You have often heard me say that the Christian life has two dimensions: the first is faith, and the second is good works. A believer should live a devout life and always do what is right. But the first dimension of the Christian life—faith—is more essential. The second dimension—good works—is never as valuable as faith. People of the world, however, adore good works. They regard them to be far higher than faith.
Good works have always been valued more highly than faith. Of course, it’s true that we should do good works and respect the importance of them. But we should be careful that we don’t elevate good works to such an extent that faith and Christ become secondary. If we esteem them too highly, good works can become the greatest idolatry. This has occurred both inside and outside of Christianity. Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ. They preach about and praise their own works instead of God’s works.
Faith should be first. After faith is preached, then we should teach good works. It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone.
Quoting R.C. Sproul:
“I’m afraid that in the United States of America today the prevailing doctrine of justification is not justification by faith alone. It is not even justification by good works or by a combination of faith and works. The prevailing notion of justification in our culture today is justification by death. All one has to do to be received into the everlasting arms of God is to die.” (Saved from What?)
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If we were not fallen in our nature, our discernment would be sharper: we should have skill to discern the works which God has commanded us to do in God’s pure service. The good works spoken of by St. Paul require us to lay aside all the inventions of men, and simply follow the instructions contained in the Word of God. There is no other rule than that which is given by Him; which is such as He will accept, when on the last day, He alone shall be the judge of all mankind. The following article is by John Calvin:
Unto the pure all things are pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him: being abominable and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate. (Titus 1:15-16)
Men have not become so beastly, as to have no understanding that there is a God who created them. But this knowledge, if they do not submit to His requirements, serves as a condemnation to them: because their eyes are blindfolded by Satan; insomuch, that although the gospel may be preached to them, they do not understand it; in this situation we see many at the present day. How many there are in the world that have been taught by the doctrine of the gospel, and yet continue in brutish ignorance!
This happens because Satan hath so prepossessed the minds of men with wicked affections that although the light may shine ever so bright, they still remain blind, and see nothing at all. Let us learn, then, that the true knowledge of God is of such a nature that it shows itself, and yields fruit through our whole life. Therefore to know God, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, we must be transformed into His image. For if we pretend to know Him, and in the meantime our life be loose and wicked, it needs no witness to prove us liars; our own life bears sufficient record that we are mockers and falsifiers, and that we abuse the name of God.
St. Paul saith in another place, if ye know Jesus Christ, ye must put off the old man: as if he should say, we cannot declare that we know Jesus Christ, only by acknowledging Him for our head, and by His receiving us as His members; which cannot be done until we have cast off the old man, and become new creatures. The world hath at all times abused God’s name wickedly, as it doth still at this day; therefore, let us have an eye to the true knowledge of the Word of God, whereof St. Paul speaketh.
Finally, let us not put our own works into the balance, and say they are good, and that we think well of them; but let us understand that the good works are those which God hath commanded in His law and that all we can do beside these, are nothing. Therefore, let us learn to shape our lives according to what God hath commanded: to put our trust in Him, to call upon Him, to give Him thanks, to bear patiently whatsoever it pleases Him to send us; to deal uprightly with our neighbors, and to live honestly before all men. These are the works which God requires at our hands. . . .
Now let us fall down before the face of our good God, acknowledging our faults, praying Him to make us perceive them more clearly: and to give us such trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that we may come to Him and be assured of the forgiveness of our sins; and that He will make us partakers of sound faith, whereby all our filthiness may be washed away. (“The Word our Only Rule”)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1)
These are verses that should bring shame to many of us who may be slack in attendance upon the worship of our God. How rare it has become when a congregation can listen to a sermon even 45 minutes. We arrive late and if the service is one minute too long by our accounting, we get up and leave! When we come to worship we have not prepared our hearts and minds to devote our attention to the glory of God and hear His message to us.
Our prayers, praises, and obedience are to be given with gladness of heart. Such an attitude will be affected by the love of God. The follower of Christ will not slip like a snail into church after the beginning of the service. He will arrive early with a warm-hearted expectation of worshiping God. It is sad that this is not the expectation of so many churches.
How encouraged would any minister be to look upon his congregation and see that they are prepared to hear the Word of God? Let him be prepared to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. His flock needs a shepherd to lead them in the way.
We must also remind ourselves daily that if there is an opportunity to hear the Word of God, such an opportunity should not be passed by. Our absence will be our lost. Whatever the cause, the effect may be grievous. There is a price for each opportunity lost to be in the presence of our Lord. Therefore, whatever your excuse for not attending to the Word preached, it is an opportunity lost which would have been for your own good. Those of us, who may skip church attendance because of our own negligence, risk the loss of some measure of grace and comfort offered. Let us not neglect the word of grace and the blessing of participating in the community of the saints.
