May 3, 2013
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.