Good Works

 

J.H. Gosden

 


 

"We believe that a man can never do a good work, properly so called, until the grace of God is implanted in his heart,' and that nothing is spiritually good but what God Himself is pleased to communicate to, and work in, the soul, both to will and to do of His good pleasure. And we also believe that man's works, good or bad, have not anything to do with his call, or being quickened, by the Holy Spirit."

The concluding sentence of our previous Article declares that grace makes its possessor "willing to walk in good works, to which he is ordained." In Ephesians 2. 10 we are told that the good works are pre-ordained that we should walk in them. In this 11th Article we affirm our conviction that not one of those good works precedes an effectual call by divine grace: that the very best act a man is capable of before he is regenerate is not a "good work, properly so-called."

The solemn declaration of Scripture is: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14.23). Admirable as may be the good deeds of some natural men, excellent as their moral character, beneficial unto mankind their lives, yet, before God, all that is done without reference to the glory, Person, obedience, merit and bloodshedding of Christ falls completely short of a "good work, properly so called." Now, as an unregenerate person cannot even see the kingdom of God, cannot receive the things of the Spirit (John 3.3; 1 Cor. 2. 14), it is obvious that he cannot act from spiritual motives. His works are all "dead works" (Heb. 6.1; 9.14).

To the necessity of faith, Scripture adds love as absolutely essential. In 1 Cor. 13, the Holy Ghost enumerates many so-called "good works" which, though formally good, may be without love, and therefore "nothing" ; that giving the body to he burned may be without love, and that faith strong enough to move mountains, if without love, is consequently "nothing." "Faith which worketh by love" is requisite for a strictly "good" act. Acts formally evil cannot he good, whoever performs them; but an act formally good may he vitiated by a wrong motive as well as by demerit in the doer. The maxim, "The end justifies the means though endorsed and wickedly applied by the papacy to justify any crime committed for the benefit of "the church," is an utterly false principle when used to extenuate the least moral evil. In the moral sphere of human conduct, the end cannot be better than the means.

But the most correct conduct, the highest acts of human goodness and benevolence and self-sacrifice, if not proceeding from a "clean heart," fall entirely short of "good works, properly so called." And a "clean heart" is something much more than the all too rare but beautiful natural chastity of thought, purity of mind, and admirable nobility of soul possessed by a few. Alas, how pathetic a figure is a morally upright unbeliever! He is as truly incapable of producing a "good work, properly so-called' " as any evil-living professor or abandoned profligate.

A strictly good work is not measured only by its form or extent, but also by its motive and aim. A cup of cold water given to a needy person may be, but is not necessarily, a "good work" in the intention of our Article, according to Matt. 10.42; 25.34-45; Eph. 2.10. But true love of a needy disciple, in consequence of manifest evidences of Christ's image in him, renders that trifling act of kindness an acceptable service to God. On the other hand, a false motive may vitiate the highest sacrifice and even render the act of yielding to Christian martyrdom "nothing" (1 Cor. 13.3) in God's account. An essentially pure spiritual motive is impossible to an unrenewed heart. "Until the grace of God is implanted in his heart" a man can do nothing spiritually good.

But alas, a person in whom is the grace of God, can do and frequently does works which are not good. Regeneration does not constitute all the acts of a person good, for grace is not perpetually active, and not always predominant even when not dormant. Because an individual is a child of God, everything he does is not therefore consequently "good." Such is not the intention of I John 3.9: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin for His seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. Doubtless that passage has tried many a tender conscience, but it cannot infringe that other word, "If we say that we have not sinned . . . if we say that we have no sin, we make Him a liar" (I John 1.8-10). We believe the meaning to be that when once the principle of grace is planted in the heart, a person cannot sin with all the intention of his soul; that gracious principle of life will ever protest against, never consent to, sin. But likewise positively, "He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous" (3.7), indicates the true working of the principle of grace, though it may he surrounded with and opposed by sin in the believer's nature. "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (Gal. 5.17). This is true only of the regenerated man.

But a further distinction seems vital: that between a "good work, properly so-called" and a meritorious work. Strictly, the richest saint, the most highly-graced believer, the most fruitful branch of the Living Vine, is incapable in his best state of producing an intrinsically meritorious act. A work is good as proceeding from a gracious heart by a renewed will, through the concurrent operation of the Holy Spirit in the soul. "Nothing is spiritually good but what God is pleased to communicate to, and work in, the soul, both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Phil. 2.13). But surrounding that work, opposing it more or less actively, will be the principle of sin remaining in the believer. This does not entirely enervate the actings of grace, nor render unacceptable the ""work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father" (1 Thess. 1. 3). But the presence of sin in the elect precludes the possibility of intrinsic saving merit in any human act. It is the merit of Christ alone which makes a believer and his works acceptable to God. Herein faith fixes, hereon it relies, hereby it prevails. And though careful to "maintain good works" (Titus 3. 14), the believer so far from claiming any merit therein, mourns his inability to do the good he would (Rom. 7). Though it is true he cannot sin according to the unrestricted dictates of his '"old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts," yet he sees and feels so much indwelling corruption as effectually prevents his boasting of anything of his own, and is glad to seek refuge and cleansing from the guilt of his holy things by the precious blood of Christ.