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All Christians are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. One result of faith and salvation is good works, but it must be understood that these works (or “duties” as Shepherd calls them) are not the source of our salvation. Thomas Shepard explains why:
Therefore behold the insufficiency of all duties [works] to save us; which will appear in these three things which I speak, that you may learn hereafter never to rest in duties:—
First. Consider, your best duties are tainted, poisoned, and mingled with some sin, and therefore are most odious in the eyes of a holy God, (nakedly and barely considered in themselves,) for, if the best actions of God’s people be filthy, as they come from them, then, to be sure, all wicked men’s actions are much more filthy and polluted with sin; but the first is true—”All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;” for as the fountain is so is the stream; but the fountain of all good actions (that is, the heart) is mingled partly with sin, partly with grace; therefore every action participates of some sin, which sins are daggers at God’s heart, even when a man is praying and begging for his life; therefore there is no hope to be saved by duties.
Secondly. Suppose you could perform them without sin; yet you could not continue in doing so. (Is. 40:6,) “All flesh and the glory thereof is but grass.” So your best actions would soon wither if they were not perfect; and if you cannot persevere in performing all duties perfectly, you are forever undone, though you should do so for a time, live like an angel, shine like a sun, and, at your last gasp, have but an idle thought, commit the least sin, that one rock will sink you down even in the harbor, though never so richly laden. One sin, like a penknife at the heart, will stab you; one sin, like a little burning twig in the thatch, will burn you; one act of treason will hang you, though you has lived never so devoutly before, (Ezek. 18:24;) for it is a crooked life when all the parts of the line of your life be not straight before Almighty God.
Thirdly. Suppose you should persevere; yet it is clear you have sinned grievously already; and do you think your obedience for the time to come can satisfy the Lord for all those previous obligations, for all those sins past? Can a man that pays his rent honestly every year satisfy hereby for the old rent not paid in twenty years? All your obedience is a new debt, which can not satisfy for debts past. Indeed, men may forgive wrong and debts, because they be but finite; but the least sin is an infinite evil, and therefore God must be satisfied for it. Men may remit debts, and yet remain men; but the Lord having said, “The soul that sins shall die,” and his truth being himself, he can not remain God, if he forgive it without satisfaction. Therefore duties are but rotten crutches for a soul to rest upon.
But to what end should we use any duties? Can a man not be saved by his good prayers, or sorrows, nor repentings? Why should we pray any more then? Let us cast off all duties, if all are to no purpose to save us; it is as good to play for nothing as to work for nothing.
Though your good duties can not save you, yet your bad works will damn you. You are, therefore, not to cast off the duties, but the resting in these duties. You are not to cast them away, but to cast them down at the feet of Jesus Christ, as they did their crowns, (Rev. 4:10,11,) saying, If there be any good or graces in these duties, it is yours, Lord; for it is the prince’s favor that exalts a man, not his own gifts: they came from his good pleasure. (Extracts from: “The Sincere Convert”)
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. 15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2)
One of the foremost evils of unregenerate man is his godlessness. Natural abilities and human reason have proven to be of little benefit to the soul of man without the addition of grace. Unable to honor God in life or in conduct, he cannot even perceive the evil of his ways. The child born in Bethlehem was the manifestation of God’s grace that we might come to believe the Word of God. Martin Luther commented on this in one Christmas Eve sermon:
The people are to be taught who Christ is, why he came and what blessings his coming brought us. “The grace of God hath appeared,” the apostle says, meaning God’s grace is clearly manifest. How was it manifested? By the preaching of the apostles it was proclaimed world wide. . . .
The apostle’s meaning is: Christ did not come to dwell on earth for his own advantage, but for our good. Therefore he did not retain his goodness and grace within himself. After his ascension he caused them to be proclaimed in public preaching throughout the world–to all men. . . .
In the first verse, the true essence of the text, “The grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men,” Paul condemns the favors of the world and of men as pernicious, worthy of condemnation, ineffectual; and would incite in us a desire for divine grace. He teaches us to despise human favor. He who would have God’s grace and favor must consider the surrender of all other grace and favor. . . .
All men who do not live a life committed to the pure goodness and grace of God are “impious,” ungodly, even though they be holy enough to raise the dead, or perfect in continence and all other virtues. “Graceless” or “faithless” would seem to be the proper adjective to describe them. I shall, however, use the term “ungodly.” Paul tells us that saving grace has appeared to the graceless to make them rich in grace and rich in God; in other words, to bring them to believe, trust, fear, honor, love and praise him, and thus transform ungodliness into godliness.
Of what use would be the appearing of saving grace were we to attempt to become godly in life through some other means? Paul here declares grace was revealed and proclaimed to the very end that we might deny ungodliness and thereafter live righteously; not through or of ourselves, but through grace. No one more disparages divine grace, and more gainsays its appearing, than do hypocrites and ungodly saints; for, unwilling to regard their own works ineffectual, sinful and faulty, they discover in themselves much good. Measuring themselves by their good intentions, they imagine they deserve great merit independently of grace. God, however, regards no work good–nor is it–unless he by his grace effects it in us. It was for the sake of accomplishing in us all many such works, and of deterring us from our own attempts, that God manifested his saving grace to men.