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Article 14 — Of Works of Supererogation

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Posted by Trevor Johnston, 15 Mar 2017

Trevor Johnston helps us understand one of the longest words in the 39 Articles, and why it is important.

Voluntary Works besides, over, and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

500 years ago, being ‘good enough’ for God troubled Martin Luther. He realised, before and after his recovered insight into the gospel of St Paul, that he wasn’t good enough. He felt the weight and burden of his sin (the theological category, not the psychological category of a supposed neurosis). He knew that he was unworthy and unable to be accepted by a holy God. Before his conversion, his life was a series of religious and moral attempts to get into, and stay in, God’s good books. His attempts to satisfy the demands of a holy and righteous God were ineffective, and he knew it. He had no peace.

Then his Bible fell open at St Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he discovered that someone else was completely righteous, impeccable, entirely holy and worthy. Christ had paid it all. And all that Martin had to do — and how he had desperately tried to ‘do’! — was to relate to that someone, only by faith, getting into God’s good books. This someone else was Jesus.

Luther had unearthed an idea (or an article of faith) from the debris created by the centuries-old dominance of a religious system which ‘made you pay.’ To get into and stay in God’s good books, it was a religious meritocracy. To remain there, it kept you paying, storing up God’s favour for the spiritually ‘rainy day’, for you or your friends. This payment was metaphorical by giving of yourself in devotion and self-justification towards God. Moreover, most provocatively to Luther, it was literal payment for indulgences to appease the divine. Pulling the barely alive child of justification by ‘faith alone’ from the rubble, brought Luther life and peace.

Cranmer solidified this insight in his articles, applying it fully. Faith in Christ both gets and keeps you saved, and it is this ‘being kept’ which is the concern of article 14. Is there anything we need to do to secure our salvation in Christ? The article on Supererogation comes within a unit on Christ and his exclusive, atoning work on behalf of his people. The Articles are thematically organised, moving from God to Christ, his salvation, people, and so on. They reflect Christian living. They deal with the realities of faith and they know the human heart. We need assurance.

This article is quirky to 21st century readers. The word, supererogation, which is the subject of the article is unfamiliar to us and the word has fallen into disuse. It simply means ‘above and beyond our duty’ religious works. However, the concept is very familiar to us and the remedy it deploys remains relevant for daily Christian living. Having been saved by Christ’s grace through faith, we so continue to feel our unworthiness that we revert back to a modification of Luther’s basic crisis: how do I remain good enough for God?

To answer that question we turn back to ourselves, making attempts to achieve and retain God’s saving grace. Better and regular quiet times and more mystical religious experience. Increase spiritual activity — even praying for 24 hours, 7 days a week! We emphasise helping numerous old ladies across the road and the alleviation of all kinds of socio-economic problems. Each of these ‘above and beyond’ religious works are certain to ensure God’s smile and favour.

Sadly, this isn’t too far from the answer which the medieval church gave. It is a medieval spirituality painted with an evangelical veneer. To stay in God’s good books, prayers, self-denial, monastic orders, martyrdom, and an assortment of recommended works were considered ‘spiritual brownie points’. They secured even more salvation, and accrued salvific interest on the bank balance of an individual’s salvation. Just in case I (or a deceased family member) leak God’s grace, I compensate and do something to top up my righteousness for those moments when I feel failure or experience distance from God. I make restitution for what I perceive to be lacking in God’s grace towards me and my devotion towards him.

But, isn’t this a classic case of sinful human arrogance? Article 14 points this out, “works…cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety”. We may think (even preach) that salvation is all of God, but act (and believe) as if it isn’t. All of salvation comes from Christ’s work on our behalf. Faith places us in Christ fully, firmly, finally and forever. There is no need to fear when our trust is in Christ alone. He is sufficient and his forgiveness is unchanging. 

This article is one of the few with direct quotations of Scripture. It cites Luke 17:10, “Christ saith plainly, ‘When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.’” A few verses before that, even mustard seed-sized faith, is fully effective. Calling on God in repentance and faith, with the feeblest and weakest of voices, brings salvation. The gospel is not only for unconverted sinners. It is also for converted sinners. Simply trust in Jesus. He really has done it all. There is nothing more to be done or that can be done, either by him or his people.

Trevor Johnston is the Rector of All Saints, Belfast.

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