Thursday, July 14, 2011

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

Article XII

Of Good Works

Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

De Bonis Operibus

Bona opera, quae sunt fructus fidei et iustificatos sequuntur, quanquam peccata nostra expiare et divini iudicii severitatem ferre non possunt, Deo tamen grata sunt et accepta in Christo, atque ex vera et viva fide necessario profluunt, ut plane ex illis aeque fides viva cognosci possit atque arbor ex fructu iudicari.

Fr. Robert Hart

The qualifier put on good works at the beginning, “good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification,” cannot be understood without a healthy look at the subject matter of Articles IX, X and XI. At this point I must ask the regular reader of The Continuum to bear with me a bit, for in recent weeks I have addressed this in a posted sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, wherein I wrote the following:
     So, which is right? Is it Paul, who says, ‘a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’? (Rom. 3:28) or James who says, ‘by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.’? (James 2:24) Both men are right, both agree, for both were inspired to write their doctrine by the Holy Spirit who guided them in what to say.
          “Paul spoke of works of the Law, and James spoke of works of faith. Paul explained that the Law cannot make anyone righteous, but that only faith can justify; and James explained that faith is evident by works. If we find a passage that sums up what both men were saying, in full agreement, it from Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Ephesus:

“‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. 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)

“Paul, again to the Galatians: ‘For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.’ (Gal. 5:6) And, to the Corinthians, ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ (I Cor. 13:13) ‘Faith without works is dead, being alone… For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also,’ James tells us. This works well with Paul’s doctrine, that faith is accompanied by love. James says that we show faith by our works, and Paul tells us that faith ‘works by love.’
“A true believer, one who has faith in Christ, cannot live in that faith and not be changed by it. The fact that ‘we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them,’ as Paul wrote, simply has to find expression in our lives. Where faith is, a person having been justified already, can be transformed by the Holy Spirit in day to day life.”
Why does this whole doctrine of Original Sin and of Grace offend modern ears? For the same reasons, no doubt, that it offended the ears of Pelagius. First of all it offends carnal pride. The doctrine that we cannot make ourselves righteous, and must receive grace to be acceptable to God, requires humility, or we cannot receive it.
Modern writers have twisted this in a most disturbing way, turning the whole understanding of it back to front. One writer, whose essay I read recently, made a terrible accusation against those who believe in grace, saying that they think themselves to be superior and better than others, because they imagine that they have an advantage. The absurdity of his point of view was both tragic and hilarious at the same time: Tragic because he meant it, and hilarious because it is ridiculous. Obviously, it takes humility, and also creates it, to accept the diagnosis of Original Sin and to take the medicine God freely offers by His grace.
Also, the truth offends because it is all too easy to consider good works (generally speaking, alms, 2.prayer and 3.fasting – taking our cue from Matthew the sixth chapter) to be some sort of atonement, that by doing good works we somehow pay for our own sins. In itself this idea is wrong for several reasons, one of which is the simple fact that doing good works is something God requires, as revealed in His commandments. Therefore, rather than balancing the books with good works against our sins, the failure to do good works when opportunity arises, is itself a sin. That is, the whole subject of good works merely adds to our guilt when we neglect them. Therefore, they are no great accomplishment in God’s eyes, and do not deserve a reward, but rather a punishment for failing to do them. So, we must look again at these words of Jesus:
“But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:7-10)