Hence a chief "'good work" is the "good fight of faith," wherein all his days there is need of the believer putting on the armour of light" and the putting off of the "'works of darkness' (Rom. 13. 12). The disciplinary suspension of the Holy Spirit's inworkings, as by our sins He is grieved, yields painful experimental proof that no efficiency for a single gracious act resides in the believer, but that he is utterly and always dependent upon God for every good thought, word or act.

'"And we also believe that man's works, good or bad, have not anything to do with his call, or being quickened, by the Holy Ghost." This last clause of our Article is not superfluous as the casual observer might conclude, although we have already declared our belief that before regeneration a strictly good work is impossible. A very serious error formulated by some, implied by others, renders our additional statement imperative. It is not redundant. The error is that of attributing to God submission to exterior influence in fixing man's destiny; as if the foreknowledge of good works in some men operated in God's will to choose them for His own elect people. This, though natural to our limited minds, is foreign to the divine mind, and contrary to Scripture. Were it true, who could be saved? Where is the man who in such circumstances could hope to be among the elect? We have in previous comments endeavoured to point out the unity of the Trinity in salvation, but if the Holy Spirit could be said to quicken in consideration of some good work wrought by a person, the harmony of the Trinity would be violated. Peter expresses this harmony concisely: "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1. 2). Until the Spirit sanctifies a person, how can he produce one good work? Christ tells us definitely that He came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. So neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Ghost were moved by any consideration of good works in the creature to accomplish their part in the salvation of men.

But the one question which so frequently stumbles our puny minds is ""foreknowledge." Was God influenced in selecting the objects of His everlasting love by any goodness which His divine prescience saw would distinguish them from others of the human race? Election is said (1 Pet. 1. 2) to be "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." And Paul confines to the foreknown predestination unto eternal glory: uniting as so many links in an unbreakable and unending chain, foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification (Rom. 8. 29, 30). Are these rich blessings entailed on some men, and not on others, because it was known they would be unaffected by the Fall? To suppose this would render the whole gospel of salvation void, and the incarnation and death of Christ useless. Moreover, Scripture would be contradictory, for God tells us that there is none that doeth good, no, not one. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Psa. 14.3; Rom. 3. 10). Or did divine foreknowledge that some would believe, others not, regulate the choice? That question must be answered by another: Is faith the gift of God or a product of human nature? Scripture emphatically informs us it is a gift, and negatively, that it is not of ourselves (Eph. 2.8).

Repentance, too - an essential for salvation - is a gift (Acts 5. 31). If. then, salvation is "by grace" (Eph. 2. 5): a "'free gift" (Rom. 5. 16); and "not of works" (Rom. 3. 27; Eph. 2. 9), who could be saved on account of foreknown goodness?

Nor did foreknowledge of sin, in which the elect no less than others would become involved, deter divine election: "I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb. . . . I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction. For Mine own sake, will I do it. . . . I will not give My glory to another" (Isa. 48. 8-11).

But still outstanding remains the question: If election is "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father," what exactly was the focus of that divine attribute in making the eternal choice? For unquestionably divine prescience is both illimitable and universal. It were blasphemy to think otherwise. The Eternal Inhabitant, the Maker and Upholder of all, must perfectly know all things, all creatures and their movements, acts, words and thoughts absolutely. (See Psa. 139; Heb. 4. 12, 13.) We therefore conclude this exercise of foreknowledge to have been an especial act of free, uncaused divine love toward some persons out of every nation, kindred, tribe and people, absolutely irrespective of any preknown qualification in them. There seems to be a shadow of this in the words of God to Israel (typical of the elect) by Amos (3. 2): "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" ; that is, known with that special regard; for with a view to their "walking together with Him in agreement"" (5.3), He would visit them for their sins. So Christ to His church says: " As many as I love I rebuke and chasten. . . . Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me"" (Rev. 3.19, 20). When upon earth, Christ was cavilled against thus: "This Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (Luke 15. 2). It is with the rebuked, chastened, penitent sinner the Lord Jesus graciously deigns to commune; a vastly different thing from connivance at sin, which the Pharisees attributed to Him.

The man who thinks God chose him on account of some personal excellency betrays a dark, unrenewed heart. That love is inconceivably free which embraced the church in selecting a bride for Christ. A "cal1ed" person under conviction of sin can justify God in his condemnation, and it will be an eternal wonder that he should have been foreknown, predestinated, called, justified, glorified - embraced in a golden chain of divine grace from eternity to eternity!

Many will symphathize with "Rabbi" Duncan's observation, who when in deep meditation was asked what were his thoughts. Immediately and deliberately he replied: "I was just thinking that there are many better men than me in hell." Despair of mercy would be the effect in many a sinner's heart if salvation were in the slightest degree or the remotest way related to works to be performed by the creature. Blessed be God, Scripture, experience and observation alike prove that salvation is entirely of the Lord and inconceivably free. If it were not so, none could be saved. God's rich grace is causeless and invincible, His love is inalienable and quenchless, His will uninfluenced and immutable, His election free and sovereign. His covenant "ordered in all things and sure," His "gifts and calling without repentance."

"No goodness God foresaw in His,
But what His grace decreed to give.
No comeliness in them there is
Which they did not from Him receive."

And throughout, from foreknowledge to glory, the cause must be referred exclusively to the WILL OF GOD. Happy people! What an eternal debt of praise it will be their privilege to pay!

 


What Gospel Standard Baptists Believe. J.H. Gosden. 8 Fairleigh Rise, Kington Langley, Chippenham, Wilts, England. SN15 5QF. 1993. Article 11, pages 54-59.