Today we will dig deeper into the relationship of good works our debt of sin. Do our works have any relationship whatsoever in maintaining our justification?
The Confession continues, We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because they are good they proceed from his Spirit, and as they are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s punishment.
Paul wrote in Romans 3:20, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” That is an exhaustive statement concerning the entire human race, regardless of the state of the individual’s salvation. There is no level of good in us that matches our level of depravity. Our best attempts at right living, or the fruit of the Spirit, are still marred with vanity and pride. We make light of our debt of sin when we think the good we do outweighs the wickedness we have already done and the evil still in our hearts.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:6-7).
We deceive ourselves when we seek only what God can give us and confuse that with seeking God himself. The Scriptures are clear in many other places that no one truly seeks God; God is the one who seeks and saves the lost. Like our first parents, our sin nature is to run and hide from God. Isaiah says that God has given us over to our sins, and Paul says the same thing in Romans 1.
Anything not done in faith is sin (cf. Romans 14:23). Good works and right worship are simply impossible without the gift of faith. God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because they are by definition not praying in faith.
In Luke 17, Jesus gives an example of the believer’s attitude toward good works. A master does not invite his servant to eat with him. A master does not thank his servant for what the servant has done. When we do good works in faith, the Christian simply says to God, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). God is owed far more than we can offer.
The Confession continues, Yet notwithstanding the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and to others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therfore sinful, and cannot please God, nor make a man meet to receive the grace from God, and yet their neglect for them is more sinful and displeasing to God.
It is through Christ alone that we are saved, and it is through Christ alone that our works are accepted. Peter tells us that we, “by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). In the midst of our works, Christ is working. As no unbeliever sincerely seeks to obey God, so only in Christ do believers sincerely seek to obey God. Our sincerity does not make our works perfect, but they do be acceptable when done in faith.
When our works are done in faith, Hebrews tells us that “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Hebrews 6:10). Our works are not without shortcomings, but our loving Father accepts them because he accepts us as those without a debt to him. He himself paid that debt so his creation would not. And it is him that we serve with our good works.
The Confession devotes 7 paragraphs to the doctrine of good works, which makes it one of the longest sections of the Confession. A little history helps us see why this might be. At the time of the writing of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, there were two dominant groups of Baptists: the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists.
The General Baptists were Arminian, which is a theological system that believes Christ’s death simply made salvation possible for the whole world. However, it will only be effective for those who make a decision to follow Christ. They believe in a general atonement, hence General Baptists. The idea is that there will be some for whom Christ died that his blood will not take effect.
The Particular Baptists, however, believed in the doctrine of election and a limited, or particular, atonement. The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that God foreknew and predestined all those who would be rescued from God's wrath by the blood of Christ before the foundation of the world, which is exactly what Galatians 1:3-5 and Romans 8:28-30 says (plus many more). The Particular Baptists were the authors of the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
The place of good works in the Christian life takes a different direction depending upon what kind of direction salvation takes. If salvation is generally applied, then the Arminian system of theology places good works not as the evidence of salvation but as completely in your power. Grace is added to human nature, and now it’s up to you to do good works. If salvation is applied only to those whom the Son purchased with his blood, then good works are the fruit that grows out of the root of salvation. Good works, like our salvation, were prepared for us to do before the foundation of the world.
So let’s work to understand where the power to do good works come from. The Confession continues, “Their ability to do good works is not all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them and to will and to do of his good pleasure; yet they are 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.”
Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:5, “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.” Where does the power to please God come from? Is it dependent on you? What is the source of pleasing God with our good works? That power comes from continually abiding in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the dominant theme of the doctrines of grace—grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone to the glory of God alone. Only the one who perseveres is assured that he is able to perform the good works laid out before him. As Paul says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The warning passages of Hebrews commend us to persevere. Our good works assure us of our salvation, because there is no other power by which we are sustained but the same gospel that ushered us into the kingdom of light. “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12).
But we still fall short. Even in our current redeemed state, we struggle with sin (as opposed to the unredeemed who have no struggle with their sin). Until the glorification of our bodies, we will not perform all the good works we should. The Confession continues, “They who in their obedience attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.”
Even the most faithful, most devout, and most pious in this life will not attain the full glory of God. We are not able to “supererogate,” or go above and beyond, those works which are given to us to do. Perhaps one of the clearest passages on this truth comes from Paul in Galatians 5:17, where he writes, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
We are battling the old man even while we are being made new. The Spirit and the flesh, our natural state, want completely different things. The Spirit moves us to love God, to be thankful to him, and to confess Jesus is Lord. But the flesh reminds us of the temporary pleasures of sin. How difficult it is to resist that voice! But the one who confesses that Christ is Lord until the end will be saved. Yet we are still bound to do the good works set before us.
Next time, we’ll dig deeper into the relationship of good works our debt of sin.