Many years ago, my wife and I spent several summers participating in a local church evangelistic ministry at the beach in South Jersey. Almost every night, we would go out on the boardwalk with a group of believers as we sought opportunities to talk to people about the gospel. Over the course of three summers, we had the privilege of telling thousands of people about the saving work of Jesus. After finding a point of commonality in order to talk about Christ, we would ask a series of questions to guide the conversation in a gospel direction. For instance, we might ask, “If you were to die tonight, do you think you would go to heaven or hell?” Ten out of ten would respond by saying, “I’m pretty sure that I would go to heaven.” We would then ask, “Why do you think you would go to heaven?”
If I could have documented the thousands of responses we received over three summers, it would have made for a fascinating case study of what the unregenerate believe. The answers varied somewhat: “I try to be a good person.” “I think that my good works outweigh my bad works.” “I try to be nice to people.” Sadly, the essence of these replies was the same, as you can see. What we most often heard was the belief that the natural man thinks that God will accept him on account of his good works. However, these answers also revealed that most people are living in the “never enough” quagmire of works-righteousness (answers of “I try” and “I think” show an awareness that as good as they might try to be, they still fall short). This, in turn, raises a number of other significant questions, such as, How many good works are enough good works for someone to be accepted by God? What is a good work? and, What role do good works play in the Christian life?
The Apostle Paul often explains that good works do not—in any sense whatsoever—play into a person’s right standing before God (Rom. 4:1–8; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:7–9; Titus 3:4–7). Isaiah unequivocally said, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). However, Scripture also explains that believers have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10), that we are to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14; 3:1), and that Jesus commends the righteous for what they do for His sake (Matt. 25:31–36). So, how do we reconcile the fact that we are not accepted on the basis of our good works and yet that God accepts our good works though they are imperfect and tainted by sin?
It is impossible that we who were all born “dead in sins and trespasses” can fulfill the legal conditions of the covenant by rendering to God perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience of His law. Nothing less than perfect obedience will justify a man, woman, boy, or girl before God (Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:17; Mark 10:17–19; Gal. 3:10). The fact that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6) four hundred years before the law had been given by God on Sinai proves that a man or woman is not justified before God on account of his or her works.
However, if it is impossible for any of us to obey God’s law perfectly, is there any sense in which we are still required by God to obey His commandments? Jesus explained that He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. As God manifest in the flesh, Jesus Himself was born under the law in order to redeem those who were under the curse of the law on account of their violations of it. According to God’s Word through Jeremiah the prophet, the promise of the new covenant was that God would forgive the sins of His people and write His law on their hearts and minds (Jer. 31:31–34). Thus, Jesus came to redeem a people for Himself who would now be zealous to obey the Lord.
Since the only good that a man, woman, boy, or girl may do is defined by the moral law of God (as summarized in the Ten Commandments), we can conclude that the only things that may justly be termed “good works” are those defined by God Himself. The Westminster Confession of Faith highlights this when it states, “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention” (16.1).
The members of the Westminster Assembly were precise about the nature of legitimate good works. What may properly be called a “good work” is not something that is defined by an individual, nation, or cultural movement. Only that which God defines as a good work may be properly defined as such.