The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 16

Of Good Works

SECTION 1: Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word,[1] and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.[2]

1. Micah 6:8; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21
2. Matt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13; I Peter 1:18; John 16:2; Rom. 10:2; I Sam. 15:21-23; Deut. 10:12-13; Col. 2:16-17, 20-23

SECTION II: These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith:[3] and by them believers manifest their thankfulness,[4] strengthen their assurance,[5] edify their brethren,[6] adorn the profession of the gospel,[7] stop the mouths of the adversaries,[8] and glorify God,[9] whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto,[10] that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.[11]

3. James 2:18, 22
4. Psa. 116:12-14; Col. 3:15-17; I Peter 2:9
5. I John 2:3, 5; II Peter 1:5-10
6. II Cor. 9:2; Matt. 5:16; I Tim. 4:12
7. Titus 2:5, 9-12; I Tim. 6:1
8. I Peter 2:15
9. I Peter 2:12; Phil. 1:11; John 15:8
10. Eph. 2:10
11. Rom. 6:22

THESE sections teach the following propositions: --
l. In order that any human action should be truly a good work, it must have the following essential characteristics: --
(1.) It must be something directly or implicitly commanded by God. (2.) It must spring from an inward principle of faith and love in the heart. Works not commanded by God, but invented and gratuitously performed by men, are utterly destitute of moral character, and if offered in the place of the obedience required, they are offensive.

2. The effects and uses of good works in the Christian life are manifold, and are such as -- (1.) They express the gratitude of the believer, and manifest the grace of God in him, and so adorn the profession of the gospel. (2.) They glorify God. (3.) They develop grace by exercise, and so strengthen the believer's assurance. (4.) They edify the brethren. (5.) They stop the mouths of adversaries. (6.) They are necessary to the attainment of eternal life.

1. In order that a work may be good, (1.) It must be an act performed in conformity to God's revealed will. The law of absolute moral perfection to which we are held in subjection is not the law of our own reasons or consciences, but it is an all-perfect rule of righteousness, having its ground in the eternal nature of God, and its expression and obliging authority to us in the divine will. Not self-development, not the realization of an ideal end, but obedience to a personal authority without and above us, is precisely what reason, conscience, and Scripture require. The good man is the obedient man. The sinner in every transgression of virtue is conscious that he is guilty of disobedience to the Supreme Lawgiver. David says in his repentance, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight" Ps. li. 4. God has given in the inspired Scriptures a perfect rule of faith and practice. Every principle, every motive, and every end of right action, according to the will of God, may there be easily learned by the devout inquirer. God says to his Church: "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." Deut. xii. 32; Rev. xxii. 18, 19. And God very energetically declares his abhorrence of uncommanded services, of " voluntary humility " and "will-worship." Isa. i. 11, 12; Col. ii. 16 -- 23.

In order that a work may be truly good, (2.) It must spring from a principle of faith and love in the heart. All men recognize that the moral character of an act always is determined by the moral character of the principle or affection which prompts to it. Unregenerate men perform many actions, good so far as their external relations to their fellow-men are concerned. But love to God is the foundation-principle upon which all moral duties rest, just as our relation to God is the fundamental relation upon which all our other relations rest. If a man is alienated from God, if he is not in the present exercise of trust in him and love for him, any action he can perform will lack the essential element which makes it a true obedience. Good works, according to the Scriptures, are the fruits of sanctification, having their root in regeneration: " For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Eph. ii. 10. James says that faith is shown by works; which of course implies that the kind of works of which he speaks springs only from a believing heart. James ii. 18, 22.

