WCF 16: Of Good Works

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).

Conclusion

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

WCF 15: Repentance Unto Life

Dear Church Family,

Faith and repentance can be thought of as two sides of the same coin in conversion. Understanding this biblical connection is helpful for both evangelism and the living out of the Christian life. And, properly understanding the biblical teaching that both repentance and faith are saving graces and therefore free gifts of God, will help Christians to avoid some very dangerous errors while seeking to live out their Christian lives.

(1) Faith and repentance are both essential elements of gospel preaching (WCF 15.1)

Chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith begins with a very clear statement concerning the relationship between repentance and faith: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (WCF 15.1). Mark summarizes Jesus’ preaching of the gospel this way: repent and believe in the gospel(Mark 1:15).

(2) The two parts of repentance (WCF 15.2)

There are two parts of repentance. Negatively, one part of repentance includes learning to hate one’s sin, seeking to turn from sin and unto God. The Lord calls His people to return to Him with all of their heart, to fast, weep, and mourn over their sins (Joel 2:12-13). The Apostle Paul means describes how godly sorrow produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation; there is an earnest longing and zeal to turn from one’s sin (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Positively, another part of repentance includes purposing and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of His commandments, to pursue obedience and righteousness. Josiah, one of the kings of Judah, was praised for initiating reforms as he cleansed the worship practices of God’s people from idolatry in keeping with the law of Moses (2 Kings 23:24-25). The Bible speaks of the one who has been converted as having to have been freed from slavery to sin, but now enslaved to righteousness (Romans 6:16-23).

(3) Repentance is not meritorious, but a necessary means of salvation (WCF 15.3)

Repentance is a saving grace, a free gift of God (WSC 87; Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:7). As a free gift from God, the Bible also speaks of repentance as necessary; that is, without repentance none may expect to receive pardon or forgiveness for their sins. When considering the calamity that befell others, Jesus admonishes, “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Preaching in Athens, the Apostle Paul explained that God may have overlooked the times of ignorance, but “is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30).

In this regard – as a necessary means of salvation – repentance is like faith: “Though repentance is not the cause of God’s pardon, we must also be clear that there is no pardon without repentance. Ponder the parallel, even if it is not a perfect one: God requires faith in Christ, but faith does not save us. In a similar way, God requires repentance, but repentance does not save us. However, that does not mean that either faith or repentance remain unimportant to God.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 198).

(4) Repenting of small and great sins (WCF 15.4)

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Each and every sin, no matter how small, is deserving of damnation. If we stumble in one point of God’s law, we are guilty of all God’s laws (James 2:10). Yet, the good news of the gospel is that no matter how great the sin, there is no damnation for those who truly repent. If we forsake our sinful ways and return to the Lord, He will have compassion and abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7). For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

(5) General and particular repentance (WCF 15.5)

It is good and necessary to confess and repent of our general sinfulness and disobedience, but we also ought to go on to confess and repent of our specific sins, as well. In the Scriptures, we find that when sinners experienced the free gift of salvation, they confessed and repented of their specific sins. For example, Zaccheus repented of his thievery and fraud, giving back what he had stolen plus interest (Luke 19:8), according to the commands of Scripture (Exodus 22:1). Likewise, Paul did not simply admit to being the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 12:15), he confessed to having been a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent aggressor (1 Timothy 12:13).

(6) Confession and reconciliation (WCF 15.6)

Of course, every sinner is required to privately confess their sins to God. And, in confessing and forsaking their sins, God promises His mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 32:5-6). After his sin of adultery and murder, David sought the Lord is confession and repentance (Psalm 51). If we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

But there is a place, also, for public declaration of repentance. When a Christian has sinned against a fellow believer (or the church), he ought to make private or public confession of his sin – and then declare his repentance to those whom he has offended (James 5:16). Of course, this does not mean that the believer needs to make all of his sins known to all people, but he ought to be willing to declare his repentance to those whom he has offended or scandalized. And, if someone comes to us, confessing and repenting of their own sins, we ought to forgive them (Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 17:3-4).

Conclusion

Concerning how we understand repentance, Bible-believing Christians should be wary of at least three major errors. First, the Roman Catholic Church has turned repentance into a sacrament, where in the sacrament of penance, it is believed that penance is actually a meritorious work by which sinners make real satisfaction for their sin (add to the work of Christ). Second, and similarly, Arminianism believe that repentance is a work on the part of the individual that is a necessary precursor to regeneration. Third, and very different from the first two errors, there are some who speak of repentance as a ‘dead work’ and therefore unnecessary. Those who hold to this third error are often associated with what Terry Johnson calls “The Grace Boys.”

