One of the issues raised by good works is that it seems as though we recognize that even unregenerate people do good things from time to time. How does that square with man’s depravity? Perhaps the depravity of our old nature is not that we are as evil as we could be but that what we do is never done in complete obedience and conformity to God’s will. Therefore, we fall short of the glory of God. Our best deeds are no better than filthy rags when not done in faith.
The Confession goes on to say, “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 therefore 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.”
We can recognize that good deeds might be done with selfish motives, and this includes religious deeds. Consider the story of Cain and Abel. Both brothers gave an offering to God, but we read that God had no regard, or did not accept, Cain’s sacrifice. Abel wanted to please God, and his gift was sacrificial in nature; it cost him something. Cain only brought some fruit while Abel brought the firstborn of his flock. Cain’s offering was hardly sacrificial in the sense that it meant a loss of income for him. So even though he technically gave an offering, it was not a sacrifice.
As Hebrews 11:4 tells us, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” Abel offered a sacrifice in faith in contrast to Cain’s offering.
Think of how strongly Jesus warns against doing the right thing for the wrong reason in the sermon on the mount. He said in Matthew 6:2, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Many people perform religious activity for the praise of others. Sometimes that looks like people seeking leadership positions for greater praise. Sometimes it looks like keeping a chair from floating away while trying to soothe a battered conscience and having others think you’re a good person.
If you are concerned that I’m describing you, then consider your self-awareness a gift of God. He is not trying to give you anxiety about your salvation, but he is giving you greater clarity about where your confidence comes from. Hypocrites have their confidence in themselves. Christians have their confidence in Christ’s finished work on the cross. When that anxiety starts to take hold, draw your mind back to Christ’s work in history on your behalf. He died and rose again for our salvation. Your works and your worship, even your self-interested, less-than-perfect works, if they are done in faith, are received by God.
Throughout the writings of the prophets, they repeatedly speak for God about his disdain for the offerings of the people. Amos writes, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them” (Amos 5:21-22). God explicitly says that he does not accept works done without faith. Faith pleases God, along with the works done in faith.
This is why we should say along with Paul, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). Our good works are not good enough. That can be deflating, but it is true. And the sooner we see that in our own lives, we will see the grace of God even more clearly. But because God has done the hard work of redemption, because he has given us the gift of faith that is necessary to please him, we perform our religious duties from a broken heart and a contrite spirit (Psalm 51:17).
God’s justice has been satisfied by paying the debt himself. Therefore, in faith, we approach his throne with confidence that he accepts our works, even with all their faults. But we are his children and are being conformed to the image of his Son by matters of degree.
That leads nicely into the next section of The London Baptist Confession—perservance of the saints.