The Reformed Doctrine of Good Works

The Protestant Pulpit

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (9) Not of works, lest any man should boast. (10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Eph 2:8-10


With the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone during the Reformation, there arose several controversies over the issue of Good Works. In many ways, these controversies have continued, though the Protestant churches –Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed –have had a single voice on this matter.

Let us consider the controversy with Rome. Rome viewed works as essential to justification. While we must believe, we must also work to further our justification. In the words of Trent, a person, “through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified” (Session Six, Chapter 10). In fact, Rome repudiates the idea that works are not involved: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will: let him be anathema” (Session Six, Canon IX). To the Romanist, good works merit grace and eternal life:

If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,—if so be, however, that he depart in grace,—and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema (Session Six, Canon XXXII)

The Reformers steadfastly rejected this. The upheld the idea that we are justified apart from works, even as Paul teaches us. Luther explained this concept of “justification” in the Smalcald Articles:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark13:31). Luther, Martin. “The Smalcald Articles,” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 289, Part two, Article 1.

However, because of this teaching and because of the way in which it was at times taught, papal apologists have made it seem that Protestants teach lawlessness. For example, Roberto Bellarmine in his book on Justification says that Protestants deny the necessity of good works (Book 4). But this can hardly be the case. And then Bellarmine goes on to say that Protestants lives and manners reveal that they believe themselves to be able to live wickedly, which is certainly not the case in contrast to the Romanists.

The Reformers were very clear about the necessity of good works. For example, Luther on Galatians 5, writes, “Both subjects, even faith and works, ought to be diligently taught and urged; yet so that each may remain within its own limits. For if works alone are taught, as is the case in the Papacy, faith is lost sight of; if faith alone is taught, immediately carnal men imagine that good works are not necessary.” From this we can easily see that Luther plainly pleads for the necessity of works and ascribes the contrary error to carnal men. In his disputation against John Eck or Eccius, he says, “Eccius knows that it is not a sentiment of mine, that good works are not necessary.”

Likewise, Calvin says in his Institutes (lib. 3. cap. 19. sect. 2), “The whole life of Christians indeed ought to be a sort of meditation of piety, since they are called to sanctification. The office of the law consists in this, namely, that by reminding us of our duty, it excites to the pursuit of holiness and innocence.” Many other statements by Calvin can easily cited here. Martin Chemnitz, often called the second Martin of the German Reformation says the same thing, remarking:

We teach that God does not allow any licence to the justified, whereby they would venture freely and securely to indulge in their depraved lusts; but that he requires from them good works, or fruits of faith, neither will he suffer them to be idle, and not to produce good works. Besides, we teach, that God does not merely recommend this new obedience to the justified, nor propose it as if it were a matter indifferent or optional, but he requires it as fully necessary, on the ground of his own command and will (3 parte loc. Theolog. loco de Bonis Operibus, quaest. 1).

I now select two other men, for they were influential in their own countries as well as in forming the 39 Articles of the English church. At the Conference at Ratisbon (pag. 537), Bucer observed, “Although life eternal is to be sought by us in the constant pursuit of good works, yet it is to be obtained altogether through faith by all who firmly believe in the Gospel of Christ.” He then writes in even clearer words:

We agree with our adversaries in this, that the justified person must necessarily live righteously. We agree likewise that they will perish eternally, who do not perform good works. But the question is, whether our good works are of themselves worthy of that glory which God promises (Enarrat. Epist. ad Ephes. cap. 2, pag. 69).

Peter Martyr, upon the 2nd chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, page 56, says, “God intended this connexion, namely, that blessedness should follow good works; yet not as the effect from its cause, but as something conjoined with them by the appointment of God.” The same author (ibid. pg. 58) goes on to say, “We must know that faith cannot be void of good works; therefore those who return at the last hour, if they believe, will not be destitute of good works.” As we see here, Peter Martyr maintains the necessity of good works in a twofold respect: one arising from the constitution or appointment of God himself, and the other from the very nature of faith.

