Heidelberg 91: What Are Good Works? (2)

Jan-Wijnants-Good-SamaritanIn part 1 we focused on the contrast between an objective standard for Christian ethics and a subjective approach to Christian ethics. The historic Christian view, in contrast to Romanism and modern evangelical subjectivism, is that God’s moral law, revealed both in nature and in Scripture, is that objective standard for the Christian life. That there is a fixed, revealed, objective moral standard for the Christian life is a source of great joy to believers, or it ought to be, because it is the charter of Christian liberty. There are too many examples, some of which we observed in part 1, in the history of the church where Christian liberty has been held captive to nothing more than mere human opinion. It is easy to make a list of ways in which personal opinions and preferences have been elevated to law and imposed upon the consciences of other Christians. In the medieval period it to the church calendar. In the 19th and 20th centuries, among evangelical revivalists, the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco became marks of Christian piety. That Scripture says the opposite about alcohol—the case against the use of alcohol is remarkably weak—and nothing about tobacco seems not to have much influenced this view in the least.

The moral law is essential to the Christian life but there is something even more basic. Before we get to the law, however, we should start where the catechism starts: true faith.

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).

The source, fountain of good works is true faith. By using this expression, the catechism deliberately takes us back to Heidelberg 21, where true faith is defined and to Heidelberg 60 which are among the several places where true faith is said to be the sole instrument (sola fide) of justification and salvation. True faith is also the instrument of union and communion with Christ and it is the headwaters of the believer’s new, Spirit-wrought life in Christ. In other words, true faith is essential to good works. Any work that does not proceed from true faith, is no good work at all. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Here we disagree sharply with Rome, which teaches that people can and must prepare for grace. At Trent (Session 6, Canon 9), Rome declared:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

According to Rome, one is able to prepare himself for grace and cooperate with grace. Again, at Trent, session 6, Rome confessed that “through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church” faith is “co-operating with good works” toward the “increase” in justice (righteousness) toward eventual justification (chapter 10).

For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified, as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches, and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace (Session 6, chapter 16)

For Rome, acceptance with God is the product of grace (a medicine) infused into the sinner through the sacraments and our free cooperation with that grace. By grace, according to Rome, we are said to be infused also with “virtue” (power) and it is this infusion, and our union with Christ that makes our good works “pleasing and meritorious” before God.

In short, for Rome, the answer to Heidelberg Catechism question 91, “What are good works?” is not “those only which proceed from true faith” but rather, those that are the product of divinely infused grace and virtue and our free cooperation with the same.

We should see the contrast intended by the catechism. We begin with sola fide and nothing else. Apart from the new life sovereignly and freely given by the Spirit, and the gift of faith which accompanies new life (the catechism does not know about regenerate persons who do not yet have true faith). With Scripture we know nothing of truly good works that do not proceed from true faith. We have always understood that unbelievers are capable of doing civil and common good. The primary authors and editors of the catechism, like the other Reformed theologians of the period, were well read in the classics and intelligent about the marvelous cultural achievements by unbelievers. They were well aware that there have been great civil and military leaders who were not Christian. The implied distinction here is between sacred and profane or between, in the best sense, sacred and secular or between religious and common.

Good works do not commend us to God but they do flow necessarily (logically) from true faith and they have as their goal the glory of God. This aspect of good works also distinguishes them from common, secular, or civil works. To be sure, a great building or painting does necessarily testify at least indirectly to Creator but the catechism has in view here good works in relation to our standing before God. A great painting or building adds nothing to one’s standing before God. A believer does good works to testify (give evidence) to the (to us) free grace he has received in Christ and to glorify the Savior, his Father, and the Spirit who gave him new life. It is a mark of the Christian that he wants to glorify the God who created him, sustains him, and who redeemed him. That this is the chief end of man is the shared testimony of all the entire Reformed tradition. When the Westminster Divines said that the “chief end man” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WSC 1), they were repeating what had been a common place among the Reformed, that believers are justified and saved that they might be sanctified and all that to the glory of God.

Therefore, the intent of good works does matter but not unto justification. The Romanists had argued that a good work might be credited, as it were, with merit if one had the proper intent. They were forced into this sophistry by confusing justification with sanctification. The Reformation theologians and churches, by biblically and properly distinguishing and rightly ordering justification and sanctification, made it possible again to think about and value intent correctly. We pay attention to intent as we think about the marks of a good work.

Good works are essential to the Christian life. They are the fruit and evidence of our free justification (sola fide) and our free salvation (sola gratia) in Christ alone unto the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). We can no more do without them than the orange tree can do without fruit. If it is the Triune God alone who has saved us, and that is true, and if is true that the Triune God has raised us from spiritual death to spiritual life, granted us faith, union with Christ and all his benefits (and that is all true), then all the glory must go to him. By nature, after the fall, we are like the Israelites with our backs to the Red Sea a the great army of Egypt coming down upon us. God the Son has conquered Pharaoh, as it were, for us. He has conquered sin, and death for us. By his Spirit, operating through his Word and sacraments he is at work in us, conforming (recreating) us to him own image. All we have is nothing except what we have been given. Whatever good has been done in us or through us, it only reflects his glory.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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