1 Good works are only those which God has commanded in his holy Word.1 Works which do not have such warrant, and are invented by people out of blind zeal or on pretence of good intentions, are not good works.2
2 Mt 15:9, Is 29:13, Ro 10:2, Jn 16:2, 1 Sa 15:21-23, Ga 5:1, Col 2:8, Col 2:16-23
Some believe that any deed of kindness or charity is a good work. A donation to help the handicapped or serving food in a soup kitchen would both qualify as good works. However, if we believe that Scripture alone is our guide for faith and practice then we will think otherwise. Only those works God has commanded in Scripture can be called good works. If we do not draw this line then taking the life of a depressed suicidal person or working for the right of a woman to do what she wants with her unborn child can be considered a good work. In fact, without the guidance of God’s Word good works can be defined solely in terms of good intentions, even when these good intentions lead to the harm of those being helped. We do not deny that good works must spring from a heart filled with love and kindness. We believe though that the form these good intentions take must conform to the standards revealed in God’s law. A man cannot be doing a good work by working hard to support his family while he ignores altogether their spiritual welfare. A work cannot be good if it contradicts God’s will revealed in Scripture.
2 These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidence of a true and living faith.3
This paragraph sets good works in their proper context. Good works are to be thought of in terms of God’s grace, not human merit. A good deed can only spring from faith. All works that arise from a heart fearfully anxious to prove itself to God and thus earn his saving favor are by virtue of this fact to be dismissed as good works. Good works are the fruit of a living faith that already knows Jesus as Savior, not the payment made to earn his salvation. They are the evidence of a new life, not its price.
By them believers express their thankfulness,4 strengthen their assurance,5 edify their brethren,6 enhance their profession of the Gospel, and silence the opponents [of the Gospel].7 So they glorify God whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus to do good works8 and to produce the fruits of holiness which lead to eternal life.9
5 1 Jn 2:3, 5, 1 Jn 3:18-19, 2 Pe 1:5-11
6 2 Co 9:2, Mt 5:16
7 Tit 2:4-5, Tit 2:9-10, 1 Pe 2:12
8 Eph 2:10, Php 1:9-11, 1 Ti 6:1, 1 Pe 2:12, Mt 5:16
9 Ro 6:22, Mt 7:19-23
In the context of the gospel of grace good works have many advantages. They give our expression to our thankfulness in a way that words alone simply cannot. Good deeds strengthen our assurance that we are indeed among the elect because they are evidences of our faith. They make our faith more visible, not just to others, but also to ourselves. They are a display of God’s grace within us. If your assurance of salvation is weak it is often better to put your faith to work than to do more soul-searching and self-examination (2 Pt 1:5-11). Good works all serve to edify and build up your brothers. There are few more compelling lessons on sacrificial giving or faithfulness in the midst of hardship and hurry than the example of a brother who regularly practices these. Encouragement in well-doing is as much a matter of doing as it is of saying.
3 Their ability to do these good works does not in any way come from themselves, but entirely from the Spirit of Christ. To enable them to do good works (besides the graces they have already received) they require the actual influence of the Holy Spirit to cause them to will and to do his good pleasure.10
The ability to do good works requires a change of heart, the new life that is the Spirit’s work, but this does not mean that the Christian is capable of doing good on his own once he has been saved. Even the good done by the believer is all of God, for as Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). God is ever at work through his Spirit to complete and perfect that which he began in regeneration. We need God who is at work in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Yet are they not on this account to become negligent, nor to think that they are not required to perform a duty unless given a special impulse of the Spirit; rather, they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.11
When we say that all the good we do is from God’s work in us, this does not give us an excuse to be lazy and careless in our spiritual life while we wait for the Spirit to give us the power to work. The problem with this way of thinking is that it confuses the moving of the Spirit with some emotional sensation or feeling. The man who waits for the Spirit to move before he does what is good pretends to want to do good, but claims he must wait on the Lord before he can. The one whose heart has been truly changed knows that he already has the power because he has been regenerated and is being sanctified daily by the Spirit’s power. If believers talk about feelings in this context it is the feeling of duty and obligation that arises from what God has already given us, the feeling of the power of God’s warnings and exhortations to do what is required, and the feeling of the Scripture’s authority in our lives. In the light of such feelings we are diligent to stir ourselves to action knowing that this is what we were saved to do (Eph 2:10).
