Today we continue our series on Gospel Convergence concerning the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the Confession. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.
What are Good Works?
It may seem strange to begin here. Surely everyone knows what ‘good works’ are. Being nice, talking politely, holding doors open, generosity with money, etc. However, the Confession doesn’t let people develop their own list of ‘good works’. Rather, it begins by stating explicitly that ‘good works’ are only those things which are found in the Bible. ‘Good works’, argues the Confession, ‘are only such as God has commanded in His Holy Word’ (pg. 72). Indeed, the prophet Micah tells God’s people ‘He has told you, O man, what is good’ (6:8).
I suppose the reason that the Confession ensures we don’t begin to develop our own list of ‘good works’ is because Scripture reveals the propensity humanity has to follow their own man-made rules over and against God’s. God bitingly chides His people through the prophet Isaiah that they ‘honour’ Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him because they follow the commands of men (29:13). Jesus picks up this passage from Isaiah calling the leaders of Israelite worship ‘Hypocrites!’ as they teach the commands of men as doctrines (Matt. 15:7, 9).
Before moving on we must also note where these ‘good works’ come from and how they are accepted by God. These ‘good works’ are initiated and enabled by the Holy Spirit. The Confession states: ‘Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ…there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure’ (pg. 73). Moreover, these ‘good works’ are only accepted by God in Jesus. The Confession explains: ‘the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in Him…[God] looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections’ (pg. 74-75).
What they do…
‘Good works’ are not just an end in themselves, but also lead to a number of benefits:
- ‘Good works’ evidence new life in a believer. Last week we considered repentance, the turning from sin to a new life of obedience. It follows then that a life full of ‘good works’ (remembering that ‘good works’ are those things set out in Scripture) evidences new life. Someone whose life is full of ‘good works’ displays that they are indeed an individual of faith, a follower of the Way. James is perhaps the starkest defence of this position – ‘I will show you my faith by my works…faith completed by his works…faith apart from works is dead.’ (2:18, 22, 26).
- ‘Good works’ manifest thankfulness in the life of a believer. The Psalmist poses the question ‘What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?’ (116:12), the answer supplied is ‘offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving’ (116:17). ‘Good works’ are simply a manifestation of the thankfulness we feel for God as a result of all His goodness, grace and love for us!
- In a similar vein to evidencing new life, ‘good works’ also strengthen a believer’s assurance. Many believers struggle with doubt, lack of assurance and question the genuineness of their faith, but the Confession would encourage you to examine your life. Do you see ‘good works’, then be assured that God is at work in your life. In his forthright letter John assures his readers: ‘by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments…whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this may we know that we are in him…walk in the same way in which he walked.’ (2:3, 5-6).
- Our ‘good works’ also edify the saints. To see a brother or sister executing ‘good works’ on a regular sustained basis brings great joy to a believer’s heart. Our ‘good works’ build one another up, strengthen one another, comfort one another, encourage one another, challenge one another. This is exactly the point Paul makes after delivering a list of ethical imperatives in both Romans and 1 Thessalonians (14:9; 5:11).
- In the language of the Confession, ‘good works’ adorn the gospel. Not only do brothers and sister in Christ look on, but the world also looks on. As they do, ‘good works’ offer a good representation of the gospel. How often have you heard of someone seriously entertain thoughts of responding to the gospel in light of the ‘good works’ of a Christian? Scripture makes this point repeatedly. Jesus charges his listeners to ‘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). Again, Peter urges the churches of the dispersion to ‘keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.’ (1 Peter 2:12).
- Closely connected to the above point, ‘good works’ stop the mouths of evildoers. This is perhaps most strongly argued for in Titus as Paul urges the members of the church in Crete to act righteously ‘so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.’ (Titus 2:8).
- An overarching benefit to ‘good works’, and in many ways the pinnacle reason for endeavouring to do ‘good works’ is surely the glory of God. This is the reason that both Jesus and Peter gave for Christians doing ‘good works’ in adorning the gospel – so that glory may be given to God (Matt. 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12).
- Finally, ‘good works’ lead to eternal life. In no sense to they achieve it for us, but they are the way in which we should walk and in walking in ‘good works’ we will find ourselves walking into eternal life. Paul writes ‘But now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.’ (Rom. 6:22).
What they don’t…
There are some things which the Confession is at pains to point out that ‘good works’ don’t do:
‘Good works’ do not make us perfect:
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. (pg. 73)
‘Good works’ can never pardon sin:
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’ (pg. 74).
‘Good works’ cannot excuse us:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may 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 of them is more sinful and displeasing to God. (pg.75)