A Theology of Works

I have several Latin phrases, popular during the Protestant Reformation, tattooed on my body, including “sola gratia” and “sola fide.” These permanent marks are not mere decorations for me. They are reminders of the hope that I have in Jesus. My acceptability before God rests on his grace toward me in Jesus Christ. Like all Christians I have been saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph. 2:8,9). Praise the Lord!

My Works Are Worthless

Even as I think about my “good works,” I am struck by how feeble they are; how weak and corrupt my best obedience remains. As the 1689 Second London Confession says:

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 punishment. Romans 3:20; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 4:6; Galatians 5:22, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Psalms 143:2  (LCF 16.5)

My Works in Christ are Righteous

However, the weakness of my works does not encourage me to stop working. The inability of my works to please God on their own does not encourage me to lay aside his law as a rule for godly living, for I am not on my own and my works are not offered to God apart from Jesus.

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 (LCF 16.6)

My justification is not only my hope of standing before God, but it is also the hope of my works standing before God. He not only accepts me, but he accepts my works and delights in them, however deformed they are, for Christ perfects it all.

So why do we do good works? We seek to obey God for his pleasure and glory. No, we are not more acceptable to him because of our fasting, praying, loving, and serving. As Martin Luther said in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.”  But our works are a means by which we reflect more of God’s greatness to the world around us. As our Lord Jesus taught us:

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).

My Works in Christ are God’s Works

Our works make much of God, and as they are offered in faith they are pleasing to him. And this is no cause for boasting, for all our good works are the work of his Spirit.

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 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. John 15:4, 5; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Philippians 2:13; Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Isaiah 64:7 (LCF 16.3)

We are to work hard at our good works, recognizing that God is not only the one to whom we offer such works, but he is also the source of such works and the one who makes them acceptable. So even in our working, we are resting. Always working out our salvation, but resting in his grace.

Joe Thorn