It absolutely amazes me the number of individuals who argue that works of faith and good deeds justify them before God. While I have 1000 points that can be argued to the biblical teaching of justification, I stand befuddled that so many people actually believe that they live a life so pleasing to God that He takes note and “credits their obedience” as justification.

Peeling through my resources I came across Dr. Edward’s short to-the-point essay on the matter of good works… so enjoy.

Jonathan Edwards:

That those who are God’s workmanship are created in Christ Jesus to good works; or, in plainer terms, all those who belong to God, and are created anew by His Spirit, are enabled by virtue of that new creation to perform good works. In pursuance of this proposition, I will show —

1. What good works are.

2. What are the qualifications of them.

3. Why they must be done.

4. Apply all.

I. That we may understand WHAT IS MEANT BY GOOD WORKS, we must know that there are habits of grace, and there are acts and exertments of grace; and these two are different from one another, because these acts flow from those habits. These acts are two-fold, either inward or outward. The inward are such as these — a fear and reverence of the Almighty, a love of God and all goodness, and a love of our neighbours (which is called the work and labour of love, Hebrews 6:10), which, though they be not outwardly acted, yet are properly the works of the soul, for the not producing them into outward action hinders not their being works. For the mind of man may as properly be said to work as the body; yea, if we consider the true nature of things, we may rightly assert that the soul is the principal worker in man, and that all the outward exertments of virtue in the body flow from the mind of man, and take thence their denomination. These outward acts of grace which are exerted by the members of the body, and are apparent in the practices of holy men, are the good works generally spoken of in the Scripture. They are no other than visible exertments and actual discoveries of the inward graces before mentioned. Thus our reverencing of God is discovered by our solemn worshipping Him, and that in the most decent and humble manner. Our faith in Him, and love to Him, are showed by our readiness to do His will and obey all His commands. It is true good works in general comprehend all works morally good, whether they be adjusted to the law of nature or the revealed law; but I shall chiefly and principally consider good works as they are conformable to the revealed rule of the gospel. And so I proceed to the —

II. Thing I undertook, viz., to show WHAT ARE THE QUALIFICATIONS OF THESE GOOD WORKS, that is, what is absolutely required in these works to make them good. I shall speak only of those qualifications which are requisite in evangelical good works, namely, such as are necessary to eternal salvation.

1. In a good work it is requisite that the person who doth it be good. By which I mean not only that he be inwardly good and righteous, according to that of our Saviour, make the tree good and his fruit good (Matthew 12:33); but I understand this also, that the person who performs good works be one that is reconciled to God; for if the person be not accepted, the work cannot be good. It is said, “The Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Genesis 4:4). First unto Abel, and then to his offering. The sacrificer must be accepted before the sacrifice.

2. As the works are good because of the person, so both the person and works are good because of the righteousness of Christ, in whom God is well pleased. “He hath made us acceptable to the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). What we do is favourably received as we are considered in Christ. By virtue of our relation to Him, who is our Righteousness, our performances are accounted righteous. This qualification of a good work the devout Mr. Herbert assigns, saying, “It is a good work if it be sprinkled with the blood of Christ.”

3. A good work in the gospel sense and meaning is a work done by the grace of God and the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

4. It must be done in faith, for the apostle tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), and, consequently, as he adds in another place, “what is not of faith is sin.”

5. In all actions that are really good there must be lawful and right means used. Acts of justice and honesty must be clone by ways that are lawful and good. We must not be just among ourselves by being unjust to others. I must not steal that I may be charitable to the poor. I must not promote the best cause either by persecution or by rebellion. Though it be God’s cause, it ought not to be fought with the devil’s weapons.

6. Good works must be adjusted to a right rule; they must be according to the will and commandment of God. They must not be after our own inventions, but according to this Divine command (Micah 6:8). That is good which God requires.

7. Every good work must proceed from a right principle; and by a right principle I mean these following things —

(1) That our works proceed from sufficient knowledge. No action done ignorantly is good. He that acts without knowledge cannot be said to act morally, much less Christianly. We must first know that what we do is our real duty, and we must also understand why it is so. Religion must not be blind; reason must always go first, and carry the light before all our actions, for the heart and life cannot be good if the head be not enlightened. The understanding must make way for the will. Which brings me to the next particular.

(2) Good works must proceed from a free and voluntary principle. As he that acts ignorantly, so he that acts unwillingly cannot be said to act well. To the will is to be imputed whatsoever is ill or well done by us. There is nothing good or bad but what is matter of choice and consultation.

(3) With the understanding and will must be joined the affections. And this includes in it these following things —

(a) Integrity of heart. As servants are bid to discharge their duty in singleness of heart (Colossians 3:22).

(b) An entire love of God is required in every good work. All our actions must flew from this principle, for if we love not God, we cannot do the works of God.

(c) There must be an entire love, not only of God, but of goodness itself, and the intrinsic excellency and perfection that is in it. There must be a delight and pleasure in the ways of God, and in all those good and virtuous actions which we do, and that for their own sakes.