Now, I quote all of these men not merely so that I may overwhelm you with quotes from the past, merely dealing with a dead controversy. Rather, I do so with a real intent. After the Reformers left, there were numerous controversies within Lutheranism and the Reformed churches over this very matter. The Antinomian and Majoristic Controversies are part of this.

In fact, we see the very same thing today in the Lordship Controversy that still affects our Evangelical churches. Now, the Non-Lordship position is that works are not necessary at all, and that by saying that they are is to destroy the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For example, one of the main proponents of this aberrant position states,

If good works were necessary to obtain salvation, then why would Paul say that salvation is ‘not of works, lest anyone should boast’? And why would he speak of the salvation of the Ephesians as an already accomplished fact, ‘You have been saved’? The answers are simple. Good works are not a condition. Faith is the only condition and salvation occurs at the moment of faith. No subsequent sins can change this. Salvation is a done deal at the moment one believes in Christ for eternal life (Bob Wilkin, Confident in Christ, pg 52).

In contrast, the Lordship position believes that good works are the necessary fruit of a living faith. Sam Storms writes:

The doctrine of Lordship Salvation views saving faith neither as passive nor fruitless. The faith that is the product of regeneration, the faith that embraces the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross energizes a life of love and obedience and worship. The controversy is not a dispute about whether salvation is by faith only or by faith plus works. All agree that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works (Eph. 2:8-10). But the controversy is about the nature of the faith that saves. (The Lordship Salvation Debate, November 6, 2006).

In all of these, there is decided parallel to the issue found in the Post-Reformation debates. And we are not left to decide what the Reformers thought about this. They were unanimous in their position. They believed that good works were necessary in some particular way; and the rejection of the necessity of good works is a rejection of what the Reformers clearly taught: good works are necessary in some way.

Now, in an attempt to define the way in which they are necessary, we must first define good works before we can address the necessity of good works. These all are fraught with difficulties and complexities. In a two part series, I can hardly be expected to cover this in any satisfactory manner. Yet, I hope to outline the issues and provide some answers.

Definition of Good Works

Now, the issue over goods works must begin with their definition. What constitutes a good work? Well, we may say that there are two things that every good work possesses, and if any one of them is not included, then it is a not a good work. The first deals with a conformity to an outward standard, and the second deals with the inner disposition.

Works Must Be Prescribed by Scripture

First, in order for a work to be good, it must be something that is prescribed by Scripture alone. It is the absolute maxim of Protestantism that Scripture alone is the perfect rule of faith and practice. As the Westminster Confession of Faith, Savoy Declaration, and 2nd London Baptist Confession states, “the Scriptures are the only rule to direct us how we may glorify God.” We are not left to find out what God expects from us; “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).

These Scriptures are the norm of the life of the believer; and, hence, they are also the rule for the good works which he is to do. Only those things which God has commanded are of the nature of good works. As A. A. Hodge says, “Every principle, every motive, and every end of right action, according to the will of God, may there be easily learned by the devout inquirer. God says to his Church: ‘What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32; cf. Rev. 22:18-19)’.”

This is norm is all-sufficient. On the positive side, this means that we need nothing else to guide us in doing good works. We are told by Paul that the inspired Word of God is profitable “that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2Ti 3:17). On a negative side, this means that that we must not invent things to please God. As Hodge puts it, “God very energetically declares his abhorrence of uncommanded services, of ‘voluntary humility’ and ‘will-worship’ (Isa. 1:11-12; Col. 2:16-23).

Now, in saying this, we must realize that we must stress three things. First, the standard of good works is not our reasons, our conscience, or any feelings that we might have. Rather, it is the revealed divine will; it is the personal authority without and above us –not in us.

