Throughout history, people have often made the mistake of thinking that their good works are the basis for their salvation. As if God saves us because we do so many good things; or because our good deeds outweigh our evil deeds. Already in Lord’s Day 24 the catechism said: our good works cannot be our righteousness before God, not even part of it. The Bible is very clear about this. For instance, in Gal. 2:16, it says: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
From this, you might draw the conclusion that good works do not matter. That what we do plays no role in our salvation, and there is no need for a Christian to live an extra good life. But that would also be a mistake. It is very clear in the Bible that we must do good works. Not to earn our salvation; but good works definitely belong to salvation.
Therefore good works and holy living are an essential part of the Christian life. The Heidelberg Catechism discusses this starting in Lord’s Day 32. There it paves the way for a more detailed discussion of Christian living following the Ten Commandments.
There must be good works.
1. Because the Spirit gives new life.
2. Because true faith is fruitful.
3. Because the Kingdom is holy.
Because the Spirit gives new life
Why should we do good works? Why is so important, even indispensable, for Christians to do things that God loves and approves of?
The catechism uses the idea of thankfulness. If you realize what it means that Christ has redeemed us by his blood, that the Son of God himself died on our behalf so that we could be right with God—doesn’t that make you grateful? Doesn’t that motivate you to love back the Lord, who first loved you so much?
But gratitude is not the whole story. When you talk about “doing good works out of thankfulness,” it can easily sound like a new duty. God did this for me, so I guess I owe him now. The problem with that is, that we already have the duty to serve God because he is our Creator. Sure, we should be thankful; but “having to be thankful” in itself will not change the attitude of sinners, who already “had to be respectful” to their God and failed at doing so.
The wonderful news is that doing good works is not just our duty of thankfulness. Christians also grow in the ability and willingness to do good works. That is not a decision we make at some point. It is a gift that the Lord gives us. Just as the forgiveness of sins is an important part of our salvation, so living a holy life and doing good are an equally important part of our salvation.
The catechism identifies these two parts: Christ, having redeemed us by his blood (the first part) also renews us by (second part). In theology we call the first part, justification; the second part, sanctification. Our justification means that we are right with God, because Jesus Christ paid for our sins on the cross. But our sanctification means that, just as Jesus Christ received new life in his resurrection, he also gives us a new and holy life. Just as we should not separate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection but believe them both, together, so we should not separate justification and sanctification, but appreciate both as essential parts of our salvation. So, while works are not the basis of our justification, they are the necessary result of our sanctification!
When we talk about “doing good works”, it may sound like just a little extra on top of our normal life. But it goes much deeper than that. Sanctification of the Christian life is like a thorough renovation of a house. We don’t just paint the outside and replace a few shingles. No, every room is changed, every floor replaced, every wall painted, and so on.
Who makes this transformation of our life happen? We are not able to make this change ourselves. The catechism says that Christ renews us by his Holy Spirit. Our faith connects us first of all to our Lord Jesus, and he is the one who has new life, he is the one who rose from the dead himself and now gives his resurrection life to us. But he is not physically here; so he left us with the Holy Spirit, who continues his work here on earth. It is God the Holy Spirit who is at work in us, who works from day to day on the renovation of our lives.
If you are a Christian, your life changes. It transforms. What is the goal of that transformation? There are several passages in the New Testament that paint the picture. One passage is Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Another key chapter is Colossians 3, where Paul writes: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your heart on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things. Later he adds: You have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of its Creator.
That last expression is especially powerful, and the catechism happily echoes it: Christ renews us by his Holy Spirit to be his image. Where does that language come from, “the image of the Creator”? From the very first chapter of the Bible, which describes how God created people in his own image and likeness. We were originally designed to reflect who God is in a profound and beautiful way. Our sin ruined much of that beautiful image, but now it is restored. The goal of the renovation of our life is that we will once again reflect God’s perfect beauty. Another way of saying this, because Jesus is the ultimate Image of God in human form: we will be like Jesus Christ. We are empowered by his Spirit, we receive the life of his resurrection, and now we become ever more like him.
This is not an abstract idea, but a very practical thing. If you belong to Jesus and the Holy Spirit works on you, your life changes. Our whole life, says that catechism, shows that we are no longer living the old way. More and more we live a life that clear says “thank you” to our Savior; it does that in our deliberate acts of worship, such as prayer at home and worship at church, as well as in the way we conduct ourselves from day to day.
Because true faith is fruitful
Another reason why good works are natural in the life of a believer is that they are the natural result of the Christian faith. There is an organic connection, if you will, between our faith and our good works. If you look around in nature, you will quickly find examples of such organic connections.
For instance, if you would like to grow apples, what kind of tree do you plant? A pine tree or palm tree may look pretty, but it will never produce apples. Apples naturally grow from an apple tree, but not from other trees. The fruit of a tree is determined by what kind of tree it is; and you can determine the kind of tree by looking at its fruit. Jesus used this example when talking about faith. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Mat. 7:17)
The meaning of this analogy is, that true faith results in holy behavior while lack of faith, or fake faith, reveals itself in unholy behavior. There is an organic connection between faith and works; it would be absurd to claim that you are a Christian believer if there is not a single thing that sets you apart from the unbelieving world.
