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What is a Good Work?

Many years ago, my wife and I spent several summers participating in a local church evangelistic ministry at the beach in South Jersey. Almost every night, we would go out on the boardwalk with a group of believers as we sought opportunities to talk to people about the gospel. Over the course of three summers, we had the privilege of telling thousands of people about the saving work of Jesus. After finding a point of commonality in order to talk about Christ, we would ask a series of questions to guide the conversation in a gospel direction. For instance, we might ask, “If you were to die tonight, do you think you would go to heaven or hell?” Ten out of ten would respond by saying, “I’m pretty sure that I would go to heaven.” We would then ask, “Why do you think you would go to heaven?”

If I could have documented the thousands of responses we received over three summers, it would have made for a fascinating case study of what the unregenerate believe. The answers varied somewhat: “I try to be a good person.” “I think that my good works outweigh my bad works.” “I try to be nice to people.” Sadly, the essence of these replies was the same, as you can see. What we most often heard was the belief that the natural man thinks that God will accept him on account of his good works. However, these answers also revealed that most people are living in the “never enough” quagmire of works-righteousness (answers of “I try” and “I think” show an awareness that as good as they might try to be, they still fall short). This, in turn, raises a number of other significant questions, such as, How many good works are enough good works for someone to be accepted by God? What is a good work? and, What role do good works play in the Christian life?

The Apostle Paul often explains that good works do not—in any sense whatsoever—play into a person’s right standing before God (Rom. 4:1–8; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:7–9; Titus 3:4–7). Isaiah unequivocally said, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). However, Scripture also explains that believers have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10), that we are to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14; 3:1), and that Jesus commends the righteous for what they do for His sake (Matt. 25:31–36). So, how do we reconcile the fact that we are not accepted on the basis of our good works and yet that God accepts our good works though they are imperfect and tainted by sin?

It is impossible that we who were all born “dead in sins and trespasses” can fulfill the legal conditions of the covenant by rendering to God perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience of His law. Nothing less than perfect obedience will justify a man, woman, boy, or girl before God (Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:17; Mark 10:17–19; Gal. 3:10). The fact that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6) four hundred years before the law had been given by God on Sinai proves that a man or woman is not justified before God on account of his or her works.

However, if it is impossible for any of us to obey God’s law perfectly, is there any sense in which we are still required by God to obey His commandments? Jesus explained that He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. As God manifest in the flesh, Jesus Himself was born under the law in order to redeem those who were under the curse of the law on account of their violations of it. According to God’s Word through Jeremiah the prophet, the promise of the new covenant was that God would forgive the sins of His people and write His law on their hearts and minds (Jer. 31:31–34). Thus, Jesus came to redeem a people for Himself who would now be zealous to obey the Lord.

Since the only good that a man, woman, boy, or girl may do is defined by the moral law of God (as summarized in the Ten Commandments), we can conclude that the only things that may justly be termed “good works” are those defined by God Himself. The Westminster Confession of Faith highlights this when it states, “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention” (16.1).

The members of the Westminster Assembly were precise about the nature of legitimate good works. What may properly be called a “good work” is not something that is defined by an individual, nation, or cultural movement. Only that which God defines as a good work may we properly defined as such.

Those who realize that they have not obeyed God’s commandments and have turned in faith and repentance to the Savior of sinners recognize the corruptions of their hearts and minds. On account of that, many believers have wrestled to understand what place, if any, sin-tainted works play in their Christian lives. What believer is there who does not feel a tinge of selfishness or mixed motives in every single thing that he does even when he has the best of intentions? Who among us has not experienced the grief of recognizing the imperfections of even the best of our service to others—let alone of our worship of God? If our best works are tainted with sinful imperfections, how can we say that God considers them to be legitimate “good works”?

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.17.8), John Calvin explained how a believer’s good works are purified by the perfection of Jesus and His blood so that they are counted to the believer as being legitimate good works before God. Though no one is or ever will be justified before God by his or her good works, Calvin taught that there is a personal righteousness that we subsequently receive by virtue of our union with Christ in sanctification. The good works wrought by a believer are purified by the saving work of Christ. 

The good works of one who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone are imputed to the believer as if they were his own. Concerning God’s acceptance of our good works after justification, Calvin wrote: “Forgiveness of sins being previously given, the good works which follow have a value different from their merit, because whatever is imperfect in them is covered by the perfection of Christ and all their blemishes and pollutions are wiped away by his purity, so as never to come under the cognizance of the divine tribunal . . . and the imperfection which is wont to sully even good works being buried, the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous, or; which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (16.6) states the relationship between the believer and his or her good works in the following way:

“The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

In similar fashion, Belgic Confession 24 also articulates the place of good works in the life of the believer when it states:

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 not 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.’”

Believers rest assured that they will go to heaven when they die only because of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. We joyfully sing, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” With the Apostle Paul, we say, we “put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3)and “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), while at the same time acknowledging that we have been redeemed to be a people zealous to do what is pleasing to our God and beneficial to our neighbor. After all, we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).