Well, in our day this cannot be expressed strong enough. People often act that they have some ability to discern what is acceptable to God by their own reasoning, their own conscience, their own ideals, and their own feelings. And this has even found expression in the teaching of some wherein love is the absolute and only standard of the Christian, seeing that the Law is now passé.

But love is not the standard; it is a motive. A man say that something is good because love is his motive. But it may be a gross perversion. Obviously this is the case with same-sex marriages. Another example is the failed and flawed system of Situational Ethics, which says that the only absolute ethical standard is love.

In a dialogue over what was termed the New Morality, Leon Morris, Carl F. H. Henry, James Daane, and John Warwick Montgomery addressed this issue. And what they said in part is very helpful here. First, they remind us that love is motive; it does not in itself define the nature of obligations. Second, the Scriptural teaching on love cannot be separated from total situation of Scripture. Third, the Scripture never allows us to divorce love from the Law itself and obedience to the Law. “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 Jn. 5:2). For this reason, A. A. Hodge wrote:

The law of absolute moral perfection to which we are held in subjection is not the law of our own reasons or consciences, but it is an all-perfect rule of righteousness, having its ground in the eternal nature of God, and its expression and obliging authority to us in the divine will.

It is important for us to realize that the Gospel and the Law are both needed to guide the Christian unto good works. Writing on this, the Lutheran Reformers said:

It is distinctly to be explained, what the Gospel contributes to the new obedience of believers, and what (as to the good works of believers) is the office of the Law. For the Law teaches that it is the will and command of God, that we should lead a new life; but it does not give us strength and faculties with which we can commence and afford the new obedience. But the Holy Spirit who is given and received by the preaching not of the Law but of the Gospel, renews the heart of man. Afterwards the same Spirit uses the ministration of the Law, that by it he may teach the regenerate, and show them in the decalogue what is that good and acceptable will of God (Rom. 12:2), that they may know that good works are to be observed, as those which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10) (FORM. CONO. (Sol. Dec., VI, 10 seq.).

Second, the standard of good works is not traditionalism. The idea that good works is based upon the revealed will of God necessarily combats all efforts to create manmade standards. Remember what our Lord said about the Pharisees, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9). God only has a right to declare what shall be done in his service; but they held their traditions to be superior to the written word of God, and they taught them as doctrines binding the conscience. What J. C. Ryle says here should be repeatedly remembered and frequently reflected upon:

We see this point brought out most strikingly in our Lord’s answer to the charge of the Pharisees against His disciples. He says, “Why do ye transgress the commandment of God by your traditions?” He strikes boldly at the whole system of adding anything, as needful to salvation, to God’s perfect word. He exposes the mischievous tendency of the system by an example. He shows how the vaunted traditions of the Pharisees were actually destroying the authority of the fifth commandment. In short, He establishes the great truth, which ought never be forgotten, that there is an inherent tendency in all traditions, to “make the word of God of none effect.” The authors of these traditions may have meant no such thing. Their intentions may have been pure. But that there is a tendency in all religious institutions of mere human authority, to usurp the authority of God’s word, is evidently the doctrine of Christ. It is a solemn remark of Bucer’s, that “a man is rarely to be found, who pays an excessive attention to human inventions in religion, who does not put more trust in them than in the grace of God.

And have we not seen melancholy proof of this truth, in the history of the Church of Christ? Unhappily we have seen only too much. As Baxter says, “men think God’s laws too many and too strict, and yet make more of their own, and are precise for keeping them.” Have we never read how some have exalted canons, rubrics, and ecclesiastical laws above the word of God, and punished disobedience to them with far greater severity than open sins, like drunkenness and swearing?—Have we never heard of the extravagant importance which the Church of Rome attaches to monastic vows, and vows of celibacy, and keeping feasts and fasts; insomuch that she seems to place them far above family duties, and the ten commandments?—Have we never heard of men who make more ado about eating meat in Lent, than about gross impurity of life, or murder?—Have we never observed in our own land, how many seem to make adherence to Episcopacy the weightiest matter in Christianity, and to regard “Churchmanship,” as they call it, as far outweighing repentance, faith, holiness, and the graces of the Spirit?—These are questions which can only receive one sorrowful answer. The spirit of the Pharisees still lives, after eighteen hundred years. The disposition to “make the word of God of none effect by traditions,” is to be found among Christians, as well as among Jews. The tendency practically to exalt man’s inventions above God’s word, is still fearfully prevalent. May we watch against it, and be on our guard! May we remember that no tradition or man-made institution in religion can ever excuse the neglect of relative duties, or justify disobedience to any plain commandment of God’s word.