(d) Not only a love of God, but a fear of Him, must be a principle from whence all our holy actions are to proceed, a fear of acting contrary to the purity of God’s nature, a fear of displeasing and offending Him. Joseph acted out of this excellent principle when he cried out, “How shall I do this wickedness and sin against God?”(e) Humility is another principle from whence we must act. Every good and righteous man lays his foundation low; he begins his works with a submissive and self-denying spirit; he proceeds with lowliness of mind, and a mean opinion of himself, and of all he can do.

(f) Alacrity, joy, and cheerfulness, and so likewise a due warmth, zeal, and ardency, are other principles from whence our good works should spring. We must with gladness undertake and perform them, and we must serve the Lord with a fervency of spirit (Romans 12:11).

8. This is another indispensable qualification of a good work, that it be done for a good end. As there are fountains or principles of actions, so there are ends or designs belonging to them all. You must necessarily distinguish between principles and ends if you would speak properly and significantly. Fountains and springs of actions are those from whence the actions flow; ends and aims are those to which the actions tend. There is a vast difference between these. I have told you what the former are; now I will set before you the latter. The right ends which ought to be in all evangelical actions (for of such I intend chiefly to speak) are these three — our own salvation, the good of others, and in pursuance of both God’s glory. This was it which spoiled and blasted the most solemn and religious duties of the Pharisees. When they did their alms, they sounded a trumpet before them, that they might have glory of men (Matthew 6:2). Whey they prayed, they did it standing in the corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men (Matthew 5:5). Likewise when they fasted, they disfigured their faces, that they might appear unto men to fast (Matthew 5:16). Yea, all their works they did to be seen of men (Matthew 23:5). All was to gain esteem and reputation, all was for applause and vainglory. This wrong end and intention made all they did sinful. When I say all our works are to be done for the ends above named, I do not by this wholly exclude all other ends. As two of the great aims of our actions, namely, our own happiness and that of others, are subordinate to the third, God’s glory, so there are other lesser and inferior ends which are subordinate to all these. He evidences this by such ways as these — He never lets these temporal things stand in competition with, much less in opposition to, those which are greater and higher. He never so seeks his own as not to seek the things which are Jesus Christ’s. He doth not one with the neglect of the other.

9. To comprehend all, a good work is that which is done in a right manner. Good actions are such as have good circumstances and qualities, and evil actions are such as have undue and evil ones.

III. Having instructed you in the nature of good works, I am to show you, in the next place, HOW REASONABLE A THING IT IS THAT WE SHOULD TAKE CARE TO DO THESE GOOD WORKS. I will present you with those arguments and motives which I apprehend are most powerful to incite you to this. First, I might mention the reason in the text, where first we are said to be created unto good works, that we might walk in them. This is the very design of the spiritual creation or new birth, that we should exert all these acts of piety and religion which I have before mentioned. It is the purpose of heaven in regenerating us that we should walk in the ways of holiness, and conscientiously perform all the parts of our duty towards God, towards men, and towards ourselves. Again, it is said, we are said to be created in Christ Jesus to this. This is the end of Christ’s undertakings. “He gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). Moreover, it is added that God hath before ordained these works. This was the good will and pleasure of the blessed Trinity in their eternal consults before man was made. Why then should we, as much as in us lieth, frustrate the purpose and decree of heaven concerning us I Further, this (as the apostle saith of sanctification) is the will of God (1 Thessalonians 4:3). This is that which is commended to us by the example of the saints; they have all been zealous practisers of good works. This is the grand evidence of the truth of our inward graces. This is that whereby you show your thankfulness to God for your election and redemption. I add, this is that which is the great ornament and lustre of our Christian profession; this will set forth and commend our religion to the world. But there are these two arguments yet behind which I will more amply insist upon — good works are necessary to salvation; good works glorify God.

1. Though our good works are conditions of salvation, yet they are not conditions as to God’s election, for He decreed from eternity out of His free will and mercy to save lost man, without any consideration of their good works. Predestination to life and glory is the result of free grace, and therefore the provision of works must be excluded. The decree runs not thus, I choose thee to life and blessedness on supposal or condition of thy believing and repenting; but thus, I freely choose thee unto eternal life, and that thou mayest attain to it, I decree that thou shalt believe and repent.

2. Though faith and obedience be conditions of happiness, yet the performance of them is by the special help and assistance of a Divine and supernatural power. God, who decrees persons to good works, enables them to exert them.

