Why Do Good Works? 8 Ways Good Works Are Consistent with God’s Free Acceptance

500 years ago next Tuesday, the Reformation began with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on door of the church at Wittenburg.

Luther had gained crystal clarity on this amazing truth: human beings stand condemned and guilty before a holy God, but God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. The proclamation of this truth changed the world.

But not everyone agreed with Luther. Many people said, “no” to the Reformation. One of the central objection to the Reformation was and is, “why do good works?”

If we are accepted by God as a free gift, then why should we do good works at all?

Before I answer this question, let’s note that this was the same type of objection the Apostle Paul received. “Do we then nullify the law through faith? Not at all! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, see also Romans 6:1ff.).

I think it’s right to say, if we never get this objection to our teaching, then we should examine ourselves. Are we really teaching free grace like Paul?

On the other side, if people who get our teaching don’t respond with a “may it never be!” then we probably haven’t taught the necessity of good works very well either.

Luther’s fundamental answer to the objection was that acceptance with God isn’t based on our works, but the God who accepts us also produces good works in us by the same faith that receives the gift of salvation.

He wrote: “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus, good works come out of faith” (Commentary on Romans, [Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976], xv).

Luther goes on to say in a very memorable passage: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man” (Ibid., xvii).

Ways Protestants Think of Good Works
I want to suggest 8 different ways that Protestants (those who follow the Reformation) think about good works. These different perspectives all express the same truth: works are necessary as a result of salvation but not to obtain salvation. If one of the 8 ways, helps you, hang onto it. If one of them doesn’t, just keep going to the next one.

1. Root and Fruit: The most common is the idea of faith as the root and good works as the fruit (see Mt. 7:16–20). The Methodist Articles capture this very nicely: “Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit” (Article 10).

2. Two Gifts: When we accept Jesus for salvation, we don’t receive merely one gift, forgiveness. We also receive the gift of transformation. Protestants often call these two gifts justification and sanctification. It’s important to note that we can’t accept one without the other. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith says: “the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2).

3. Dying to sin: We can think of the life of fallen human beings as a life that is alive to sin. People are committed to themselves and their own way of solving their problems. When we come to Jesus Christ, we die to this way of life. We nail it to the cross, so to speak. That’s how the Apostle answered the question, should we continue in sin? in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1–2).

4. Alive to God: The flip side of the previous image is that we are alive to God. We do good works because we are now alive to God. Becoming a Christian is about a new life. The Wesleyan Church describes the way that Protestants think about this new life:

We believe that regeneration, or the new birth, is that work of the Holy Spirit whereby, when one truly repents and believes, one’s moral nature is given a distinctively spiritual life with the capacity for love and obedience. This new life is received by faith in Jesus Christ, it enables the pardoned sinner to serve God with the will and affections of the heart, and by it the regenerate are delivered from the power of sin which reigns over all the unregenerate. (Article 12)

5. Union with Jesus Christ: When we come to Jesus in faith or ask Him into our heart, we are united to Jesus Christ. Jesus compares our relationship to Him as branches to a vine. If we are united to Him, we will bear fruit and do good works. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We will do good works because we are connected to Christ who is the source of good works.

6. Slavery and freedom: The Apostle Paul uses this imagery to explain our lives before and after receiving God’s free acceptance. Before we were connected to Jesus, we were slaves to idols and sin. We let all sorts of things govern our lives. Coming to Christ is about being set free. We are now connected to the only one who can give us true freedom. Good works are simple the free life of living to God: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22, see vv. 14–23).

7. The Presence of the Holy Spirit: Another way of thinking about good works is that they are the work of the Holy Spirit. Every believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes us new. The Southern Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way: “At the moment of regeneration [the Holy Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church” (II.C., see 1 Cor. 12:3, 13).