2. The effects and uses of good works in the Christian life are manifold, and are such as -- (1.) They express the gratitude of the believer, and manifest the grace of God in him, and so adorn the profession of the gospel. "Faith worketh by love." Gal. v. 6. Christ says that we are to express our love for him by keeping his commandments. John xiv. 15, 23. As they are the fruits of the Spirit, they render manifest the excellent working of the Spirit. 1 Tim. ii. 10; Tit. ii. 10. (2.) They glorify God. Since God is their author (Eph. ii. 10), they manifest the excellency of his grace, and excite all who behold them to appreciate and proclaim his glory. Matt. v. 16; 1 Pet. ii. 12. (3.) As they spring from grace, so the performance of them exercises grace in general, and each grace severally according to the nature of the work performers. Thus by the universal law of habit grace grows by its exercise. And the assurance as to our own gracious state naturally increases with the strength and evidence of those graces unto which the promise of salvation is attached. (4.) They edify the brethren. Good works edify others, both as confirmatory evidence of the truth of Christianity and the power of divine grace, and by the force of example inducing men to practice the same. 1 Thess. i. 7; 1 Tim. iv. 12; 1 Pet. v. 3. (5.) For the same reasons good works disprove the cavils and render nugatory the opposition of wicked men. 1 Pet. ii. 15. (6.) They are necessary to the attainment of salvation, not in any sense as a prerequisite to justification, nor in any stage of the believer's progress meriting the divine favour, but as essential elements of that salvation, the consubstantial fruits and means of sanctification and glorification. A saved soul is a holy soul, and a holy soul is one whose faculties are all engaged in works of loving obedience. Grace in the heart cannot exist without good works as their consequent. Good works cannot exist without the increase of the graces which are exercised in them. Heaven could not exist except as a society of holy souls mutually obeying the law of love in all the good works that law requires. Eph. v. 25 -- 27; 1 Thess. iv. 6, 7; Rev. xxi. 27.

SECTION III: Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.[12] And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of his good pleasure:[13] yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.[14]

12. John 15:4-6; Rom. 8:4-14; Ezek. 36:26-27
13. Phil. 2:13; 4:13; II Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:16
14. Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11-12; II Peter 1:3, 5, 10-11; Isa. 64:7; II Tim. 1:6; Acts 26:6-7; Jude 1:20-21

As we have seen under chapter x., in regeneration the Holy Spirit implants a permanent holy principle or habit in the soul, which ever continues the germ or seed from which all gracious affections and holy exercises do proceed. In respect to the implantation of this permanent holy principle by the Holy Spirit the soul is passive. But, the instant this new moral disposition or tendency is implanted in the soul, as a matter of course the moral character of its exercises is changed, and the soul becomes active in good works, as before it had, been in evil ones. But, as we also saw under chapter xiii., sanctification is a work of God's free grace, wherein he continues graciously to sustain, nourish, and guide the exercise of the permanent habit of grace which he had implanted in regeneration. The regenerated man depends upon the continued indwelling, the prompting, and the sustaining and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, in every act of obedience in the exercise of grace; nevertheless as the acts of obedience to the performance of which the Spirit prompts and enables him are his own acts, it follows that he, while seeking the guidance and support of grace, must actively co-operate with it, acting, like every free agent, under the influence of motives and a sense of personal responsibility. Hence this section asserts: --

1. That the ability of the Christian to do good works is not at all from himself, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.

2. That in order thereto, in addition to the grace implanted in regeneration, there is needed a continual influence of the Holy Ghost upon all the faculties of the renewed soul, whereby the Christian is enabled to will and to do of his good pleasure.

3. That this doctrine of the absolute dependence of the soul is not to be perverted into an occasion to indolence, or to abate in any degree our sense of personal obligation. God's will is exhibited to us objectively in the written Word. The obligation to voluntary obedience binds our consciences. The Holy Spirit does not work independently of the Word, but through the Word; nor does he work irrespectively of our constitutional faculties of reason, conscience, and free will, but through them. It hence follows that we can never honour the Holy Spirit by waiting for his special motions, but that we always yield to and co-work with him when we, while seeking his guidance and assistance, use all the means of grace, and all our own best energies, in being and doing all that the law of God requires. It is never the waiters for grace, but always the active seekers for grace and doers of his word, whom God approves. Luke xi. 19-13; James i. 22, 23.

SECTION IV: They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.[15]

15. Luke 17:10; Neh. 13:22; Rom. 8:21-25; Gal. 5:17

SECTION V: We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins,[16] but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants:[17] and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit;[18] and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.[19]

16. Rom. 3:20; 4:2, 4, 6; 8:18, 22-24; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7; Psa. 16:2; Job 22:2-3, 35:7-8
17. Luke 17:10
18. Rom. 8:13-14; Gal. 5:22-23
19. Isa. 64:6; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:15, 18; Psa. 130:3; 143:2

SECTION VI: Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him;[20] not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight;[21] 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.[22]

20. Eph. 1:6; I Peter 2:5; see Exod. 28:38; Gen. 4:4; Heb. 11:4
21. Job 9:20; Psa. 143:2; I John 1:8
22. Heb. 6:10; 13:20-21; II Cor. 8:12; Matt. 25:21, 23; I Cor. 3:14; 4:5

These sections teach: --
1. That works of supererogation are so far from being possible, even for the most eminent saint, that in this life it is not possible for the most thoroughly sanctified one fully to discharge all his positive obligations.

