Christ's Grace Makes Us Do Good Works
A question that has teased minds for centuries is this: why must we do good works? To be honest, it's a question on our minds also. The true gospel of salvation is this: “We have been delivered from our misery by grace alone through Christ, without any merit of our own” – as the church puts it in Lord's Day 32. Here is the reformational gem of salvation by grace alone.
Predictably, this glorious gospel of free grace drew its critics. In the days of the Reformation already it was said that this doctrine invariably makes people careless and wicked, for there's no stick left behind the door compelling one to do good works. To which the fathers replied that a stick wasn't necessary in the first place; “it is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should fail to bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Lord's Day 24.64),
That Scriptural truth, though, dear reader, raises a perplexing question. If fruits of thankfulness invariably appear in the life of the believer, why must we do good works? It's the question of Lord's Day 32, and given the earlier statement of Lord's Day 24, this question is an odd one. Is the word 'must' not far too strong? Doesn't that smack of law?
My intent in this article is to draw out the answer to this question. No, the word 'must' is not too strong; it is a given of Scripture that we must do good works. It's a must, a duty, because Christ through His Spirit has made us able to do good works. And it is God's holy will that we be what we are.
The gospel of deliverance through the blood of Jesus Christ comes at no cost to ourselves, is by grace alone. But how far does grace extend? What is caught under the concept of 'grace'? We hear in the term the notion that the Lord Jesus Christ has shed His blood for sinners. With His self-sacrifice on Calvary our sins are washed away so that we are righteous before God. I think of Lord's Day 23: God freely imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteous and holiness of Christ so that He sees me as without sin – that's grace. I think of the sacrament of holy baptism: as water washes away dirt from the body, so Christ's blood washes away the dirt of my soul. It's also the gospel driven home in Lord's Supper: the broken bread and shed blood signify the broken body and shed blood of the Savior; He gave His blood to ransom us from Satan's power and return us to God as His children and heirs. Freely, by grace, our sins are washed away so that we are righteous before God, have peace with God. This is called Justification.
This gospel of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ is the gospel of grace. But the thing is: this gospel of justification is not the sum-total of the gospel; it's only one aspect of God's gracious work! You see: God in the beginning created us to be perfect, alive, able to image God. With the fall into sin and our joining Satan we died (say the Scriptures, Ephesians 2:1), became so depraved that we were able only to sin. That is: instead of imaging the Lord our Maker we imaged Satan our destroyer. With our fall in Paradise we provoked God's wrath; with our continuing daily sins we continue to provoke His wrath.
In His grace the Lord God through Jesus' blood ransomed us from Satan's bondage and returned us to God's side so that we're righteous before Him, have forgiveness of sins; it's called Justification. But does the Savior leave us dead in sin? Does He take us, spiritual carcasses, back from Satan's side to God's side (justification) and let us continue to be spiritual carcasses, dead in sin? No, He does not! Says Paul to the Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…” (2:4f). Notice: we were dead but God in Christ “made us alive.” Becoming alive again is not our work but God's work – just as much as paying for sin is not our work but God's work. More: this being made alive, says Paul, is distinctly God's grace. The apostle says in Ephesians 2 that “by grace you have been saved”, and his reference is not to the work of Christ in shedding His blood to make us righteous before God; in this passage his reference is to the work of the Lord in regenerating us, making us alive again. It needs to be fixed in our minds: God's grace in Christ is not just that our sins are forgiven, that we are righteous before God, that we are taken from Satan's side back to God's side; that's only half the picture. God's grace in Christ is also that we are changed, are made alive, are renewed – and that's called Sanctification. Justification and sanctification both are God's work in us, both are His gifts of 'grace' for us and in us.
Allow me an illustration to clarify. You've got very sweet memories of a 1964 Holden, and you'd love to drive one again. You've found one, but the engine has long ceased, the mice have long ago finished the seats, the windows have long ago been smashed; it's an empty body, an automotive carcass – dead. But you pay the price, so that this wreck of a Holden is now yours. So you bring the thing home, and set it in your shed; it's yours. That's justification: though we're spiritual carcasses Christ has paid the price for us and brought us home; we belong again in Father's house, are acceptable before God.
Yet we all understand that you didn't buy the car in order to leave it in your shed as a wreck. The buying is the one half of the story; the other half is that you want to restore it, make it look like new, drive it again. That is sanctification, the other half of God's grace in Christ. He not only bought us, redeemed us, brought us back to the Father; He also restores us, renews us, makes us alive again. The two are different, buying the car and restoring it, justification and sanctification. But you can't separate the two! As buying the car without restoring it is a job half done, so justification without sanctification is a job half done. Grace is the whole package!
