Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But what are good works?
Professor R. Michael Allen explains in the course Law and Gospel: The Basics of Christian Ethics.
Defining Good Works: The Heidelberg Catechism
As we seek to think about evangelical ethics—to have our approach to good works and the good life shaped by not only the Bible in general, but more specifically the gospel work and gospel promise of Jesus Christ—we do well to ask the question, what are good works?
The Heidelberg Catechism—that great Reformation-era teaching tool—asks in question 91, “What are good works?” It answers, “Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.”
Notice three things in that definition—three things, each of which is necessary, none of which by itself is sufficient to make something a good work.
Good works proceed from a true faith
First of all, good works are those which proceed from a true faith. Not only do they sit alongside or rest beside true faith (it’s not simply that you have faith and good works), but they proceed from or come through faith—faith which leads or works itself out in good works.
Good works follow God’s law
Second, notice that good works are performed according to the law of God. In fact, the next clause speaks of how they’re not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men. Social mores, personal proclivities, cultural approaches to life are not the guidance and the discipline that are to lead us to live according to God’s pleasure. No, our good works—if they’re to be truly good works—must be performed according to God’s law. God disciplines our thoughts about what is to be valued, what’s to be pursued, and how we’re to live.
Good works bring glory to God
Third and finally, we note here in Heidelberg 91 that good works are to God’s glory. They not only come from true faith and are disciplined by God’s law, but they’re unto God’s name and his glory being magnified rather than our name being exalted or our glory being extended.
Examining Motivations: The Scots Confession
Motivated by faith
We see a similar approach to good works in the Scots Confession of 1560, chapter 14, where we read, “We affirm good works to be those alone which are done in faith and at the command of God who, in his law, has set forth the things that please him.” As we think, then, about good works, as we think about what it means to honor God, to please God with our lives, to act in ways that are truly good, we want to honor this threefold principle: that our works are meant to flow from an appropriate subjective stance or posture of faith; that works are not mere external realities or mere objective performances; but they are marked by the motivation that brings them about, and the Bible signals faith to be that primary motivation.
Motivated by knowledge
Secondly, good works are not reducible to their subjective motivation. It’s not enough to be well intentioned. It’s not enough to trust God. It’s not enough simply to want to do the good, to do a good work. No, there is an objective expectation described by the law of God, or the command of God. God regulates how we respond to him.
You may remember the story of Leviticus 10, where we read of Nadab and Abihu. In a moment of zeal before the Lord, they want to offer worship, and so they offer fire before the Lord. God responds by killing them. They are immediately struck dead on the spot, in miraculous fashion. The lesson there, of course, is that zeal apart from knowledge is not enough. Subjective authenticity and desire to please God is not enough.
As Paul speaks of so many Jews of his own day—his kindred who have not responded to his Messiah in faith—he describes them as possessing zeal without knowledge. That condemns them. It’s not enough to have our action flow from faith, or from an appropriate authentic, subjective posture. It must also be disciplined by God’s law and command. It must match God’s objective standards.
Motivated to glorify God (Westminster Shorter Catechism)
Our actions not only flow from the right subjective posture, according to the appropriate objective standard, but they must also be directed to the right telic purpose: God’s glory, not our own. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by asking, “What is our chief end?” That is, what is the primary goal of human life (primary goal—not our only goal, but the goal that will stand behind and beyond everything else)? Thus, whatever our subordinate goals and objectives may be in different endeavors or actions, they must always be unto the end of glorifying God, as that answer responds. We are called to live by faith, according to the law, unto God’s glory.
Our faith shows dependence on God. More importantly, our faith shows God’s dependability.
Our trust demonstrates or manifests his trustworthiness. Our dependence on his law shows his wisdom, not our self-awareness or our ability to intuit on our own, or due to cultural resources, the way forward.
Good works defined by the gospel
In every sense, then, the ethical act, the good work, points away from us. The good work points away from our capacities and from our own know-how, and it points unto the God in whom we trust, unto the God whose law we follow, unto the God whose glory we seek to magnify.
That’s what it means to have good works defined by the Bible most broadly, and by the gospel more specifically.