Having pointed out the place and value of truly good works the Articles proceed to point out the errors that have arisen regarding what are called good works.
We are warned in Article 13 not to rely on works done before the grace of Christ. As has been frequently pointed out in these brief discussions, grace, in the New Testament usage of the word, means either unmerited favour or unmerited help.
The Conditions necessary in Order to Please God.
We are here warned that it is only when we are recipients of the grace of Christ and subjects of the inspiration of His Spirit that any efforts of ours are pleasing to God. The reason given is that any other works spring not of faith in Jesus Christ. Any action which is not the result of a living confidence in God lacks the essential quality of goodness. It is really, in essence, an act of revolt against God. It is setting up our own abilities as the ground of our acceptance without any recognition that we owe any power we possess to the free gift of God.
The Importance of Motive.
Before we can assure ourselves that any act of ours is well-pleasing to God we must scrutinise carefully the motive that prompted it. It is not enough that it has the semblance of a righteous action. It must reflect a response of faith and love toward God on our part. The Article passes at once to the error of those who are called the school-authors. Scholasticism began about the eleventh century and reached a very high degree of eminence under the influence of Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Wicliffe in the late fourteenth century raised a warning note against some of the errors of the Scholastics. What has been called The Greater Renaissance in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century further weakened scholasticism. The Article addresses a warning against what is called the grace of congruity.
Congruity and Condignity.
It was maintained that there were two characters attaching to the forms that the grace of God assumed. Certain acts even of unregenerate man were similar to the commands of God and God could, if it so pleased Him, reward these acts. Certain other actions sprang from the influence of God on the hearts and minds of men and such actions by their very nature elicited the divine favour. To them grace was afforded as a consequence of divine justice. The grace so afforded was called grace of condignity. The act was deserving of God’s favour. In the former case the act was agreeable to that which God favoured.
A Wrong View of the Effects of Sin.
This involved the lower of the corruption of human nature embodied in the Council of Trent. Man’s will was regarded as enfeebled because of his sin but there were strivings towards holiness in his natural condition which God could suitably reward. The Article condemns any such mediating opinion. It declares definitely that works done apart from God’s grace are not pleasant to God. The reason given is that they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ. The message of the Gospel is not operative in the hearts of those who perform these actions. The motive which impels to obedience is not a true motive. Hence, to use thee language of the school-men, such actions are not congruous to the mind and will of God.
The Council of Trent did not explicitly adopt this distinction. The Article in its Latin form reads “as many say.” Jewel rendered it in English “as the School-authors say” It was not changed as was the case in the later Article on Purgatory from “The Doctrine of the Schoolmen“ to “The Romish Doctrine” because of the reserve displayed by The Council of Trent.
A Final Warning.
But the Article goes further and declares that such works because “they are not done as God hath willed and commanded . . . have the nature of sin.” This is a very strong declaration. Some have tried to weaken the force of this sentence by suggesting that the “nature of sin” is a little weaker than the word “sinful.” The structure of the Article as well as the Latin word used will not justify this suggestion. In the 9th Article concupiscence is said to have the nature of sin. This is a direct reply to The Council of Trent which, while admitting the Apostle called consupiscence sin, says The Council did not understand it as being called sin as being truly and properly sin in those born again (Sess. V 1546). The Latin word “ratio” means a condition or nature of the thing mentioned. The language of the Article warns us that we cannot depend on any effort of our own as a condition of securing God’s favour. We cannot divorce our actions from the condition of living faith without separating them from deeds done according to God’s will. If we do thus separate our conduct from a sense of entire dependence on God we are so far from meeting favour that we incur the wrath of God revealed against sin. The Articles 12 and 13 enforce very strongly the doctrine of Justification by faith only.
39 Articles: Article 13 – Of Works Before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of His Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the schoolauthors say) deserve grace of congruity; yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, August 16, 1956.
This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.