Chapter 16: Of Good Works
What is a “good work”? In our world of today, many would call that which is against the Word “good.” What does “good” mean and what is the standard to measure “good” by?
§1 Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word
- Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word, 1 and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions. 2
- Micah 6:8; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21; Col. 2:3; 2 Tim. 3:16-17
- Matt. 15:9 with Isa. 29:13; 1 Peter 1:18; Rom. 10:2; John 16:2; 1 Sam. 15:21-23; 1 Cor. 7:23; Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:8, 16-23
The Criteria For Good Works
We don't simply invent for ourselves what good works are and declare that they are good, but rather it is God who lays down the criteria for good works in Holy Writ. This does not mean that if a particular action is not mentioned in the Bible that it is therefore bad, but we look at the particular deed in light of all Scripture. We don't demand an explicit text for everything. For example, helping an old lady cross the street is a good deed, but it is not mentioned in the Bible. Does that mean that it is therefore bad if it is not mentioned? No, not really. Because we know from the Bible that we should love our neighbor, and helping an old lady cross the street is such an expression of love and respect.
Commanded By God
Only what is commanded by God and what may be deduced from Holy Writ is binding upon the consciousness of men. Throughout history, various churches and religions have added to the commandments of God in such a way as binding the consciences of man. The Lord Jesus quotes the words of Isaiah approvingly when he says, “‘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. 15:8-9 from Isa. 29:13). From this passage, we learn that whenever we add things to the Lord's commandments and teach them as if they were the Lord's, we dishonor Him and worship Him falsely. Therefore, the Confession is explicit that “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word”, so that only God would be the Lord of the conscience (see also chapter 21 on the liberty of the conscious).
It is God who teaches us through His will “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). And it is God who is and determines the criteria of what good works constitute. It is His holy character as revealed in His Word. It is also God who works in us His good works. We cannot really do any good works which are pleasing in His sight without His will and direction. That's why Paul tells us that “...it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). The Holy Spirit in Hebrews 13:21 tells us that it is God who “equip[s] you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight”. The glory of the New Covenant is the fact that we have God's Law on our hearts and given the ability by the Spirit to obey God from the heart (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-27). In fact, God has created us believers and predestined us from all eternity that we should walk in good works (Eph. 2:10).
Therefore, good works, first of all, are commanded by God and derived from His Law, and moreover, they are brought forth by God in us. It is God who is the measure of what is good. Whatever reflects His holy character is good, and whatever does not, is evil. He is the standard. It is written, “...the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (1Sam. 2:3).
2Tim 3:6-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Performed In Faith
For works to be truly “good” in God's sight, they have to be done in faith. Romans 14:23 tells us “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Therefore, anything that is not done in and through faith in Jesus Christ the Lord, is sin and not really a “good work” in the sight of God. Even if a billionaire would donate all his money and give it to the poor, strictly in God's eyes that would not be a good work because it lacked a crucial component, namely, good works are to be performed through faith in Jesus Christ.
We perform our works in thankfulness to God for our identity in Christ and that we are able through faith to please God (Heb. 11:6). We don't perform them thinking that we are better than others, or that God will love us more, but we perform them to the glory of God and to display His goodness to us.
If our faith is really living, then it will inevitably produce good works. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thess. 1:3). They did good while believing and hoping in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their works came as a result and were supported by their living faith. In his second letter Paul says:
2Thess 1:11-12 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We see again that Paul connects works and faith here, not as a means of salvation, but that a living faith will produce works through which God will be glorified. Furthermore, we see that it is God who equips us and enables us to do those things which are pleasing in His sight and which are for His glory. The only thing that counts is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
We also know of James’ discussion of faith and works in James 2. There James argues that a faith that does not produce works is dead and it cannot justify. A true faith will produce works which will display and confirm the person's justification. See here for our discussion of this passage relating to the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.
Performed To The Glory Of God
The purpose of all good works should be to display the glory of God. As image bearers, we should seek to be witnesses of His goodness and kindness toward all. Numerous are the commands to do good works for God's glory. The Lord Jesus teaches us the purpose of good works in Matthew 5:
Matt 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.
The Lord Jesus begins by telling us that we are the salt of the earth. That means that the believers have a preserving and savoring effect on the world as salt does to earthly things. The eminent Bible commentator John Gill writes the following on this phrase:
Ye are the salt of the earth,.... This is to be understood of the disciples and apostles of Christ; who might be compared to "salt", because of the savoury doctrines they preached; as all such are, which are agreeable to the Scriptures, and are of the evangelic kind, which are full of Christ, serve to exalt him, and to magnify the grace of God; and are suitable to the experiences of the saints, and are according to godliness, and tend to promote it: also because of their savoury lives and conversations; whereby they recommended, and gave sanction to the doctrines they preached, were examples to the saints, and checks upon wicked men.
We are not only the salt of the earth but also the light of the world. The believers have an important task in the world, indeed as some have said, the world stands for the sake of the elect. But what we also learn from verse 15 is that others benefit from the light, meaning other people than us should benefit from our works. Our light, which is our character, deeds and walk in the Lord, should move others to seek God and see God in us. Therefore, it is undoubtedly true that all good works should be done to the glory of God and that thereby the glory of God may be manifested to others.
The Apostle Paul also says:
1Cor 10:31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Anything that we do in life should be done to the glory of God, whether it be good works or studying, or eating and drinking. All things we should do with thankfulness to God and to His honor and glory. In a passage me...