Results tagged “good works” from Reformation21 Blog

The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture's lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner's good works are cloaked in Christ's own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.

Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:

"Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works--according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him--it must be led into his own light and view--cloaked in Christ's merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And similarly in Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him," which statement means not only that man's heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith. Therefore, faith accomplishes two things with regard to the good work of the regenerate man: first, it purifies the heart and fount of that good work (Acts 15:9); and second, it covers, as it were, the defects of that work which proceeds from a heart only partially reborn. The work of the man without faith, moreover, suffers a twofold loss: first, without faith there is clearly no beginning of regeneration, from whence that work should proceed; and second, without faith there is no veil for the impurity under which that work labors."

The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God's law and Christ's perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God's estimation. It encourages us, in other words, to act in faith, not apart from it, but still to act -- contra the perennial claim that Protestant teaching on justification encourages indifference towards good works.

Rollock develops the theme of the justification of believers' good works more fully in his treatise on the subject. That treatise, along with several other previously untranslated writings of Rollock, is now available in English translation in a short volume titled Some Questions and Answers about God's Covenant and the Sacrament That Is a Seal of God's Covenant: With Related Texts, published last month by Wipf and Stock's Pickwick Publications imprint. The principal work included in this volume is the titular catechism, which Rollock published in Latin in 1596. In addition to the treatise on good works noted above, the volume also includes treatises on the divine covenants and the sacraments which were likewise included in Rollock's Romans commentary. All the writings included in the volume make significant use of the doctrine of the covenant of works. That, indeed, was the logic of their inclusion. I've translated the texts myself, and have included an introductory essay which intends to shed new light on Rollock's role in the development of Reformed covenant theology. But, as hopefully indicated above, the treatises on good works and on the sacraments in particular are theologically interesting beyond the use they make of the doctrine of the covenant of works. The book is available from Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book, or directly from Wipf and Stock itself at a slightly reduced price. I dedicated the work to my dog Oakley for reasons explained in the acknowledgments, and all proceeds from the book will be devoted to his ongoing maintenance. So please, for his sake, consider purchasing a copy.

Just Add Water (2 of 4)


This is the second of 4 parts in response to Dr. Mark Jones on the question and meaning of Baptism and the Lord's table as the question stands between Baptistic types who practice a closed table and Presbyterian types who practice a more-open table.

Two items as caveats, as listed previously, before you read this and start hurling fruit at my kind hosts here at Ref21:

  1. The opinions and arguments here are mine and not the arguments of the Alliance.  Hate the player and not the game in this case.
  2. The arguments I will make here are also not the position of the local church I attend.  In spite of that church being baptistic in confession, they practice a more open form of communion than I would advocate for.  I'm not an elder there, so as I make my case for what I think is a robust response to Mark Jones, I speak for myself and not my church at

The Meaning of Baptism

There are a lot of important ideas to run down from where we left off last time, such as the meaning of maturity and how we can know the difference between immaturity and actual apostasy or faithlessness, but the scope of this essay is the question of Baptism.  If we accept the WCF's definition of saving faith (and I have, previously), do we really need anything else to understand who is and isn't "a Christian"?

The answer, obviously, is "no" and "yes."  In some important sense, we really don't need any more hair-splitting to answer the question of who is and is not a Christian - we just have to see it through to the end.  That is, we have to agree that someone who starts down the path of obedience to Christ ought to continue down that road (we hope with few pit-stops and detours, but we also know that even Peter actually denied Christ after declaring him to be the Son of God), and as James says in his letter we should show our faith by doing works. 

There's absolutely nothing controversial about this as the WCF says plainly:

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.

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

And all good Protestant warning labels stipulated to this statement.  But foremost among these things "commanded by God in his holy Word," certainly not "devised by men out of blind zeal," are the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper -- and this is where the "yes" part comes in.  For my money, we Baptists would be best served to use the Presbyterian word here for two good reasons: (1) we are talking about the means of corporate worship in these items and not merely the more-common acts of obedience which the Bible commands, and (2) I think it clarifies what is at stake as we approach the question of how one influences the use of the other.

That relationship is the one which Dr. Jones' essay misses broadly as it considers why some of us Baptists are closed-table at the supper - because surely when Dr. Jones accuses Baptists of denying the Christianity of Presbyterians he isn't denying that one's baptism ought to come before one participates with the body of Christ and in the body of Christ at the Lord's table.  Of course not - what he is saying is that because baptism makes one a Christian, denying that one is baptized (by drizzling, before personal faith) denies that one is a Christian.  He isn't denying the logic that only the baptized ought to participate in the Lord's supper; he's questioning the meaning of denying the baptism of those baptized as Presbyterians are inclined to do -- which is to say, to baptize infants.

