May 3, 2013
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.