Dear Church Family,
Sunday school is back in full swing after the holiday break. In the adult Sunday school class, we are continuing our chapter by chapter study of the Westminster Confession of Faith. And so, as was my custom last fall, in this new year, I will try to summarize the lessons and overall teaching of each class in these weekly emails.
This past Sunday, we picked up where we left off with a study of chapter 16 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Good Works.” One might wonder why a whole chapter of the confession is devoted to the definition and explanation of good works. After all, how complicated can it be to understand? As it turns out, man can complicate even those things that seem pretty simple.
WCF 16.1 – The Definition of Good Works
So, first, we start with the definition of good works: “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 pretence of good intention.” Right from the start, the writers of the Westminster Confession show themselves to be cognizant of the many ways in which men often make things up on their own. Rather than looking to the Scripture and what God tells us are good works, we devise our own lists.
One time, some Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the tradition of the elders by not ceremonially washing their hands before they ate bread. Immediately, Jesus turned the tables of the conversation and condemned the Pharisees for keeping the traditions of men, but breaking God’s commandments: “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:7-9).
Like the Pharisees, we are often in danger of making up, and then focusing on, the traditions that we have grown accustomed to. Or, we rightly apply wisdom in making decisions for our own lives, but then wrongly make our wisdom a law by which we judge the actions of others. It may be wise for some believers to abstain from certain behaviors, yet other believers may (according to Scripture) be free. We must be careful to look to God’s Word – and God’s Word alone – when defining righteousness.
WCF 16.2 – The Purposes of Good Works
The second paragraph of this chapter lists no less than six purposes for good works:
(1) To manifest or show our thankfulness (Hebrews 12:28)
(2) To strengthen our assurance of salvation (1 John 2:3)
(3) To edify or build up the fellow believers (Matthew 5:16; 2 Corinthians 9:2)
(4) To adorn the profession of the gospel (Titus 2:4-10)
(5) To stop the mouths of adversaries (1 Peter 2:15)
(6) To glorify God (1 Peter 2:12)
WCF 16.3 – The ability and obligation of good works
There are two dangers that believers must guard ourselves against as we pursue good works. First, lest we become proud by boasting in our own good works, we must continually remind ourselves that our ability to do them comes wholly from the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us (John 15:4). As Christians mature, it is all too easy to begin to think that our growth in holiness is a result of our own strength. Instead, we ought to confess with the Apostle Paul, “Our adequacy is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
So, one danger is to trust in our strength rather than the power of the Holy Spirit to do good works. The second danger is the opposite: becoming complacent in our pursuit of good works by waiting for a special impetus or ‘stirring up’ by the Holy Spirit. But, the Lord has already told us in His Word what He requires of us (Micah 6:8). Indeed, we are to diligently add to our faith such things as moral excellence, knowledge of God’s Word, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love (2 Peter 1:5-7).
WCF 16.4 – The inevitability of falling short in good works
At this point, the Westminster Confession introduces a word that may be unfamiliar to us: supererogate (to do more than God requires). The truth of the matter is that we are not able to supererogate (or do more than God requires) but continually fall short of His holy standard.
This may sound like an odd thing to have to say, but it’s important because there are many people (even some Christians) who believe that God has a balancing scale by which He weighs our good works against our bad – as if our good works could make up for our bad works. As if we could do more than God requires by paying down our debt that we’ve incurred through our bad works. But that simply isn’t the case.
Also, this paragraph and it’s teaching against “supererogation” is a direct statement against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). According to the doctrine of the RCC, certain acts like a life of celibacy are considered works of supererogation that go above and beyond what God requires. Similarly, the concept of indulgences (the granting of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory) is based upon this idea that one may purchase payment for sin by doing more that He requires. Part of the erroneous teaching about ‘praying to saints’ is an misguided effort to seek the application of their (the saint’s) good works to another person.
WCF 16.5 – Good works are not meritorious
And so, because of the great difference between good works and the perfection of the glory to come, as well as the distance between us and a holy God, we cannot by our best works, merit pardon of sin or eternal life (Romans 3:20; 8:18). God saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His rich mercy (Titus 3:5-7).
When we think about our good works, then, we should remember that any ‘goodness’ in our good works does not come from us, but is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The weakness and imperfection of our good works, however, does come from us, from our own flesh (Galatians 5:17).
WCF 16.6 – The good works of believers are accepted by God
All of our good works (because we are still, in this life, sinners) will be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections. Yet, just as a father accepts the sincere intentions and gifts from his children, God accepts our good works because He has already accepted us through Christ (Genesis 4:4; Hebrews 11:4). Though we will never attain perfection, because of God’s love for us in Christ, He readily accepts our good works which we sincerely offer to Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).
WCF 16.7 – The works of unregenerate men cannot please God
Of course, unbelievers may do good works which may outwardly be in accord with God’s commands. And, these good works done by unbelievers may be of some temporal good for them or others in this life. Yet, in order to be accepted by God, good works must meet certain criteria:
(1) Good works must proceed form a heart that has been purified by faith in Jesus Christ; for, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
(2) Good works must be done a right manner, according to the Word of God (1 Corinthians 13:3).
(3) Good works must be done to a right end, the glory of God (Titus 1:15).
Our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, gave Himself for us in order to redeem us from our sins. No good works that we do are able to merit pardon for our transgressions of His holy Law. Additionally, Christ is also purifying His people, calling them to be zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
Therefore, let us pursue good works, not with a blind zeal, but with eyes wide open to the commands given us in God’s Word so that with thankful hearts, we may bring glory to God. As Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch