Heidelberg 91: What Are Good Works? (1)

Jan-Wijnants-Good-SamaritanWhen the Reformed theologians and churches faced this question in the 16th century, the chief problem they faced was the imposition upon Christians of laws, traditions, and practices that were neither clearly taught in Scripture nor a good and necessary consequence from Scripture. Gradually, through the late-patristic and medieval periods, Christians found themselves burdened with a bewildering array of obligations in the church calendar (e.g., saints days and days of obligation), alleged sacramental obligations (e.g., penance), in various acts of piety (e.g., prescribed prayers), and even financial obligations (e.g., indulgences). In response to all these unbiblical and sometimes ungodly burdens on the Christian conscience the Reformation boldly re-asserted the clarity, the uniqueness, and final authority of holy Scripture (sola scriptura).

In our age, though those in the Roman communion and in other sects remain trapped in a system of man-made obligations, perhaps the more pressing challenge is subjectivism, the denial of an objective truth or, in this case, a fixed, objective standard for ethics and morality. Professing Christians regularly talk about the Christian moral life with no reference to God’s holy law, as if there were no revealed fixed standard. This gets expressed in a variety of ways. Sometimes people flatly reject the abiding validity of the moral law as summarized in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) or as summarized by our Lord in Matthew 22:37&ndash40, or as summarized in the moral teaching of the NT epistles. Such a denial of God’s moral law is called antinomianism. This is an old error that has been with us in various forms throughout the history of the church. There were groups in the 2nd century who thought that they were too spiritual to obey God’s moral law. The same sort of attitude existed in the middle ages and arose again in the sixteenth century, in the wake of the Reformation. The Antinomians worried that teaching the abiding validity of God’s moral law would lead believers back to the Romanist doctrine of justification with God through works (e.g., cooperation with grace). The magisterial Protestant theologians (e.g., Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer et al) and churches, with one voice, all rejected antinomianism as contrary to the teaching of holy Scripture. Antinomianism arose again in the 17th century, particularly in England in the context of the English Civil War and partly in response to neo-legalism or neonomianism, and again the Reformed churches rejected both neonomianism (acceptance with God through grace and works or law keeping) and antinomianism in favor of free acceptance with God (justification) and salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone and sanctification (and obedience to God’s law) in union and communion with Christ as the natural, necessary consequence of free justification and salvation. In the modern period, particularly in the context of American revivalism and especially after the so-called Second Great Awakening in the 19th century and under the influence of various forms of Dispensationalism, it is widely held by evangelicals that the moral law is “not for today” or no longer applicable. These traditions tend not to have a weak understanding of the relation between creation (nature) and grace (salvation and renewal). Typically Christians from these traditions have never been taught that God’s moral law is not peculiar to the Mosaic epoch in redemptive history but rather that it is grounded in God’s nature and reflected both in creation and in redemption. With the Fathers, the medieval church (e.g., Thomas), the Reformed Churches distinguish between the temporary (613 commandments) Mosaic legislation and the permanent moral law that was repeated in but not unique to the Mosaic epoch.

Apart from overt antinomianism, there are varieties of practical antinomianism in which professing Christians do not even bother to articulate a rationale for ignoring God’s law. They simply proceed as if there were no revealed moral law. So far divorced are they from historic Christianity, so influenced are they by the subjectivist spirit of our late-modern age (Zeitgeist) and so apparently unaware of basic biblical teaching are they that some professing Christians simply assume we must have been left to our own devices to decide right from wrong. Others have sometimes defended sin on the grounds that they received a message from the Spirit telling them that their sin (in one case, fornication) was “God’s perfect will” for them. Some Christians appeal to the leading of the Spirit and other such things to justify all manner of bizarre behavior and claims. Others appeal to “small, still voices,” intuitions and feelings as the norm for their decisions and actions. Each of these is a sub-species of subjectivism, i.e., the subject (the person having the experience) becomes the norm. It is a denial of the objectively revealed moral will of God.

The Reformed Churches, however, confess that God revealed his moral law in the beginning, in creation and that it continues to be revealed in nature and is written in the conscience of every image bearer who ever lived. In that way it is universal and natural. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans chapters 1 and 2. The law revealed in nature is, in the New Covenant, written on the heart of every believer as though on tablets of flesh: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33; Ezek 11:19; 36:26; 2 Cor 3:3).

We confess:

91. What are good works?

Those only which proceed from true faith, and are done according to the Law of God, unto His glory; and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men (Heidelberg Catechism).

In the next post we will consider the first and the third clauses (true faith and God’s glory) but here it seems important to see how the catechism provides an objective, divinely revealed, clear basis for the determining what is a good work. Not everything that we might think qualifies as a good work. Not everything that someone tells you to do qualifies as a good work. In the end, Rome and the subjectivists end up in the same place. Both substitute human authority (experience or claims to an unwritten tradition) in place of God’s sufficient Word.

This goes to the matter of Christian liberty. Where God’s Word has not spoken explicitly or implicitly (by good, i.e., logical and necessary, i.e., unavoidable consequence) there is liberty. One may think that, e.g., circumcision is a good practice. Another may not. The NT is clear that the practice of circumcision no longer has any religious or spiritual significance. Its practice is a matter of liberty. The Apostle Paul repeatedly asserted the liberty of the Christian to eat meat offered to idols, so long as it was not part of a religious (sacred) meal. In Romans 14 he wrote:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:1–5; ESV).

God says that, in the New Covenant, all foods are clean (Acts 10:15; 11:9). The old Mosaic ceremonial laws and distinctions have been fulfilled. Nevertheless, there were some who had been raised in the old system who, quite understandably, struggled with the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. If one wants to keep the old calendar, that is up to him but he may not impose it on another. The dividing wall has been broken down (Eph 2:14). The Jerusalem Synod (Acts 15) rejected the imposition of the old ceremonial laws and restrictions on the Gentiles Christians.

The objectively, clearly revealed moral law as the baseline for Christian ethics is essential to Christian living and Christian liberty. James calls it “the law of liberty” (James 1:25) because it frees us from the tyranny of human opinion. It does not answer every question (it does not intend or claim to answer every question) but it is an essential starting place. What must a Christian do in response to God’s grace and in union with Christ? Love God with all his faculties and his neighbor as himself. What does that look like? The law gives us the outline:

  • We worship the one true, Triune God
  • We worship the Triune God the way he commands
  • We revere his name
  • We keep the Sabbath/Lord’s Day in rest and worship
  • We obey divinely instituted authorities
  • We seek our neighbor’s welfare
  • We keep ourselves sexual pure
  • We respect our neighbor’s property
  • We tell the truth
  • We receive gratefully only what God has given us

There are necessarily other facets of the Christian life, e.g., wisdom but wisdom loves God’s law and begins with it and seeks to understand, apply, and obey it. The Triune God has not left us to guess what he expects of us:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does Yahweh require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

God has spoken. We are not the measure of all things. Our experience is not final. Our hunches are just that. Our intuitions, however useful, are just that. There is an objective arbiter. When intuitions and feelings conflict with God’s clear revelation, our feelings must give way to objective revealed truth. Imagined continuing revelation is just pretension. It is also a path to slavery as has became evident during claims of continuing revelation (e.g., the so-called Kansas City Prophets etc). No Christian is bound to what another Christians claims he heard from God (e.g., “You must sell your car”). We are bound together to God’s clear, objective Word so that no one, not even the church, can impose on us what God himself has not imposed.

As we have seen from the beginning, we are not our own. We belong to our faithful Savior. He is working in us daily a greater love and reverence for his holy moral law.

Next time: What do faith and glory have to do with it?

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. Thank you for this post. I have always loved history, but while it can be fascinating in itself, it’s invaluable in offering real wisdom by revealing the implications of doctrines and ideas that may seem attractive in the present, but history shows where they will lead, so we can truly learn from it. What an important biblical concept is remembering! Much like the old TV series “Remington Steele” where they often solved mysteries by citing plot lines from old movies, we can gain wisdom by citing where plot lines in the past ended up in the history of the Church.

  2. If you don’t want to add to your eight a ninth “bullet,” how about including:

    “We respect our neighbor’s property — AND his good name.” (8C and 9C)

    That gets all 10C in your helpful summary, with more explicitness IMO.

  3. Yesterday, I read this jarring quote about good works from Robert Haldane’s commentary on Romans:

    “…Nothing but the doctrine of salvation has ever produced good works…”

    (Romans, Banner of Truth, page 2).

    This seems to go along with this post…

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