Why can’t good works make us right with God? In response to this statement that I wrote, “The key to living to living a holy life is union with Christ not our daily obedience, spiritual disciplines, performance, etc.,” one reader commented, “…one could read this and conclude that these (obedience, spiritual disciplines etc.) have no place in the Christian life, which I don’t believe to be true (and I’m sure that’s not what you’re saying).
This is exactly correct. To be sure, I am not suggesting that good works have no place in the Christian life (see James and 1 John). But, what I am saying is that good works cannot make us right with God either in justification or sanctification. Good works are fruits of gratitude produced in those who are in union with Christ. Only those who are in union with Christ will be empowered to live a holy life.
The very nature of saving faith creates a desire to not only be forgiven for sin but to hunger for Christ and His holiness.
True saving faith is a self-emptying grace. Commenting on the nature of authentic faith, Walter Marshall writes,
“Faith itself is very precious in the sight of God, and it is most holy (II Peter 1:1; Jude 20). God loves faith, because faith gives the glory of your salvation only to the free grace of God in Christ. When you have faith, you renounce all dependence upon anything you can do to gain Christ or to make yourself acceptable to him. When you have faith, you love Christ as a Savior. You hunger and thirst for his salvation. Faith is the mouth by which your soul feeds hungrily on Jesus…Here is why faith is so important: when you have faith, you understand that there is no work you can do to make you acceptable in the sight of God…When you have faith, you love and desire holiness.” (pp. 103-104)
The Heidelberg Catechism on Lord’s Day 23-24 accurately and succinctly answers the question of faith and works. Beginning with question 60, the HC asks:
How are you right with God? (Note: This is a critical question that amazingly and sadly few Evangelicals answer correctly today. Answers vary from rededication to confession of sin, make resolutions, obey more, try harder, get more disciplined, have consistent quiet times, prayer, Bible reading, witness, follow steps to a Victorious Walk, serve, victory through anointing, etc.).
Though some of these practices are commendable, none of them make a believer right with God. None!
In contrast to these typical answers given by Evangelicals today note the answer given in the HC:
Lord’s Day 23
60. Q. How are you right with God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.1
Even though my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments
and of never having kept any of them,2
and even though I am still inclined toward all evil,3
without my deserving it at all,4
out of sheer grace,5
God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,6
as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
as if I had been as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.7
All I need to do
is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.8
1 Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:8-11
2 Rom. 3:9-10
3 Rom. 7:23
4 Titus 3:4-5
5 Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8
6 Rom. 4:3-5 (Gen. 15:6); 2 Cor. 5:17-19; 1 John 2:1-2
7 Rom. 4:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21
Ah, one may reply, “The catechism says that one must do something, one must accept this gift with a believing heart.” Note question 61.
61 Q. Why do you say that by faith alone you are right with God?
A. It is not because of any value my faith has
that God is pleased with me.
Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness
make me right with God.1
And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine
in no other way than by faith alone.2
1 1 Cor. 1:30-31
2 Rom. 10:10; 1 John 5:10-12
Lord’s Day 24
62 Q. Why can’t the good we do make us right with God, or at least help make us right with him?
A. Because the righteousness
which can pass God’s scrutiny
must be entirely perfect
and must in every way measure up to the divine law.1
Even the very best we do in this life (fill in the blank…rededication to confession of sin, consistent quiet times, prayer,
and stained with sin.2
1 Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10 (Deut. 27:26)
2 Isa. 64:6
63 Q. How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward
it in this life and the next?1
A. This reward is not earned it is a gift of grace.2
1 Matt. 5:12; Heb. 11:6
2 Luke 17:10; 2 Tim. 4:7-8
64 Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked? (In other words, “…one could read this and conclude that these (obedience, spiritual disciplines etc.) have no place in the Christian life)
It is impossible
for those grafted into Christ by true faith
not to produce fruits of gratitude.1 (e.g., spiritual disciplines, obedience, love to God and neighbor, etc…)
Salvation, that is the whole package, is not by works. The principle of the salvation by works is: “You must love God first, and if you do that, God will love you.” But, the Gospel says something quite different, “We love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). No one will love God or their neighbor until they come to understand through the Gospel of God’s love for them.
A life of good works flows from a heart that has come to take pleasure in God by faith.
Only those who see God as just and merciful extend His grace and mercy to others. Our works do not commend us to God. Only the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ commend us to God. Our works are fruits of gratitude, which arise from our union with Christ. In the end, we will all confess as our Lord teaches in Luke 17:10, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”