2. That, for several reasons assigned, the best works of believers, so far from meriting either the pardon of sin or eternal life at the hands of God, cannot even endure the scrutiny of his holy judgment.

3. That, nevertheless, the works of sincere believers are, like their persons, in spite of their imperfections, accepted because of their union with Christ Jesus, and rewarded for his sake.

1. The phrase " supererogation" means "more than is demanded." Works of supererogation are in their own nature impossible under the moral law of God. In man's present state even the most eminent saint is incapable of fully discharging all his obligations -- much more, of course, of surpassing them. The Romish Church teaches the ordinary Arminian theory of perfectionism. In addition to this error, they teach, (a.) that good works subsequent to baptism merit increase of grace and eternal felicity (Council of Trent, sess. vi., ch. xvi., can. 24, 32);. and (b.) they distinguish between the commands and the counsels of Christ. The former are binding upon all classes of the people, and their observance necessary in order to salvation. The latter, consisting of advice, not of commands -- such as celibacy, voluntary poverty, obedience to monastic rule, etc. -- are binding only on those who voluntarily assume them, seeking a higher degree of perfection and a more exalted reward.

We have already, under chapter xiii., seen that a state of sinless perfection is never attained by Christians in this life; and it, of course, follows that much less is it possible for any to do more than is commanded.

That works of supererogation are always and essentially impossible to all creatures in all worlds is also evident -- (1.) From the very nature of the moral law. That which is right under any relation is intrinsically obligatory upon the moral agent standing in that relation. If it be moral, it is obligatory. If it be not obligatory, it is not moral. If it is not moral, it is, of course, of no moral value or merit. If it is obligatory, it is not supererogatory. When men do what it is their duty to do, they are to claim nothing for it. Luke xvii. 10. (2.) The doing of that which God has not made it man's duty to do -- all manner of will-worship and commandments of men -- God declares is an abomination to him. Col. ii. 18 -- 23 1 Tim. iv. 3 Matt. xv. 9. (3) Christ has given no "counsels," as distinct from his commands. His absolute and universal command to love God with the whole soul, and our neighbor as ourselves, covers the whole ground of possible ability or opportunity on earth or in heaven. Matt. xxii. 37 -- 40. (4.) Increase of grace and eternal felicity, and all else which the believer needs or is capable of, is secured for him by the purchase of Christ's blood, and either given freely now without price, or is reserved for him in that eternal inheritance which he is to receive as a joint-heir with Christ. (5.) The working of the Romish system of celibacy, voluntary poverty, and monastic vows, has produced such fruits as prove the principle on which they rest radically immoral and false.

2. The best works of believers, instead of meriting pardon of sin and eternal life, cannot endure the scrutiny of God's holy judgment. The reasons for this assertion are -- (1.) As above shown, from the nature of the moral law. What is not obligatory is not moral, and what is not moral can have no moral desert. (2.) The best works possible for man are infinitely unworthy to be compared in value with God's favour, and the rewards which men who trust to works seek to obtain through them. (3.) God's infinite superiority to us, his absolute proprietorship in us as our Maker, and sovereignty over us as our moral Governor, necessarily exclude the possibility of our actions deserving any reward at his hand. No action of ours can profit God or lay him under obligation to us. All that is possible to us is already a debt we owe him as our Creator and Preserver. When we have done our utmost we are only unprofitable servants. Much less, then, can any possible obedience at one moment atone for any disobedience in another moment. (4.) As already proved under chapter xiii., on Sanctification, our works, which could merit nothing even if perfect, are in this life, because of remaining imperfections, most imperfect. They therefore, the best of them, need to be atoned. for by the blood, and presented through the mediation, of Christ, before they can find acceptance with the Father.

3. Nevertheless, the good works of sincere believers are, like their persons, in spite of their imperfections, accepted, because of their union with Christ Jesus, and rewarded for his sake. All our approaches to God are made through Christ. It is only through him that we have access to the Father by the Spirit. Eph. ii. 18. Whatever we do, "in word or deed," we are commanded to "do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." Col. iii. 17.

As to the relation of good works to rewards, it may be observed --

(1.) The word "merit," in the strict sense of the term, means that common quality of all actions or services to which a reward is due, in strict justice, on account of their intrinsic value or worthiness. It is evident that, in this strict sense, no work of any creature can in itself merit any reward from God; because -- (a.) All the faculties he possesses were originally granted and are continuously sustained by God, so that he is already so far in debt to God that he can never bring God in debt to him. (b.) Nothing the creature can do can be a just equivalent for the incomparable favour of God and its consequences.

