By Ryan N. Danker
Wesley Theological Seminary
Article X (Articles of Religion)–Of Good Works
Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit.
Article X (Confession of Faith)–Good Works
We believe good works are the necessary fruits of faith and follow regeneration but they do not have the virtue to remove our sins or to avert divine judgment. We believe good works, pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through and by them faith is made evident.
Wesleyans of all stripes have always been taught that we are saved by faith. We are both justified (pardoned) by faith and even sanctified (made like Christ) by faith. All of this is God’s gift. We can’t earn it. It all comes from the overabundant love of the God who transforms lives. Salvation is offered, not earned. Yet at the same time, we’re told that works still have a place in the Christian life. But what place?
Following in the footsteps of Anglicans who had gone before him, Wesley believed that salvation was itself a gift, but he was also aware that the Christian life looked differently, and that it mattered that it looked differently. The Christian life is a life that mirrors the faith that is the only condition of salvation. That’s essentially why these works are referred to as good.
Much of this is a balancing act because of the excessive way that both works and faith alone have been abused in the past. Relying solely on our own works is a denial of both our need for salvation (the fact that we’re sinners) and the giftedness of salvation itself (it’s God’s work and not ours). Put another way, if you could earn your own salvation by doing good deeds, there is no need for the cross of Jesus. On the other extreme, however, is the claim that all we need is faith whether or not this faith produces a change in one’s life. At a basic level, one has to ask if such a faith is actually real, and it’s a good question. So how do faith and works go together?
Wesley answered this question by affirming the statement that we are saved by faith alone (faith is the only condition of receiving salvation), but then he reminded the early Methodists that faith is never really alone. True faith, true trust in the promises of Christ, faith in Christ’s work on the cross, produces results and results that are good. These good results, or works, spring from true faith naturally and form the backbone of a Christian life. But in and of themselves, they don’t guarantee salvation. Rather, they stand as signs of what God is doing in our lives.
At the same time, good works are a part of the process of sanctification in a way that they are not a part of our initial justification. While sanctification, or the process whereby we become more and more like Christ, is itself a gift just like justification, good works contribute to our being made whole. They work, however, not as things we do to earn God’s favor, but as means by which we co-operate with God’s grace.
So much of the Christian life from a Wesleyan perspective is about our willingness to trust God and his promises and to respond to his embrace. True, the Christian life is an active engagement with God’s grace, but at its core it’s a sure confidence that what God has promised to do, he will accomplish in us as we, by grace, respond to his holy love. Good works are a part of this response. And, as we co-operate with God in whatever work he has for us to do we are changed, we are transformed. Note, however, that it’s not the work itself that does the transforming. Again, that’s God’s doing and not ours.
In the end, good works are a sign of our relationship with Jesus. Think of it like you would other human relationships (without stretching the analogy too far). Whether a friendship or the connection between a husband and wife, our relationships change us. Our encounters with others have that effect. But the people with whom we spend our lives influence us most. We almost inadvertently take on some of the characteristics or qualities of those we admire. We emulate them to an extent. In the best of these relationships we mirror to one another ways in which we might become better people. So what might it mean to be in a vital and trusting relationship with Jesus? It means, in part, that we will begin to take on his characteristics. As we spend time with him, we will become more and more like him. His holy love and the empowering grace of the Spirit will begin to change us more and more. And the result? What better name can we give it than a truly good work?