And then we have another fact to deal with, as part of the diagnosis of Original Sin; that even at our best, and when doing our best, sin itself remains present. It may seem hidden, invisible, and wholly undetectable to human senses. Nonetheless, it remains present. “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” (Rom. 7:21) For example, we carry many things that may be hidden even to ourselves: Below the surface may dwell hidden pride, lusts ready to spring into action, petty jealousies, desire for vainglory, unrighteous judgments on others, anger or even a terrible lack of faith in God. These very things, sins begotten in the fallen condition of our nature, do not simply disappear while we try to do good. So, even good works themselves cannot be free from sin, because we ourselves, by our own power, cannot be free from it. 
          Can we doubt that good works themselves might even be unprofitable? Do we believe what Paul wrote, that “faith worketh by love,” as his Epistle to the Galatians put it (as quoted above)? That is, faith itself works through love (charity or agape); so that if love is not present, it is unmistakable that neither is faith: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (I Cor. 13:3) I take no liberty, for charity cannot abide alone, but only with faith and hope (v.13, also quoted above).
          So, good works do not justify sinners because they are among the basic requirements we find in God’s commandments anyway, a duty not be neglected; and because we have no power in and of ourselves to be free of sin. Therefore, good works “cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgment.” Concerning the works of the Law, they do not impress the Almighty or win Him over. “We have done that which is our duty to do,” and even when desiring to do good, “evil is present” with us.
          It just is not fair, is it? But, fairness is not grace; and God has provided for us something far, far better than anything that is merely fair.
          And, looking even closer at the Article, shocking as this may be, it is even the best kind of works that, nonetheless, “cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgment.” That is, the good works that are the fruit of faith do not serve the purpose of balancing the books anymore than mere works of the Law, or works done without faith. After all, that is neither their purpose nor within their power. Our sins were taken away only by the sacrifice once offered of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself once for all to be the full and wholly sufficient propitiation for our sins.
          The purpose of such good works, even works that are the fruit of faith that works by agape, is to serve and please God, and to show forth evidence that our faith is living and true. These good works are fruit, naturally (in fact supernaturally) produced from within the human heart by the working of the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 5:5, Gal. 5:22,23) They come forth by love, not from a desperate self-centered need, nor grudgingly.
It is right, indeed required, to do good works simply because God so commands you; but, it pleases Him only when faith works by love. And, with such good works as come forth as fruit of this living faith, even though evil is present as long as we walk in the world in this fallen state, the charity by which faith works pleases God, and the Faith alone justifies.

Fr. Laurence Wells

St. Paul had to deal with the question raised by some truly real, not imaginary, opponents: "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6.1) The Reformers had likewise to contend with the accusation of their equally real opponents that the Gospel of unmerited grace taught moral laxity and moral indifference. And as Dietrich Bonheoffer had occasion to observe, this Gospel can be fatally distorted so that grace is not only free but cheap as well.         
It is important to know that Article XII was not part of Cranmer's 1552 Forty-two Articles, but added by Archbishop Matthew Parker in the re-draft of 1563. This Article balances and clarifies the doctrine of Justification set forth in the previous Article. In simple language this Article tells us that although "good works" cannot make us right with the Creator we have insulted, "good works” are nevertheless necessary for pardoned sinners to please Him. This is no concession or paradox but an integral fact of the Gospel.        
The Scripture itself takes a very high view of "good works." In a text which has worked its way into the Anglican liturgy since 1549 we are told, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5.16). A closer look at the Greek text reveals references to "good works" lost in translation. In Matt. 26:10, our Saviour praised the woman who anointed Him with very expensive ointment and said she had performed a "noble work," weakened in English to read "a beautiful thing."  Paul, the apostle of unmerited grace and Justification, could write (Rom. 2:6--7), "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life."  In translation we might miss the fact that "well doing" in the Greek is "good work" (agathou ergou). Paul knew the difference between "good works" and "the works of the law." Good works are the evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the justified believer; the works of the law are unable to bring a sinner into a right relationship with God.
As the NT uses the expression, "good works" refers to the transformed life and life-style of the Christian, a person who has been given supernatural life through his re-birth and united to Christ by faith.  It is simply incongruous for such a person, if regeneration and justification are any more than empty words, to remain unchanged.  This is the "newness of life" of which St. Paul spoke and to which our General Confession alludes. The same truth is reiterated in our Post-communion Thanksgiving, "and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in."    
And in those words we get to the bottom line. Our "good works" are not ours anyway. They are not the result of moral striving or spiritual boot-strapping on our part; much less are they fits or spasms of heroic virtue. They are the outward and visible evidence of what God is doing with us, of what He has prepared for us.


Anonymous said...

Fr Hart and Fr Wells,

Great essay, both of you.

Doubting Thomas

Jack Miller said...

Kudos for a most excellent exposition on XII.
May the good works that flow from true obedience and gratitude abound in God's people; who, by God's grace, fully resting in Christ's finished work, bring forth fruit of that trusting faith.

The combined essays of you both on XI and XII clearly show the seamlessness of faith alone and the necessity of good works in true believers.

Thank you...