This is why the question of what makes one a Christian had to be addressed first.  In the Presbyterian view, what makes one a Christian is the sign and seal of Baptism.  It puts one inside the covenant in some way which may or may not be finally determinative -- I'll leave that for the FV and non-FV readers to settle in a back alley after school today.  This is why, after all, it is also called "christening" by many - it is what makes one a Christian in a formal and regulated way as opposed to the rather disappointing "asking Jesus into your heart" sort of way which doesn't really mean anything biblically or ecclesiologically. 

But let's be honest: Jesus didn't put it that way.  Jesus' mentioning of baptism comes at the end of all his other statements about the life of obedience, and at the beginning of the great mission of the church.  When the Apostles went out , they didn't first baptize anyone and then preach to them repentance until it made sense to them.  The message of the Gospel comes in the NT first by the preaching of repentance, then by the washing of the water for the sake of a clean conscience.  What is true under the new covenant is what was actually true under the old covenant: the right offering to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart; God does not desire sacrifices but obedience; he desires that we love Him more than we commit to duties and rituals.  That doesn't eliminate the rituals by any means, but it does put the rituals in a place subordinate to the truth which they are communicating.

And that, frankly, is the actual Baptist objection to Presbyterian baptism - not that one does not have right faith now, but that one has somehow allowed that the ritual means anything prior to the real condition of the one practicing the ritual.  We may be guilty of waving off the baptism of babies as "sprinkling," but the meaning there is not that there's not enough water added: it is that somehow adding water takes the place of the faith the water ought to represent.

Honestly, only the Baptist with the hardest heart toward formal theology would deny any of the following from the WCF:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.

But we would have to be gullible to read the phrase, "a sign and seal of regeneration," and not ask the question: doesn't regeneration imply faith?  We certainly commit our (baptist) children to the waters when the waters definitely imply faith - because we ask them to make a confession of faith to be admitted to the waters.  And in that way, for us the sign and seal overtly demonstrate that faith which this child has as it has been given by God, and show them being raised in newness of life in the forgiveness of their sins on the basis of faith.

The problem we are objecting to, then, in paedobaptism, is that the sacrament is not a King James Version of "just add water."  We deny it's a baptism because we deny it's a sacrament unless it is preceded by faith.  That is:

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; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God.

The problem is not that you are not Christians now: it is that when you were wetted down, you were not Christians then.  You did not have faith then.  And with full respect to those who did have faith when they did this to you,  the sacrament is meaningless apart from the faith for which the sacrament is a sign -- which is, your faith, the faith God gave, not the faith which God might give.

Because of this, we would say you have not been baptized.  And without baptism, of course you cannot come to the Lord's table.

More on that next time.

Results tagged “good works” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 16.3

iii. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.  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: 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.

One of today's pressing questions is whether or not Christians are able to do good works.  In their zeal to emphasize the free grace of salvation, some writers and preachers teach such a potent doctrine of man's fallen nature that they urge believers not even to try to do good. "We are all of sin," they emphasize, "so Christ alone can do good works." This approach fails to realize the radical change effected in a Christian's regeneration. Moreover, it forgets that God's grace not only justifies Christians but also empowers us for good works. When Paul commands us to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," he is not downplaying God's grace, since he adds, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13).

The Westminster divines' approach this same issue by pointing out that believers' "ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ." As we will see in the following paragraphs, this is one of the reasons why our good works bring us no merit before God, since it is God's Spirit who has wrought the good works in and through us. Believers are able to do good works, the Confession says, because they are "enabled" to do so. This enabling takes two forms: first, in our regeneration, which grants us new and spiritual able natures; and, second, through the present "actual influence" of the Spirit who works in us for good works. 

In emphasizing the Spirit's sovereign role in our good works, there is the danger that Christians would justify a complacency in their Christian duties. The divines combat this by adding that Christians "are not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit." Knowing that we can only do good as the Spirit enables us, we are not to blame him for our failures! Christians may not argue, "The Spirit must not have been with me!" We are not to justify spiritual sloth or moral turpitude by an evident absence of the Spirit from giving us the help we need. Rather, we are to live with an awareness of the Spirit's willingness and ability to empower us to good works. Our attitude should be, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). It is true that I could not do good without the Spirit, but how blessed I am in that the Spirit is eager to work in and through my faith for a new life of good works! From this spiritual posture, the divines urge that believers "ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them."

