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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. M. Pendleton
From Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology, 1878
It is important to understand what is meant by “good works." They have their proper place in the Christian scheme. They do not precede justification, so as to procure it, nor are they performed before regeneration, so as to effect it, but they follow both and are evidences of both. While the phrase “good works” implies a proper state of heart, from which they spring, it is evident from the New Testament that such works are chiefly outward acts of consecration to God.
In proof of this, I quote the words of Christ, as follows: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16) This is the first use of the words "good works" in the Scriptures, and it is plain that Christ refers to external performances, which could be seen. So also when he said to the Jews (John 10:32), "Many good works have I shewed you from my Father," he referred to his beneficent miracles which they had witnessed. In Acts 9:36, it is said of Dorcas, "This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did." These good works were visible, and therefore known. From Rom. 13:3 we learn that "rulers are not a, terror to good works, but to the evil." Here, too, there must be a reference to external works.
Paul taught likewise that an aged widow, before receiving assistance from a church fund, must be well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work." (I Tim. 5:10) In the same Epistle, the rich are exhorted to be "rich in good works" (I Tim. 6:18), while in the letter to Titus he is urged to show himself "a pattern of good works.” (I Tim. 2:7)
When it is said in Heb. 10:24, "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works," it is manifest that good works refer to outward acts, even as love refers to the heart. The good works of the life were to proceed from the love of the heart. Peter wrote to his brethren, " Having your conversation [behavior] honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation." (I Pet. 2:12) Here, again, as in the first passage quoted, the visibility of good works is taken for granted.
I have now referred to a large majority of the places in the Scriptures where the phrase "good works" is used, and it cannot be denied that it denotes external acts. Now, while there are good works and evil works, it is very important to know what the qualities of good works are. In other words, their nature must be defined. What, then, is the nature of good works? I give a threefold answer:
1. They are prompted by supreme love to God. The first and the great commandment of the law is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart." (Matt. 22:37) This is the universal duty of creatures. Indeed, we are so constituted that we cannot conceive how God can create a rational being under no obligation to love him.
The obligation is as undeniable as the light of day or the darkness of night. It is true, also, that unless love to God is in the heart of man, no act of obedience rendered to any command can be acceptable. It is impossible for God to be pleased with such obedience. I will illustrate this point. Wives are required to obey their husbands, and, according to the teaching of Scripture, "the husband is the head of the wife." (Eph. 5:23) The husband, it is to be supposed, requires nothing unreasonable of the wife in the way of compliance with his wishes. She may perform any number of acts of external obedience, but if the husband is not assured of her love he is utterly dissatisfied. The want of love he considers a defect so great as to vitiate every act of obedience.
In view of this conjugal illustration, I may surely say that want of love to God pollutes every act of obedience which man may perform. There can be no acceptable element in any obedience severed from love to God. This was the capital defect in "the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees." They were punctilious in paying tithes of herbs, but the Saviour told them, that they "passed over judgment and the love of God." (Luke 11:42) The love of God in their hearts did not prompt their obedience, and therefore the obedience did not secure the divine approval, so far from it, the frown of God was upon it.
No works are evangelically good unless they proceed from love to God, and there is no love to God in any unrenewed heart. Hence good works are performed by the regenerate alone, and are the evidences of regeneration. "Every one that loveth is born of God," and has been "created in Christ Jesus unto good works." (I John 4:7; Eph. 2:10) The performance of good works follows the great change referred to under the imagery of a birth and a creation.
2. They are conformed to the divine law. This is an important point. It must not be imagined that if we love God, we can do anything we please and still be within the sphere of good works. This view is entirely wrong A good work must not only proceed from love to God, but it must be conformed to his law, and if so, it will be performed in compliance with the moral obligation of the actor.
For the law of God is the expression of his will, and of course recognizes the obligation of man to do that will. I would not indulge in conjecture, but I may say, that while moral distinctions are traceable to the divine nature as their supreme and original source, the divine will, as expressed in the divine word, is the standard and the measure of human obligation. It follows, therefore, that no work can be a good work the performance of which conflicts with the will of God and is a violation of moral obligation. No matter what motive may prompt such a work, it cannot be a good work. It is characteristic of a regenerate soul that it "consents to the law that it is good," and good works are performed in obedience and conformity to the law.
3. They are performed for the divine glory. This follows the two preceding points, for those who love God and are conformed to his law must desire his glory. They therefore act with reference to it. This is the highest object that mortal man can propose, and no loftier purpose controls the motives of an archangel. More than this, God himself acts with a view to his glory. The essential glory of God is alike incapable of increase or diminution, but there may be an increase of his declarative glory. His declarative glory is his manifested glory—the glory resulting from an exhibition of his character and perfections. All the good works of the saints have this tendency—to present the character of God in a favorable light—for they are performed under his inspiring influence, and are feeble imitations of the good works which he is constantly doing.
Let it never be forgotten that good works are performed by his people in order that God may be glorified.
Having attempted to define the nature of good works, it is well to allude to two classes into which they may be divided. They refer to the bodies and to the souls of men. The acts of kindness mentioned in Matt. 25:35-40 pertain to the body:
"For I was a-hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee a-hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
It is the body that hungers, thirsts, is naked, sick, imprisoned. The good works specified in the verses quoted pertain to the body, and they will be approvingly recognized at the judgment of the great day. They will be referred to, not as meritorious of salvation, but as evidences of the Christian character of those who will be welcomed into the heavenly kingdom. The question was once asked in a company of Christians, "What is a good work?" and a pious woman, without learning, but with much common sense, said, "An act of kindness that we do to the needy for Christ's sake, and then forget it." Admirable answer!
