Good Works: A Confessional Perspective

With the recent brush up concerning good works as they relate to the overall plan of salvation, it may be good to look at what the historic Reformed Baptist position was and is. The Confession can give the Christian both a historical and a theological perspective on tough issues such as these. We do not utilize the Confession to finally vindicate our position, Scripture is our ultimate, final authority. Rather, the Confession helps to define what we believe the Scriptures teach.

Throughout the history of the church, especially over the last 200-300 years, soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, has been grossly oversimplified so as to do injustice to the weightiness of theological truths such as justification, sanctification, and glorification. When salvation is seen as a monolithic event which has occurred at one point within the subjective experience of the believer, God’s people miss out on the richness and the totality of God’s work in and through the church.

A 1689 Perspective

The framers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 (LBCF), in no way differed from the Westminster Confession of Faith with respects to the 16th chapter of both documents. There is then unanimity between both Baptists and Presbyterians concerning this particular placement of good works within the life of the believer. In 16.1, the LBCF begins:

Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His Holy Word, and not such without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions.

First, we learn that good works are those works which God has commanded. Next, we learn that these commanded good works are derived from the authority of Scripture and Scripture alone. These works are not those commanded by Rome or invented by men claiming to receive private revelations. Finally, our intentions, however right they may be, do not necessarily constitute a good work before God.

Since God has commanded good works in the lives of believers (Heb. 13:21), good works are at least, in some sense, necessary within the lives of Christians. We could call this prescriptive necessity. God obligates His people to show forth the works of the Spirit in their lives. In 16.2, the Confession states:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.

These good works are done in obedience to God and they are the indicators of true and lively faith (Jas. 2:18, 22). We, through good works, manifest or show, our thankfulness for God’s redemptive work in our lives, strengthen our assurance in Christ, edify or build up those around us, make the gospel look beautiful, put to rest the accusations of our enemies, and glorify God (Ps. 116:12, 13; 1 Jn. 2:3, 5; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; Matt. 5:16; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Pet. 2:15; Phil. 1:11). In 16.3, the Confession reads:

Their (the Christian’s) ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure; yet they are 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.

Perhaps the most informative paragraph, for our purposes here, is this one. The misconstrual of good works comes in two basic forms. Either good works are completely eliminated, and the importance thereof is reduced to insignificance, or good works are made the foundation of our salvation. Neither of these are correct. First, good works do not come from us alone, but from God the Spirit working in and through us (Jn 15:4, 5). Second, these good works are required in the scheme of salvation, yet do not constitute the foundation of our reconciliation to God, Christ alone is our sure foundation. These good works are required in two ways:

  1. Good works are required because God commands them.
  2. Good works are required because without them, our salvation is incomplete.

If God commands something, it is properly said to be required of us. Moreover, it can be seen that good works, having been ordained before the foundation of the world for believers (Eph. 2:10), are required in that they are a part of the scheme of salvation. In other words, without good works, salvation does not happen (Rom. 8:13; Phil. 2:12, 13). This is the confessional position, as can be seen in these words: “yet they are 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 (16.3).” Again, “They who are united to Christ… are also further sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified (13.1).” And once more, “… and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ, as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed to them (13.3).”

All this is to be held in careful tension with the words of 16.5, “We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin or eternal life.” What is being said here is not that our works procure for us justification before God. That would be blasphemous. Rather, I believe the Confession means to say that works are necessary within the overall scheme of salvation. These Spirit wrought works will happen in the life of the Christian if that person be a true child of God. To summarize, perhaps an argument would help clarify:

(P1) If God promises good works in the life of the believer, good works are necessary in salvation.

(P2) God promises good works in the life of the believer (Jas. 2:18, 22; Jn. 10:4, 5; 2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 1:6; 2:13).

Therefore:

(C1) Good works are necessary in salvation.

If the premises are true, the conclusion follows. The nature of necessity is therefore the focus of this argument. Good works are necessary in that they will happen in the life of the true believer. Conversely, it follows, if they do not happen, that person is not a true believer and thus will not be saved. We can then say with John Owen, “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

The Import of the Thief on the Cross

Some may object to the confessional role of works on the basis of abnormal situations such as the thief on the cross. First, what must be recognized is that death bed confessions are not normative. Second, we ought to recognize that even a person who is born again on their death bed does, in fact, by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, produce a good work, repentance. Repentance is, essentially, a turning away from sin in pursuit of Christ-like holiness. This is the first good work produced by God in the life of the believer. The Confession puts it as such:

This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavor, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things (15.3).

Conclusion

What ought not be taken from this article, or from our Confession, is the misunderstanding that good works are (1) done by ourselves, apart from the grace of God; or (2) that good works merit our justification before God. Rather, good works ought to be seen as evidence of a true and living faith, and an ordained part of our salvational experience. Without good works, we neither bear the fruit of regeneration, nor do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, thus indicating that regeneration never occurred in the first place (Phil. 2:12).