Good Works

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(Protestant Christian Perspective)

The old objection against the doctrine of salvation by grace, that it does away with the necessity of good works, and lowers the sense of their importance (Rom. 6), although it has been answered a thousand times, is still alleged by many. They say if men are not saved by works, then works are not necessary. If the most moral of men are saved in the same way as the very chief of sinners, then good works are of no moment. And more than this, if the grace of God is most clearly displayed in the salvation of the vilest of men, then the worse men are the better. The objection has no validity. The gospel of salvation by grace shows that good works are necessary. It is true, unchangeably true, that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. "Neither adulterers, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards" shall inherit the kingdom of God.

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Works are "good" only when,
Good works are an expression of gratitude in the believer's heart (John 14:15, 23; Gal. 5:6). They are the fruits of the Spirit (Titus 2:10-12), and thus spring from grace, which they illustrate and strengthen in the heart. Good works of the most sincere believers are all imperfect, yet like their persons they are accepted through the mediation of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17), and so are rewarded; they have no merit intrinsically, but are rewarded wholly of grace.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Works, Good Works

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The works of both God and mankind receive prominent attention in the Bible. God's works, mentioned early in Genesis and throughout the giving of special revelation, consist of creation, providence (including the preservation and government of the world), and redemption. Jesus' comment that his Father was still working (John 5:17) is reinforced by Paul (Phil. 1:6; Rom. 14:20), who considers his activity as an aspect of the work of God (I Cor. 16:10; Phil. 2:30; cf. Acts 13:2).

Although human labor was originally given as a divine commission and privilege (Gen. 2:15), the intervention of sin gave it a negative connotation in biblical usage. Man now eats and lives by the sweat of his brow (Gen. 3:17-19; cf. 5:29), and his works are seen increasingly in the OT as being marked by vanity and sin. This negative attitude toward mere human action was accentuated by an emphasis in the opposite direction in late Judaism: the righteousness of works and their deserving a reward.

The NT teaching on works must be seen against this background. Here human works are characterized in general as of the devil (I John 3:8; John 8:41), of darkness (Rom. 13:12), of the flesh (Gal. 5:19), as evil (Jude 15; Matt. 23:3), lawless (II Pet. 2:8), and dead (Heb. 6:1; 9:14). The only works that will stand the scrutiny of God are those which are affected by his Spirit and are grounded in faith (John 3:21; 6:29; I Thess. 1:3; Rom. 2:6-7; Acts 26:20). Such are not only approved by Jesus (Matt. 5:16; 7:21; God's people (Matt. 25:37-40). What is condemned is the expectation of payment from God for doing what he has commanded men to do. After they have done all that he has commanded them to do, as though that were possible, they must still say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty" (Luke 17:10). The chief work that God desires is the obedience of humable belief (John 6:29), which then begets a life full of good deeds (Titus 3:14).

Good Works

Soon after the apostolic age, a drifting from the biblical view of good works is noticeable. Whereas the NT had taught that the kingdom is built on God's grace, not human merit, and that God rewards according to his grace, not merit (Matt. 20:1-16), leaders in the church held that baptized persons must obey the commandments, and when they do God rewards them. Thus Tertullian, a former lawyer, saw God related to mankind as lawgiver; he commands, and we obey and obtain merit. God is the rewarder of merit. "If God is the acceptor of good works, he is also the rewarder.... A good deed has God as its debtor, just as has also the evil deed, since the judge is the rewarder of every matter." Although all service to God is meritorious, he has decreed that certain good works give one merit when freely done. Penances, fasting, virginity, martyrdom, and other good deeds please him and receive his reward.

Soon merit was said to be transferable; salvation was seen as grace and as something merited; by free will we obtain merit, and by merit, operating within the context of grace, salvation. Peter Lombard, whose Sentences was the standard theological textbook in the late Middle Ages, saw grace and free will cooperating in salvation. Good works produce merit; "without merits to hope for, anything cannot be called hope but presumption." This theology was refined, and merit was said to be "that property of a good work which entitled the doer to receive a reward from him in whose service the work is done....In the theological sense a supernatural merit can only be a salutary act to which God in consequence of his infallible promise owes a supernatural reward, consisting ultimately in eternal life" (The Catholic Encyclopedia). The merit of human good works in the scheme of salvation ordained by God was associated with and dependent on the merit of the passion of Christ so that there was seen to be a congruence of the two. Thus the Catechism of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century reads: "It is his passion also that imparts to our good actions the twofold most excellent quality of meriting the rewards of eternal glory, so as that even a cup of cold water given in his name shall not be without its reward, and of satisfying for our sins" (Ch. IV, Q.67). This unbibical teaching, combined with a semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will and human ability, was the fundamental reason for the necessity of doctrinal reformation in the late medieval period, as Luther declared in his debate with Erasmus. The problems of the papacy, purgatory, and indulgences he calls mere trifles compared with the real issue: the condition of mankind in the state of sin. Before his rediscovery of the gospel he had struggled to acquire merit by good works. "I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in. All my companions in the monastery who knew me would bear me out in this. For if it had gone on much longer I would have martyred myself to death with vigils, prayers, readings, and other works."

Luther became a doctor of theology and "did not yet know that we cannot expiate our sins." So he, and others, tried the impossible, to expiate them by themselves through good works. This was changed for Luther and a large part of the church with the development of the doctrine of justification by faith in the merits of Christ alone and not those of the believer obtained through good works. The Reformers declared that the only righteousness which can stand before the judgement of a holy God is one which is "absolutely perfect and wholy in conformity with the divine law. But even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin" (Heidelberg Catechism Q.62).

If God marks iniquities, who can stand? But he forgives and reckons sinners righteous. This is the teaching of Rom. 4. The reckoning, or imputation, of the righteousness of Christ does not mean that God observes how well the sinner has done and then declares him a fit citizen of his kingdom. Rather, the Bible, and the Reformation with it, declares that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 5:6, 9-10, 16-21). Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13). It was the publican who smote his breast, asking God to be merciful to him, a sinner, who went home justified, rather than the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18:14). Sinners are justified freely, as a gift, through the redemption, i.e., the good work of Jesus, says the apostle, after which he asks, "Then what becomes of our boasting?" He answers, "It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law....The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 3:24-28; 6:23).

Salvation freely given does not mean that good works are unimportant. They are commanded and are the fruit of faith (Titus 2:14; Eph. 2:10; Matt. 5:16). They are known of God and will be taken into account in the final judgement (Rom. 2:6; I Cor. 3:14; II Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12).

M E Osterhaven
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

G. Bertram, TDNT, II, 654ff.; K. Thieme, SHERK, V, 19-22; G. Rupp, The Righteousness of God.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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