The first question that arises when the Doctrine of Justification by faith only is clearly set forth is: What then is the place of good works in the Christian economy? Sufficient attention is not paid to the fact that St. Paul had to encounter the very objection that is still laid against justification by faith. He represents his opponents as saying that his doctrine made void the law. Even that he taught “Let us do evil that good may come.”
The Reformers were not insensible to this false inference. Articles XII, XIII, XIV deal with three aspects of good works. Good works that follow after justification; works done before the grace of Christ; works which are alleged to be over and above those required by God’s commandments. Article XII, which we are now considering, deals with good works which are the fruits of faith. It discusses the matter first negatively and then positively. “Good works which are the fruits of Faith cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgement”. That is a very brief summary of the argument of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans which concludes with the compelling declaration: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight for by the law is the knowledge of sin”. As it cannot be too frequently emphasized, we do not reject the merit of good works because they are good but because they are not good enough. The root error in the theory that we can commend ourselves to God by our works is that the very conception induces a low idea of sin. That was the root error of the Pharisee who performed external acts of obedience and thought that thereby he had met the weightier matters of the law, when he had, in fact, neglected them. That is the root error of many professing Christians today who say, “I live a good life and therefore God will be merciful to any mistakes or sins into which I may have fallen”. The Article draws attention to “the severity of God’s judgement”. The word “severity” in Latin had frequently the concept of strictness, faithfulness to a word or bond to the very letter. That is evidently the meaning it has in this Article. God abides by His judgement and cannot be turned aside from it.
The Fruit of Faith.
Our works are inadequate to meet God’s requirements and therefore we cannot hope to escape judgement by anything that we do. In addition the Article points out that “Good works cannot put away our sins”. There is no power of atonement in our righteousness because we have not in the past kept God’s law. Even if our present obedience were perfect, which it is not, there would still remain the responsibility for our previous transgressions. Hope of justification by works is wholly removed. But the Article continues to discuss the matter positively. Granted that our works are inadequate so far as securing justification is concerned, what position must be assigned to them? The Article makes several important assertions which need to be considered carefully. By definition it asserts that “Good works are the fruit of faith”. Our Lord declares that “a tree is known by its fruits”. No true faith can exist without an issue in good works. Judgement can proceed upon what men have done because that which men do is a clear evidence as to that which they believe. Our Lord rebuked those who called Him “Lord, Lord” and yet did not the things which He said. The Article elaborates this definition by stating that “Good works . . do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith”. That is a correction to all idle confidence in the merits of Christ our Lord.
An idle confidence is no real confidence. The soul that trusts, acts. Trust is itself an act of the soul, placing confident reliance on Jesus Christ. A true faith must be living. And it exercises this power of life by a continuous obedience to the will of God insofar as the trusting soul apprehends that will. There is no real ground for the slander that rejecting works as a ground of salvation means rejecting good works as the necessary characteristic of one who has faith in God. For this reason the Article presses on our attention that “Good works . .. are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ.” The response of the soul in efforts to praise and glorify Him wins the approval of God. But it must be a response “in Christ.” The first great act that wins favour is the act of reliance on our Lord for salvation. All future activities must be animated by that sense of personal devotion or they lack the quality that renders them acceptable. Such activities follow inevitably from a true faith, So inevitable is the connection that it can rightly be compared to the fruitfulness of a tree. If I want to know the kind of tree I have planted I get the surest evidence in the fruit it bears. If I want to know whether I have a living faith in Christ my Lord I find the answer in the accordance of my life with His mind and will. It is impossible to believe and not to do. It is equally impossible so to act as to secure God’s acquittal. Good works cannot put away my sins. But “Faith without works is dead, being alone”.
39 Articles: Article 12 – Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, July 19, 1956.
This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.