Many people in the pews, and not merely liberal ministers in the pulpits, express a distaste for doctrine and theology. They want something practical. Well, who can deny that good works are practical?
Unfortunately for those who dislike theology and a detailed confessional statement, there cannot be much progress in good works unless it is known what works are good and what works are evil. And who can deny that a definition of good works is theological, doctrinal, and creedal? The popular distinction between doctrine and practice, between theology and life, between knowing and doing, is a false one. The theory of practice must precede the practice of theory.
What then are good works? Are they those actions a benevolently intentioned gentleman may happen to enjoy? Is a substantial donation to an orphanage, hospital, or church a good work? Strange as it may seem to non-Christians, and even to uninstructed Christians, the answer is that these actions are not necessarily good. They may be good; but again they may not be. What then makes a work or action good?
Two requirements must be fulfilled before an act can properly be called good. The [Westminster] Confession says, "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention."
Dr. Gordon H. Clark. Essays on Ethics and Politics. (Jefferson: The Trinity Foundation, 1992). P. 104.
"Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from an 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, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God" (sec. vii). [WCF 16:7].
Because a good work must proceed from a heart purified by faith, it follows that men's "ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they must be enabled thereunto . . . there is required an actual influence of the Holy Spirit to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure" (sec. iii). Thus while good works are done voluntarily and not against our wishes and desires, they are not the result of a "free" will independent of God. God in his sovereign grace changes our desires and makes us willing.
In conclusion, for these articles must be extremely brief, no matter how great the totality of our good works, they do not merit pardon for sin or eternal life. Contrary to the modernist and Roman theories of salvation by works, Calvinism teaches that when we have done all we can, we are still unprofitable servants. [Luke 17:10]. The Roman notion that some men can do actually more than God requires, and that the extra merits earned by these men avail for other less energetic sinners, is a Satanic delusion. Christ alone has satisfied the justice of his Father, and he has satisfied it perfectly. Deo soli gratia.
Dr. Gordon H. Clark. Ibid. Pp. 105-106.
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:14–26, NKJV)
The key verse in this pericope is verse 18:
“But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18, NKJV)
The context here is clearly the validation of one's profession of faith before the church and before men in the church. And the context is that the Christian church is not to show partiality or favoritism to wealthy church members or potential members over against the needs of the less well off members of the church:
“My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” (James 2:1–7, NKJV)
Therefore to say that James is teaching salvation by works is to take the entire passage out of context. James does not contradict Paul because James is dealing with a pastoral problem in the church. In fact, the Apostle James presided over the council at Jerusalem where it was decided that Gentile members of the church are under no obligation to follow the Jewish law on circumcision and ceremonies. (Acts 15). Good works, according to James, justify Christians before men. This is not a contradiction to Paul's teaching that good works cannot justify the believer before God:
“What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”” (Romans 4:1–8, NKJV)
According to Paul, justification is imputed on a legal and forensic basis, not on the basis of an infused righteousness. God does cause the Christian to voluntarily do good works. (Philippians 2:12-13). But even here good works could not be done unless God causes the believer to perform them. (John 15:5-6). There is no contradiction between Paul and James. The contradiction lies in the unsystematic and unconfessional approach to Scripture taken by the Semi-Pelagian Romanists and Arminians.
Good works do not justify men before God. But they are a necessary evidence before the church and other men that Christians have a valid profession of faith. Further, good works are necessary to attain assurance of salvation. But assurance of salvation and salvation itself are not the same thing at all. Good works are the result of saving faith, not the cause of our justification or our salvation. (Ephesians 2:8-10). Salvation does include the whole ordo salutis and therefore, technically speaking, good works are included in our salvation. The distinction is that good works merit nothing, including eternal life. If someone is trusting in their own good works as the basis for their righteousness or right standing before God in the final judgment, then Christ has died in vain. Christ and Christ alone merited eternal life for his elect people. (Matthew 1:21; Ephesians 1:4; John 10:11, 15).
In closing, I will post the entire chapter on good works from the Westminster Confession. Please click on the hyperlinks and read the accompanying proof texts:
CHAPTER XVI—Of Good Works
1. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, (Micah 6:8, Rom. 12:2, Heb. 13:21) and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention. (Matt. 15:9, Isa. 29:13, 1 Pet. 1:18, Rom. 10:2, John 16:2, 1 Sam. 15:21–23)
2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: (James 2:18, 22) and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, (Ps. 116:12–13, 1 Pet. 2:9) strengthen their assurance, (1 John 2:3, 5, 2 Pet. 1:5–10) edify their brethren, (2 Cor. 9:2, Matt. 5:16) adorn the profession of the gospel, (Tit. 2:5, 9–12, 1 Tim. 6:1) stop the mouths of the adversaries, (1 Pet. 2:15) and glorify God, (1 Pet. 2:12, Phil. 1:11, John 15:8) whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, (Eph. 2:10) that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (Rom. 6:22)
3. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. (John 15:4–6, Ezek. 36:26–27) And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure: (Phil. 2:13, Phil. 4:13, 2 Cor. 3:5) yet are they 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. (Phil. 2:12, Heb. 6:11–12, 2 Pet. 1:3, 5, 10–11, Isa. 64:7, 2 Tim. 1:6, Acts 26:6–7, Jude 20–21)
4. 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. (Luke 17:10, Neh. 13:22, Job 9:2–3, Gal. 5:17)
5. 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, (Rom. 3:20, Rom. 4:2, 4, 6, Eph. 2:8–9, Tit. 3:5–7, Rom. 8:18, Ps. 16:2, Job 22:2–3, Job 35:7–8) but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: (Luke 17:10) and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit; (Gal. 5:22–23) 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 judgment. (Isa. 64:6, Gal. 5:17, Rom. 7:15, 18, Ps. 143:2, Ps. 130:3)
6. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; (Eph. 1:6, 1 Pet. 2:5, Exod. 28:38, Gen. 4:4, Heb. 11:4) not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; (Job 9:20, Ps. 143:2) 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. (Heb. 13:20–21, 2 Cor. 8:12, Heb. 6:10. Matt. 25:21, 23)
7. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: (2 Kings 10:30–31, 1 Kings 21:27, 29, Phil. 1:15–16, 18) yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; (Gen. 4:5, Heb. 11:4, 6) nor are done in a right manner,according to the Word; (1 Cor. 13:3, Isa. 1:12) nor to a right end, the glory of God, (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16) they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: (Hag. 2:14, Tit. 1:15, Amos 5:21–22, Hosea 1:4, Rom. 9:16, Tit. 3:5) and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (Ps. 14:4, Ps. 36:3, Job 21:14–15, Matt. 25:41–43, 45, Matt. 23:23)
The Westminster confession of faith. (1996). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion also says:
X. Of Free Will.
THE condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.
XI.Of the Justification of Man.WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
XII. Of Good Works.
ALBEIT that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
XIII. Of Works before Justification.
WORKS done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
XIV. Of Works of Supererogation.
VOLUNTARY works besides, over and above, God's commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to do, say, We be unprofitable servants.
XV. Of Christ alone without Sin.
CHRIST in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which He was clearly void, both in His flesh and in His spirit. He came to be the lamb without spot, Who by sacrifice of Himself once made, should take away the sins of the world: and sin, as S. John saith, was not in Him. But all we the rest, although baptized and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things: and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
XVI. Of Sin after Baptism.
NOT every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.