We continue our study on the Heidelberg Catechism. Lord’s Days 23 and 24 actually go hand in hand.
In Lord’s Day 23, we learned that God justifies us and declares us righteous through faith. It is not by our works or obedience to the law, but through faith.
And it is not on account of our faith, but on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ. We are saved by works, but not our works—we are saved by the perfect work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and we simply believe it, embrace it, and trust it.
Now Lord’s Day 24 raises objections in response to this doctrine of justification by faith. “Why can’t the good we do make us right with God, or at least help make us right with God?”
Of course, hindi po ito objection mismo ni Zacarias Ursinus, but he uses the common objection of people. At ipinapakita talaga nito yung “pride” and “self-righteousness” nating mga tao. Isisipin natin, “Gets ko naman na si Cristo ang namatay para pagbayaran ang mga kasalanan ko. Gets ko naman na ang perpektong katuwiran Niya ang tanging katanggap-tanggap sa mata ng Diyos. Pero paanong walang kontribusyon sa kaligtasan ko yung mabubuti kong gawa? Bakit ganun? Kahit “partial” man lang, kahit konting credits man lang satin?”
That’s the common objection of people: Can’t any of our good works at the very least help make us righteous before God?
Another objection is, “How can we say that the good we doesn’t earn anything when God promised to reward it in this life and the next?” Oh, ayos yung objection di ba, may citation pa: “God promised.” And we indeed see those promises in God’s Word:
2 Timothy 4:7-8 — “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord… will award to me.”
So we could face the confusion, on the one hand, the Word of God says that “those who endure or those who are faithful… will be saved” (implying that our good works and faithfulness have something to do with our salvation), yet on the hand, it says that “our salvation is not of our own doing.”
What then is the place of good works in our salvation?
That’s what we will look at this afternoon, and we will consider two questions/objections:
- Why our good works cannot be the basis of our righteousness (entirely or partially)
- Why the reward for our good works is still by God’s grace, not by own merit
A. Our Good Works cannot be the Basis of Our Righteousness
And we have at least 3 reasons for that.
1. Grace precedes good works
Let us look at Ephesians 1:4 (READ), though let’s read from verse 3:
“Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him [i.e., in Christ or on account of Christ] before the foundation of the world [i.e., election], that we should be holy and blameless before him…”
Hindi po sinabi dun, “God chose us because we are holy and blameless, because we are already righteous by our good works.” No. God chose us to be or to become holy and blameless.”
In Ephesians 2:10 (READ), as well, after saying that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our works, Paul said, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (i.e., not because of good works).
This makes it clear that God’s work of salvation comes first before we could do any good work.
Elsewhere, our catechism explains that for something to be considered as “good work,” it must be according to God’s law, it must be coming out of true faith, and it must be for the glory of God.
There must be saving faith first. God has to elect us, regenerate us, call us, and convert us—in order for us to do works that are good and pleasing in his sight.
So since God’s grace precedes good works, our good works cannot be the basis of our righteousness.
2. Our good works are stained by sin
Isaiah 64:6 makes it plain and clear: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
Yes, as creatures made in the image of God, there remains some manifestation of that “image” in every human being. Kahit hindi po Kristiyano, nagagawa pa ring magmahal sa kapwa, maging masipag, tapat, etc.
Pero dahil ang tao’y nahulog na sa kasalanan, ang mga mabubuting gawa ng kahit sinong tao ay isang maruming basahan sa mata ng Diyos. Every as believers, the works we do are still stained by sin.
How? We do good works with wrong attitudes and conditions of our hearts. Susunod ka sa magulang mo, pero nagdadabog ka o nagtatampo ka. Pupunta ka sa Lord’s Day service, pero tinatamad ka. Eh pano, napuyat ka kaka-Netflix the previous night. Or nasa service ka, isip mo, “Sino kaya panalo, ‘Warriors o Celtics?’”
Sometime, we also do good works with the wrong motives. Mag-se-serve ka para ipakita sa iba na mature ka, or dahil nandyan yung “crush” mo.
And there’s a lot more that proves that “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin”—as the catechism puts is.
So again, our good works cannot be the basis of our righteousness because they are imperfect.
3. Our good works are incomplete
They are not only imperfect (because of sin), they are also incomplete. And we call this the sin of omission. Let us read James 4:17 (READ), and James is a book on godly wisdom and ethics.
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fail to do it, for him it is sin.”
It is very straightforward. Failure to do what we ought to do is sin. And that is how we should look at the will of God. Madalas po kasi, we consider the 10 commandments as merely “prohibitions.” “You shall not do this…” “You shall not do that…”
But the commands of God reveal to us not only what we should not do, but also what we should do. So when God says, “You shall not kill,” it means we should value life and do everything to preserve life.
So it is always possible, that even though you are not cheating with somebody other than your spouse, if you are not loving and cherishing your spouse as you should—you’re still guilty of sinning against God.
Kaya nga po, kahit makagawa man tayo ng “good works,” there will always be other good works that we fail to do. Hence, our works are still incomplete to satisfy the complete and perfect justice of God.
So friends, these things prove to us that we cannot be saved by ourselves. It is never and could never ever be by our works… because our works can never attain to the righteousness that God demands from us. Again and again, God proclaims to us that only Jesus Christ perfectly obeyed God’s Law and perfectly satisfied his justice. And we will be saved only if believe and trust—not in ourselves—but in Jesus Christ as our complete Savior.