8. A Psychological Connection: Protestants at various times have explained ways in which faith is connected to good works by psychological necessity. One explanation that I have found helpful is that of Reinhold Niebuhr. He says that as long as we are filled with anxiety about our identity, security, and position, we are not freed to love. Faith in the Gospel releases us from this anxiety and thus opens up the way to love. He writes: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love.”

When you understand this multi-faceted way of seeing salvation, it becomes rather obvious why the Protestant answer to, “Then, good works don’t matter,” is, “may it never be!”

Common Questions About This Perspective
Whenever I teach our “root and fruit” theology, people ask several different questions about it. So, I’d like to address these. Maybe you’re thinking of one of them. If you have others, let me know in the comments section.

1. Does that mean that someone who has no fruit is not a Christian?
Yes. You can’t have Christ and not be changed. A good tree will produce good fruit. If we don’t see any change in our lives, any increased love of God, any desire to follow His commands, or any affection for the brothers and sisters in Christ, we should question whether we really believe in Jesus in our hearts.

2. Will we ever be without sin in this life?
No. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:1).

It’s a realistic goal for believers to be freed form the dominion or domination of sin in our lives. It’s flat out wrong to think that we will ever be free from the presence of sin in this life. There will always be a part of us in this life that will lead us to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:25).

3. If we continue to sin in this life, then how can we know that we are producing good fruit?
Short answer: progress and growth. If life is present, growth will occur. Don’t look so much at the day to day. Look at the months. How far have you come? Sometime this can be difficult to see.

One Pastor told me a story about his life. He was not converted in college, and, by his own admission, he was a jerk. Time went on, and he lost contact with many people who were in his life during that time. Then, he became a Christian. Years later, he reconnected with many of his old friends on Facebook. They got reacquainted with him, and their big question was: “What happened? You were such a jerk!” He answered, “Jesus.”

As the days go by, believers will see progress in Christ. It’s probably more evident than we think.

4. How should we evaluate other people’s relationship with Jesus?
Cautiously. Some would say not at all, but we are called to help one another and build one another up. In order to serve a person well, you need to know where they are. Jesus warns us against judging and tells us we will know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:1–5, 16–20).

One reason we need to be cautious is that outward behavior can be misleading. Someone who has a natural self-discipline can change a lot of outward behaviors without much inward change. Someone without that personality trait will have a much harder time. It’s remarkably easy to clean the outside of the cup and have the inside of the cup be filthy.

Here’s a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis when he was asked, “Are there any unmistakable outward signs in a person surrendered to God? Would he be cantankerous? Would he smoke?”

I think of the advertisements for White Smiles Tooth Paste, saying that it is the best on the market. If this is true, it would follow that:

(1) Anyone who starts using it will have better teeth;

(2) Anyone using it has better teeth than he would have if he weren’t using it.

But you can’t test it in the case of one who has naturally bad teeth and uses it, and compare him with [someone] who has never used tooth paste at all.

Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian. and how much more likable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.

The best context for helping others is love, relationship, and careful listening. This will enable us to judge righteous judgment and not one according to mere appearance (John 7:24).

5. If growth is an organic process, should we work hard to produce fruit and good works?
Yes. The Bible is filled with images of the Christian life that involve strenuous effort: a worker, a soldier, a runner, a farmer, and so on. Paul says plainly, “Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

We always need to remember in working hard, though, that we are totally dependent on God’s power working in us both to will and to do. This calls for prayer, an attitude of dependence, and communion with Him.

In addition, mere hard work is not the most effective way to produce change.

6. So, what is the most effective way to produce change?
If you want to see better fruit, give attention to the roots. We need to strengthen our faith.

Outward behaviors are just part of the equation. Most of the change needs to be with our mindset and emotions. This is something that occurs internally. Most of the Christian life is about replacing a sinful mindset with one that is governed by faith. This is a long process. It involves becoming acquainted with ourselves, confessing our sins, meditating on Scripture, worship, and lots of conversations with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, all with a strong sense of dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Final Encouragement
The heart of this message is not to discourage anyone. Good works are attainable for anyone. All we need to do is to be connected to Christ. We don’t need to settle for our old ways of life, the same old patterns that harm ourselves and our families. We will always have something in us that we struggle with, but we can experience substantial change and transformation through the power of Christ.