(2.) There is another sense of the word, however, in which it may be affirmed that if Adam had in his original probation yielded the obedience required, he would have "merited" the reward conditioned upon it, not because of the intrinsic value of that obedience, but because of the terms of the covenant which God had graciously condescended to form with him. By nature, the creature owed the Creator obedience, while the Creator owed the creature nothing. But by covenant the Creator voluntarily bound himself to owe the creature eternal life, upon the condition of perfect obedience.

It is evident that in this life the works of God's people can have no merit in either of the senses above noticed. They can have no merit intrinsically, because they are all imperfect, and therefore themselves worthy of punishment rather than of reward. They can have no merit by covenant concession on God's part, because we are not now standing in God's sight in the covenant of works, but of grace, and the righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone, constitutes the sole meritorious ground upon which our salvation, in all of its stages, rests. See chapter. xi., on Justification.

In the dispensation of the gospel, the gracious world of the believer and the gracious reward he receives from God are branches from the same gracious root. The same covenant of grace provides at once for the infusion of grace in the heart, the exercise of grace in the life, and the reward of the grace so exercised. It is all of grace -- a grace called a reward added to a grace called a work. The one grace is set opposite to the other grace as a reward, for these reasons: (a.) To act upon us as a suitable stimulus to duty. God promises to reward the Christian just as a father promises to reward his child for doing what is its duty, and what is for its own benefit alone. (b.) Re- cause a certain gracious proportion has been established between the grace given in the reward and the grace given in the holy exercises of the heart and life; but both are alike given for Christ's sake. This proportion has been established -- the more grace of obedience, the more grace of reward -- the more grace on earth, the more glory in heaven -- because God so wills it, and because the grace given and exercised in obedience prepares the soul for the reception of the further grace given in the reward. Matt. xvi. 27; 1 Cor. iii. 8; 2 Cor. iv. 17.

SECTION VII: Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others:[23] yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith;[24] nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word;[25] nor to a right end, the glory of God,[26] they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God:[27] and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.[28]

23. II Kings 10:30-31; I Kings 21:27, 29; Luke 6:32-34; 18:2-7; see Rom. 13:4
24. Heb. 11:4, 6; see Gen. 4:3-5
25. I Cor. 13:3; Isa. 1:12
26. Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; I Cor. 10:31
27. Prov. 21:27; Hag. 2:14; Titus 1:15; Amos 5:21-22; Mark 7:6-7; Hosea 1:4; Rom. 9:16; Titus 3:5
28. Isa. 14:4; 36:3; Matt. 23:23; 25:41-45; see Rom. 1:21-32

This section teaches: --

1.That unregenerate men may perform many actions which, for the matter of them, are such as God commands, and are of good use both to themselves and others. The truth of this is verified in the experience and observation of all men, and we believe it is not called in question by any party.

2. Nevertheless, they are at best, all of them, not only imperfect works, morally considered, but ungodly works religiously considered. They are, therefore, not in the Scriptural sense good works, nor can they satisfy the requirements of God, nor merit grace, nor make the soul fit for the reception of grace.

The distinction is plain between an action in itself considered, and considered in its motives and object. A truly good work is one which springs from a principle of divine love, and has the glory of God as its object and the revealed will of God as its rule. None of the actions of an unregenerate man are of this character.

There is also an obvious distinction between an act viewed in in itself abstractly, and the same action viewed in relation to the person performing it and his personal relations. A rebel against sovereign authority may do many amiable things, and many acts of real virtue, as far as his relations to his fellow-rebels are concerned. It is nevertheless true that a rebel, during the whole period of his rebellion, is in every moment of time and every action of his life a rebel with reference to that supreme authority which through all he continues to defy. In this sense the ploughing of the wicked is said to be sin. Prov. xxi. 4. And thus as long as men stay away from Christ, and refuse to submit to the righteousness of God, all their use of the means of grace and all their natural virtues are sins in God's sight.

3. Nevertheless God is more displeased with their neglecting to do these commanded duties at all than he is with their doing them sinfully as sinners. These works done by unregenerate men are commanded by God, and hence are their bounden duties. Their sin lies not in their doing them, but in their personal attitude of rebellion, and in the absence of the proper motives and objects. If they neglected to do them, the neglect would he added to the other grounds of condemnation, which would remain all the same. These ought they to do, but not to leave the weightier matters of the law undone. The amiable acts of a rebel must involve elements of rebellion, and yet he would be more to be condemned without them than with them.

Text Scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer

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