Depravity and Regeneration (9): The Nature of Good Works
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the ninth entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma. The seventh entry is Depravity and Regeneration (8): "Created in Christ Jesus Unto Good Works."
What is the nature or character of a good work? What does a good work look like? Serious errors have crept into the church by giving the wrong answer to these questions. Many wish to judge the character of a good work by a person’s external deeds, by the external keeping of God’s law. For example, it is assumed that prayer is a good work. But is it in every instance? Of the Pharisees Jesus said: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men” Matthew 6:5. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites because they devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayer. Numerous examples can be found condemning mere external works: going to church, giving to the poor, knowledge of the doctrines of the church, singing. All of these can be good works, yet they also can appear as good works while a person’s heart is far from God. In his scathing rebuke of the Pharisees Jesus accuses them: “Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” Matthew 23:28. To determine the nature of a good work, therefore, is not as easy as pointing to a person’s external work and saying that it is good.
Every good work must meet the threefold test. The source is faith, the standard is God’s law, and the motivation is the glory of God. These will determine the character of a good work.
First of all, a good work flows forth out of a heart that loves God, is deeply aware of salvation, and is humbly grateful for what God has done in Christ. The Psalmist asks in Psalm 116:12: “What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me?” Mind you, he does not take the attitude: because my works are so polluted with sin I can render nothing to the Lord. His question is, rather: what can I give to the Lord for all the benefits of salvation? His answer is given in verse 17: “I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.” What specifically is this sacrifice of thanksgiving the justified, sanctified believer renders to the Lord? Romans 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Good works flow out of a deep love for the God of our salvation and out of true gratitude for his benefits towards us.
In the second place, the nature of a good work is rooted in a believer’s desire to please God. Yes, a believer does good works to please God! Do not twist this to say that this means a believer does good works in order to merit God’s love and favor. The regenerated child of God is already the object of God’s love and favor for Christ’s sake alone. But, being redeemed, the child of God seeks to please his heavenly Father, as a child (who already is loved and adored by father) seeks to please his earthly father. “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” 1 John 3:22. Or perhaps even more clearly in Colossians 1:10: “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
This implies two truths. First, those who piously emphasize that the child of God because of his depravity can do nothing pleasing in the sight of God deny the very nature of a good work. Good works please God! “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” Colossians 3:20. A believer will not say: Christ will perform his good work through me, but I personally can do nothing that will please God in my life. Talk about taking away the motivation for walking in godliness before God!
The second implication that the nature of a believer’s good works is to please God is spoken of in 1 Thessalonians 2:4: “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” Now, I realize that this passage speaks of the preaching of the gospel. But Paul preached the gospel with others to please God. But the emphasis is that when he preached he did not do it to please men. This is true of every good work that the believer performs. A good work is not meant to impress men, but God alone who tries the hearts. God knows what is in the heart. He knows the proper motivation of the heart. He knows whether his children are out to please him or to put on a mere outward show for others. Do I go to church because this is the accepted norm and my friends and family expect this of me? Do I recite a long beautiful prayer because I am out to impress those who hear but my heart is far from God? Do I exercise myself in knowing the doctrines of the church but only to impress others with my knowledge and not because these doctrines lead me to Christ? Then we are performing what may seem like a good work but deny the very nature of a good work that is done to please God and not men.
In the third place, the character of a good work is that it flows naturally out of the renewed heart. It is not performed to prove anything to myself or to others. Good works are done spontaneously out of our love for God and our gratitude to him for our salvation. They are not mechanical or forced. For example, when a mother in the home fulfills the duty of a godly mother to her children she does not say to herself: “I better read and pray with my children in order to perform my good work for the day.” Or, there! I sang a Psalm with my child! I performed a good work!”
In this connection, another error that sparked our present controversy must also be rejected. I do not pray in order to prove to myself that I am a child of God. I do not perform a good work in order to assure myself that I share in God’s fellowship. This is wrong reasoning because it goes against the very character of a good work. Good works certainly do assure us of faith because they are the natural fruit of faith. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32; Q&A 86: “Why must we still do good works? . . . That everyone may be assured in himself of this faith by the fruits thereof.” But a believer does not do good works in order to prove to himself he has faith. He does not go to church, for example, to prove to himself or others that he has faith. The nature of faith is that good works flow naturally out of our faith. Most often the believer does not even realize he or she is doing a good work. Good works are not showy. They are quiet and unassuming.
We mentioned that we were also going to consider the obligation we have as God’s children to do good works. This too is necessary since some wish to deny the need to be exhorted unto good works. Their faulty reasoning is such: Christ himself performs good works through his people. He does this by binding them to him by faith. Faith is nothing more than a bond. Through this bond Christ is able to perform his good works in us. But when he does we render his good works totally depraved. We ruin Christ’s good works in us. So much so, that we must renounce our good works and repent for doing them. Since we ourselves are incapable of performing good works then it is useless to receive exhortations unto good works. To say that we are obligated to walk in good works, it is reasoned, is the error of work righteousness. This reasoning is wrong! This gives us a taste of what we will address in our next blog.