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.