WCF 16: Of Good Works
Martin Luther began his 95 Theses emphasizing the need for repentance. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther also understood that Jesus’ instruction “does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces” a changed life. This is how repentance leads into the topic of good works. Repentance is turning from sin “unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments” (15.2).
Christianity tells us how our sins can be forgiven. It also instructs us in the life of good works to which we have been called (Eph. 2:10).
What Are Good Works?
It would be easy for us to define works the way we look at art, as if beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. We might suppose that God just wants us to do our best. Good intentions executed zealously seem honorable to us. But rigor and sincerity do not guarantee the goodness of a work. The 9/11 terrorists were zealous. The doctors who drained forty percent of George Washington’s blood shortly before he died probably meant well.
We need a biblical definition of good works. According to God good works are actions prompted by the Holy Spirit which harmonize with God’s commands, proceed from faith, and are done for God’s glory.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit
By virtue of their divine image-bearing even non-Christians can be kind and just. They can be inventive, and productive, contributing to society. But an unbeliever can do no spiritual good. “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled. …They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:15, 16).
Only when God puts his Spirit within us will we keep his judgments and do them (Ezek. 36:27). Only those branches connected to the vine will bear good fruit (John 15:4–6). Our “ability to do good works is … wholly from the Spirit of Christ” (see Phil. 2:13) Even so God sanctifies our works by Christ’s work on the cross. Even the works of believers are so imperfect that they cannot be grounds for God accepting us. They are instead, evidence of God’s acceptance of us.
Pursuant with God’s Commands
The creator defines good and evil. He has told us what is good and what he requires of us (Micah 6:8). We mustn’t wait for a special prompting of the Spirit. We must do the good works that he commands. So to know and do God’s will the godly man “makes God’s law his portion and delight, and meditates upon that law with gladness day and night.”[i]
Proceeding from Faith
Carnal works proceed from unbelief. Good works are different. In the life of a believer faith works through love (Gal. 5:6). Good works are the evidence of a genuine trust in Christ and a wholehearted submission to God’s will (James 2:18).
Performed for God’s Glory
Unbelievers may occasionally do works that align with God’s commands (Rom. 2:14–15). But they are not done for the right reason. Man’s chief purpose is to glorify and enjoy God. We should do everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus” as a way of “giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
So test any action like this: Is it lawful, can I do it in faith, and am I aiming to please God? If so it is a good work authorized by the Holy Spirit and are truly good.
As an encouragement to work well it might help to evaluate the goodness of good works.
What’s So Good about Good Works?
Good Works Manifest Thankfulness
The best kind of work is not manipulative—aimed at coercing the favor of another—but a heartfelt response to their favor. Good works answer the cry of the believer’s heart: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” (Ps. 116:12).
Good Works Strengthen Assurance
One of the main reasons professing Christians lack assurance is disobedience and backsliding. The Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote that “a lazy Christian will always lack … assurance.”[ii] The opposite is also true: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). Godliness proves election.
Good Works Edify Others
If even unbelievers can be “of good use both to themselves and others” how much more should believers be useful (see Phile. 1:11)? Do your actions benefit others or do you aim mostly at pleasing yourself? Truly good works are “excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8).
Good Works Adorn the Gospel
Paul pressed Titus to promote good works in his congregation “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). If we claim that the gospel changes lives, our best supporting argument is to be “model[s] of good works” (7). As the natural beauty of wood is enhanced by oil, so is the gospel beautified by the works of believers.
Good Works Silence Critics
Opponents of the gospel are eager to pounce on hypocrisy in the church. And Christians provide ample material for criticism. This is why Peter urges those who have been called out of darkness to keep their “conduct among the Gentiles honorable.” “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:12, 15). The best answer to slander is quiet godliness.
Good Works Glorify God
God is glorified in two ways by our works. First, by doing them we faintly reflect his glory. God is loving, joyful, kind, faithful, and self-controlled. The God who shows his goodness through tangible works of service every day loves to see his children growing up to be like him (Matt. 5:44–45; Heb. 13:20, 21). Jesus put it this way, “By this is my father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Second, by doing good works we help others to glorify God. By your honorable conduct even your harshest critics “may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Every tongue will one day glorify God for restoring a remnant of humanity. Even now, says Jesus, when your light shines out before others “they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Martin Luther and the reformers resented that good works were being marketed as a commodity to trade for divine grace. It doesn’t work that way. No matter how faithful we might be we are only servants (Luke 17:10). But we serve a wonderful king. So let’s work with all our hearts in everything we do to glorify his holy name.
[i] From the metrical version of Psalm 1, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 1A.
[ii] Joel Beeke, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2017), 32.