The Necessity of Good Works

Are good works “necessary to the attainment of eternal life,” as A. A. Hodge wrote at one point? Is that simply what the Confession of Faith and Catechisms say?

“Necessary” is actually a word infrequently used in the Westminster Standards. It appears six times in the first chapter of the Confession (on Scripture), as in:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all:p yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

The Divines also use it once in the chapter on vows:

It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone:n and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto. (22.6)

It comes up once in the 23rd chapter on the civil magistrate, such that wars are sometimes legitimate on “necessary occasion(s).

In chapter 28, baptizing a person by dipping is not “necessary.”

And in chapter 30 church censures are “necessary” for reclaiming unrepentant sinners.

The language of necessity attached to good works’ utility in securing eternal life is not present.

The Shorter Catechism (if my Adobe search capacities are reliable) uses “unnecessary” only once in A. 61 in relation to words, works, and thoughts about worldly employments and recreations, as in those activities that do not qualify for works of “necessity and mercy.”

The Larger Catechism uses “necessary” seven times, all in connection with duties that superiors have to inferiors, the way to pray, or certain implications of the Decalogue.

But for anything close to an assertion that good works are necessary for eternal life or salvation, the Standards say so only by inferences drawn from the mind of the one inferring.

Perhaps the language or “require” will help. But here again, if you look at the Shorter Catechism on the duty God requires, you may wind up backing away from Hodge’s claim.

Of course, Q. & A. 39 state explicitly that God requires all people to obey his law:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.

That answer introduces a lengthy commentary on the Ten Commandments.

Those reflections end with this:

Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

Conceivably, someone could receive eternal life by good works if that person lived a perfect life. But the fall sort of threw a wrench into that relationship between obedience leading to salvation. The Shorter Catechism puts that reality in a fairly pithy way:

Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

Have a nice day.

It’s not a question of how many good works will secure your salvation. It is a problem than one sin condemns you to God’s wrath. Good works aren’t going to make up for that.

So what is the remedy? What does God require for eternal life? Again, the Shorter Catechism is crisp if not clear:

Q. 85. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

If someone was looking for an affirmation of the value that good works perform in obtaining eternal life, that would be a good place to find it.

And in case you are thinking that repentance is in the good works ballpark, you might have to find a different stadium since “Repentance Unto Life” is the chapter before “Good Works” in the Confession. Granted, repentance is necessary to perform good works:

By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments. (15.2)

Repentance is part of the motivation for a good work. But for a work to be good, it must meet three criteria: a heart “purified by faith,” in a manner that conforms to Scripture, and for the end of God’s glory. (16.7)

Forensic Friday: Calvin on Faith and Repentance

Even though we have taught in part how faith possesses Christ, and how through it we enjoy his benefits, this would still remain obscure if we did not add an explanation of the effects we feel. With good reason, the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins [Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31]. Any discussion of faith, therefore, that omitted these two topics would be barren and mutilated and well-nigh useless. . . . For when this topic is rightly understood it will better appear how man is justified by faith alone, and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life, so to speak, is not separated from free imputation of righteousness. Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered through the preaching of the gospel in order that the sinner, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of vices, may cross over into the Kingdom of God, surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without breaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance. There are some, however, who suppose that repentance precedes faith, rather than flows from it, or is produced by it as fruit from a tree. Such persons have never known the power of repentance, and are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument. (Institutes, III.3.1)