With your permission, beloved Editor, I feel moved to offer some thoughts to the household of faith upon good works, their nature, extent and use.
First. Their nature. Three things are essential to a good work. First, it must be done from a right principle; secondly, it must be performed according to a right rule; and thirdly, it must be directed into a right end. This principle is love; this rule is the divine command; and this end is the glory of God. These are the essential properties of every good work, and in the absence of either of them no work can be truly a good work, and therefore can not be pleasing in the sight of God; not acceptable to him. Let us consider them separately in their order.
First, Love. Every good work must be wrought in God, and must therefore spring from love; "for God is love." "God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him." Therefore, "Love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God." But "He that loveth not, knoweth not God." So love is the evidence that we have passed from death unto life; (I John 3:14) and it is also the first fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22) Hence the divine Master said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments." Therefore without the love of God it is impossible to keep his commandments; for "love is the fulfilling of the law." Now suppose a mere natural man, whose carnal mind (the only mind he has) is enmity against God, and whose heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, should endeavor to do good works, it must be apparent to all that it would be impossible for his works to have their existence in love to God. How vain and absurd then, to call upon such to engage in a religious life and observe the commandments of Christ.
Secondly, The divine command. No work can be good, unless it has this holy sanction, and is performed according to this righteous rule. "If ye love me, keep MY commandments," says our only Law giver. This absolutely forbids us to keep the commandments of any other, while it lays us under binding and solemn obligations to keep, or strictly obey every commandment of his. "Teaching them (Christ's disciples) to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you," (the apostles). So that not even the apostles themselves, though sitting upon thrones as princes and judges in the kingdom of Christ, are permitted to depart in the least from the "all things" commanded them by the adorable King of saints. How is it, then, that so many things are taught and observed professedly in the name of Christ, which are clearly outside of all things in the apostolic commission, as they who teach and observe them will themselves admit? The apostles have solemnly affirmed that "they gave them no such commandment." (Acts 15:24)
The Lord Jesus himself decides the question, saying, "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." All such vain oblations and dead works the Lord abhors and rejects as reprobate silver, saying, "Who hath required these things at your hands?" The commandments of Jesus are positive enactments; and where there is a positive law, it must be observed according to its provisions. Now suppose a true believer should have a little water sprinkled upon him, or be immersed by one who is outside of Christ's visible kingdom, and hence who has no authority according to the law of Christ's visible kingdom, and hence who has no authority according to the law of Christ to administer his ordinances; or suppose an unbeliever, who has not the love of God in his heart, should be "buried in baptism" by a true servant of Jesus, and received into the gospel church; in either case the act cannot be a good work, because it would not have been performed according to the divine command.
Thirdly, The glory of God. This is the end of every good work. "Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do al to the glory of God." (I Cor. 10:31) "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples." (John 15:8)
The apostle Paul shows that the end of our salvation in Christ is, that we should be "To the praise of the glory of God's grace." (Eph. 1:1-6) And the apostle Peter says, that God hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, "that we should show forth his praise."
Therefore, as to love God and delight in him is the chief good, so to glorify him is the highest and noblest end to which saints and angels can aim in all that they do. This is an aim worthy of the glorious God himself, for the manifestation of his glory is the design of God in all his glorious works, and especially in his most glorious work of salvation, as we have seen. Therefore, the royal psalmist says, "All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee." (Ps. 145:10) Good works, therefore, have their foundation, existence and end in God, and he is their author, working in his children both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Hence a prophet of God's people says, "Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou also hast wrought all our works in us." (Isa. 26:12)
Now suppose a man is religious and engages in religious works, but with some other end than the glory of God in view, as, for instance, that he may escape hell and go to heaven; this is only a selfish aim, and his works cannot therefore be good.
Second, Their extent. Good works belong to the household of faith; for they cannot be produced in carnal nature's barren soil. They are the fruits of the tree of life, but cannot be found upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Or, they are the fruits of the Spirit, and not the works of the flesh. (Gal. 5:19-23) Therefore, those only who are born of the Spirit can perform good works. "These things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they who have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works." (Titus 3:8) Good works are defined in the scriptures to be the "work of faith and labor of love." (I Thess. 1:3; Heb. 6:10) and are therefore limited to those who believe in and love God. Hence the unbeliever, who is an enemy in his mind by wicked works, (Col. 1:21) has no part in good works, and cannot possibly participate in them or perform them.
"First make the tree good, and its fruit will be good," says Jesus, who was a perfect model of good works, and who asks, "How can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruits?" That is not a good work which is not done in obedience to a divine command; and that is no obedience which springs not from love; for attempted obedience without love must arise from selfish, servile fear, and is nothing but abject slavery. But true obedience is that of the heart, and is the filial service of a loving child. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children, and walk in love."
Third, Their use. "I will shew thee my faith by my works." (James 2:18) "Ye shall know them by their fruits." (Matt. 7:16) "If a man love me, he will keep my words." (John 14:23) "And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful." "These things are good and profitable unto men." (Titus 3:8, 14) "For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." (II Peter 1:8-11) "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city." (Rev. 22:14)
"If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love." (John 15:10) "For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister." (Heb. 6:10) "Lord, my goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight." (Psa. 16:2, 3) "For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God; while by the experiment of this ministration they glorify God for your professed subjection unto the gospel of Christ." (II Cor. 9:12, 13)
Now these texts very clearly and connectedly show the use and importance of good works, without which we can neither receive to ourselves nor give to others the assurance of our calling and election. Good works are, therefore, the test of our character, the proof of our love, and the fruit of our vital union with Christ the living Vine. For this reason the Lord says, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." (For,) "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." But, he says again, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." (Matt. 25:34-36, 40, 45)
Therefore, as that is no obedience which does not spring from love, so that it is not love which does not produce obedience; for if the former is only slavery, the latter is mere hypocrisy. Because the Lord says, "He that loveth me not, keepeth not my sayings." (John 14:24) For "This is love, that we walk after his commandments." (II John 6) "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him." "And whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things which are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him." (I john 3:18-24) How eminently useful, then, are good works! and how very important it is that they who have believed in God might be careful to maintain them. For it is only in this way that they can glorify God. "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit." And it is in this way also that the body of Christ, the church, is edified. "Charity edifieth." (I Cor. 8:1) "Follow after charity." (I Cor. 14:1) "Let all things be done unto edifying." (Verse 26) "We do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying." (II Cor. 12:19) "According to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:16)
Finally, we are elected "unto obedience," (I Peter 1:2) and "created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:10) Therefore good works are to the believer in Jesus what good fruit is to the tree – the husbandman selects, plants and nurtures the tree, to the end that it may bear him good fruit. And that tree which bears much good fruit, brings more delight and honor to the husbandman, than the unfruitful tree. So Christ says, "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he (the Husbandman) taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit." (John 15:2)
Therefore, with the apostle let us pray that God would "Make us perfect in every good work to do his will, working in us that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (Heb. 13:21)
I send this, brother Beebe, as I wrote it, without copying. It is imperfect, but I hope it may be useful in stirring up the pure minds of the dear saints. Yours in the good hope through grace.
Elder David Bartley
A Second Feast: pgs. 79-87