Heidelminicast: Heidelberg Catechism 86—Why Should Believers Do Good Works?

The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most beloved and well used catechisms to emerge from the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformation. Published in its final form in 1563, the catechism has been used by millions of Christians to teach the faith to children and adults alike. Arranged in 52 Lord’s Days (Sundays) the catechism takes the Christian through the basics of the Christian faith (our creation, fall, redemption, new life in Christ, and glorification). It explains the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. It is a treasure. To encourage listeners and readers, we expect to post one question and answer a day on the HB. If you are subscribed to the Heidelcast or the Heidelblog (see below) you will receive these episodes automatically.

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    • Bob, I take your question as rhetorical in nature, but would add that I agree in principle….truly regenerate believers will as naturally bear good works as a healthy tree will naturally bear good fruit. But that is a bit of an oversimplification. We must examine our works in order to determine why we are doing them….Are they being done for God’s glory or our own? (Precious gems or wood, hay, and stubble.) Add to that that the quantity and quality of our good works is often a function of our level of sanctification….we begin as apprentices, and hope to end as a masters. To that extent works may serve as a rubric of one’s spiritual maturity, but caution is advised and self-examination encouraged.

    • Article 24: The Sanctification of Sinners
      We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.

      Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.

      So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

      These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification– for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

      So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” — thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”

      Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

      Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

      So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

    • Jerry: I was with you right up to “but that is a bit of an oversimplification.” I always take that as sign that I should disregard what is said before the “but”. I take the “good news” that God will work good works through me as just that. Your qualifications aren’t good news to me.

    • I’m not sure why you would take a statement that way…..it certainly was not intended to be taken in such a manner, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to clarify it. My point was simple: Sure, the regenerate will naturally do good works (they can’t not), but not all works are necessarily good. We are not talking about good works resulting in regeneration, but rather regeneration resulting in good works. Examining our works in order to determine motive has noting to do with questioning our standing before God. Our justification is complete because God justifies, but our sanctification is a process, and as we grow in grace, we are apt to naturally bear more and better fruit, just as a tree, in it’s maturity, yields an abundant crop, all because of, and to the grace of God. Dr. Clark’s quote of Article 24 is much more complete.

    • Jerry: Is our sanctification a work of God or is it our work? With the amount of persistent indwelling sin in all Christians, do you trust your ability to realistically evaluate whether your motives are righteous?

    • Bob, sanctification is cooperative with God, justification is not. C J Mahaney says it better than I ever could:

      ” Justification is being declared righteous. Sanctification is being made righteous. Justification is objective and a unilateral act of God; it relates to our position before God. Sanctification is subjective and a process in which we are daily involved; it relates to our practice before God. Justification is complete, total, and immediate at the moment of conversion. Sanctification is progressive, beginning at the moment we are converted and continuing until the moment we go to be with the Lord. These two doctrines are distinct, yet inseparable, for God never justifies without also sanctifying.”

      So, in answer to the first part of your question, yes to both…it is God and us working in concert….it is cooperative. As for trusting my ability to judge my works: Absolutely, but within the limits of my fleshly existence and always prayerfully and in submission to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and of course, using the Word of God as a basis for any evaluation.

      But there is a personal aspect as well…..I must wrestle with whether I am performing “works” for the glory of God, or to make me feel good or look good to others. I never doubt my justification, but I’m always a bit suspicious about my motives. I know I was created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and that God is working in me to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13), but we are also called to examine ourselves (Galatians 6:4, 1 Corinthians 11:28, and 2 Corinthians 13:5). The point of this self-examination is not to puff us up, just the opposite….it is to give God the opportunity to show is our shortcomings, and to work in us….this is sanctification at work.

      • Jerry,

        I understand why you speak this way but I truly do not believe that it is the best way to speak about the nature of sanctification. I say this is one who used to speak just as you do but I have changed my mind 180°.

        1. For one reason, we do not speak this way in our confessions. E.g., Westminster Shorter Catechism 35:

        Q. 35. What is sanctification?

        A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

        Notice who is the subject and agent of the verb: God. Sanctification is something that God does. We are not mentioned as active agents. We are not mentioned as cooperating agents. When we are mentioned the verbs are in the passive voice, e.g., “are renewed” and “are enabled.” These are things done to us. I understand that, in response to antinomianism it has become fashionable to say that justification is monergistic but sanctification is synergistic. I said it to prevent antinomianism. I was wrong. Antinomianism is a serious error but sanctification is a gospel mystery not the result of grace and cooperation with grace.

        2. Consider how Paul speaks in Eph 2:8–10:

        For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

        3. Consider our theology. We have traditionally defined salvation to include a number of elements, which we include in the order of the application of redemption (ordo salutis): election, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, adoption, sanctification, glorification. In the Reformed understanding of the application of redemption, election, regeneration, justification, union, adoption, and glorification are all monergistic. So, how, then is sanctification synergistic?

        Further, if salvation includes all these aspects then to the degree any of these is synergistic then to that degree salvation is by grace and works but that language is incompatible with Eph 2:8-10. There Paul says that salvation is by grace (alone), through faith not by works. That excludes cooperation. Good works enter the picture as the result, the consequence, the outcome. We are saved that we might do good works. We do not do good works in order that we might be saved.

        Here are some resources that helped me:

        The Marrow of Modern Divinity

        The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification

        Sanctification Is A Work Of God’s Grace: Resources On Sanctification

        Resources On The Marrow Controversy

        Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works”

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