hearts and minds as well as confirming our confession to a watching world. No one doubts that our age is one of ongoing criticism of the church. They might say they take issue with this or that doctrine, this or that ethic, but their real issue is that they hate Christ and his church. Our good works increase their condemnation, because they have to admit that our actions line up with our words.
There is also the simple matter of not giving our God a bad reputation because of our actions. Paul tells Timothy, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Timothy 6:1). God’s name should matter deeply to us. We should actively seek, by the good we commit and the evil we omit, to make God’s name great on the earth.
Why do our works reflect on God? Because we are his workmanship, as Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). The good works we do—the worship, the prayers, the edification, the piety, the purity—are all prepared for us before the foundation of the world. They are simply left for us to do. Imagine a full dishwasher the morning after pushing Start. They’re waiting to be picked up and put in the right place. Our good works are waiting for us to do them.
And finally, we see that good works are not ends in themselves. They serve a higher purpose, which the Confession recognizes is eternal life. “Teleology” is the science of purpose: why does something exist? What is its endgame? The “telos”, or the purpose, of good works is noted by Paul. “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” (Romans 6:22). In no way do our good works earn us anything at all. Either we earn eternal damnation on our own, or Christ earns eternal life on our behalf. We are not talking about the root of our salvation but the fruit. Good works are the material of sanctification, and that itself is the pattern of life until we are glorified in the eternal state.
Next week, we’ll see where the ability to do good works comes from.
Good works must be defined biblically. Otherwise, we will start to think of good works as anything and everything. Good works are those behaviors which God has prescribed and which bring him glory.
If good works are those which bring glory to God, then they are works which we can only do in faith. No man attributes glory to God before the act of regeneration. The Confession continues with the place of works in the life of the believer.
“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.”
There are those who say that Paul’s doctrine of justification is contrary to James’ doctrine of justification. But reading each of the relevant passages in context shows that to be untrue. Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners. It is James who primarily speaks of works as the evidence of faith, though by no means is it absent from Paul’s letters.
James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). “Works” is the usual biblical term for the evidence of saving faith. Some examples include charitable acts, a renewed way of treating your family, a renewed work ethic, a renewed prayer life, and an ever-increasing sense of love and joy in being made right with your creator.
Martin Luther came very close to saying that he hated God because God demanded righteousness and we cannot meet the righteous standard. But everything changed when Luther read and meditated on Romans 1:17, “For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
This was the turning point for Luther. He later wrote, “Night and day I pondered until I grasped the truth the the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”
And yet, Luther, including many other firm believers throughout the ages, have struggled with the language that James uses. He said that he would give his “doctor’s beret” to anyone who could reconcile justification and works between Paul and James.
We must keep in mind a few things when we come across texts that at first seem to say opposing things. The Bible does not contradict itself; use clear texts to interpret unclear texts; understand the context; we should attempt to build a system of theology that considers the full counsel of God.
At the Jerusalem council, Peter reported on his ministry to the Gentiles, concluding that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). James then speaks on behalf of the entire council, perhaps even being the one who drafted the letter sent with Paul and Barnabas. Their decision is to not impose any burden on the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ except refraining from what would offend their Jewish brothers and sisters (Acts 15:19-21). James agrees with Peter that God saves by grace through faith.
Famously, Paul writes in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
And again in Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Is James contrary to Paul when he writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21)?
Or again, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (James 2:25)?
Context helps clear the confusion. Paul was writing to those who taught that we must add works to faith in order to achieve justification. James was writing to those who taught they had faith but whose works proved otherwise.
By way of reminder, Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners.
What’s incredible is that both Paul and James use Abraham to make their point, quoting Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (cf. Romans 4:3, James 2:23).
James ties Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to this statement, but it took place 30-40 years before Genesis 15:6. So while Paul simply uses it as proof of the source of Abraham’s righteousness, James is using it as proof that Abraham possesses righteousness.
James also uses the story of Rahab to make his point, from Joshua 2 and 7. We don’t read the conversion story of Rehab; we simply read about what she did. And that’s the point: a renewed heart and a renewed spirit will without question be reflected in renewed behavior, however meager. If Rahab made this big verbal show of her faith in God, but then she let the spies get killed, what would we have thought about the validity of her faith?
