Are Good Works Good Enough?
Works—they are what we do—our actions. But what does it mean if we add “good?” What makes a work good?
Some may answer that they know a good work when they see it; others may say it is anything that is helpful or loving to another person. But who determines what is good? Does each person decide for themselves? No, it is only God. He is our Creator who has revealed to us what is a good work. Let us consider what he says.
How does God define good works?
When we look at God’s definition of good works in the Bible we find three criteria. A good work is an act that:
is done in accordance with God’s Word (e.g., Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21);
proceeds from a heart purified by true faith (e.g., Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6);
is performed for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Pet. 4:11).
Any work we do that fails to meet God’s criteria of what constitutes a good work is sinful and cannot please God (see Mark 7:6-7; Titus 1:15).
What about works done by people who do not believe in Christ Jesus?
Surely some of what unbelievers do can be deemed a good work? No. By the biblical definition of good works, the reprobate—that is, those who are not in Christ Jesus by faith—cannot do good works. Their works may appear good and even be in accord with God’s law and of benefit to others; however, because they do not proceed from a heart purified by faith, they are sinful and cannot please God nor merit anything from him (see Mark 7:6-7; Titus 1:15).
The point the Lord is making is that good works are not merely external. In order to be good, they must proceed internally from a heart purified by God with an internal motive that aims at God’s glory.
What about works done by people who do believe in Christ Jesus?
We must first understand that even as redeemed sinners we are still battling sin. Perfection does not come to us in this creation, but only in the new creation (see Job 9:20; Gal 5:17; 1 John 1:8). Apart from Christ Jesus our works are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:5-7), and even when we have done what was our good duty, we are still unworthy servants (Luke 17:10).
Yet, God sovereignly created us in Christ Jesus for good works, having saved us by grace through faith, not by our own works, so that we cannot boast in anything we have done (Eph. 2:8-10). It is only in Christ Jesus that we do anything that can be called a good work, for such acts proceed only from the Spirit of Christ.
In John 15:4-6, Christ Jesus reveals that any fruit (i.e., good works) that comes from us is only because Christ abides in us and we in him; apart from Christ we can do nothing good—absolutely nothing. This is particularly important for those who attempt to argue that Christ Jesus saves sinners based on their own works. Contrary to this sinful notion, Christ says in no uncertain terms, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Note that Jesus says “nothing”—an absolute statement. He doesn’t say: You need to do something, and then I will save you and show you how to do good works. He says that you cannot do anything apart from Christ Jesus.
Even the faith a person exercises—and that some wrongly think is a good work that merits salvation—is a work of the Spirit of Christ in a person’s heart done by the ordinary ministry of God’s word (Rom. 8:9). Ephesians 2:8 could not be clearer on this point (see also John 3:5; John 6:44-45; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 1:29; Titus 3:5).
On the other hand, some will argue that we have free will; thus, we must be the ones to take the initiative before God will do anything for us. However, this wrongly inverts the order. We freely respond to God only because he has already made us spiritually alive in Christ Jesus (John 15:4, 5). In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul makes this very point:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
Doesn’t James 2:24 say that a person is justified by works and not faith alone?
Good works proceed from saving faith; faith that does not bear fruit is not saving faith (see James 2:19). James 2:24 is talking about works as fruit and evidence of saving faith, not meritorious works that save us. In fact, James reminds us what kind of perfection is required in order for our works to merit salvation:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10)
Thus, if you want to boast in your works, or even in your work of faith, James reminds us that you must keep every point of the law, since even one miss justifies our condemnation for the entire law (see Gal. 5:3-4). And there is only one man who kept the law perfectly, the man Christ Jesus (Heb. 4:15).
Christians can boast in God alone.
Is your boasting in God alone? Hopefully it is:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
Do you believe so much in your free will that you think you can will yourself into God’s grace, or do you fall to your knees and cry out to God knowing that apart from Christ Jesus you can do nothing?
We cry out in prayer because we believe that with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:26). He is our strength—our strength is not in ourselves, especially not in our works, since they are so weak and unworthy. Our power to do good works is only in Christ Jesus—apart from him we can do nothing.
Therefore, we ought to say along with Paul,
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:9)
We work because God works in us (Phil. 2:13). May all our works be according to his perfect word, coming from a heart purified by God through true faith, and with a right end—and that is the glory of God.
For further study see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 16, “Good Works” or the Belgic Confession, Article 24, “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works.” Other related topics in the Westminster Confession include chapter 9, “Free Will”; chapter 10, “Effectual Calling”; and chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith.” See also the Belgic Confession, Article 22, “Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ” and Article 23,” Wherein Our Justification Before God Consists.”
Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine by J. V. Fesko
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