4 Those who in their obedience [to God] attain the greatest height possible in this life, are still far from being able to perform works of supererogation (that is, to do more than God requires) since they fall short of much which, as their duty, they are required to do.12
No matter how great and spiritual the saint, none are able to perform more than what is required of them. The Roman Catholic church teaches that those who have been canonized as saints did good works beyond what God would require of a righteous man. This “superabundant satisfaction,” the good work that goes beyond what they need to be right with God, fills the “treasury of merits” from which the less spiritual in the church can draw when they do not measure up to God’s standards. To do more than what God requires is impossible for two reasons. First, even the best of our works are stained with sin. Even our prayers need the Spirit’s intercession (Rom 8:26). Second, what God requires is laid out in Scripture. To do more would be to do something different, but that would be sin. There is no higher standard of good than that laid out in Scripture.
5 We cannot, even by our best works, merit pardon of sin or eternal life from the hand of God, for those works are out of all proportion to the glory to come.13 Moreover, because of the infinite distance that is between us and God, our works can neither benefit God nor satisfy the debt of our former sins. When we have done all we can, we have only done our duty, and are still unprofitable servants.14 Besides, if our works are good they originate from the Spirit,15 and whatever we do is defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that it cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.16
14 Job 22:3, Job 35:7, Lk 17:10
15 Ga 5:22-23
16 Ps 143:2, Pr 20:9, Ec 7:20, Ro 3:9-12, Ga 5:16-17, 1 Jn 1:6-10
Four reasons are given to support the assertion that works beyond what is required are impossible. First, good works are out of all proportion to the rewards God offers. Being given pardon of sins or eternal life for our good works would be like being paid a million dollars for making our bed each day. Second, we are paid or rewarded when we have rendered a service valuable to another. God is so infinitely far above us that nothing we could ever do would benefit him. Third, whatever good we do is the result of the Spirit’s gifts and work in our lives. Why should God reward us for what he has given and done? Finally, our works never meet the standards set by God for they are all tainted with sin.
6 Yet, although believers are accepted as individual people through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Christ.17 It is not as though in this life they were entirely blameless and beyond censure in God’s sight,18 but that he looks upon them in his Son, and is pleased to accept and reward what is sincere, even though it is accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections.19
Like a father, God “promises to reward his child for doing what is its duty, and what is for its own benefit alone.” Despite the fact that our work can never truly earn God’s reward, they are nevertheless accepted and rewarded because we have first been accepted in Christ. “It is all of grace—a grace called a reward added to a grace called a work” (Hodge). Those who receive greater rewards do so only because God has blessed them more abundantly (with five talents instead of two).
7 As for works done by the unregenerate, even though in essence they may be things which God commands, and may be beneficial both to themselves and others,20 yet they remain sinful works because they do not proceed from a heart purified by faith,21 nor are they done in a right manner according to the Word,22 nor is their purpose the glory of God.23 Therefore such works cannot please God nor make a person acceptable to receive grace from God.24 Yet the neglect of such works is even more sinful and displeasing to God.25
21 Ge 4:3-5, Heb 11:4-6, Ro 14:23, Ga 5:6
22 1 Co 13:3
23 Mt 6:2, 5-6, 1 Co 10:31
24 Ro 9:15-16, Tit 1:15, Tit 3:5
25 1 Ki 21:27-29, 2 Ki 10:30-31
The unbeliever may do what God has commanded and thereby benefit both himself and others. When he refrains from adultery, he will be better off. When he gives generously to the church for the spread of the gospel, there are some who will gain great good. When he defends the poor in court against the injustices of the powerful, the poor benefit. All these works though are still to be counted as sinful. Paul tells us that “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), and by definition the unbeliever is without faith; he cannot please God (Heb 11:6). He may do works considered great and kind by the world, but they are only what Luther calls “splendid sins.” Having said this though, the unbeliever who neglects these works is more displeasing to God than if he did them.
A good work must meet four tests. It must have the right substance, being what God has commanded in Scripture. It must have the right root, proceeding form a heart purified by faith. It must have the right manner; God’s work must be done in God’s way. And it must have the right end; the glory of God must be its ultimate purpose. Because of their nature unbelievers can never meet these tests.