Chapter 16, Of Good Works

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  1. Good Works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word; and not such as without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions. (Micah 6:8; Hebrews 13:21; Matthew 15:9; Isaiah 29:13)

While speaking to King Agrippa, the apostle Paul characterized his gospel preaching to the Jews and Gentiles as a call to repent, turn to God, and perform deeds in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26:19-20). Based on this, it is very appropriate that chapter 16 follow after chapters about faith and repentance.  Based on the passage in Acts, we are to be performing deeds in keeping with our repentance, and so we come to that topic of good works.

The first thing we must know is what constitutes good deeds. The Confession states: Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word. The standard or rule for good works is the word of God.  We have already been instructed on this in chapter 1, Of the Holy Scriptures: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. In fact, Scripture says God has spoken and provided instructions for good works: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel” (Ps. 147:19 ESV).  And, “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 ESV)? When the Confession’s parent document, the Westminster Confession was being framed, there was much concern to refute the antinomian (anti-law) position, as well as other errors.  But immediately the antinomian view is denied in the very first words: God works are only found in Scripture.  Robert Letham states: “This chapter in the Confession is unusually long, due, one suspects, to concerns over antinomianism.  Good works are defined only by what God commands in his Word.”[1]

Because God has positively revealed what good works are in his holy word, the implication then is that good works are not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions. In other words, good works consist only of that which God has revealed in his commands, not in what man devises or makes up out of blind zeal, or so-called good intentions. The Pharisee sect arose in Palestine because of a zealous desire to avoid God’s judgment of exile again.  They were zealous that the people obey God, and thus in that they had good intentions for Israel.  The problem was that they sought to bring about obedience by creating a buffer zone around God’s law, which added to God’s commands.  Thus anything that could be construed in any way to be work on the Sabbath was forbidden.  This way a person would not even come close to disobeying the Sabbath command.  Thus they created detailed Sabbath laws, for instance, limiting all kinds of activities that God had not directly commanded.  And it is precisely where they went wrong.  Jesus had very strong words for the Pharisees who put a heavy burden of regulation around the people’s necks—a burden not even the Pharisees were willing to abide by.   “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:1-4 ESV).  And, because they added their traditions, as if they were the very commands of God, Jesus rebuked them:  “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘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’” (Matt. 15:7-9 ESV).

The issue of good works was very much at the center of the Reformation, given the Roman Church’s unbiblical layers of so-called good works, and their confusion of good works with justification. Morris states:

  • “The Council of Trent was not indifferent to so important an issue, as its declarations in regard to the nature of good works, and their merit in connection with justification (decree on Justif. Chapter XVI and the corresponding Canons) clearly show. It was charged upon the Protestants  by the Council that in emphasizing justification by faith they were ignoring and even forbidding good works, and thus proving recreant to the moral element in Christianity.  And it was in view of that charge specifically, that the framers of the Augsburg Confession introduced a long Article (XX) into their Symbol, in which on one side they condemn the childless and needless and unprofitable works, ceremonial and formal, imposed by the Roman priesthood, and on the other side assert their loyalty to the Ten Commandments, and all other moral obligation enjoined in the holy Scriptures.”[2] 489

Thus early on Luther was dealing with the issue of how good works relate to justification and the Christian life. This was an issue of importance in all subsequent reformed  symbols, and the Westminster Divines spent a great deal of time carefully delineating this doctrine—the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 Baptist Confession following the Westminster Confession of Faith virtually word for word in this chapter.

In the recent history of the church, there have been denominations, particularly those apart of the Holiness Movement, that have done the same thing by requiring that their church members not go to movies, dances, drink alcohol, etc. In their zeal for holiness, they devised rules to avoid worldliness.  The problem is that they themselves determined what was worldly, as if God had not already clearly spoken on the subject.[3]  God has made it plain what sin is by his commands, and only God has the authority to issue such commands; man has no authority to add a single requirement beyond God’s commands.