And that’s the good news of the Reformation. There is grace for forgiveness and grace for change. Jesus is available, as Augustus Toplady, penned as the “double cure”: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure” (from his hymn “Rock of Ages”).

How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

Few issues are more difficult or controversial than the idea that a loving God would send people to hell.

In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller takes up the challenge and seeks to explain and defend the Christian doctrine of hell to a modern, secular audience.

Keller suggests that people have several hidden assumptions that lead them to reject hell and a God who would send people there.

Issue 1: A God of judgment simply can’t exist
Reply: Most people assume this, but their reason for believing it is emotional and cultural rather than logical. It is people from Western culture that our most likely to ask this question, and it subtly assumes that our particular culture is the ultimate standard of truth. Keller describes a conversation he had with a woman in one of his after-service question and answer sessions:

. . . a woman told me that the very idea of a judging God was offensive. I said, “Why aren’t you offended by a forgiving God?” She looked puzzled. I continued, “I respectfully urge you to consider your cultural location when you find the Christian teaching about hell offensive.” I went on to point out that the secular Westerners get upset by the Christian doctrines of hell, but they find Biblical teaching about turning the other cheek and forgiving enemies appealing. I then asked her to consider how someone from a very different culture sees Christianity. In traditional societies the teaching about “turning the other cheek” makes absolutely no sense. It offends people’s deepest instincts about what is right. . . . I asked the woman gently whether she thought her culture superior to non-Western ones. She immediately answered “no.” “Well then,” I asked, “why should your culture’s objections to Christianity trump theirs?” (74–75).

Keller then situates this point in a broader context: “If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place. Maybe this is the place, the Christian doctrine of divine judgment” (75). Continue reading “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”

How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

If you or someone you love has questions on this issue (as most of us do!), I would encourage you to read Pastor Tim Keller’s New York Times Bestseller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

In this post, I’d like to summarize what Keller says about this important question: how could a good God allow suffering?

Whether you are a believer or unbeliever, it’s likely a question you’ve asked at some point in your life, maybe often.

Keller says that there are two ways we can ask this question. The first is intellectual. How can we logically say that a good God could allow evil? The second is emotional. We get angry at a God who would allow such evil.

Let’s consider what Keller says about each in turn.

The Intellectual Issue
In regard to the intellectual question, Keller begins with the objection of a philosopher who states essentially: “because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist” (23). Continue reading “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?”

The Church, Society, and the Law of God

A friend of mine wrote me to tell me that I needed more balance in my presentation of how the church should relate to society. I decided I would try and give a positive presentation of my own views on this matter (at the risk of alienating some). My views are substantially those of Charles Hodge on this matter. I think he eloquently states the obligation of the church to speak to violations of moral law in society but to avoid becoming a policy maker or getting involved specifically in politics. He writes in his Discussions in Church Polity, (103–105):

It follows from the great commission of the Church, that it is her prerogative and duty to testify for the truth and the law of God, whereever she can make her voice heard; not only to her own people, but to kings and rulers, to Jews and Gentiles. It is her duty not only to announce the truth, but to apply it to particular cases and persons; that is, she is bound to instruct, rebuke, and exhort, with all longsuffering. Continue reading “The Church, Society, and the Law of God”

Criteria for Judging the True Religion

In John 7:17–18, Jesus sets forth proper criteria for judging the true religion. The first is that in order to judge properly, one must desire to do the will of God. In other words, one must be ready to follow the commands of God wherever they lead and in spite of the fact that they may conflict with our own desires. The second criterion is that the true religion gives all glory to God, “He who seeks the glory of the One who sent Him is true . . .”