If grace is both, is justification and sanctification, a consequence follows. When I speak about this '64 Holden, we all understand that buying the wreck does not mean that the wreck is instantly restored, drivable again; that can takes months of hard work. Indeed, it is possible that the car sits in our shed as an automotive carcass for years before we get around to restoring it.
But the renewing work of our Lord Jesus Christ occurs at the same time as His delivering us from Satan's power. Ephesians 2: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” Notice here the tense the apostle uses. “We were dead,” and now are made alive. Being alive is a present reality, says Paul of himself and his Ephesian readers; it's not something the Lord will do to us when He has time some day down the track. The apostle says the same thing in Romans 6. “Shall we,” he asks in vs. 1, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” “Certainly not,” he answers, and then gives as explanation the fact that we already have “newness of life” (vs. 4). Vs. 11: “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed (with respect) to sin, but alive (with respect) to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The renewing, restoring work of the Lord is not something of the future, but it's something the child of God receives at the same time as he is made righteous in Jesus' blood.
We say of ourselves that we are righteous before God, have forgiveness of our sins; that's the statement we make in Q 86. But then, my reader, we also have to dare to say the second half, need also to acknowledge that we are new creatures, spiritually alive, no longer a wrecked Holden but restored and drivable! It is the emphasis of Scripture: those who are righteous before God through Jesus' blood are also renewed through Jesus' Spirit! You can't separate the two, and so must dare to acknowledge both as true for ourselves; it's how we have to look at ourselves and it's how we need to speak of each other – as renewed people, restored Holdens!
I say here nothing new. Page with me for a moment to Lord's Day 26. We're all baptized. Now then: “How does holy baptism signify and seal to you that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross benefits you?” Answer: “Christ instituted this outward washing and with it gave the promise that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly His blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul, that is, all my sin.” Notice the reference here to both Christ's blood and His Spirit. Hence the next question: “What does it mean to be washed with Christ's blood and Spirit?” That first part, to “be washed with Christ's blood,” is easy enough. A 70: “to be washed with Christ's blood means to receive forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, because of Christ's blood, poured out for us in His sacrifice on the cross.” That's the matter of justification, being righteous, having forgiveness of sins through Jesus' blood; we're bought from the wreckers. But that second, to be washed with His Spirit: what's that mean? Says A 70 further: “to be washed with His Spirit means to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, so that more and more we become dead to sin and lead a holy and blameless life.” Notice: to be washed with Christ's Spirit is the notion of being renewed, of being made alive, being restored. No, the restoration is not perfect; we're not a brand new Holden again. But we're restored nevertheless, drivable again.
Yes, my reader, this is how we need to see ourselves! We must look at ourselves not simply as persons who are righteous before God and forgiven of our sins on account of Jesus' blood (and meanwhile still dead in sin); we must see ourselves as changed, as renewed, as restored through the working of Jesus' Spirit!
So we can come back to the question of the beginning. “Why must we do good works?” Is the 'must' not overdone, not too strong a word? No, it's not. Christ has done a work in us, He's restored us through His Holy Spirit, and so we need to make a point of acting restored.
Here's where the analogy with the Holden falls apart. No matter how far you've restored your Holden, it still can't do anything; you still have to drive it. But a restored sinner can do something! God created us in the beginning with the responsibility to image Him, and – despite our fall into sin – God has continued to hold us to that responsibility. Now that God has renewed us through His Holy Spirit we are made able to carry out again the responsibility God gave us in the beginning and therefore we have the duty to act according to that responsibility. That's the instruction of the apostle in Romans 6:12: you are alive to God in Christ Jesus, and “therefore,” he says, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.” The command not to let sin be boss in your life follows consistently on the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. You are made alive, restored, renewed? Then you must do good works, have the duty to do good works. Is it a burden to do good works? No, it's not a burden – though sin remains in us and keeps encouraging us to act according to the will of the flesh; there's a struggle involved here, indeed (cf. Romans 7). And that's exactly why we need to have our responsibility in the matter laid before us time and again. We must do good works simply because Christ has renewed us. We must do good works, and so show our gratitude for the grace God has given in giving us both justification and sanctification, in both ransoming us from Satan's power through Christ's blood and restoring us through Christ's Spirit.
That's Lord's Day 32: we must do good works “because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit to be His image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits.” We must do good works because Christ has made us able to do them.