Improper Boasting

Not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9).

- Ephesians 2:9

Question and answer 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully presents the biblical teaching on the Lord’s character, explaining that “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This statement portrays His essential attributes, revealing that His other character traits flow from the aforementioned list. Mercy, for example, is one expression of His essential attribute of goodness. Properly speaking, mercy cannot be an essential attribute of God because then He would be obligated to show mercy, and obligated mercy is an oxymoron. The Lord cannot show mercy if He is not good, but He can still be good even if He never shows mercy. After all, when He gives people what they deserve, He does not compromise His goodness and justice (Rom. 9:14–18).

Consequently, we can never raise our fists to heaven and demand that God show us mercy because of who we are or what we have done. All we can do is humbly exercise faith — admit our sin, confess that we deserve only condemnation, ask for forgiveness and mercy, entrust ourselves to Jesus, and believe the promise of salvation. And the Lord always saves those who approach Him this way (Rom. 10:13).

Apart from the work of the Spirit, we always appeal to God’s justice for our standing with Him. This would not be a problem if people by nature accepted what they know is true — the Lord’s justice demands perfection (Lev. 18:4–5). If people could accept this on their own, they would see their depravity and abandon their appeal to His justice, approaching Him by faith alone, appealing to His mercy. But until the Spirit changes our hearts, we water down God’s justice, thinking that He accepts our “good works” even when done inconsistently or halfheartedly. This error is fatal, as all who seek redemption by their good works must finish what they start — they must keep the whole law flawlessly, an impossibility for sinners (Acts 15:10; Gal. 5:3).

People who trust in their works think they can boast in them, but all such bragging is futile. Yet those who understand that salvation is not of themselves or their works at all can boast properly (Eph. 2:9). They can boast of the great mercy of God that was poured out on them when they least deserved it and give the Lord all the glory for their salvation (2 Cor. 10:17; Gal. 6:12–14).

Coram Deo

Refusing to boast and false modesty are not the same thing. There are falsely modest people who claim to be humble and yet make sure that everyone sees the good they do, even though they might verbally express glory to God when others comment on their good works. If you are seeking to publicize all of your good deeds, then chances are good that you might really want to boast in yourself and not in the Lord.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 34:1–3
Proverbs 25:14
2 Corinthians 11:30;

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: | Phone: 1-800-435-4343