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Article 13 — Of Works before Justification

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Posted by Henry Jansma, 14 Mar 2017

Henry Jansma focuses on the provocative teaching of Article 13 in our series of blogs during Lent on the 39 Articles.

Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

Article 13 is one of the three consecutive Articles that set out human works in their relation to salvation in Christ. Article 12 deals with the significance of good works of believing Christians. Article 13 condemns a way of thinking of human status and capability before God. And Article 14 discusses “works of supererogation” (check back tomorrow to find out what they are!).

Of the three, Article 13 may seem strange to us today. But it is, in fact, one of the top five most referenced articles of the Thirty-nine Articles. Article 13 is everywhere! You hear it when Frank Sinatra sings, My Way. You read it in Charles Dickens’ short story A Christmas Carol, or watch it unfold in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. You hear it referenced when a person confronted with the gospel choice says, “But I am a good enough person, and God is a God of love. I am sure he will accept me.” It is referenced in the brief eulogies we’ve all heard at the crematorium. The vicar talks more of how good the deceased person was, to trail off vaguely into how they are “in God’s love now.” Leaving the listener to make the connections of the “how” between the two. Conclusion: the gospel is about being good, and that being good makes you fit for heaven.

To understand what Article 13 means for us we need to start with what it meant at the time it was written. Article 13 rejects a form of preparation for conversion. It was a concept of preparation that sprang from the nominalist school of theologians (“as the School-authors say”). So let’s go back a bit.

The medieval nominalists believed that God’s natural gifts of reason and conscience had not been destroyed by the Fall. Were there not countless examples of unbelievers who loved neighbour above the self? And what of Scriptures like Luke 11:9, “If you seek me, you will find me,” or James 4:8, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”?

With such concerns in mind, they reasoned that there was a prior step to salvation. They thought that if God rewards good works done in a state of infused grace, with eternal life as its just reward — could he not also reward good works done in a state of nature with an infusion of grace? The nominalist answer was, “Yes.” The man or woman who does his or her best in a state of nature receives grace as a fitting reward (as the Article says, they “deserve grace of congruity”).

Nominalists were convinced that God meant for people to acquire grace first as a “semi-merit” within a state of nature by doing their best with their natural abilities. And if that person did their best with those abilities, God would then grant them infused grace to earn salvation. This theology taught that people could initiate their salvation.

The Reformers rightly rejected the nominalist notion of grace by semi-merit within a state of nature. They called nominalists the “new Pelagians.” They insisted that God’s word says humanity is totally unable to move toward God, teaching that salvation is by his grace alone (Romans 3:21-26). They understood that humanity by its very nature was dead in its trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3) and that all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6) before him.

As Article 13 asserts, even the seemingly good works of those who have not yet come to a saving faith are actually accounted by God as “sin” and “unpleasant” (Romans 8:8 and Hebrews 11:6). There is nothing an unregenerate person can do to make God smile! Yet it is unlikely that many ordinary Christians would accept this teaching at all, and some would find it very surprising or disturbing.

Yet Article 13 warns us that “grace of congruity” turns the gospel on its head. It diminishes, if not destroys, the mercy and grace of God. Instead of turning us toward Christ and the blessings that are ours in him, we are turned inward to ourselves. It underlines the default position of every fallen human heart.

Do you know what is the very first mark of grace in your life? It is when you start to wonder if what the Bible says may be true. And if it is true, that it may have uncovered a deep need in you that at times you sense and at times you hide. Rosaria Butterfield describes it in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. When confronted by a friend who noticed that all her reading of the Bible was changing her, she said, “What would you say if I told you that I’m beginning to believe that Jesus is real, is real and risen and loving and judging Lord, and that I am in big trouble?”

When God calls us into a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, he must startle us with godly fear, a fear that alerts us to our lack and our need of God’s goodness and grace (2 Corinthians 7:10). It dawns on us that there is a gap between his holiness and our sinfulness that we cannot breach. The more I know of him and his holiness and I understand the depth of my sinfulness in the light of his holiness, the awareness of my need drills down deeper and deeper until I cry out with conviction, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

God leads us to himself through his word, not our merit. He draws our attention away from our striving to the joy and the grace that is to be found in Jesus Christ. As the realization of our need grows, the joy in the finished work of Christ on the cross of Calvary grows still larger. The source of justifying faith is not on account of my merit, but on account of Christ, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).

Henry Jansma is Rector of All Souls Anglican Church, Cherry Hill NJ, Canon Theologian for the Missionary Diocese of CANA East, and Adjunct Professor at Reformed Episcopal Seminary, Blue Bell PA.

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