Now after discussing the first question or objection, we consider the second one: “Why the reward for our good works is still by God’s grace, not by own merit”
B. The Reward for Our Good Works is still by God’s Grace, not by Our Own Merit
We’ll consider 2 reasons.
1. Our obedience and good works are just expected of us as God’s creatures
Bilang mga nilkha at pagmamay-ari ng Diyos, nararapat lang na tayo’y sumunod sa Kanya at gumawa ng mabuti. And it doesn’t merit any reward.
Christ expressed this in Luke 17:10, when speaking to his disciples:
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
Kung makakagawa tayo ng mabuting bagay beyond what is expected of us—then that should earn us a reward. But because we do only what is our duty, God is not obligated to reward it.
[ILLUSTRATION: A child helping in household chores only as due of him/her, not earning a reward. The reward is not merited by the child’s work. Bilang anak, dapat lang na tumulong ka sa bahay. And the reward depends only upon the decision of the parent.
In the same way, friends, it is only our duty to do good works. Hence, it never makes God owe anything to us. In other portions of Scriptures, Paul and Jesus Christ himself speak of having a greater reward for believers who are more faithful than others.
But the reward itself and the giving of that reward are not because of us and our works, but only because of God’s own pleasure. It is only by grace.
2. Our obedience and good works come by faith in Christ and through the indwelling work of the Spirit
In doing good works, God does not owe us anything. In fact, we are the ones who owe everything to him!
Paul said in Philippians 2:13: “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure.”
How about 2 Peter 1:3 (READ), “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness..”
The reason why we are able to do good works is the grace of God. The reason why we continue in doing good works is the grace of God.
Brothers and sisters, from start to finish—we live according to God’s will only by the grace of God. That why we keep in mind that we are always dependent on God. We humble ourselves and pray that God will help us do good works and grow in it.
Paul himself affirms this by his example:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [i.e. other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Therefore, going back to what Paul said to Timothy, yes, “God will award” us his people in the last days for all the good works that we do in this life. But that is not something we earned by ourselves. It is according to God’s grace and pleasure. It is only on account of Christ who saved us.
And ultimately, what deserves to happen in the last days, is not the giving of our rewards, but the giving of all our praises, thanksgiving, and worship to God our Savior.
So all of these arguments plainly tell us why justification is only through faith on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Our imperfect good works cannot be the basis of our justification. And even our obedience and the reward for our good works in only by God’s grace.
Implications and Application
Now what does all these mean to us today? “Will this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?” That’s the last question in Lord’s Day 24. Kung hindi pala nakabase sa mabubuti nating gawa, at grasya lang naman pala lahat ng Diyos—edi wag na lang tayo gumawa ng mabuti. Ganun ba yun?
The catechism answers: “No. It is impossible for those who are united to Christ by true faith not to bear fruit of gratitude.” It is impossible for true believers to not do good works! And this is something that we will pick up again in Part 3, Lord’s Day 32.
But for now, friends, everything that we discussed gives us comfort and consolation for all our sins and imperfections—Past, Present, and Future.
We all have regrets with the past. Especially as we get older, we wished some things didn’t happen. I wish I didn’t do that mistake. I wish I was more careful. Etc. Well, friends, that is just the reality. We have never been and will never be perfect in our works. Our performance in life will always be stained by sin. That is why God provided Christ and his blood that washes away all our sins and guilt.
Even as Christians, there are still times when our past sins comes knocking in our memories. Yet it gives us comfort that our standing before God is never based on how perfectly we lived in the past, but on how Christ lived perfectly on our behalf. Our justification is always based on the perfect work of Christ.
Furthermore, this encourages us Christians in all our imperfections now and in the future. As believers, we are not living for men and this world. We don’t live and serve for an audience of men. We perform good works for God, out of gratitude to him and his great salvation. Again, when the Spirit regenerates and converts us, he also sanctifies and makes us grow in holiness in response to his salvation. Yet we know that our good works even as believers will never be perfect. As one popular song goes, “We do our best, but we think our best isn’t good enough.” Our sanctification is a lifetime progress that will only be perfected when Christ returns or we die and be glorified.
Nevertheless, we believers perform before God and strive to please him, but not as if God will turn his back and reject us if we make a mistake. It is not as if our justification depends on it. Yes, there will be times that our sins will grieve the Spirit, and it weakens our awareness of God’s countenance until God reproves, disciplines, and restores us towards holiness.
God’s grace upon our good works takes away any fear or risk of his rejection. As Christians being sanctified by the Spirit, we do good works genuinely with joy and confidence, knowing that however imperfect they are, God accepts it and delights in it, because the greatest act that God demanded to be perfect was already performed by Jesus Christ.
The good works we do in God’s sight will always be imperfect and incomplete. Yet when we believe in Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness, God graciously declares us righteous because of Christ and adopts us as his sons and daughters. And no matter how sinful we are and imperfect our good works still are in this life, it doesn’t change our standing before God on the account of Jesus Christ.
As Paul says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…” (Romans 8:33-34) No one. Not even God himself.
May this give us comfort and encouragement as we obey God and live for him with thanksgiving and praises in our hearts for his grace.
Reuel Dawal is the Minister of the Word and Sacraments at ZCRC. He was an intern prior to being ordained and installed as the church's new pastor. He is currently finishing his Biblical and Theological Studies at the Miami International Seminary (MINTS) online. He and his wife Yeng are married since 2017 and lives in Imus, Cavite.