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Good Works

H.A. Theiste

1937 Synod Convention Essay

A very practical subject for Christian contemplation and meditation is the subject assigned to this essay: “Good Works.” Good works are the Christian’s delight, the jewels in his crown, sparks of divine light glowing in a sin-darkened world. They are the bulwarks that fortify the Christian testimony of God’s love and salvation in Christ Jesus.

No Christian dare remain indifferent to good works, since the Scriptures abound in exhortations and admonitions to good works, as when Jesus says: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.” The Holy Spirit by the apostle Paul admonishes us (Col. 1:10) to be fruitful in every good work, and again we are told to abound more and more in good works. The Psalmist declares in the 119th Psalm, v. 4: “Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently” and pleads, v. 5: “O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes,” adding, v. 35: “Make me to go in the path of thy commandments, for therein do I delight.”

From this latter passage, we also see what is meant by a good work, namely, words and works, thoughts, and deeds, which are in conformity and accord with God’s Holy will. To study to know this will and to put it into practice in his daily life is the Christian’s chief concern. Therefore the subject of good works is of practical importance for the Christian.

But while God’s Holy Word does admonish and exhort to every good work, it also very strongly warns the Christian against false conceptions regarding good works. It is very necessary that we note carefully:

I. Good Works Are Not a Means to Salvation

The Christian knows but one way to salvation, and that way is the redemption in Christ Jesus who says: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” The Christian believes with the apostle Paul that he is “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” To be justified means that God by His grace imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, and acquits us of the guilt and punishment of our sin, so that He regards us in Christ as though we had never sinned. And as benefits of our justification, we have received adoption as God’s children, peace with Him, free access to His daily blessings, and hope of the glorious inheritance, the life everlasting. And all this — “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us,” Tit. 3:5. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law.” Rom. 3:28.

But in every religion outside of the Christian religion, good works form the heart and center of all worship. By means of these the heathen seeks to appease the wrath of an angry deity, win peace of conscience, and merit that happiness which the gods have in store for mankind in the life hereafter. This is as true of the heathen Hindu in benighted India, who will cast her suckling infant into the raging waters of the Yellow Ganges, as it is of the “civilized” heathen in “enlightened” America, who, though he will scoff at the Hindu as ignorant and superstitious, will at the same time cast his offerings into the insatiable maw of his goddess “Charity,” in order to ease the pangs of a guilty conscience and with the hope of gaining peace and favor with God.

Against such “good works,” the Bible raises emphatic protest, declaring that not only the deeds but the very “imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” and that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Of such works, it declares that to God they are an “abomination” and that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”

But even among Christians this soul-destroying error of salvation by works has often found lodging. Already in the apostolic era of the Christian Church, we find such error creeping into the congregations, as for example with the Galatians. Paul had taught them: “By grace are ye saved through faith.” The law profiteth nothing but knowledge of sin, and worketh wrath. Then came the Judaizers who insisted that Christians must be bound by the laws of Moses to do them. Paul heard of this and his letter, the Epistle to the Galatians, is a mighty polemic, or disputation, against the religion of good works in this form. Paul is not merely arguing that a man is justified by faith, — so much, no doubt, his opponents, the Judaizers, admitted; — but he is arguing that a man is justified by faith alone. What the Judaizers said was, not that a man is justified by works, but that he is justified by faith and works.

Against this compromising solution of the problem, the apostle insists upon a sharp alternative. Christ, according to Paul, will do everything — or nothing; if righteousness is in the slightest measure obtained by our obedience to the Law, then Christ died in vain; if we trust in the slightest measure in our own good works, then we have turned away from grace and Christ profiteth us nothing.

Thus we see that whosoever mixes good works with justification places himself outside of the Christian sphere and renders both good works and salvation — both sanctification and justification, — impossible.

But in spite of Paul’s letters, this false doctrine of the Judaizers has come up again and again in the Church of the New Testament. At the beginning of the 16th Century, the Gospel light of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, was well nigh extinguished under the rubbish heap of monastic vows and man-made self-imposed works. The Reformation was a violent protest against this horrible corruption of grace, and Luther was God’s instrument to blast through and shovel aside this rubbish heap; to rescue the Gospel light and proclaim again: “By grace are ye saved through faith.”

In the 20th Article of the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans state: “Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of good works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. Some persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into monasteries, hoping thus to merit grace by a monastic life. Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins.” Again “whoever therefore trusts that by works he merits grace despises the merit and grace of Christ and seeks a way to God without Christ by human strength, although Christ has said of Himself: ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’”

But shortly after Luther’s time this false doctrine of good works infested the ranks of the Lutheran Church, and ever since the true Church of the Reformation has had to wage a ceaseless battle against this horrible corruption of the Gospel, — this deadly mixture of good works with faith, whereby good works are made to be a means of salvation. The existence of our Norwegian Synod today is a living testimony against this very corruption as it is found in the first paragraph of “Opgjør”.

