Do Good Works Matter?

Why should I do good works? That question isn’t theoretical; we subconsciously ask it dozens of times a day. Why should I love that hurtful church friend? Why should I sacrifice for my disobedient kids? Why should I work hard for an unobservant boss? Why should I be faithful to my emotionally distant spouse? Why should I read the Bible, pray, or worship when I don’t feel like it? What drives me to live well when I am tempted to sin?

With this question, the catechism transitions to its third part. We first learned that by nature we are totally depraved, holistically polluted by sin. In our drive for autonomy we reject God’s holy will, deepening our debt of righteousness. But, second, there is comfort; even the worst sinners are made right with God and welcomed into his kingdom “as often as they accept the gospel promise in true faith” (Q&A 84). The third part of the catechism teaches redeemed sinners how to show gratitude to God. Scripture gives three reasons to live well even when it isn’t easy.

We Do Good for God’s Sake

God is glorified as Jesus’s disciples bear much fruit (John 15:8). The psalm writer asks, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” (Ps. 116:12). His answer: love God (1), rely on God (13), and obey God (16–18). In light of God’s mercies, New Testament believers too offer themselves as living sacrifices, holy, and acceptable to God; this is how we worship him! (Rom. 12:1). Talk is cheap. Genuine gratitude is best conveyed by how we live “our whole lives.” This is the prayer of true disciples: “Fill thou my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise, that my whole being may proclaim thy being and thy praise. Not for the lip of praise alone, nor e’en the praising heart, I ask, but for a life made up of praise in ev’ry part.”[1]

We thank and praise God best when our lives match his holy character. In the Decalogue God claims his people as his treasured possession: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:1). We are members of his household; in baptism he shares with us the name above all names. Covenantal disobedience would profane God among the nations (Ezek. 36:23). So to help us reflect him—his truthfulness, goodness, and love—God summarizes 10 ways to love him and our neighbors. God is pleased when our works reflect his. And true obedience can have a ripple effect; others will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:12).

We Do Good for Our Own Sake

Like exercise and a healthy diet, good works are good for us. God promises that obedience “will make [our] way prosperous” and grant us “good success” (Josh. 1:8). Good works harmonize with God’s design for our flourishing; we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).

One way our good works bless us is by strengthening our assurance of faith.[2] Assurance is critical; it is “the true root of humility, of childlike respect, of genuine godliness, of endurance in every conflict, of fervent prayers, of steadfastness in crossbearing and in confessing the truth, and of well-founded joy in God.”[3] And “[t]he grace of good works . . . shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us [cf. Rom. 8:15].”[4] Love, joy, peace, patience—every fruit of the Spirit—are divine, not human attributes. Christlikeness is proved by good works as a tree is known by its fruits (Matt. 7:16–20).

This means that the power of good works has a double edge. “No unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God” (see 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Gal 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5). Sinners enter the kingdom through the transformative experience of regeneration which starts the process of sanctification. A life of ungodliness belongs in a believer’s past (1 Cor. 6:11). Still, we need to keep a scriptural balance in examining our works as a means of assurance. “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:10). But believers must be realistic: “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q&A 114).

We Do Good for Our Neighbor’s Sake

“By our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.” Believers practice “righteousness and peace and joy” to be “approved by men,” promoting “peace and . . . mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:18–19). Peter believed—probably from personal testimonies—that family members can be won over to Christ by quiet, godly conduct (1 Peter 3:1, 2). God’s people are advertisements for Christianity, “letters of recommendation . . . to be known and read by all” (2 Cor. 3:2).

What do your neighbors see in you? Do they see hope, joy, and faithfulness even when it isn’t convenient? Can they feel your love? Do they experience your hospitality? One first-century Roman lawyer sought the emperor’s guidance on how to try suspected Christians—the worst charges against them were worshiping Jesus and binding themselves to practice integrity by not committing fraud, theft, or adultery. Do your neighbors know you are a Christian because you are “guilty” of living like Jesus? What about those closest to you? “Neighbor” has a broad application. But the English word first referred to the farm nearby—God has arranged your life to help you care for some people more naturally than others. Are you?

You must do good works. But don’t panic. “Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also renewing us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives” we may do good works. If God has poured his love into your heart “through the Holy Spirit who has been given” to you (Rom. 5:5), good works will overflow. Those whom God regenerates “he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin . . . God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them to the end” (cf. Phil. 1:6).[5] You must do good works—for God’s sake, for your own sake, and for your neighbor’s sake. And if you are united to Christ by a living faith, you will.


[1] Horatius Bonar, “Fill Thou My Life, O Lord My God,” TPH, 534.

[2] Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 16.2.

[3] Canons of Dort, 5.12. 

[4] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.18.

[5] Canons of Dort, 5.1, 5.3.

Bookenstein

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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