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  1. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits, and evidences of a true, and lively faith; and by them 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. (James 2:18, 22; Ps. 116:12-13; 1 John 2:3,5; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; Matt. 5:16; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Pet. 2:15; Phil 1:11; Eph. 2:10; Rom. 6:22)

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith. The Confession prefaces that these good works are fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith, only if in obedience to God’s commandments. The appositive phrase “done in obedience to God’s commandments,” harkens back to the prior paragraph in which good works are defined as that only prescribed in the Word of God.  Thus the things men determine to be good works, not in the Word of God, are not good works in God’s eyes and cannot be seen as fruit or evidence of true faith.  What is a true and lively faith?  “True faith” means a genuine a faith.  A “lively faith” means a faith that is active.  The Confession echoes James 2.  “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV).  James is not speaking of justification by works.  Sproul helpfully states: “When we say that justification is by faith alone, we really mean that it is by Christ alone.  The only works that count towards justification are those that Christ performed in his lifetime.  Luther defined saving faith as fides viva.  Viva is the Latin words for “living,” and so fides via refers to a faith that is vital or alive, lively faith.  Luther said that the faith that justifies is never a dead faith.”[4]  Thus, the Confession is simply linking the fruit of a good tree (good works) to the root of a good tree (a true and lively faith).  Jesus said: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matt. 7:17-20 ESV).  Obedience to God’s commands is evidence of a genuine and active faith.  John makes this point very clear: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6 ESV).

In addition to good works showing a genuine and healthy faith, by them [good works] believers manifest their thankfulness. In our gratitude to God, we ought to show forth good works.    “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13 ESV). We show our thankfulness to God by giving him, in a manner of speaking, a good return of good works.  We might think of the parable of the barren fig tree, and how the vinedresser did not get a good return for his planting and husbandry of the fig tree: 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9 ESV).  Or, we might think of King Hezekiah: “But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 32:25 ESV).  Let us show our thankfulness to God for all his benefits by good works unto God by faith through Christ.

Good works strengthen their assurance. Because good works are evidence of a genuine and active faith, as a result, good works can strengthen one’s assurance that they truly have been born from above.  The evidence supports it!  Scripture is clear on this point: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11 ESV).  Sproul states: “That is why theology is important for our assurance.  If I am not sure about the doctrine of election, I am not sure that regeneration precedes faith.  I can say I have love for Jesus now, but I could lose it tomorrow.  Then everything depends upon what I do.  Instead of having the tulip as the sweetest flower in God’s garden, I will be picking daises and pulling the pedals out, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”  There is no assurance that way.  The Westminster divines say that obedience in my life helps my assurance because they understand the role of works in the whole order of salvation.”[5]

As well, good works edify their brethren. Our good works encourage and build up our brothers and sisters in Christ, just as our bad works can discourage and tear down our brethren.  The good works of faith listed of those in Hebrews 11 allow the writer of Hebrews to say: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1 ESV).  In addition to those in Hebrews 11, we might consider those more recent saints of the Lord who have gone before us—Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, and so the list continues.  They all edify us, even today, by their good works, even though they are dead (“And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4b).

Good works also adorn the profession of the gospel. Scripture says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 ESV).  “Showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10 ESV). By our good works, we show our profession to be genuine and the gospel to be effective in our life.  Our good works add to our profession a reality and beauty.

Further, good works stop the mouths of the adversaries. The Confession seems to be referring directly to Peter’s word: 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 ESV).  And, If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rm. 12:18-21).

And lastly, and most significantly, good works glorify God. Again Jesus said: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 ESV).  We are told in Scripture, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 ESV). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  If glorifying God is our main purpose, and good works glorify God, then good works ought to be a huge focus in our lives.  We ought not to simply wait for that sense of the Spirit moving us to good works, but since it is our duty and privilege we ought to be deliberate about doing good works.

It is God whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto. This is a citation from Ephesians 2:10 from the King James Version.  In the English Revised Version, it reads: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 ESV).  The elect are made or created in Christ for good works.  It is the purpose for which God, the ultimate master craftsman, has for us: to walk in good works.

