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We Need a Clear Definition of Good Works

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”


It is a truth universally acknowledged that all men and women intend to be good and to do good. The challenge lies in knowing what constitutes a “good” work because one man’s good work is another man’s bad work. In our modern age, what is considered good changes with the news cycle. The strength of a nation whose God is the Lord is that they live by his laws. Christian or non-Christian we need to have a cohesive and clear definition of good works.

Amid England’s bloodiest civil war, caused in part for religious reasons, a call went out from the English Parliament to assemble pastor-theologians to reform the wayward English church. This reform culminated in 1646 with the writing of The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) becoming the dominant confession of Reformed Christianity in Britain.

If a person wants to understand the Protestant-Christian faith this is the document to read as it was not merely the confession of faith for the Presbyterian church but when other Protestant denominations created their own confession statements they utilised the documents of the Westminster Assembly. However many modern-day Presbyterian churches have tossed their confessions of faith onto the bookshelf to collect dust; after all, they are old and stuffy and not applicable to modern-day life. But is this true? 

The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 16.1: Of Good Works eloquently summarises the crux of an issue that seems to plague our modern churches within post-Christian societies. 

“Good works are only such as God has commanded in his holy Word,[1] and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.[2]”

[1] Mic. 6:8; Rom. 12:2, Heb 13:21
[2 ] Mat 15:9; Is 29:13; 1 Pet 1:18; John 16:2; Rom 10:2; 1 Sam 15:21-23; Deut 10:12-13; Col 2:16-17, 20-23

Just because we intend to be doing a good work, or feel as though we are doing a good work, or are zealous to do a good work does not guarantee that we are doing a good work in God’s eyes. The confession makes the claim, as does the Bible, that God defines what is good. Jesus warns us in Matthew 7:21-23,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Christ makes the point that doing a work in his name does not automatically make it a good work. As the confession states, good works are ONLY such works that God has commanded in the Bible, all other works are lawlessness in the eyes of God. The old adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” seems rather à propos

As a Christian we may have no problem affirming WCF 16.1 on paper but what happens when we try to practically apply it to the church and our own lives? Churches are full of human traditions, they run deep and are often entrenched, but are they Biblical and in accordance with God’s commands? A person may find that their very identity is wrapped up in what they do for God and the church but are their works in congruence with God’s word? Should not we be asking the question: Would the Bible call this a good work? Is this work in accordance with God’s Word, or does it flow out of human hearts and traditions and blind zeal however well-intended?

Of late I have been struck by the proliferate use of personal pronouns when Christians discuss whether or not a work is good. “I feel like…” “When I do this I intend(ed)…” “I think…” “I want…” Has the postmodern value of subjectivity and self-opinion unwittingly permeated our practices of determining if something is good and acceptable to God?

Our happiness, our opinions, or our intentions do not determine if a work is good or not, God’s Word does. The original and quintessential example of this type of subjective defining of good is Eve’s epic blunder. After having just affirmed that God instructed her not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (objective truth) she pivoted from God’s definition of good works to her own subjective definition:

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” 

When we listen to anyone other than God’s Word in order to discern if a work is good or bad we are going to fail and probably drag others down with us. Take a glance at many heretical people and churches and you do not have to look too deeply to see that they are “those who call evil good and good evil!” The scariest part is that so often evil works are done with the pretence of good intention which can make it difficult to identify the rotten apple before you bite into it. Are you being hoodwinked into believing that you are doing a good work like Eve?

If our desire is to have our works received by God as good works then we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with our own desires and other human’s opinions. It is at this intersection that we can benefit by a doctrine like WCF 16.1 which can be a guardrail to keep us from drifting off the straight and narrow way. One thing we can be confident of—only works that are in accordance with God’s revealed Word and laws of the Old and New Testaments can produce good fruit and be good works received by God.

May we, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, do good works unto God which is our reasonable service. 

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