When we turn to the 16th Chapter of the Confession, we come to a call – a call to pursue righteousness in the Christian life. In so doing, this chapter identifies what good works actually are and provides a warning for us not to mistakenly trust in our good works for salvation. Indeed, this chapter beckons the reader to avoid many of the pitfalls and distortions concerning good works that have existed from the time of Jesus to our current context, whether it be the Pharisaism of the New Testament, the Pelagian controversy of the 4th century, or the Roman Catholic system.
Good works, as it says in Ephesians 2:10, have been prepared by God for his people in the Christian life and are necessary. They need to be understood in light of the Scriptures, God’s decrees, Christ as mediator, justification, and repentance and faith in a sanctified life. And with this point, believers are urged to pursue good works in this life and not fall into licentiousness or antinomianism. So, what is the rule of good works in the Christian life?
Paragraph one begins with ‘good works are only those works that God has commanded in his holy word.’ In the first chapter of the confession, the first sentence states that ‘the Holy Scriptures are the only sufficient, certain, and infallible standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.’ This first sentence here in chapter 16 is building upon the foundations laid in chapter one.
Christians are not only called by the will of God (2 Tim 1:1, James 1:18), they are called to live by and for the will of God (1 Jn 2:17, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 2:15, 3:17, 4:2). This presupposes not only that God has revealed his will in the Scriptures, but that good works are also those defined by God and commanded by him. After all, to obey God’s will, requires a scriptural basis. Good works are not what individuals make up or invent for their own gratification and satisfaction in the world, they are works divinely designed and commanded for us to follow.
This leads to the necessity of good works in the Christian life, whereby the second and third paragraph highlight the believer’s responsibility. Good works are done in obedience. Jn 14:15, 15:10, and 1 Jn 5:2 demonstrate the connection that love has with obeying God. Good works that are not fuelled by a love for God and his commandments are selfish and not truly good. Rather, actual good works, undergirded by love, honour God and serve particular purpose. First, they ‘are the fruit and evidence of a true and living faith.’ James 2:17 says that ‘faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ Good works is evidence that an individual has a lively faith built on truth. They testify to the truth that is living in a confessing believer. Secondly, good works are for the purpose of edification and should be applied both generally to our brothers and sisters and specifically to local churches. Pursuing righteousness is essential for living in community with other believers. Christians who pursue and live righteous lives, are examples of thankfulness, they grow in assurance, and ‘adorn the profession of the gospel.’ Jesus did not just preach and pray, which were priorities in his ministry (Mk 1:35-39, Mk 3:7-19), he also showed compassion to many (Mk 1:29-34, 2:1-12, 6:34, 8:2, 9:22). Thirdly, good works are a path that leads to holiness and, its goal, eternal life. Our whole life is then to be a life of good works.
Yet, we must remember, as the third to fifth paragraphs remind us, that good works can be perverted. Indeed, although the believer is to pursue good works with all their being, good works are mustered not from the individual himself but from the Spirit of Christ dwelling in the believer (paragraph 3). Grace permeates every aspect of the Christian’s life; salvation is by grace just as good works are by grace. The fourth paragraph further clarifies the role of good works in the Christian life. Placing good works in their rightful position guards against the error of works salvation. As John Calvin stated, “Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him, and to follow him.” Eph 2:10 maintains that a believer is created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works, these are works that were prepared for us to walk in. Pursuing good works is walking in the will of God, decreed from eternity, obeying in the Spirit, and preparing for glory.
The confession, in the fifth paragraph, rejects any notion of good works contributing to, or achieving merit towards, salvation. John Owen says, “Christ’s obedience imputed, and our obedience done to God have two different functions.” The function of our obedience is never to be confused with Christ’s obedience. Christ’s obedience serves as the root, and our obedience is the fruit of the work of Christ in our life. Pardon of sin, eternal life, and the glory to come, was purchased by the obedience of Jesus Christ. Good works are not meritorious to salvation but are, instead, evidence of the merit of Christ working in a believer in salvation.
In the sixth paragraph, the confession remind us that though good works are mixed with weakness in this life, they are still genuinely good works. They spring from a heart that has been changed by God and a life of repentance and faith. It is only in Christ that these good works are accepted by the Father. The centrality of the divine in good works guards against pride and boasting. The exhortation for righteousness from leaders, as well as a pursuit of them from every Christian, is vital to the Christian community and the gospel. Good works ought to serve as the muniment house of Christian holiness and happiness. Particularly as it pertains to the gospel, character matters, and righteousness matters. Whilst theological and ecclesiological matters are important in the Christian life, if there is any devaluation of character, we profane the gospel in our walk (Titus 1:6).
When we look at chapter 16, then, we see that this is a chapter on holiness for those who are sanctified by the Spirit. Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), an 18th century Baptist, concurs with the second paragraph on good works adorning the profession of the gospel, adding: “How greatly is the truth of Christianity confirmed by the character of those who were first employed in the publication of it.” Sadly, righteousness, godliness, and compassion, has often, throughout Christian history, been sacrificed because of either man-made rules or drawing a false dichotomy between the mental ascent or understanding of the gospel and a life that lives it out. Men have separated compassion and good works from doctrine and rules. Jesus never did this. He always brought the word and a display of holiness wherever he went, and he too desires to see it in his followers. When the paralytic was brought to Jesus in Mark 2, Jesus commends not the profession but the act of faith.
Benjamin Wallin (1710-1782), another 18th century Baptist, wrote the memoir of a man who became a Christian on his death bed. Wallin exhorted that even when the man’s repentance was late in life, the mercy he had received did not “lessen the obligation to practical holiness, without which, all pretence to religion is vain.” Wherever the believer is in his walk with God, he is called to store up treasure in heaven (1 Tim 6:17-19), and to never grow weary of doing good (Gal 6:9). Fuller warned “Hundreds of ministers have been ruined by indulging a thirst for the character of the great man, while they have neglected the far superior character of the good man.” The pursuit of personal holiness must always be a priority of the pastor’s life. More broadly, it should be the pursuit of all who profess to follow Jesus. Pursuing good works that are borne out of a deep love for the Father, Son, and Spirit, recognising that all the good done in a believers’ life is through the grace of God, purchased by Christ, and wrought out by the Spirit. May we all heed the clarion call to righteousness in chapter 16, adorning the gospel with our heads, hearts, hands, and feet as we demonstrate our love for God.
Saturday 7th August 2021