Depravity and Regeneration (7): Good Works
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the seventh entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma. The sixth entry is Depravity and Regeneration (6): Sanctified.
We are thankful that the proper truth of sanctification is faithfully and fervently taught and preached by ministers of the gospel in the PRC. We are thankful for elders who discharge their office in the protection of this truth in our midst. We are likewise thankful for members who also have a proper understanding of this truth. Although we are called by God’s Word to exercise ourselves the more unto godliness, nevertheless, there is a good grasp of the doctrine of sanctification that stands behind a godly life. But there are some from without that challenge our faithfulness. As a result, it may cause confusion among some of God’s saints. Do we, in fact, purely maintain the truth of sanctification? Such questions are being debated as, are we the old man and the new man in us is Christ? Or, does Christ work good works in us only to have us twist these good works into that which is wholly polluted with sin? This is why we began our consideration of sanctification and good works in our last blog.
The error of good works as a means unto salvation or a means by which we can merit the favor and fellowship of God has been around since the fall of man into sin. The sin of man after the fall is that he in pride believes himself to be God’s equal. He is convinced, therefore, that he can save himself or in some way assist God in his salvation. This sin already manifest itself in Cain who offered unto God the fruit of his hands as a sacrifice to God rather than in faith seeing the need for the shed blood of the Lamb. Man thinks so highly of himself that he believes God will accept him on the basis of his own worth. This pride of man is the cause for error in the church regarding good works throughout the ages. How careful we must be as churches and as saints to guard against this error in every way! Take time out to read Lord’s Days 3, 4 and 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism again. These Lord’s Days conclusively prove that it is impossible for man to save himself from sin. Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9)!
The Catechism defines a good work for us in Lord’s Day 33; Q&A 91: “But what are good works? Only those that proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men.” A good work, in the first place, proceeds from a true faith. Faith is the source of every good work. It follows from this that fallen man prior to regeneration cannot perform a good work. An unregenerated man does not possess faith since faith is a work of Christ that follows upon regeneration. If a person is not regenerated he has no faith. If there is no faith in a man’s heart there can be no fruit of faith, that is, good works. Fallen man can do no good. That is a given.
But this is also a given: our works are acceptable in the sight of God only “as they proceed from the good root of faith” (Belgic Confession, Article 24). Good works are not a part of faith. Works and faith are not one and the same. Neither may we place works alongside of faith as if works together with faith are both a means to salvation. Works are always only a fruit of faith. For this reason too, good works can never be a condition unto fellowship with God. God does not choose to establish or maintain his covenant with his people on the basis of faith much less the works that we perform. If that were the case fellowship with God would be impossible! Of course! God would never have fellowship with those who are guilty of transgressing his commandments! Our fellowship with God is grounded in (is based upon) the cross of Jesus Christ alone. He justified us there. That work of justification is the sole reason God will accept us into his favor and presence. God by his grace alone freely imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. He does this by means of faith alone. Through faith alone we are righteous before God and therefore are able to have fellowship with God. Good works have nothing to do with our righteousness before God. Article 24 of the Belgic Confession states: “howbeit they (good works) are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more that the fruit of a tree can be good before the tree itself is good.” Good works cannot earn for us God’s favor and fellowship. Such is the truth we maintain in the PRC.
That in the first place: good works proceed from a true faith.
In the second place, good works are performed according to the standard of God’s law. Faith is the source of good works. God’s commandments are the standard of what makes up a good work. Since Christ has fulfilled the ceremonies and ordinances of the Old Testament laws it is assumed that what is spoken of here in the Heidelberg Catechism is the moral law or that of the Ten Commandments. These ten commandments though fulfilled by our Lord Jesus Christ are still in effect for the church of Jesus Christ today. The believer today is not without the law. He certainly is not under the bondage of the law. Galatians 3:23: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Christ has through his work set him free from the law. The law can no longer condemn him. Romans 8:33-34: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”
Likewise, it is true, as we have just noted, that though good works are performed according to the standard of God’s law they are not what justifies the sinner. We are justified by faith without the deeds of the law. But neither does the truth that works are the fruit of faith cast aside the keeping of God’s law. Paul responds to this question of Romans 3:31: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” Scripture simply means here that those who are grafted into Christ by a true faith are also those who will through Christ walk a life of holiness and godliness (see also the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 24; Q&A 64.) This is the answer of Scripture to the charge leveled against the truth of justification by faith alone that this doctrine will make men “careless and profane” in their walk of life in this world.
The third element evident in a good work is that it is performed to the glory of God. Again, we find in this aspect of a good work evidence that the unregenerate man is unable to do any good. As admirable as a work may seem from a human perspective, as noble a deed as it might seem in the eyes of man, a person who is without Christ does nothing to the glory of God. All of fallen man’s works are self-centered and self-seeking. Even those deeds done for humanity are not done for God’s glory and therefore are not good works, not in the sight of God. In fact, this is the reason that the regenerated believer’s works are never perfect. Even our best of works are contaminated with the sin of self. A good work flows out of a sincere love for God and his glory. Our motivation to do good must flow out of a deep and sincere love for God.
These three elements make up a good work. Hopefully, this did not read like a textbook on good works. If you became lost in the details go back and read it again. It is that important for our understanding of the truth! We will pursue the necessity of performing good works next time.