Third, the standard of good works is not good intentions. Now, I realize that there is a bit of repetition here, but it is a slightly different emphasis. Too many will seek to argue that they will do things that merely voluntarily to help their piety. And this sounds feasible, and may even be true. Yet, great caution is required here. Voluntary worship or will worship, as Paul calls it in Colossians 2:23, is a dangerous thing. Albert Barnes explains:

Voluntary worship; i. e., worship beyond what God strictly requires-supererogatory service. Probably many of these things they did not urge as being strictly required, but as conducing greatly to piety. The plea doubtless was, that piety might be promoted by service rendered beyond what was absolutely enjoined, and that thus there would be evinced a spirit of uncommon piety – a readiness not only to obey all that God required, but even to go beyond this, and to render him voluntary service.

There is much plausibility in this; and this has been the foundation of the appointment of the fasts and festivals of the church; of penances and self-inflicted tortures; of painful vigils and pilgrimages; of works of supererogation, and of the merits of the “saints.” A large part of the corruptions of religion have arisen from this plausible but deceitful argument.

God knew best what things it was most conducive to piety for his people to observe; and we are most safe when we adhere most closely to what he has appointed, and observe no more days and ordinances than he has directed. There is much apparent piety about these things; but there is much wickedness of heart at the bottom, and there is nothing that more tends to corrupt pure religion.

It Must Spring from a Living Faith and Love for God and His Glory

Now, we have said that there must be a conformity to an outward standard –the Scriptures alone. Yet, having said this, we must with equal force assert that any work that is to be considered good must have an inner disposition. It must spring from a living faith in Christ and a love for God and His glory. Mere conformity to an external standard is not enough. We must not have only outward formality, but we must have inward intention that is good.

Now, we must all agree that for anything to be considered to be a good work, the act must spring for good motives. But as long a person does not believe that God is propitious to him, he cannot have pure motives. How can the human heart love God while it perceives Him to be dreadfully angry? We may fear God but we will not love Him. We will obey Him merely to gain His divine favor and escape wrath, not out of love for Him and desire to glorify Him. A. A. Hodge explains:

All men recognize that the moral character of an act always is determined by the moral character of the principle or affection which prompts to it. Unregenerate men perform many actions, good so far as their external relations to their fellow-men are concerned. But love to God is the foundation-principle upon which all moral duties rest, just as our relation to God is the fundamental relation upon which all our other relations rest. If a man is alienated from God, if he is not in the present exercise of trust in him and love for him, any action he can perform will lack the essential element which makes it a true obedience.

Therefore, God is not loved till after we have obtained mercy through faith. After we are justified by faith and regenerated, we begin to fear God, to love Him, to ask and expect assistance of Him; we begin likewise to love our neighbors, because our hearts have spiritual and holy emotions. These things cannot take place unless, being justified by faith and regenerated, we receive the Holy Spirit. Francis Beattie likewise highlights this, when he notes:

Good works are at once the fruits and the evidences of a true and lively faith. Where there is such faith there is peace with God, and a filial spirit towards him, on the one hand; and on the other, union with Christ, and the renewal of the heart. Out of this renewed heart faith, the inner principle of good works, comes. Hence, good works are done only by a regenerate heart, and they are the fruits of the faith of such a heart.

