Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Good Works?

Westminster Confession of Faith 16.7 may seem to be one of those spots where we can see how mean and anti-human Protestants are:

VII. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.

Most Christians would probably agree with much or most of this. But what about calling all “works done by unregenerate men…sinful”? Don’t we see the foreshadowings of civil ruin here? I mean, don’t we? Look at how those nasty Protestants degrade people and discourage civic cooperation. I don’t know what the result of this position is; but if I had to guess, I’d probably say “modernity.”

The problem is, this isn’t a “Protestant” idea. John Chrysostom says the same thing more than a millennium before in the second of his Homilies on Philippians:

So it is possible to do a good work, from a motive which is not good. And not only is there no reward in store for such an action, but punishment.

Chrysostom says that works done “from a motive which is not good”–that is, that “proceed not from an heart purified by faith”–deserve “punishment”–that is, they are “sinful and cannot please God.”

(If the putative critique leveled above were meant seriously, it would of course betray a complete misunderstanding of what this section means; but that would be a topic for a different time. My real purpose is simply to point out the rather obvious connection between the Protestant view of sin, faith, and good works and earlier views in the history of Christian thought.)


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.