In one sense, we must examine every teaching to see if it is from God. However, there is a sort of shortcut here by seeking that religion which most glorifies God. This is what Herman Witsius said in his book The Practice of True Christianity. Here is a portion of that work which deals with this question:

10. But since the nations that bear the name of Christian are divided into so many different sects, what should someone who is concerned about his salvation do? He should not be too surprised or be shaken in his faith since he knows that the corrupted reason of man is inclined towards novelty and will worship and that the devil is always trying to forge false doctrines and introduce them among men. But it is necessary for a Christian to examine all these things and test them by the standard of Scripture. He must receive all that is in accord with Scripture and reject all that is opposed to it.

11. But that is a dizzying and hard work and which not all who seek their salvation are capable of doing. Can’t you show me some shorter and more general way to discern the true Christian religion from those that falsely bear the name? Continue reading “Criteria for Judging the True Religion”

Turretin on the Celebration of Days

In this section (Institutes, 11.15.13–15), Francis Turretin sets forth a balanced view of the celebration of days in the church. He urges toleration for those who celebrate them and those who do not, provided they agree in rejecting the superstitious use of them and the idolatrous rites of the Papists. On the other side, he gives cautions concerning their use and explains how they can be used in a right and wrong way. He writes:

XIII. If some Reformed churches still observe some festivals (as the conception, nativity, passion and ascension of Christ), they differ widely from the papists because they dedicate these days to God alone and not to creatures. (2) No sanctity is attached to them, nor power and efficacy believed to be in them (as if they are much more holy than the remaining days). (3) They do not bind believers to a scrupulous and too strict abstinence on them from all servile work (as if in that abstinence there was any moral good or any part of religion placed and on the other hand it would be a great offense to do any work on those days). (4) The church is not bound by any necessity to the unchangeable observance of those days, but as they were instituted by human authority, so by the same they can be abolished and changed, if utility and the necessity of the church should demand it. “For everything is dissolved by the same causes by which it was produced,” the lawyers say. In one word, they are considered as human institutions. Superstition and the idea of necessity are absent.
Continue reading “Turretin on the Celebration of Days”

The Importance of Justification by Faith Alone

In the 19th century, some historians tried to analyze the various streams of Protestantism in terms of a central dogma. Alexander Schweizer thought that it was predestination. He said that the central dogma of the Lutherans was justification. From what I can tell from the secondary literature, he also believed that this was sort of a basic principle from which all other dogmas were deduced. This sort of methodology has been rejected by most modern historians.

However, as I have read classic Reformed theology, I have found that they generally did believe in a central dogma. They believed that it was justification by faith alone. This did not mean that it was a theological axiom from which all other theology was deduced. Rather, it meant:

  1. That the purity of this doctrine was basic to purity in all other doctrines.
  2. That any error in this doctrine was extremely dangerous.
  3. That this doctrine, above all, was to be defended, explained, and meditated upon.
  4. That this doctrine was the foundation of all true religion and holiness.
  5. That the true Church could not be maintained without this doctrine.

In this post, I would like to demonstrate this from the writings of several different theologians from several different regions and eras.

Herman Witsius (1636–1708, Holland), The Economy of the Covenants, 2.8.1: “The pious Picardians, as they were called in Bohemia and Moravia [i.e., the churches of which John Huss was the most prominent example], valued this article at its true price when in their confession of faith, Art. vi. speaking of justification, they thus write: ‘this sixth article is accounted with us the most principal of all, as being the sum of all Christianity and piety. Wherefore our divines teach and handle it with all diligence and application, and endeavor to instill it into all.’” Continue reading “The Importance of Justification by Faith Alone”

Turretin on Reward and Merit From a Sermon on Hebrews 11:24–26

You can find the original sermon here, printed in 1686. He is responding to the objection that the term “reward” in Heb. 11:26 implies merit.

