What Are Good Works?
Q. Can those who are converted to God keep these Commandments perfectly?
A. No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of such obedience, yet so that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.
Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 114
One of the most common objections raised by critics of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is this: “If we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, what place does that leave for good works?” Even the apostle Paul had heard a similar objection from Christians in Rome. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1).
Questions like this one arise from the concern that if God’s grace is stressed too much, Christians will become lazy and indifferent to the things of God. Christians might rely too much upon grace and not demonstrate a sufficient zeal for good works. After all, what incentive remains to do those works God commands us in His Word if our standing before God depends upon the good works of another — Jesus Christ? Even worse, as the critics contend, if the Protestant doctrine of justification is true and we are justified sinners even after we become Christians, then why do good works at all, since they are still tainted by our sin?
Paul’s answer to these questions in Romans 6 is emphatic. In response to the charge that stress upon grace makes Christians indifferent about how they live, Paul writes, “by no means!” The apostle’s explanation is simple. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (vv. 2–4).
After arguing that sinners are justified by faith alone and not by works (3:21–28), the apostle can make the point that those who are justified through faith have also died to sin. Christians no longer desire to live under sin’s dominion because they have been buried with Christ and subsequently raised to newness of life. Instead of destroying the desire to do good works, the doctrine of justification by faith alone establishes the basis for good works. Those who are justified (having died to sin) will walk in newness of life. That newness of life is characterized by good works (Eph. 2:10) and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26). As Paul puts it elsewhere, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Since this matter became such a point of controversy, Protestant confessions and catechisms all deal with this issue at some length. After pointing out that good works are those things done from true faith, according to God’s law, done for God’s glory, not so as to earn a reward (Q & A 91), and then discussing the Ten Commandments, focusing upon how Christians are to understand them as a revelation of God’s will (Q & A 92–114), the Heidelberg Catechism then takes up the question why we should do good works when, even as Christians, we cannot obey God’s commandments perfectly.
Thus, question and answer 114 of the Catechism gets to the very heart of the relationship between justification by faith alone and good works. Because we are sinful from head to toe, and since sin affects us in every aspect of our being (Ps. 51:1–5; Rom. 3:9–20; Eph. 4:17–24), we are sinful even though we are justified (Rom. 7:21–24; Gal. 5:17). Even those among us who are given much faith, and who earnestly desire to live lives pleasing to God still remain sinners. Our works remain stained by our sinfulness so that apart from Christ these works would only serve to condemn us, since such a work is corrupted by sin and not truly good.
Since we are created “in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10), every Christian (who is justified by faith alone) will begin to obey the commandments of God, however hesitantly and flawed that obedience might be. This is true not because we have a divine spark within us that responds to God’s grace but because “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Since our sanctification is every bit as much an act of God’s grace as our justification, all those who have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, will (as the Catechism says) live according to all of God’s commandments. Since our obedience (like our sin) is covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ (making our imperfect works truly good), our heavenly Father delights in our feeble efforts to do good. And knowing this to be the case creates within us the desire to obey all the more.