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.