3. Nor are they conditions in this sense that they succeed in the place of perfect obedience to the law which the covenant of works required. I am convinced that no such conditions as these are consistent with the new covenant, the covenant of grace. Works, if they be considered as a way leading to eternal life, are indeed necessary to salvation; they are necessary by way of qualification, for no unclean thing shall enter into heaven. Graces and good works fit us for that place and state; they dispose us for glory. We are not capable of happiness without holiness. It may be some will not approve of saying, We are saved by good works, but this they must needs acknowledge that we cannot be saved without them; yea, we cannot be saved but with them. Some are converted and saved at the last hour, at their going out of the world; but even then good works are not wanting, for hearty confession of sin, and an entire hatred of it, sincere and earnest prayers, hope and trust in God, desire of grace, unfeigned love, and zealous purposes and resolves, all these are good works, and none can be saved without them. In the next place, good works are for God’s glory, therefore they must be done by us. As I have showed before that it is a necessary qualification of good works that they be done out of an intention to glorify God, so now it will appear that this is one great reason why we are obliged to perform them, viz., because thereby God is glorified. “Let your light so shine before men,” saith our Saviour, “that others seeing your works may glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The light of our works came from God, and it must be reflected to him again.

(1) Because of the wicked, that you may stop their mouths, and take away all occasion of speaking evil against you. Again, for the sake of good men, we are obliged to be very careful how we walk; we are concerned to do all the good we can, that they may not be scandalized and hurt by our evil examples, and consequently that God’s name may not be dishonoured thereby. By our holy and exemplary lives, we may be serviceable to stir up the hearts of the godly to praise God on our behalf. “They glorified God in me,” saith the apostle, of those Christian Jews who took notice of his miraculous conversion, and of his extraordinary zeal in preaching the faith (Galatians 1:24).

IV. By way of inference, from what hath been said of good works, we may correct the error of the Antinomians, we may confute the falsehood of the Roman Church, we may make a discovery of other false apprehensions of men concerning good works; we are hence also obliged to examine whether our works be good; and lastly, if we find them to be such, we must continue in the practice of them.

1. What I have delivered on this subject is a sufficient check to the Antinomian error, viz., that because Christ hath satisfied for us, therefore there is no need of good works; Christ’s obedience serves for ours. What need we do anything since He hath done all? And all this is conformable to the doctrine of our blessed Lord and Saviour, who tells us that He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it, and make it more complete and perfect. By His doctrine and practice He taught the world that the moral law obligeth the faithful under the evangelical dispensation, and that obedience to the former is not opposite to the grace of the latter. He constantly promoted good works and holy living, and bid His disciples show their love to Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15). You see then how fondly they discourse who say that, because Christ hath done and suffered all things for man’s redemption, therefore there is nothing left for us to do. Indeed, we have nothing to do that can further our salvation by way of merit, but we have something to do whereby we may show our thankfulness for Christ’s undertakings; we have a great deal to do whereby we may discover our obedience to the Divine commands and injunctions. Though good works and obedience are not conditions of justification, yet they are of salvation; they are requisite in the person who is justified, although they are wholly excluded from justification itself. Or we may say, though they do not justify meritoriously, yet they do it declaratively, they show that we are really of the number of those who God accounteth just and righteous.

2. The falsehood of the Romanists is hence confuted. They cry out against us, as those who utterly dislike, both in doctrine and practice, all good works. They brand us with the name of Solifidians, as if faith monopolized all our religion. Indeed, all that profess the reformed religion affirm that faith is the root of all graces, that Divine virtue is the basis and foundation of all good works; this they maintain, and have good reason to do so; but still they hold that good and holy works are indispensably requisite in Christianity, and that no man can be excused from performing them, and that those whose lives are utterly devoid of them have no right faith and no true religion. This is our unanimous belief, profession, and doctrine, and the Papists are maliciously reproachful when they accuse us Of the contrary.

3. From what hath been said, we may discover the wrong notions and apprehensions which most men have of good works. I will instance more particularly in charity, which is eminently called a good work, but there is a great and common mistake about it. And so as to other good works, all understanding men agree that they ought to be done, but they greatly mistake what good works are. They think if they do the outward acts of religion they do very well; if they fast and pray, and hear God’s Word, and receive the eucharist; if they perform the external acts of justice and charity, their doings cannot but be good and acceptable, and they need look after no more. They never consider whether their fasting and praying and other exercises of devotion and piety proceed from God’s grace and Holy Spirit in them, whether they be accompanied with faith, and be the result of good and holy principles, and be done for good ends, and in a good manner. Alas! these and the like things are not thought of. This discovers the gross mistakes in the world.

4. Then you are really concerned to examine your lives and actions, and to see whether you be not of the number of the mistaken persons.

5. When you have examined the true nature of good works, then urge upon yourselves that you are indispensably obliged to do them. Being thoroughly persuaded of the necessity of them, press the practice of them on yourselves and on others.That you may successfully do so, observe these four plain and brief directions —

1. Beg the assistance of the Spirit. These are no mean and common works which I have set before you as that duty. They require great strength and power to exert them.

2. Study the Scriptures. There, and there only, you will find instructions for the performing of works acceptable to God.

3. Set before you the example of the saints, for by viewing of them you will not only learn what to do, but you will be taught not to be weary in well doing.

4. Redeem and improve the time. Fix it on your thoughts that you have a good deal of work to do, but your time to do it in is short and soon expiring.

(J. Edwards, D. D.)