The Confession continues: that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life. This is a citation from Romans 6:22, in the King James Version: “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (Romans 6:22 KJV).  In a more readable version for us today, the English Standard Version states: “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” (Rom. 6:22 ESV).  The passage from Scripture cited by the Confession means that since we have been set free from slavery to sin, and are now instead slaves of God, the result is the fruit of holiness, and that fruit of holiness leads in the end to eternal life.  When we are “in Christ,” that is, united to Christ as Romans 6:1-10 illustrates, the result is the practical fruit of holiness.  Jesus said as much: “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” (John 15:5 ESV).

Morris helpfully points out that several errors paragraph 2 opposes:

  • It will be seen at a glance that such an interpretation shuts out at once the kind of works, ceremonial and ecclesiastical, which the Council of Trent had prescribed, and on the other hand proves the falsity of the papal charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith was injurious to practical religion, inasmuch as it tended to turn the thoughts of men away from those duties God had enjoined in his holy law. It was a decisive answer also to that Antinomianism which affirmed that good works have no relation to salvation, and to that still more dangerous opinion developed during the Majoristic controversy, that such works may even be detrimental to salvation.  It was also an answer equally decisive to the notion developed during the same controversy and afterward, that good works are in some degree a coordinate or at least a subsidiary ground of acceptance with God, since none can in fact perform such works excepting those who are already accepted by him.”[6]

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  1. Their ability to do good works, is not at 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 to will, and to do, of his good pleasure; yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were 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. (John 15:4, 5; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Philippians 2:13; Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Isaiah 64:7)

Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto. You may recall from chapter 9, paragraph 3, which spoke of the loss of the ability of man to do spiritually good, resulting from the fall. You also may recall that the only thing that changes that inability is God converting a sinner to the state of grace (9:4).  When God transfers a sinner to the state of grace, “he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good” (9:4). Sproul states that: “even the Christian’s ability to do good works is not at all of ourselves, but completely and wholly from the Spirit of God.  What is behind this somewhat radical statement is the Reformed doctrine of the moral inability of fallen man.”[7]   Again, Jesus said: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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” (John 15:4-5 ESV).

The Confession continues this point: besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure. While regeneration occurs in the believer’s effectual calling, whereby they are enabled to will and to do spiritual good, yet in addition to that the Spirit of God must exert an actual present influence for them to do good works.  Regeneration is one of the graces given them, but God also gives other graces to the believer, such the grace of faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and then there are gifts of the Spirit which he distributes as he wills to his people.  These and more are the “besides other graces” the Confession speaks of.  Because of our remaining corruption, we need the graces and the very actual influence of the Spirit which causes us to will to do God’s good pleasure and causes us to do his good pleasure.  Paul speaks of this: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13 ESV).  This is a very important point, and probably most Christians grasp that need for the Spirit’s continued work, because we see how prone we are to drift.

We are so wayward that no sooner than we read of the necessary of work of the Spirit for us to continue and excel in good works, we may conclude that therefore we are not required to please God unless we sense that stir of the Spirit of Christ in us to do so. Thus, the Confession states: yet they are not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were 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.  Therefore, we are not to “wait for lightning,” as they say, before we act.  No, obeying God’s command is our duty.  We are not to neglect obeying God just because we do not feel like it, as if we are excused because we do not “feel” the Spirit moving us.  Instead, we are to be diligent, and stir up the grace of God that is in us.  Paul told Timothy: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV).  And Paul told the Philippian church: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling(Phil. 2:12 ESV).  And the writer of Hebrews said: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12 ESV).  We are to stir up the grace of God within us; rouse ourselves.  We are to actively carry out our duty while depending upon the Spirit, and asking for the Spirit’s enablement.

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  1. 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 then God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do. (Job 9:2-3; Gal. 5:17; Luke 17:10)

The believer who may attain to a high degree of good works, even to the highest possible in this life (which seems to be almost a theoretical), still cannot attain to the requirements of God’s law. Supererogate, means “to do more than is commanded, or required.”[8]  Letham states: “Works of supererogation, as taught by Rome, are out of court—to do more than God requires is impossible.”[9]  The Roman Church taught, and still does, that the works of supererogation done by the saints is deposited into an account by which the church may draw and provide positive credit to a sinner.  The indulgence system was based on the principle that from the works of supererogation, the sinner could bypass penitent acts which they would normally have to perform according to Roman Church requirements.  Clearly, this is something the Reformation rejected, and was at the core one of the reason for the Reformation.  In contradiction to this supererogation false doctrine, Jesus’ words aptly apply: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty‘ ” (Luke 17:10 ESV).