Trying to separate faith and works into two different categories is like trying to separate body and breath. You might separate them for reasons of discussion and understanding, but to say one is unnecessary is to kill the other.
But we can’t combine faith and works in such a way so as to make faith a work itself. Works are simply the expression of our faith. We worship, we pray, we serve, we repent, we commit, and we humble ourselves not to get anything from God but because of what God has already done. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
Next week, we’ll look at what results from good works.
If I were a betting man, I would say that two of the more difficult doctrines to understand in their relationship to each other is the role of good works and salvation. Scripture speaks to the importance of holy living and doing good. Scripture also speaks of the finished work of Christ and our inability to add anything to it.
Besides that, what should be considered “good works”? Is every nice thing we do a good work? What if it could have been nicer? When does it become good enough?
The Confession helps us in thinking through these questions by driving us back to Scripture. The Confession spills a lot of ink on this topic. It begins, “Good works are only such as God has 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 is immediately helpful in defining what good works are. For many of us, when we think of good works, we think of helping little old ladies across the street or buying your neighbor’s daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. With the sinful effects on our minds and hearts, we need guidance on what pleases God.
When God is reminding the disobedient Israelites about his consistent provision to him, he asks them what he has commanded in return. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). These are the good works God commands in return for his loving care. We take on the role of advocate in seeking biblical justice. We take on the role of caregiver in showing kindness to others. We take on the role of a humble servant in walking with God.
As the author of Hebrews concludes his comments on sacrifices that are pleasing to God, he writes that God will “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever” (Hebrews 13:21). Not only does God command these good works, but he also makes doing them possible. It is grace that began the good work in us, and it is grace that continues the good work in us.
We see in this definition of good works that motives are vital to right understanding and behavior. If we want to please God, we will do the work he has given us. If we want to please others, we’ll make extravagant shows of religiosity. This is what makes social justice so repugnant; it is a self-indulgent show of piety while nothing of any significance is accomplished. We may not think of social justice as a religion, but it absolutely is. The difference is that it’s a works-based religion.
Isaiah speaks to the vanity with which many worship God, which should be our good work. Jesus then quotes Isaiah, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9). This was the practice of the Pharisees, who Jesus then called hypocrites. To invent new ways to worship God does not please God. We do not create new laws and regulations, burdening God’s people when he has set them free from rules such as, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21). The outcome of every new attempt to worship in a novel and unbiblical manner is legalism.
Many within the Pentecostal movement claim that their worship is free and unhindered, simultaneously demanding that people speak in tongues and have fresh experiences of the Holy Spirit. They froth the emotions of the people through music and prayers and tell the people that God is being worshiped. Emotional expression is the key to “good” worship, they say. Freely expressing yourself and your feelings is the point of worship gatherings.
How does God know if you love him or not? You get his attention by volume, extravagance, and lots of emotion. I can’t help but think of how the prophets of Baal did everything in their power to get Baal’s attention. They had to get creative and ending up cutting themselves to show their devotion to the point that their blood gushed everywhere. Elijah, however, did not need to scream or bleed to get God’s attention. He said a simple prayer, and God sent fire from heaven to consume his sacrifices (1 Kings 18:20-40). If you’re not familiar with the story, check it out and see what happened to the priests of Baal who tried to get his attention in extravagant ways.
Pentecostalism has had an enormous influence in how other denominations expect worship to be handled. People jump from church to church looking for the best “worship experience”. We talk about worship as if it is a product to be peddled, and it had better be more energetic and flashy than the church just a little bit bigger than ours or we’ll lose people.
Is this the standard for good works set forth in Scripture? Do you find a single reference to “energy” or “experience” in evaluating the health of a church?
Of course, this is not to argue that the worship of God and the Christian life should not seek to be excellent. But that excellence is not defined as a concert-like experience and perfectly timed transitions. Excellence is understood as life and worship that conforms to biblical norms and order in worship. First Corinthians is heavily focused on order in church life, especially when it comes to weekly gatherings.