There are people who try to escape this connection. They can be hypocrites, who claim the name of Christians but have no real faith, no love for the Lord; they also don’t behave in a very holy way, but say they don’t need good works because it is their faith that matters. In response to such people, James famously said: “Faith without works is dead.” When a fruit tree stops producing fruit, it is probably because it is dead or dying; when a person does not show good works, it is probably because he has no real faith.
There are also Christians who aren’t hypocrites, but their faith is very weak and immature. An apple tree that is sick or malnourished is still an apple tree, even if it grows only a few little apples. When we don’t see many good works in someone’s life, we cannot conclude right away that they are really unbelievers; but we should recognize that their faith is weak. Or, make it more personal: if your life doesn’t show much in the way of holiness and good works, you don’t need to jump to the conclusion that your faith is not real.
The Canons of Dort address this kind of doubt in a kind and pastoral way (I.16). “Some do not yet clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ; nevertheless they use the means through which God has promised to work these things in us. They ought not be alarmed … Rather, they must diligently continue in the use of these means, fervently desire a time of more abundant grace, and expect it with reverence and humility. Others seriously desire to be converted to God, to please him only, and to be delivered from the body of death. Yet they cannot reach that point on the way of godliness and faith which they would like. They should be even less terrified, since a merciful God has promised not to snuff out the smouldering wick nor to break the bruised reed.” The reality of weak believers means that we have to be careful with our judgment over ourselves and others, and realize that the Holy Spirit may work in ways we don’t understand.
However, all of this reinforces the basic principle: good works belong essentially to true faith, because they are its natural fruit. As the catechism said elsewhere (q&a 64): “It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”
Positively, when you have a good look at our life and recognize that you have holier attitudes than you had before, that you deal with sin in a more mature way, that you treat others with more grace than in the past—in other words, if you see fruits of true faith—you may take that as great encouragement. Don’t be proud of it, as if it is your accomplishment; but don’t downplay it, either, in a display of false humility. If your faith is real, you should expect the fruit of the Spirit to grow in your life, and how wonderful it is when that happens, indeed! The catechism highlights this in q&a 86 when it was that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits. It continues to point out that the people around us also see these fruits and draw their conclusions about you and your God. True Christian living looks attractive, and it is a great way to present Jesus to others. By our godly walk of life we may win our neighbors for Christ.
At this point, you may wonder: what are good works? What are the kinds of things that will and should grow in my life because I belong to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit gives me new life?
Many answers can be given. I have already mentioned “holiness”. Doing good works means doing the things that God approves of. It is also doing the things for which the Lord originally designed us. It is imitating Jesus, who is the perfect image of God. In the Bible you can find lists that are more or less practical, showing what a fruitful life looks like, as well as its opposite. The best-known list is probably that in Gal. 5:22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love joy peace, forbearance kindness goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self-control.
When I talk about these things with people, I find they often think of good works in a passive sense. Not doing bad things. “My neighbors know that I am Christian because I never mow the lawn on Sunday.” Or we think of religious behavior. “People can see that I believe because I am at church every Sunday.” That is a start, but the Bible aims much higher, at an active life of faith. Christians are people who show love for people, even for their enemy, in practical ways. They open their house for strangers, their wallet for the poor, and their heart for the sufferer. They clear their calendar to help others, and forfeit pleasure to bless others.
The New Testament uses a couple of verbs for “doing good”. One dictionary explains these verbs as follows: “It denotes the good in action.” Throughout the Bible, the call to “do good” is connected with practical kindness, such as generosity, care, and hospitality, especially in situations where most people would not do it. These active kinds of good works are not optional for Christians, but can and must be expected of anyone who claims to belong to Jesus and to have the Holy Spirit.
Because the Kingdom is holy
Good works must be part of the Christian life, because Christ renews us by his Holy Spirit, and there is a natural connection between faith and good works. But there is a further reason. To see that, ask yourself: What is the goal of the Christian life? Where is it all headed? — It is all about the Kingdom of God, which Jesus brought and which eventually will fill the whole earth. Believers are people who are citizens of that Kingdom, and will be perfectly so in the life to come.
And the way of that Kingdom is the way of good works. “We are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus to do good works.” (Eph. 2:10) At the final judgment, the criterion for entering the Kingdom is that pronounced by Jesus in Mat. 25: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, etc.” You cannot expect to be admitted if there are no active good works in your life. The Kingdom perfectly reflects who God is, who is all about grace and love and mercy, and has nothing to do with the wicked world around us. In short, Jesus’ Kingdom of a holy Kingdom, and its citizens must be holy people.
So if you claim to be a Christian but do not actively pursue a different lifestyle than the people around you; if you are living the life of the flesh rather than following the guidance of the Holy Spirit; if you never go out of your way to do good to honor the Lord—then you cannot live in the eternal Kingdom of Jesus. That eternal life will be all about good works, day and night; acts of worship and praise, acts of love and care.
Do you want to be in the Kingdom of God and find eternal happiness? Then make sure you live the life of that Kingdom more and more, and take good works seriously. Pray that the Holy Spirit may give you growth in this area. Come to church to be encouraged and equipped for good works the rest of the week. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)