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  1. 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 as 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 judgment. (Romans 3:20; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 4:6; Galatians 5:22, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Psalms 143:2)

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. The Confession provides us with a reality check of our good works in relation to God and his requirements. Our best good works cannot earn eternal life.  We will recall that the requirements of the covenant of works (which remains in force for those under Adam’s headship), is perfect obedience.  Thus, if we are trying to earn the reward of life under those terms—perfect obedience—it is a fool’s errand; it is impossible since the fall.  And if we think we can atone for our sin by good works, we are quite mistaken; there is simply no provision for that in the covenant of works.  The only provision, now for pardon of sin and the reward of life is found in the covenant of grace, not works (Eph. 2:8-9).  Scripture says: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20 ESV).  God is the one we must deal with for pardon and eternal life, and his justice will not be compromised by accepting our imperfect deeds.  The great disproportion between our present condition, compared with glory of the coming age, puts our works in a very unfavorable light on their own merits.  Add to that the infinite distance between us and God, and we find ourselves not only with no positive credit to offset our former debt of sin.  Let’s just say our credit score is a problem in the eyes of God, and no amount of good works will offset what God requires.

In the end, when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants. Again, Scripture says: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ “ (Luke 17:10 ESV).  So the believer’s good works have no meritorious value to offer to God for pardon of sin or eternal life.  Our perspective on our good works ought to be there discharge of duty, not merit.  Any “good” in our works is not from us; because as they are good they proceed from his Spirit. The goodness proceeds from the Spirit, not from us. As they [i.e. the works] 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. Any good found in our works is from the work of the Spirit, as has been said, but anything that proceeds from us with our remaining corruption is mixed with defiling corruption and with weakness and imperfection.  This mixture of defiling, weakness and imperfection could never stand up to God’s accounting practices, and would only be met with severe judgment.  Scripture states: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).  And, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2 ESV).  This perspective is meant to cause us to see the reality of our good works in relation to God’s standard, and it humbles our pride.  But it is meant to humble our pride so as to exalt the grace of God, which will be richly brought to light in the next paragraph.

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  1. 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 unblameable 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. (Ephesians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5; Matthew 25:21, 23; Hebrews 6:10)

The Confession now resolves our distress from the last paragraph: Yet notwithstanding the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him. Thus because the “persons of believers are accepted in Christ, so also are their good works, despite their pitiful character (16:5).  Oh what joy, comfort and peace we find through the grace of Christ, “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6 ESV).  Scripture declares: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ: (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). It is not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable 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. It is the merit of Christ offered to the Father on our behalf (in our stead) that is the basis for the Father accepting our personhood, and then our works.  Our works are all deficient, but Christ is all sufficient.   On that final judgment day, it will not be our good works we hope in, but in the crown of Christ.  On the basis of Christ’s work, our work our good works receive praise: “’Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matt 25:21-23 ESV).   And because our works are seen by God in Christ, the writer of Hebrews can say: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10 ESV).  This section then addressed the good works of the regenerate saints.  The next chapter deals with the works of the unregenerate.

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  1. 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 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 grace from God; and yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God. (2 Kings 10:30; 1 Kings 21:27, 29; Genesis 4:5; Hebrews 11:4, 6; 1 Corinthians 13:1; Matthew 6:2, 5; Amos 5:21, 22; Romans 9:16; Titus 3:5; Job 21:14, 15; Matthew 25:41-43)

As for the works of the unregenerate, the Confession states: 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 others. Even though mankind in their unregenerate state are completely averse to any spiritual good, it does not mean that they cannot do good at all.  The Calvinist beliefs in total depravity, not that man is as depraved as he could be.  The good the unregenerate does, even if it is one of God’s commands, it is not anything God accepts. God does at times acknowledge the work of the unregenerate and even sometimes rewards them, showing that God’s commands are good for all mankind.  For example, in the Old Testament: “And the Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel(2 Kings 10:30 ESV).