All that is to say that good works must be defined biblically. Good works are not “nice” works but right worship and right living. We do not add to the good works we’re called to do, and good works do not add to the finished work of Christ.
Next week, we’ll see how good works do not contribute to our salvation but do in fact give assurance of salvation.
Back to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith!
The Christian life is a life of ongoing repentance. As with our sanctification, it begins at a certain point in our lives and continues through to natural death. Repentance is not unlike that; when God calls us to repentance and faith, we do repent of the sins and transgressions that cast us away from him. But throughout our life, as we become more Christlike and finely-tuned to the presence of sin in our life, we repent again, not for salvation, but for sanctification. When we become aware of a sin which we have committed or a good work which we omitted, we repent in obedience to God’s call.
The Confession begins, “Such of the elect that are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers pleasures, God in their effectual calling gives them repentance to life.”
Not that God “gives” repentance. Even repentance is not a work done by us! Titus 3 reminds us that God regenerates and renewes us by his Spirt, not by works (v.5). This harkens back to the golden chain of redemption of Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
God foreknows us, he predestines us, he calls us, he justifies us, and he glorifies us. It is the call to salvation that leads to repentance. In his kindness toward his enemies, he moves us to see our original nature as wicked, which then moves us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).
The ongoing repentance that marks the Christian life is even yet a grace of God. The Confession continues, “Whereas there is none that does good and does not sin, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall in to great sins and provocations; God has, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation.”
Every regenerate believer will face temptations, and will at times give in to those temptations. God’s love and kindness is so great that he does not let us fall away when we show our weaknesses. He calls us again to repentance, not to shame us, but to restore us. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). The prayers of the Son are more than sufficient to keep us in his love and care.
Jesus then tells Peter that he will betray Jesus three separate times before morning comes. Peter denied having ever met Jesus, and yet Jesus prayed for him that his faith would not fail. Repentance restores us to the joy of right-standing with our heavenly Father. If Peter betrayed Jesus three times in one night and yet was restored on the beach (John 21), then what fear do you have if you repent?
The Confession then begins to more clearly define repentance as it says, “This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, does, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrancy, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavor, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.”
Faith in Christ. Humility for sin. Sorrow for sin. Hatred of sin. Resistance of sin.
These traits mark true repentance. We all know what it feels like to be caught in the act, and there is a certain kind of sorrow for that. But it is not the same sorrow, by any measure, of knowing your sins have been seen in the throne room of heaven. "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
You have not offended your parents, your spouse, your mayor, your governor, or your president. You have offended your creator. Who can stand?
In humility, we confess, or agree, with God that what we have done is ungodly. In sorrow, we confess that we should never have entertained the notion. In hatred, we truly recognize and feel that what we did was abhorrent. We then seek again to resist future temptations of the same sin. All of this is predicated upon the belief that Christ's once-for-all sacrifice really and truly covered over your sins, from first to last.
We either live in the flesh, or we live in the Spirit. Those who are truly converted live in the Spirit, which equips to be humble and sorrowful for our sin, leading us to hate it, which in turn draws us to resist it in the future.
We will all fall many times. Repentance is definitely a vow to not give in to temptation again, but it is more than that. When we fall, do we hate what happened? Do we hate that God was offended once more by our deeds? We will never perfectly repent, because we will still stumble and fall. But we must absolutely endeavor to not give the devil a foothold or any advantage.
We don’t only confess in general but also in particular. “As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.”
It is nearly impossible to address sins and temptations if they are not named. That's one reason the law was given on Sinai. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus repented not of sins in general but of defrauding those from whom he demanded excessive taxes (Luke 19:8). He promised to give back even more than he had taken.
As we grow and mature in the Christian life, there may be sins whose temptations never lighten. We face them head-on daily. But by God’s mercy, we are assured we can come to him in repentance each and every time we fall. In fact, we are commanded to do so.
And finally, "Such is the provision which God has made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation, that although there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation to them that repent, which makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary."
We do not serve a God who condemns those who repent. As Isaiah tells us, “Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (55:7b). The Lord Jesus is full of compassion on weak, weary sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance, leaning on his everlasting arms.