1. Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word (Micah 6:8; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 13:21), and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention (Matt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13; 1 Pet. 1:18; Rom. 10:2; John 16:2; 1 Sam. 15:21–23).
If we are to be truly free, we must be bound to the laws and words of God. This is because the only alternative to submission to Christ is submission to Christless men. We must therefore refuse to define good works according to the wisdom of man. These things can indeed have an appearance of wisdom, but are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh. The wit of autonomous man does not have the strength to devise a good work.
2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith (James 2:18, 22): and by them believers manifest their thankfulness (Ps. 116:12–13; 1 Pet. 2:9), strengthen their assurance (1 John 2:3, 5; 2 Pet. 1:5–10), edify their brethren (2 Cor. 9:2; Matt. 5:16), adorn the profession of the gospel (Tit. 2:5, 9–12; 1 Tim. 6:1), stop the mouths of the adversaries (1 Pet. 2:15), and glorify God (1 Pet. 2:12; Phil. 1:11; John 15:8), whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto (Eph. 2:10), that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (Rom. 6:22).
These good works are not the ground of salvation, but they are the ground of assurance of salvation. They are the fruit of the tree, not the cause of the tree. They are the clear evidence that the tree is alive and growing. They are fruit and evidence of a true and lively faith. Good works are instruments through which believers show how thankful they are. This also has the result of fortifying assurance of salvation. Good works are a blessing and edification to other believers, and unbelievers see in the good works an adornment to the gospel itself. Those nonbelievers still disposed to kick against the faith are shut down by our good works. All our works together, in all their relations and effects, have the end result of glorifying God. This is because our works are ultimately His works, and when we do them, He is glorified for doing them. The end of the tale is eternal life.
3. Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ (John 15:4–6; Ezek. 36:26–27). 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 (Phil. 2:13; 4:13; 2 Cor. 3:5): 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 (Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11–12; 2 Pet. 1:3, 5, 10–11; Isa. 64:7; 2 Tim. 1:6; Acts 26:6–7; Jude 20–21).
We are called to work out only what God has worked in. We are dependent upon Him in two senses. First, we depend upon the initial grace that He has given us, but we are also dependent upon the present prompting of the Spirit to particular good deeds—what we might call a “burden.” This does not mean we may sit around the house waiting for a burden from the Lord, but rather that we should seek to stir up the grace of God so that we recover any burdens we may have lost.
4. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do (Luke 17:10; Neh. 13:22; Job 9:2–3; Gal 5:17).
There is no such thing as working above and beyond the call of duty. When we have done all, we should say that we are unworthy servants and did only what we were told. Works of supererogation are works which generate a surplus of virtue, to be put in a grace bank, and used by others. In the Roman system, works of supererogation were added to the merits of Christ in some great spiritual reservoir, and supplicants could draw upon them.
5. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins (Rom. 3:20; 4:2, 4, 6; Eph. 2:8–9; Tit. 3:5–7; Rom. 8:18; Ps. 16:2; Job 22:2–3; 35:7–8), but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10): and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23); and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment (Isa. 64:6; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:15, 18; Ps. 143:2; 130:3).
Our good works must in no way be considered by us as a basis or ground of any good we might receive, whether in this world or the next. Any merit in the works must be attributed to God, and any defilement in the work must be attributed to us.
6. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him (Eph. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:5; Exod 28:38; Gen. 4:4; Heb. 11:4); not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God’s sight (Job 9:20; Ps. 143:2); but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (Heb. 13:20–21; 2 Cor. 8:12; Heb. 6:10; Matt. 25:21, 23).
My good works are justified right along with the rest of me. This means that God receives my actions as well as my person, for the sake of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This means, in short, that my sanctification is justified.
7. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others (2 Ki. 10:30–31; 1 Ki. 21:27, 29; Phil. 1:15–16, 18): yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith (Gen. 4:5; Heb. 11:4, 6); nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word (1 Cor. 13:3; Isa. 1:12); nor to a right end, the glory of God (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16), they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God (Hag. 2:14; Tit. 1:15; Amos 5:21–22; Hosea 1:4; Rom. 9:16; Tit. 3:15): and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God (Ps. 14:4; 36:3; Job 21:14–15; Matt. 25:41–43, 45; 23:3).
The unregenerate can do certain works which, considered in themselves, are good. But this is to consider them out of their context. These good works do not commend a man to God in any way, but it would be a more grievous sin to neglect these works, making judgment more severe.
The context of the work empties it of any worth it might have. The works does not proceed from a purified heart, it is not done the way the Bible requires, and it is not directed to the final and ultimate glory of God. The context matters fundamentally. The fact that the piano player in a whorehouse plays good music does not alter the context. The fact that a pirate crew might have an enforced code of honor (admirable in isolation) among themselves does not change what the pirate ship is out there doing.