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Article 12 — Of Good Works

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Posted by Jane Tooher, 13 Mar 2017

Jane Tooher unfolds the teaching of the 39 Articles on the good works which are meant to follow when we become Christians.

Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

We proceed in the Christian life the same way that we began, in dependence upon the gospel word of God (1 Peter 1:23–25). God’s word is our foundation and it is God’s word that ensures the building built upon that foundation (i.e. our lives and ministries) is strong and straight (Colossians 2:6–7). Throughout Scripture we hear the call to (i) listen to God’s word; and (ii) do God’s word (letting this word shape our thinking, emotions and actions); and (iii) guard God’s word (Matthew 7:24–27; James 1:22; 1 Timothy 6:20). The second of these, ‘do God’s word’, is the subject of Article 12.

One of the charges levelled at the Reformation was that its teaching about grace and justification left no motivation for good works. Martin Luther famously answered this charge by saying, ‘Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works’ (The Freedom of a Christian, 1520). He later wrote, ‘O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them’ (Preface to Romans, 1522).

Good works are the fruit of faith. They cannot justify us before God. They flow out of our justification, a result of God’s Spirit working within us. As the Spirit brings God’s word to our hearts, it shapes our thinking, emotions, and actions, leading to a life that is characterised by obedience and good works. These good works are a sign that we are no longer living for ourselves, but, rather, we are now living to glorify God. This results in a life pleasing to him, as we love and serve others. Luther again: we ‘live in Christ through faith and in our neighbour through love’ (The Freedom of a Christian).

Through the centuries, Christians have found it difficult to keep the cross central and dominant in our lives and thoughts. Setting aside a special time like Lent in order to refocus on the cross in the lead up to Easter, has been helpful to many. When our focus is off the cross, the only other option is that our focus is more on ourselves.

Two particular dangers need to be avoided. Firstly, we can fall into the trap of minimising grace and imagining that Jesus’ death was not enough to deal with our sin. We can deceive ourselves that his cross was not enough to remove my particular guilt and shame. Or we can despair that someone else we know could ever be forgiven.

The other danger comes from the opposite direction. We can minimise our sin, and imagine our good works can somehow contribute to our salvation. Here in particular, Article 12 comes to our aid. It reminds us that good works flow from being justified. There is nothing inside us that is capable of choosing to do good. Even our best is not good enough. That is why we need God to work within us (Psalm 53; Romans 3:21-31).

So Article 12 is a great antidote to pride while at the same time an encouragement to godliness and good works, not as a payment or contribution to my salvation but as the fruits of faith. Doing good works does not save me. I do good works because I am saved.

Article 12 also serves as a warning. If we confess to being a Christian and yet have no good works, we are like a tree with no fruit. And a tree that bears no fruit, has ceased to be a tree. In fact, it has stopped growing. It is no longer alive. It is dead (James 2:14-26).

So this Article is also an enormous encouragement. My good works are the result of God working in me. Good works are a sign of life, a testimony that my relationship with God is real and makes a difference to my life. In others, good works are the fruit by which they are known (Matthew 7:16, 20). It’s a great comfort to know God has planned the good works in which he wants me to walk because they then remind me why I was created and the purpose for which I was redeemed (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our lives are not random and meaningless. At every point there is a good work for us to walk in.

At this Lenten time, we can be encouraged by the word of God in which God addresses each one of us:

‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2:11–14)

Jane Tooher is Director of the Priscilla and Aquila Centre, and Lectures in Ministry, New Testament, Church History at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. She also contributed a chapter to our book Positively Anglican.

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