* * * * *

On this point, before we finish, we must answer two scruples that can come from these words. The first is whether it is permitted to do good works looking for a reward. The second is whether we can gather as a consequence merit from reward so as to conclude that since our good works have a reward they must be meritorious as [110] the false Church alleges. But neither the first nor the second have much difficulty in them.
Continue reading “Turretin on Reward and Merit From a Sermon on Hebrews 11:24–26”

Luther on the Great Value of Good Works

Some beautiful quotes from Martin Luther on the value of good works:

  1. Outside the article of justification we cannot sufficiently praise and magnify these works which are commanded by God. For who can sufficiently commend and set forth the profit and fruit of only one work which a Christian does through faith and in faith? Indeed, it is more precious than heaven or earth.
  2. We teach that to reconcile God, to make righteous, to blot out sin, is so high and great and glorious a work that alone Christ, the Son of God could do it and that this is indeed such a pure, special, peculiar work of the one true God and His grace that our works are nothing and can do nothing. But that good works should be nothing or be worth only a penny, who ever heard of such a thing, or who could teach such a thing except the lying mouth of the devil? I would not give up one of my sermons, not one of my lectures, not one of my treatises, not one of my Lord’s Prayers, nay, whatever small work I have ever done or am doing, for all the riches of the world (Cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:59–60

Abductive Reasoning

I have to admit that when I first heard the term “abductive reasoning,” I thought it was a joke. To use the term abduction in relation to reasoning seemed funny to me. This fall, I viewed the True U videos in which Stephen Meyer presents the case for Christian theism. He argued that the best way to answer the question of God’s existence was through the use of abductive reasoning. So, what is it?

I would recommend to you the much better explanation of this matter by Kenneth Samples who recently gave lectures on apologetics to “The Academy” at Kim Riddelbarger’s church in Southern California. I listened to these shortly after I began watching the videos, and I was somewhat surprised to find him presenting exactly the same thing.

However, I would also try to give a brief explanation myself. Abductive reasoning seeks to give an explanation as to why a past even occurred. Deductive reasoning simply draws out implications in a premise. Inductive reasoning seeks to make predictions based on laws and patterns in nature. Abductive reasoning tries to give an explanation of why a specific event that did not have to occur did in fact occur.

For example, let us take the matter of electric lights. If an electric light comes on, then we can guess based on induction that someone turned on a switch. However, if we ask, why was this particular light turned on at this particular time, then I need to use abduction. There is no law that would say that my son must be the one who turns on an electric light. However, if I see him standing near the light switch and no one else is in the building, then the best explanation for the light coming on is that my son did it.

One important tool in abductive reasoning is Occam’s razor, that is, you don’t look for a complicated explanation when a simple one will do. So, for example, in the case mentioned above, it is possible that six people turned on the light, but the simpler explanation is that one person did it. It is also possible that someone turned on the light and then ran out the door before I could see them, but it is simpler to assume that my son did it. So, we are looking for the best explanation that adequately explains the cause.

The argument that Meyer makes in the True U videos as well as in his book The Signature in the Cell is that there is information in DNA that communicates by transferring arrangements of four different combinations. Meyer argues that there is something like that. It is computer language. The simplest and most adequate explanation of this coded information is an intelligent designer.

Further, scientists recognize that this distinction is present in the scientific endeavor. At first, Meyer was in doubt about the distinction between two different types of science, one inductive and one abductive. However, he found that this distinction was actually commonplace among scientists. For example, he notes that Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent evolutionary paleontologist, made this distinction:

Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist and historian of science, insisted that the “historical sciences,” such as geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology used different methods than did “experimental sciences” such as chemistry and physics. Interestingly, he also argued that understanding how historical sciences differed from experimental sciences helped to legitimate evolutionary theory in the face of challenges to its scientific rigor by those who questioned its testability. . . . [H]e empahsized that historical scientists test their theories by evaluating their explanatory power.

The distinction was not at all uncommon as Meyer had first supposed. He also found it in the writings of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

I have found this distinction to be quite helpful, and I would encourage you to listen to Kenneth Samples’ lectures for a much fuller explanation.