Now, this is vitally important to note. Only believers are able to produce good works because only they will love God and seek to glorify Him. The works of unbelievers have no value before God. This assertion caused no small among the Romanists. They flatly condemned it. At the Council of Trent, Romanists said:

If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon VII).

This is a real failure on the part of Rome to understand the nature of all work done outside of Christ. All our righteousness are filthy rags. As Bernard of Clarivuax

Our Righteousness (if we have any) is of little value; it is sincere, perhaps, but not pure; unless we believe ourselves to be belter than our fathers, who no less truly than humbly said, All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. For how can that righteousness be pure, which cannot yet be free from imperfection? Serm. 5 de Verbis Esaias Prophette, vi., 1, 2.

Nothing pure comes from the unregenerate because their motives are impure. Faith has not purified their hearts. For this reason, the Lutheran Reformer John Andrew Quenstedt said:

Although, therefore, some of the actions of unregenerate men are not vicious in themselves and as to their substance, they are, nevertheless, by way of accident vicious, viz., because they are devoid of the requisites of really good works before God. Wherefore, when even the virtuous actions of unbelievers are called sins by Augustine, Luther, and others, it is not in respect to the very matter or substance of the actions, nor so far as they are undertaken and performed according to the views of right and wrong remaining in this corrupt nature since the fall (for in this manner we grant that they are good), but in respect to the efficient, formal, and final cause of works, by which their good or bad quality is to be estimated in God’s judgment, to wit, because their works are polluted and contaminated by sins, as they are not performed by a person reconciled to God, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit, nor to the glory and honor of God (IV. 312).

Now, this is important because it tells us that before any good work can be accomplished, the person must be converted. He must be right with God. We are told the plowing of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord. W. D Smith gives a wonderful illustration of this:

In a gang of pirates we may find many things that are good in themselves. Though they are in wicked rebellion against the laws of the government, they have their own laws and regulations, which they obey strictly. We find among them courage and fidelity, with many other things that will recommend them as pirates. They may do many things, too, which the laws of the government require, but they are not done because the government has so required, but in obedience to their own regulations. For instance the government requires honesty and they may be strictly honest, one with another, In their transactions, and the division of all their spoil. Yet, as respects the government, and the general principle, their whole life is one of the most wicked dishonesty. Now, it is plain, that while they continue in their rebellion they can do nothing to recommend them to the government as citizens. Their first step must be to give up their rebellion, acknowledge their allegiance to the government, and sue for mercy. So all men, in their natural state, are rebels against God, and though they may do many things which the law of God requires, and which will recommend them as men, yet nothing is done with reference to God and His law. Instead, the regulations of society, respect for public opinion, self-interest, their own character in the sight of the world, or some other worldly or wicked motive, reigns supremely; and God, to whom they owe their heart and lives, is forgotten; or, if thought of at all, His claims are wickedly rejected, His counsels spurned, and the heart, in obstinate rebellion, refuses obedience. Now it is plain that while the heart continues in this state the man is a rebel against God, and can do nothing to recommend him to His favor. The first step is to give up his rebellion, repent of his sins, turn to God, and sue for pardon and reconciliation through the Savior. This he is unwilling to do, until he is made willing. He loves his sins, and will continue to love them, until his heart is changed.

The good actions of unregenerate men, Smith continues,

are not positively sinful in themselves, but sinful from defect. They lack the principle which alone can make them righteous in the sight of God. In the case of the pirates it is easy to see that all their actions are sin against the government. While they continue pirates, their sailing, mending, or rigging the vessel and even their eating and drinking, are all sins in the eyes of the government, as they are only so many expedients to enable them to continue their piratical career, and are parts of their life of rebellion. So with sinners. While the heart is wrong, it vitiates everything in the sight of God, even their most ordinary occupations; for the plain, unequivocal language of God is, ‘Even the lamp of the wicked, is sin,’ Proverbs 21:4.” (What is Calvinism. pp. 125-127; quoted in Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination).

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links