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.
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.
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.