Chapter 16.1

Rick Phillips
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.