The understanding that works are necessary for believers because God regenerates believers reveals the faulty logic behind the teaching that works are necessary to obtain with God some aspect of salvation. That faulty logic is that obtaining by works is the most compelling reason to do good works, that without the incentive of obtaining with God the sinner will have no real compelling incentive to do good works, and thus that the sinner will be uninterested in doing good works. In this faulty thinking the believer is considered to be one who will actually use the teaching of grace as a license to sin.
Besides the obvious criticism of this logic that every work done to earn, obtain, or have with God is a wicked work, this logic ignores the reality that by virtue of God’s renewing act the sinner becomes a new creature with a new heart, a heart that is thankful and delights to do God’s will. Those who teach that works are necessary to have something, anything, from God view believers as mercenaries who work to be paid. The Reformed faith looks at believers as regenerated creatures in whom the must of the law has actually been made the believers’ inward delight by the saving work of God to write that law upon their inward parts and to give them new hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. The thought of the believer when he is taught that his works—works done by grace and through faith—do not earn with God and are not that upon which some blessing depends is not “Thank God, I can now live as I please,” but “Thanks be to God, I do not have to earn with God! What wilt thou have me to do, Oh, Lord, my God?”
It is an insult to the believer and his new man in Christ to teach him that he can obtain with God and that he must do in order to have something from God because the blessing of God depends on his works. Indeed, in teaching the necessity of good works to the believer, the preacher must do what the Catechism does when it teaches the necessity of good works and reiterate that the believer is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace for Christ’s sake without any merit—works—of his own. God himself has made the believer a thankful creature.
It is anathema for the believer who is renewed by Christ to attempt a transaction with God by his works.
Thankfulness, which proceeds from the regenerated heart, is another necessity of good works. The Catechism in Lord’s Day 32 says that “we [must] still do good works…so [that] we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that He may be praised by us.” The words so that speak to the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner.
This phrase in the Catechism points out the wickedness of works that are done to have some aspect of our salvation from God: it makes impossible the purpose of gratitude and it dishonors God. It makes impossible gratitude because a work that is done to have something from God cannot be done to thank God. The man who works for eighty hours in a week does not thank his boss for the paycheck. It is owed the working man. Further, the very idea that the believer must do something to have from God, as that upon which God’s gift depends, dishonors God because it says that God did not do everything necessary for his child to have from him in Jesus Christ, and it makes of his grace a wage that is paid to the working sinner.
Over against this, the Catechism teaches that the necessity of good works is a testimony of gratitude to God. This is not independent of God’s work of renewing the sinner, but is the very purpose of God in renewing the sinner. According to the Catechism, God renews the believer so that he may testify of his gratitude. God does not renew sinners so that they can work in order to have from God and to obtain from him by means of those works. He renews sinners so that they testify of their gratitude to him. God saves and delivers the sinner wholly without the merit of his works, and then God graciously renews the sinner so that the sinner may testify of his gratitude by a life of good works. God gives redemption, deliverance, and gratitude.
Thus the professing believer who does not do good works is wholly without this testimony of gratitude. Without it he lives a wicked and ungrateful life and gives abundant evidence that he is also without regeneration, faith, and salvation. He does not lack salvation because of his failure to work, but rather his failure to work is the clear and compelling testimony that he does not have faith, righteousness, and the gift of conversion.
Such is the relation between the renewal of God and the testimony of gratitude that the sinner whom God renews will give this testimony of gratitude. Such is the relationship between the gift of renewal and the purpose of gratitude that the believer must do good works. For the sake of this testimony of gratitude, the sinner must be instructed in the way of gratitude according to the law, and this way of gratitude must be exhorted on him urgently not because he can obtain with God by means of it, but because his God requires it of him and works in him both to will and to do of his good pleasure, so that he gives that testimony.
Hypocrites must be warned that without this testimony of gratitude in a life of good works, they fail to give the one great thing that is the purpose of God in the work of redemption, justification, and sanctification.
By means of that testimony of gratitude—consisting in a life of prayer and good works—the believer praises God. The Catechism adds “and that he may be praised by us.” Just as the life of works and prayer that is performed as the basis of obtaining from God certainly dishonors and displeases God, so the life of works and prayer that consists in a testimony of gratitude to God glorifies and praises God.
Not the least part of this praise of God in such a life is the believer’s testimony that his life of good works and prayer is not in any way the basis for obtaining from God and is not performed as the ground on which the believer depends to have something from God, but to praise and thank him for the free gift of salvation, including all his life of gratitude.
Since the praise of God is the sincere desire of the regenerated heart of a believer, this necessity of good works must be taught to the believer and this calling must also be exhorted upon the believer. Because he is prone by nature to praise himself, he must be exhorted to this praise of God. The praise and worship of God is his chief calling. He does this not by self-invented worship of God or by a self-devised way of life, but in the way of obedience to the law of God and by a life of prayer to God.
Hypocrites and the impenitent must be warned that their unthankful life dishonors and displeases God.
Both of these are results of the renewing work of God as the chief explanation of the necessity of good works. That which God wills he surely performs. That which God wills is a testimony of gratitude to his glory. This God works in the believer. As a consequence the believer must also do good works.
This is the main answer of the Catechism to the question of the necessity of good works. This fact does not come out clearly in the received English translation. In that version the punctuation of the original German is missing. After that first part in the original German there is a period. What follows in the answer is introduced by the German words danach auch, which translates as after this also. So the English should read,
Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for His blessings, and that He may be praised by us. After this also…”
The point is that the first part of the Catechism’s answer must be understood and taught properly. And if that is understood and taught properly, there are additional considerations in answer to the question of the necessity of good works that are to be urged upon the churches and people of God. These additional considerations are based on and follow from the first part.
There are, then, other aspects to the Reformed answer regarding the necessity of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32.
To this I will turn next time.
This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.
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