This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(62) Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are all imperfect
and stained with sin.
(63) Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not merited; it is a gift of grace.
(64) Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.
Many of us struggle with gifts. We like receiving things, but only if we’ve earned them. We don’t want to feel indebted. A sense of deserving stokes our pride; unmerited kindness humbles us.
This problem becomes more serious in connection with the greatest gift we can receive. The Bible teaches that sinners are justified—or judged righteous by God—on the basis of Jesus’s righteousness which believers receive by faith. We’re justified by faith alone, not by works (Eph. 2:8–9). And that pill swallows hard. We want to somehow contribute to our salvation. And some theologians claim that the teaching of gracious salvation by faith alone makes people spiritually careless—people won’t care about works if they believe they are justified graciously.
But Scripture teaches that good works are necessary for salvation and insufficient for our justification. To understand that we must heed two vital warnings.
Don’t Trust in Your Good Works
It’s easy to do. Because earning is the system most familiar to us, we can hardly believe that God doesn’t respect our merit. Since childhood you have sensed that people’s attitude toward you is shaped by your behavior. You got accepted into college based on your performance. Raises and bonuses at work depend on your output. It’s so easy to import a mindset of work-and-reward into the arena of religion. The older brother in Jesus’s parable believed his father owed him a blessing for his faithfulness (Luke 15). We might feel the same way. But salvation doesn’t work that way. Why?
Our Good Works Fail to Meet God’s Perfect Standard
God says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We know that’s impossible. But we’re also good at moving goalposts. If we feel optimistic about our natural standing before God it’s because we think too little of him and too much of ourselves. But we are worse—and God is better—than we can imagine. Our deceptive hearts outrageously over-appraise our goodness (Jer. 17:9). Our best works are stained with the sins of virtue-signaling, dishonesty, and ingratitude. We obey selectively. And our works can become a security blanket, taking the place of Christ’s works. We aren’t nearly as righteous as we suppose. And “God is bigger than we think—holier, more excellent, than we realize.”[i] Holy angels use most of their wings to cover themselves from God’s face because he is holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6:2, 3).
God Rewards Our Good Works Purely by Grace
The catechism hypothetically suggests that good works might be meritorious because God promises to reward them. If good works fetch rewards, they must possess some purchasing power before God, the argument goes. But God’s rewards are always gracious, never earned. Before Abraham’s faith was accounted as righteousness, God introduced himself as Abraham’s “exceedingly great reward” (Gen. 15:1–6). No matter how richly God rewards us, for even our best efforts, we should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Paul expected Jesus to award him with a crown of righteousness even though he considered himself the foremost sinner (2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). Paul wasn’t banking on his good works but on the appearing of Jesus in glory for him.
Still, God’s gracious reward should stir us to practice good works in the brief time allotted us (Rev. 22:12). Our works on earth have value in heaven (Matt. 5:11–12; Col. 3:24); they follow us into the next life (Rev. 14:13). So the wise person stores up treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:19–21).
Good works are vital. But we can receive Christ’s righteousness and all his benefits “in no other way than by faith alone” (Q&A 61). This truth should comfort us when we fall short of his glory. We are what we are by God’s grace, not our works (1 Cor. 15:10).
Don’t Dismiss the Power of a New Life
The Roman Catholic Church insists that good works are part of how we’re righteous before God. And good works must be meritorious, it’s alleged, in order to incentivize godliness. People will only do good if they think their salvation depends on it. This seems logical. And people truly do abuse the teaching of grace as an excuse for ungodly living. People do treat grace as a cheap thing.
But a mentality of cheap grace is discordant with the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone. Justification is part of a total overhaul of sinners who come under the care of God’s gracious Spirit. He gives us true faith (Eph. 2:8) before we have done a single good work. But he doesn’t stop there. In sanctification, God commands his children to work out their salvation as God works in them to will and to do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13). He has prepared good works for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10). “It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.” God grants spiritual life by grafting us into Christ, in whom is life. A justified sinner becomes “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in due season, and its leaf does not wither” (Ps. 1:3). “Every good tree bears good fruit!” (Matt. 7:7).
Making justification depend on good works is also contrary to how God motivates our faithfulness. True acts of love are spurred neither by fear of rejection for underperformance nor by a selfish desire for personal gain but by the heart-warming power of God’s gracious acceptance of needy sinners. “Fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18–19). The law cannot be obeyed but by a robust love for God and our neighbor. And only the gift of faith activates within us desires that are compatible with true love. Requiring works for justification is a recipe for mercenary obedience. The true gospel treats believers as sons; any other “gospel” makes us hirelings.
When good works are treated as currency they will never be enough. Good works are a response of gratitude to the indescribable gift of God’s righteous Son. So the reward is as freely given as the grace which produces good works. Jesus came into the world to save sinners like you and me. God promises that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved. Add good works to that formula of justification, and you blow it up. Surely God reminds justified believers “to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). And by God’s grace, believers are beginning to cheerfully answer that call.
[i] Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 120.