 

All three errors make the mistake of seeing repentance as a meritorious work. The first two errors treat repentance as a necessary work which makes satisfaction for sin: either an initial meritorious work (Arminianism) or an ongoing meritorious work (RCC). The third error treats repentance as a dead work (even something to be repented of itself!); yet to preach faith in Christ apart from repentance from sin is to preach only half of the call of the gospel (Matthew 3:8; Luke 24:44-47; Acts 24:24-25).

Let us praise God for the saving grace of repentance unto life “whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (WSC 88). 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 14: Of Saving Faith

Dear Church Family,

Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines and describes how the people of God are justified (declared righteous) before Him; specifically, the alone instrument of justification is faith. There, we find faith defined as receiving and resting upon Christ and His righteousness (WCF 11.2). Now, in chapter 14 of the confession, “Of Saving Faith,” we find an elaboration and further explanation of what saving faith looks like.

(1) The definition and means of saving faith (WCF 14.1)

Saving faith is a work of God’s free grace (the gift of God, Ephesians 2:8) whereby those who are of the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls (Hebrews 10:39). Faith is the product of the indwelling of the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11). Another way that we might put this is to say that while faith is the free and gracious gift of God, it is exercised by the individual (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).

So, faith is a gift of God that is exercised by His people, but how do we receive this gift of faith and how does it grow? Or, to ask the question another way: if God’s people want to seek the conversion of the lost and to build people up in their faith, how should we go about that? What should be the primary work of the church? Here, the confession lists three things that God ordinarily uses: the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper), and prayer.

First, concerning how a person initially comes to trust in Christ: saving faith is ordinarily wrought (begun or created) by the ministry of the Word (Romans 10:12-17; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 1 Timothy 4:16). Second, concerning how a believer continues to grow in that faith: faith is ordinarily increased and strengthened by the ministry of the Word (Galatians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 2:1), the sacraments (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32), and prayer (Luke 17:5). To put a finer point on it, we might say that the ministry of the Word (the reading and preaching of the Scriptures) is both justificational and sanctificational, while the sacraments and prayer are not justificational, but only sanctificational.

Practically speaking, this is why the reading and preaching of God’s Word is central in the ministry and worship of Reformed churches. It is also why the sacraments and prayer have a prominent place in our ministry and worship, as well (albeit, subordinate and dependent upon the Word). It explains why the worship of Reformed churches are typically more simple and less extravagant then that of many contemporary-minded churches: we seek to prioritize and emphasize the simplicity of the ordinary means of grace.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a helpful summary of this prioritization and emphasis: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (WSC 88).

(2) The activity and object of saving faith (WCF 14.2)

When we speak of the ‘activity’ of saving faith, we are referring to how a Christian responds (in faith) to God’s Word. One of the first marks of saving faith, is that a Christian believes in the truth and authority of the Bible – that the Bible is actually God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 5:10; 2 Peter 1:16-21). Second, a Christian responds (in faith) in different ways to the various teachings of Scripture.

According to the confession, there are three different responses to the various teachings of Scripture that are characteristic of those who have saving faith: (1) by faith, a Christian obeys the commands of God’s Word (Romans 16:25-27; John 14:15); (2) by faith, a Christian trembles at the threatenings of God’s Word (Isaiah 66:2); and (3) by faith, a Christian embraces the promises of God’s Word (Hebrews 11:12-13).

When we speak of the ‘object’ of saving faith, we are referring to that which a believer trusts in. It’s not enough simply to have faith, one must have faith in something or someone that is able to save: that is, in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the principle acts of saving faith are: accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone (John 1:11-13; Acts 16:29-32).

(3) The victory and assurance of faith (WCF 14.3)

The world, the flesh and the devil assail and seek to destroy our faith; however, we can have the confidence that if God has begun the work of faith in us, He will complete it (Philippians 1:6). And, we are encouraged and admonished in the Scripture to take up the shield of faith as we seek to combat these spiritual enemies (Ephesians 6:16).

An entire chapter in the confession is devoted to assurance (WCF 18); however, at this point, while speaking about faith, we may say that one of the goals of true saving faith is that it grows such that the Christian will gain a full assurance of their salvation (Hebrews 6:11-12). As we come to understand better what it means to be born again (or born of God), we will grow more and more confident in the victorious power of faith (1 John 5:4-5) as we grow more and more in our knowledge and trust in the Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Conclusion

Concerning the age-old question, how can sinful man be made right with God, the Scripture clearly teaches that we are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone. Abraham believed God and it was credited to Him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-13). The prophets declared that the soul of the proud is not right within him, but the righteous will live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

Praise God that He has not left us to try and justify ourselves before Him based on our own merits (Galatians 2:16), but that He was revealed to us the truth of the gospel: having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

WCF 13: Of Sanctification

Dear Church Family,

Some people believe that while God may sovereignly and graciously save a person, after one is saved, He leaves His children to pursue holiness in their own strength. Others believe that while God may sovereignly and graciously save a person, He is not concerned with how a person lives his or her life as His child. However, the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully reminds us that just as justification and adoption are one time acts of God’s free grace (WSC 33 & 34), sanctification is the continuing work of God’s free grace, “whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35).

