In theological conversations, the topic of good works often comes up. Some people believe that they will be able to get to heaven when they die because they have done more good work than bad work. Some believe that it does not matter what kind of work you do if you are a Christian. And others still believe that work is a consequence of sin. The Bible teaches us that work is a good thing, though. When God first creates the world, he places Adam and Eve in the garden and tells them to get to work. This is before the fall, and so cannot be a consequence of sin. He tells them to work the garden, subdue the earth, and be fruitful and multiply so that they will fill the earth. At the same time, we are taught that good works cannot save us and that those who are saved do good works. But this brings us back to the topic: what are good works?
This is something important for us to understand, especially if we claim the name of Christian. The Catechism asks the question and gives the following answer;
"Only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the law of God, and to His glory, and not those based on our own opinion or on precepts of men."
The second part of the answer is what we will focus on today since we have already focused on true faith in other weeks. Good works are fundamentally good because they are in accordance with what God has said is good. Nothing can be good apart from God. What we think is good or bad really does not matter. Your opinion or mine about something being good or bad does not actually make it good or bad. It is quite often the case that people can and will justify any action as good if it fits into what they want. For example, a thief may know that stealing is wrong but will say that he did it for the greater good of having money, feeling good, or some other reason. This is why this part is important; good is not based on the opinions of men. While a king or congress may make a law, that law cannot change what is actually good. We see this clearly in Acts when Peter and the others with him tell the ruling council of Israel that they will obey God rather than man. There are times when these two things align, such as stealing, which is against the law of the land. But it is not wrong because it is against the law of the land. It is wrong because it is against the law of God.
The Law of God
The law of God will be the subject of our study over the next several weeks, so in this, we will simply give a brief overview. The law of God is given in scripture in various forms. One of the simplest, while also being thorough, is the Ten Commandments. This is the catechism's answer when asking, "What is the law of God?" It answers by listing out the commandments given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The summation of these Ten can be found in Jesus' words in Matthew 22. Where he tells the reader that the law is summed up in how we live in relation to God, that is, that we love him with all that we are, and how we live in relation to others, that is, loving them as ourselves. All of the various laws that we find throughout scripture come back to these ten and these two. For our purpose today, we need to understand that something is good because the God who is good has commanded these things for our good and his glory.
To summarize, something is not good because we feel it is good, although good things may feel good. A work is good when it is in accordance with what God has said is good. God is the judge of all things and sets the standard. Work is good when it is done for God's glory. This does not earn us anything because it is why we were created. We do not get anything extra for doing what we are supposed to do. This is the source of many of the errors listed in the introduction. We often believe that what we do earns us something in God's eyes, or to say it even more broadly; we make everything about us. We want good works to be based on us and to be about us. We want them to earn us something. We want to be praised. But our purpose is to glorify God and not ourselves. We cannot do good when we are going against the purpose we were created for.
Soli Deo Gloria