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 16.2

ii. These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

According to the Bible, good works are necessary to salvation. This may come as a shock in a Reformed world so deeply devoted to justification by faith apart from works. Yet the Bible could not be clearer about the necessity of good works. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruits.  "Every tree that does not bear good fruit," he said, "is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits" (Mt. 7:19-20). He amplified this teaching by adding that the only kind of person who will enter heaven is "the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 7:21). Paul agreed with this teaching, saying that believers "are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). These verses, to which many could be added, show that good works are necessary to salvation.

In saying this, however, we must point out exactly what we mean. Some will think this means that good works are necessary as a condition of salvation, which is certainly false. Thank God that we are saved on the condition of faith in Christ and his works. Instead, good works are necessary as a consequence of salvation: we are saved from sin and to good works. The Westminster divines pointed this out by stated that good works "are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith." This was James' emphasis when he contrasted a dead faith without works, which cannot save, and a living faith which both saves and bears good fruit. He wrote: "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (Ja. 2:18).

Good works are of enormous value to the Christians, not to mention their value to others and to God. It is by godly actions that we say "thank you" to God for his grace in Christ. The Confession lists other important benefits: good works bless other people, adorn our profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of those who oppose Christ, and generally bring glory to God.   Jesus exhorted us: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 5:16). 

We live in a day when an emphasis on biblical obedience or the necessity of good works is derided by many as legalism. One reason for this negative stance toward good works is a desire to promote assurance of salvation among struggling believers. "If we tell them they have to obey the Bible this will threaten their assurance," it is argued. The Confession, together with Scripture, takes the opposite approach. One of the principle benefits of good works is precisely the assurance of salvation we long for believers to experience. By good works, Christians "strengthen their assurance," the divines state. Peter took this very approach in his second epistle, urging the believers to "supplement" their faith with "virtue,... knowledge,... self-control,... steadfastness,... godliness,... brotherly affection,... [and] love" (2 Pet. 1:5-7). Through these good works we "make [our] calling and election sure," and by practicing these qualities we "will never fall" (2 Pet. 1:10).

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 16.1

i. Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.

With their typical pastoral wisdom, the Westminster divines realized that legalism works in both negative and positive directions. The problem is not only with going beyond Scripture to forbid, but also to go beyond Scripture to command and to bless. With this in mind, the first thing to know about good works is that they consist only of what "God has commanded in His holy Word," and not  things "devised by men" without biblical warrant. The proof texts supplied for this teaching show how the divines were thinking. Micah 6:8 says that "God has shown you, O man, what is good." Romans 12:2 says that we learn "what is good" by being "transformed by the renewal of your mind." Here is yet another instance in the Confession where the Reformed faith tells us not to trust what seems right in our own wisdom, but to walk carefully by the teaching of God's Word. How easy it is for us to err in "blind zeal" or with the "pretence of good intention," when by following carefully the Bible's teaching we will be led in true good works.

Many Christians today may think that erroneously defining good works is at best a small issue.  Yet how many believers have had duties laid upon their consciences contrary to biblical teaching or wisdom? This is especially true in American evangelicalism, where well-meant initiatives like teenage purity rings or the "Prayer of Jabez" become cottage industries fueled by false promises and unbalanced zeal. The Confession therefore especially speaks to pastors and other spiritual leaders, warning us to constrain our teaching and our sermon applications to the commands and instructions of God's Word. 

We are especially warned not to take up works that are good for others but are forbidden to us, either by the commands or the wisdom of Scripture. The divines cite the example of King Saul, in his impetuous but self-justified disobedience to the Lord. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul offered a sacrifice to the Lord - certainly this is a good work, he argued - when this sacrifice was permitted only to priests. The point is that a good work often requires that it be done by the person, or kind of person, God has ordained. Many argue today that preaching God's Word is such a good work that it matters little who does it. The Bible says, however, that God's Word should only be preached in the church by men, so that a woman who preaches is violating God's Word (1 Tim. 2:12). To give another example, the Bible says that parents are to discipline their children: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). Notice, however, that the corporal punishment of children is given to loving parents, not to others in authority. The Bible commands both the action and the context for it. 

How much wisdom the divines provide to us from the Bible when it comes to defining good works! The point is that God alone is good: God alone can define goodness, including the actions, the attitude, the relationship, and the context in which certain things are good versus bad. Once when Jesus was being praised, he replied, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone" (Mk. 10:8).  Being God, Jesus is good. His point was to urge us to renounce ourselves as judges of good, relying only on the Word of the only true and good God.

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.