Such a corruption of the Gospel can be present only there where there is a misconception or a real lack of understanding as to what are good works. Therefore we would want to know

II. “What Works Are Truly Good?”

Here no answer could be more clear and adequate than that given in our Catechism: “Only those works are truly good which are the fruits of faith, which are produced by the Holy Ghost, in the children of God according to the rule of the Law, and which are done out of love, without compulsion, to the glory of God, and for the good of our neighbor.”

Here in these words we find mentioned, first, The essence of good works, namely, good works are the fruits of faith.

Faith is that God-given power or means whereby we apprehend the justification in Christ Jesus and become the children of God. “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26).

As children of God we have been born again and as a result of this new birth we have received a new heart and a new spirit as God promises in Ezek. 36:26: “A new heart will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” Possessing this new heart and spirit we have new tastes and new desires. We have a taste for spiritual things and a desire to please God and do His will. In other words, from the moment when justifying faith has been wrought by the. Holy Spirit in the act of regeneration, the same spirit also actuates such living faith in works of holiness acceptable to God. Therefore it is called “faith which worketh by love.” Gal. 5:6; and the same apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

To use the picture Jesus uses: “I am the vine, ye are the branches, he that abideth in me and I in him the same bringeth forth much fruit.” The life, the power in Jesus produced the works of love which marked every moment of His time here on earth. By faith we become branches of Christ the Vine and partake of the same fruit-producing power and life. Without that power obtained through faith we could produce nothing, “for”, says Jesus, “without me ye can do nothing.” Thus we see that the essence of good works, the real reason why they are good is this, that they are fruits of that gift of God, faith.

Therefore also, the unbeliever can produce no good works, for he has no spiritual life. Being spiritually dead he is as little able to bring forth good works as a dead tree can produce good fruit.

What shall we say then of the good deeds and works performed by the unbeliever, such as their moral uprightness, their great acts of philanthropy and their shining examples of charity, which often seem to surpass that of the professed Christian?

These works, when in accord with the law belong in the sphere of civic righteousness and as such are recognized and rewarded by God, but in the spiritual sense, when they are performed as an act of worship to propitiate God they are just the same as the heart from which they are produced, corrupt and sinful, subject to God’s wrath, death and damnation. They are like fine appearing apples hung upon a dead branch. They make a pretty picture but having no life flowing into them, they cannot endure in the shining light of God’s holiness. Jesus says: “A good man out of the good treasures of his heart bringeth forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasures bringeth forth evil things.” The unbeliever being unregenerated has a heart filled with evil and to him Jesus must say as He did to the unbelieving Jews, “Ye are of your father the devil and the lusts of your father ye will do.” John 8:44.

The essence of good works being this that they are the fruits of faith, the nature of good works is that they are according to the rule of the Law.

The Gospel does not abrogate the Law, but it makes men love it with all their hearts. The very first thing that a Christian does then is to keep the Law of God. He keeps it not as a way of earning his salvation — not in slavish fear of God’s wrath and punishment-but he keeps it as a rule and norm of his Christian life. The Law of God becomes his delight, his native element.

Now the Word of God nowhere says that a disciple should withdraw from the world, hide in deserts or mountains, afflict the body with horrible punishments and fast and pray as a means of pleasing God. These works may seem impressive in the eyes of men. But they are not good works.

God says: “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart — and thy neighbor as thyself.” We love and honor God when we believe in His only begotten Son as our only Savior and Redeemer and we love our neighbor when we do for him as Christ did when He walked among men. We are to be zealous in showing love and mercy and doing good towards our fellow men, living in imitation of the example of Christ.

In this way, Luther says, a Christian is like a dish that is filled with love and goodness from above and then gives of that goodness to all below. “Do good to all men” is the divine rule. And what is good is that which profits our neighbor according to the ten commandments. Jesus describes a good work in these words, Matt. 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you do ye even so to them. For this is the Law and the prophets.” Luther says: “Men du skal vide at ved at tjene Gud forstaaes intet andet end at tjene næsten og med kjærlighed at gjøre vel imod ham.” Again: “Alle gjerninger skulde være rettede imod vor næste — Gud fordrer ikke at vi gjør nogen gjerning mod ham uden alene at vi tror paa Kristus. Deri har Han nok, deri giver vi Ham Hans ære.” — “Men jo fastere en tror desto villigere er han ogsaa til at hjælpe sin næste. Saaledes fremmer troen kjærligheden og forøger kjærligheden troen.”

Examples: “The Widow’s Mite,” Mark 12:41; “The Good Samaritan,” Luke 10:30.

III. Are Good Works Necessary to Salvation?

But now the question might be asked: Are good works necessary to salvation? Shortly after the Reformation, a bitter controversy raged in the Lutheran Church over this question. This was known as the Majoristic Controversy. George Major, born 1502, died 1574, was one of the professors at Wittenberg. He was a pupil of Melanchton. He stated: “It is impossible for a man to be saved without good works.” Major explained that good works are necessary to salvation, riot because they expect merit, forgiveness of sins, justification, the gift of the Holy Spirit and Eternal Life, for these gifts are merited alone by the death of our only mediator and Savior, Jesus Christ, and can be received only by faith — but nevertheless good works must be present not as a merit, but as due obedience toward God.” Major made the grave mistake that all make who claim good works are necessary to salvation, namely, expecting the fruits to preserve the tree by which they are produced. Since good works are the fruits of faith, they can by no means preserve the faith by which they are produced and by which we obtain salvation.