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. But the unregenerate works are not from a heart that has been purified by faith, and thus are not accepted in light of Christ’s merits. We see in Genesis that God did not regard Cain’s offering: “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen. 4:5 ESV).  We know that God did accept Abel’s offering.  Why?  Because, Scripture states: “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” (Heb. 11:4a ESV).  Good works must proceed from a heart that is purified by faith.  The unregenerate do not bring to God their works in the right way (right manner).  There reasons are all wrong, and if the believer’s work is defiled, weak and imperfect, what of the unregenerate whose heart is not right before God.  It reminds us of Peter’s citation of the Old Testament: “And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner’“(1 Peter 4:18 ESV)? In addition to work of the unregenerate being of the wrong manner, it is not brought to God for the right reasons (“right end”).  Jesus said: “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” (Matt 6:2 ESV). This one example a good work being for the wrong ends.  For all these reasons, a lack of faith, wrong way, and wrong reason, the works of the unregenerate “are therefore sinful, and cannot please God.”

It is not just that the unregenerate works cannot please God, but that the works cannot even make a man meet to receive grace from God. Man can do no act which will make him or her worthy to receive the grace of God in the gospel, nor can he do any work which will prompt God to effectually call a person.  Why? Because the unregenerate are odious to God, for their sin and unbelief, and he will not even listen to their prayers.  God said to the Jews in Amos: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 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 ESV).  And Paul writes: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16 ESV).  And the following passage is no doubt especially in the mind of the framers of the Confession: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 ESV).  Thus works do not saved us, or even make us prepared to receive grace.

Despite God’s rejection of the works of the unregenerate, yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God. It is not as though the unregenerate are excused from presenting good works simply because they are unacceptable to God, because in fact his law still requires perfect obedience.  Thus, to neglect the commands of God only accelerates the sin of the unregenerate and is displeasing to God.  We see this neglect characterized in the book of Job: “They say to God, ‘Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him’” (Job 21:14-15 ESV)?  And Jesus “will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’ (Matt 25:41-43 ESV).  As the believer is not excused from neglecting duties to God’s commands, so the unregenerate are not excused.  “He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-8 ESV).

Chapter 2, Of Good Works, proves to be a very key doctrinal chapter for the Christian life. We have been well-instructed: Good works are not what any man or church declares, but only that which is prescribed in Scripture, and only biblical good works show genuine fruit and evidence a genuine and lively faith.  But while fruit is evidence of a true lively faith, good works do not proceed inherently from the believer himself, but from the work and influence of the Spirit.  The believer is duty bound to obey God’s commands even when it is hard, and cannot be neglected because he or she does not sense the Spirit influencing them to obey; duty is duty.  Even when the believer is diligent and attains to a high level of good works, he is still far from meeting God’s holy requirements, and so also the ability to exceed God’s requirements is a false doctrine, and cannot be used by the Roman Church, or anyone else to teach supererogation.  We cannot merit God acceptance by our works, and our best is but that of an unprofitable servant—our works being mixed with good (the good proceeding from the Spirit’s help), and yet weak and imperfect proceeding from us.  God accepts the works of the believer, since salvation is through Christ alone, so also are good works accepted only through Christ’s merit.  The works of the unregenerate, proceeding not out of faith, are unacceptable to God and displeasing, and yet they are still bound by the terms of the covenant of works to all God has commanded his creatures.

—————————

[1] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 281-2.

[2] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 489.

[3] The author, having come out of the Holiness Movement tradition is not trying to be unfair in this assessment.  I recognize that there are other nuances involved.  But the statement is, however, I think true.  If God has not forbidden the drinking of alcohol, how can a denomination or a local church require of its members that they do not do so?  It becomes rather problematic for such rules when our sinless Lord himself not only drank wine, but miraculously made good wine at the wedding in Cana, thus by implication encouraging others to drink wine.  Clearly, drunkenness is forbidden, but it does not follow that therefore one cannot drink wine, or other alcoholic beverages.  The stance very much becomes something akin to the Pharisee problem: teaching as doctrine, the traditions of man.

[4] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 173.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 178.

[6] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 491.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 182.

[8] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[9] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 282.

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