It is written in James 1:27, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." To visit, in the sense of this passage, is, no doubt, to do acts of kindness for widows and fatherless ones. Alas in all ages, the condition of widows and fatherless children has been a sadly eloquent appeal for help. It is an appeal that is practically regarded by those who carry into effect the New Testament idea of good works. Jesus said, and his words are full of meaning, "For ye have the poor always with you." (Matt. 26:11)
Souls have supreme claims. The body has value as the tenement of the soul. What must be the worth of the immortal spirit? The question which Jesus asked has remained unanswered through all the centuries: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26) This language implies that if a man should gain the whole world and lose his soul, the gain would be unspeakably paltry and the loss infinitely great.
Souls need salvation, and must perish without it; and salvation, if obtained at all, must be secured during this short life. When Jesus died on the cross his estimate of the value of souls was written in characters of blood. Surely, those who have the mind of Christ must feel compassion for unsaved souls, and be ready to labor to rescue them from ruin. It is often the case that kindness shown to the needy and suffering body opens an avenue through which the soul is reached. "He that winneth souls is wise." (Prov.11:30); and the soul-winner shows his wisdom in the sanctified tact to which he resorts in gaining his purpose.
The phrase "good works," as descriptive of the efforts of Christians for the salvation of sinners, has an enlarged meaning. It includes all the methods of Christian labor. These methods are many; among which I may mention religious conversation, consistent example, circulation of the Holy Scriptures and the truths of the gospel in other forms, the support of the Gospel, home and foreign missions, and other Christian works.
The consecration of their tongues is a thing which Christians greatly need. They should talk of the things of God, and recommend the religion of Jesus to their dying fellowmen. How can the tongue be so usefully employed as in telling of salvation through the Crucified One?
What the tongue says, however, must be enforced by the power of Christian example. Words have but little influence when they are merely used to commend that which is not practiced by the speaker. Christian usefulness depends greatly on the deportment which the Christian calling requires.
The Word of God is the prominent means of conversion and salvation. The Holy Spirit makes use of it in enlightening the mind and renewing the heart. To disseminate this word as far as possible is one of the good works which Christians should be ever performing. "The seed is the word," and this seed should be sown far and near. The extent of the spiritual crop to be gathered from it will not be known till the great harvest-day. It will be seen then what good has resulted from the circulation of divine truth, whether in the large volume, the tiny leaflet, or the various intermediate grades of Christian publications.
The gospel must be supported. By this I mean "that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." I Cor. 9:14) Most of those whom God calls to this work are taken from the poor of this world. Ministers of the word are sometimes placed in circumstances which require them, like Paul, to labor with their hands for the necessaries of life, and it is honorable for them to do so. Ordinarily, however, the people who enjoy a minister's labors can give him, at least, moderate support.
We are accustomed to speak of home and foreign missions, but in truth the cause of missions is one, and the spirit of missions is one. The language of Christ "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem," (Luke 24: 47) is the fullest authority for missions in the most enlarged sense of the term. "Beginning at Jerusalem" embraces the work of home missions in all the forms of that work; while the words "among all nations" direct attention to foreign missions in their world-wide operations. How sublime is the missionary enterprise! It contemplates the evangelization of the world, the salvation of immortal souls, the triumph of the Redeemer's kingdom, and the manifestation of God's glory in all the earth.
This enterprise calls for the large financial contributions of the rich and the smaller offerings of the poor. Every Christian who is not "an object of charity" should give conscientiously and systematically to this cause. How can money be so wisely used? How can gold be employed for a better purpose than in extending the gospel of salvation, which is more precious "than gold, yea, than much fine gold”? Among the good works of Christians pecuniary donations to the cause of God must never be forgotten. "The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts. (Hag. 2:8)
But while the good works embraced in the various fields of Christian labor are diligently performed, unceasing prayer must be offered to God for his blessing. Success depends on his benediction. Means, however earnestly used, accomplish nothing, unless he renders them effectual. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts." (Zech. 4:6) Let the sacramental host of God's elect "occupy a supplicant attitude. Prayer on God's footstool brings dawn blessings from his throne.
In view of the considerations presented in this chapter the words of the Holy Spirit through Paul are very impressive: "This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works." (Tit. 3:8) Such works are the appropriate fruits of faith, proving it to be a vital principle, which, while it justifies before God, prompts active consecration to his service. These works also are evidences of regeneration, for they show in the holiness of the life that the germ of holiness has been deposited in the heart.
In performing good works Christians have the satisfaction of knowing that they are copying the example of Jesus their Lord. We are told, that when personally on earth he "went about doing good." (Acts 10:38) This was his business, his calling. He not only did good, but "went about" to find opportunities of doing good—to find objects on whom to confer his benefactions. There was no bodily suffering that did not excite his pity.
There was no sorrow in any heart that did not touch a responsive chord in his bosom. He has left his followers an example which it is their highest honor to copy. Let them, like him, go about doing good, making the world better by their beneficent labors, and when their work on earth is done they will be transferred to a sphere of more exalted service in heaven.