Flaccius, one of Major’s leading opponents and the champion of the truth, stated: “Furthermore Major will also have to state the least number of ounces or pounds of good works one is required to have to obtain salvation” — something which Jesus failed to mention when He said to the believing thief on the cross: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”

But a serious error was made by one of the great defenders of the Lutheran doctrine, Amsdorf — which caused the controversy to become even more bitter. In his zeal to condemn the doctrine of Major and to reveal it as a soul destroying falsehood Amsdorf went to the other extreme and declared that “Good works are detrimental and injurious to salvation.” He appealed to the writings of Luther in defense of his statement. Luther had made a statement on this subject, but he had spoken very guardedly, and stated correctly: “Good works are detrimental to the righteousness of faith if one presumes to be justified by them.” Amsdorf made the mistake of omitting the limitation used by Luther. This mistake was a serious blow to the cause of sound Lutheranism.

The question was finally clarified and the true Scriptural doctrine set forth in the Formula of Concord.

F.C. IV, 18 (Epitome): “For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline and good works and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God than that works be not mingled in the article of justification, because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith as well as by Papistic and Pharisaical confidence in their own work and merit.”

IV. Are the Good Works of a Christian Complete or Perfect?

But are the good works of a Christian complete or perfect? By no means; for inasmuch as Christians dwell in the flesh, they are subject to the temptations and shortcomings of the flesh. The Christian well knows: “The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Gal. 5:17; and therefore he will declare with Paul: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing, for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” Rom. 7:18.

But where the Christian lacks, Christ is perfect and His perfect sanctification covers our shortcomings so that God looks upon the believer as if he were perfect and for Jesus’ sake calls our works good — that is holy, perfect, and pleasing unto Him.

Is there any limit as to the quantity or number of works? No, God has no rule such as that devised by men: Do one good turn daily. God says “Ye are bought with a price. You belong to me body and soul, all your intellect, all your powers are to be employed in my service. Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God which is your reasonable service.” There is no halfway measure here, no minimum but a maximum. “All that I am, all that I have, are Thine to use, O Lord,” is the Christian attitude at all times.

V. The Reward of Good Works

Now it may seem strange to speak of reward in connection with the good works of the Christian, especially when we consider that the works which alone can be called good are produced alone by the power of God working through faith which He has given. Therefore, since they are not the product of the individual the natural conclusion would be that there is no reward.

And yet the Scriptures teach us that God does reward good works. Jesus teaches this in the answer which He gave to Peter’s question: “Behold we have forsaken all and followed Thee, what shall we have therefore?” Matt. 19:27; Matt. 20:16. While we might expect that Jesus would have reprimanded the apostle for his presumptuousness, Jesus graciously answers: “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren or sisters or father, or mother or wife or children or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred fold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” He even stated that they should sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes on the great Judgment Day. Then Jesus went on to tell the story of the laborers in the vineyard.

From this parable of the laborers we learn then that while God rewards good works, this is a reward of grace. Our loving Heavenly Father, who so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son to die for us, is also so gracious and loving that in addition He adds rewards for faithfulness to Him, though our service is imperfect and filled with human weaknesses.

The Christian knows he has merited nothing. He still carries with him the old Adam who spoils every good work. But God by His grace recognizes the spirit and the endeavor of His children and for their encouragement adds rewards of grace. The Holy Writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages us to faithfulness, saying, Heb. 10:35: “Cast not away therefore your confidence which hath great recompence of reward.” The apostle Paul states: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” II Tim. 4:7–8. Jesus says, Rev. 2:10: “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” Faithfulness includes, of course, the doing of, and keeping of, His commandments.

But not only in the world to come, but already in this life, the Lord rewards the good works of the believers. To us God says today what He said to His children of yore in Deut. 13:13–17, v. 22–28.

Examples of how God blesses His faithful children and rewards their works are to be seen in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, the Apostles, and countless children of God today, as Jesus promises in the very first part of the sermon on the Mount, and also when He says: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”

As we consider, then, how graciously the Lord rewards our feeble efforts, we ought to be stimulated to even greater efforts in His service.

O that we who live in the last hours of the day of grace, beholding the great work yet to be done, might follow the example of the Poor Widow who honoring God with an unflinching faith cast into the Lord’s treasury her very living in order that the Lord’s work might be done. What a tremendous missionary program for the reclamation of lost and dying souls our Church would then be able to carry on.

As we behold the great number of our fellow men perishing by the wayside for the lack of the bread of life, beaten and robbed by that arch-robber and enemy of their souls, may we be moved by the example of the Good Samaritan to deeds of mercy and thus show forth our faith, to the glory of God and the salvation of souls, until we shall hear the blessed words of our Lord: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Amen.

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