What this helps us to see is that sanctification is the gracious work of God in those who believe. And, it is also an enablement for those who believe, to pursue holiness (die unto sin and live unto righteousness). This is what chapter 13 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is about.

(1) The definition of sanctification and how sanctification works (WCF 13.1)

There are basically three interrelated parts of God’s sanctifying work that lead to the practice of true holiness.

First, the one who is united to Christ by faith is freed from the dominion (or rule) of sin. Just as the Israelites were set free from the bondage and captivity in Egypt to serve the true and living God, the Christian has died to sin; sin and death no longer have dominion (Romans 6:6-14).

Second, the lusts of sin in the believer are increasingly weakened and mortified. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Those who live by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).

Third, believers are increasingly made alive and strengthened in all saving graces. They bear the fruit of good works, increase in the knowledge of God, are strengthened with all power, attaining steadfastness and patience (Colossians 1:9-12).

All three of these things are true for every believer and are accomplished through union with Christ and the virtue of His death and resurrection (Romans 6:5-6). Yet, for the one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, these things may not always be fully felt and experienced. Part of that is because whereas we were once blind to our own sin, now it has become more heinous in our eyes (we may be growing in holiness, but our own sins looks worse to us then they used to).

Another reason why we may not fully feel or experience the effects of God’s gracious work of sanctification is because we fail to avail ourselves of the means that God uses to renew us after the image of God: His Word and Spirit. This is the third time that the confession uses this phrase: (1) Christ governs the hearts of His people by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 8.8); (2) Christ effectually calls all those predestinated unto live by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 10.1); (3) Christ sanctifies those effectually called and regenerated by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 13.1).

If a believer wishes to be governed by Christ (grow in obedience), seek the salvation of others (evangelize), or be sanctified (grow in holiness) – then he must make use of, and avail himself of, the reading and preaching of the Word of God – the means that the Holy Spirit uses to accomplish these purposes (John 17:17; Romans 10:14-17; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5; 2:13). Again, the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully reminds us of this biblical truth: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89).

(2) The continual and irreconcilable war in sanctification (WCF 13.2)

In this life, believers will continue to war against the abiding remnants of their own corrupt nature. In the sanctification of the child of God, there is a continual and irreconcilable war between the flesh and the Spirit (Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11). Yet, even as we continue to wage war against the desires of our flesh (or our sinful natures), we would do well to remember that because we are in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17); we have a new identity and citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

In the Scriptures, we find this understanding of being new creatures, yet still waging war against the remnants of sin, described in several places. Both the Apostles John and Paul speak of sin as being both alien and foreign to the true identity of the believer (one born of God) and, at the same time, indwelling the believer. Whereas before we were regenerated sin was our master and part of our identity, for those who are born again and united to Christ sin is to be thought of as an indwelling enemy interloper (1 John 1:10; 3:7-9; Romans 7:14-21).

(3) Perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3)

In the continual and irreconcilable war between the Spirit and the flesh, sin may sometimes get the upper hand in the life of the Christian. Though sin may no longer be our master, it still has the power to temporarily imprison us (Romans 7:22-23). But, because of the sanctifying power of the Spirit of Christ in us, the regenerate part in the believer will overcome (2 Corinthians 3:18). We look with hope and anticipation for Christ’s return when He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory (Philippians 3:21).

And, even in this life, we may cling to the promise of God that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). God promises to continue to grow His saints in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Even as we know that victory in overcoming the world is ours because of our faith in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:4), we are encouraged all the more to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, seeking after holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Conclusion & Application

As I’ve thought about this chapter and its lessons on sanctification, I have become convinced that there are two keys to growing in sanctification and holiness for the Christian. First, this chapter begins with the reminder that those whom God has effectually called and regenerated are further sanctified really and personally through means: by God’s Word and Spirit. Second, the chapter concludes with the statement that “the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

This is a helpful reminder for all those who wish to pursue holiness, and has been confirmed by my own experience and the experience of other believers with whom I have counseled. In the continual and irreconcilable war against sin in his life, it is essential for the Christian to always remember and keep in mind the fear of God, while simultaneously seeking to come under the authority of the reading and preaching of God’s Word. It’s not a twelve-step program or recipe, simply the God-ordained and biblical means to growth in grace.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch