Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Are Good Works Sins? (2)

In the previous post, we saw that, for Francis Turretin, the good works of believers are truly, though not perfectly, good. That post contained the first argument for why we not only can but must say that they are truly good. In the next section, he gives they second reason why we must say that they are truly good: they are pleasing to God.

Most Protestants would acknowledge this truth, but might not want to say it too loudly. Isn’t such an affirmation the straight road to Pelagianism? Doesn’t it compromise gratuitous justification by faith alone? For the mainstream Protestant tradition, the answer is, “Of course not.” A moment’s reflection shows why that is the case: anyone who is a parent knows that it is pleasing when his children walk in the way they have been instructed to walk. A child’s imperfections do not rob his obedience of value in his parents’ eyes. Nor does it mean that the child is accepted in the family on the basis of his obedience. Thus the doctrine of gratuitous justification, adoption, and union with Christ is the foundation for how a believer’s good works are pleasing to God: they please him as a Father, who delights to see his children on the path of life. They do not form the grounds for putting him on the path of life in the first place.

Turretin puts in this way in Institutes of Elenctic Theology XVII.4.XI:

(2) Because these works please God; therefore they are truly good. For what is properly and by itself sin, cannot please him. The passages are obvious (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:4-6; 12:28; Rom. 12:1; 14:18; Phil. 4:18). I confess that the first cause of their acceptance is Christ, in whom we are pleasing to God (Eph. 1:6) because it is rather the person that is pleasing to God and reconciled to him by the Mediator. In this sense, God is said to have had regard for Abel rather than for his sacrifice (Gen. 4:4). But this does not hinder God from being pleased with them [i.e. the works] also, on account of the true goodness which occurs in them (flowing,1 of course, from the regeneration of the heart and the restoration of the divine image). For wherever God beholds his own likeness, he deservedly loves and holds it in honor. Thus not without a cause is the life of believers (regulated according to holiness and righteousness) said to please him.2

Turretin makes several extremely important points here. First, if the works of believers were themselves sin (proprie et per se peccatum), one must not say that they please God, because sin never pleases God. But Scripture teaches that they do please him; therefore, they cannot properly be called sin. And if they are not sin, then they are truly good.

Second, the acceptance of the person precedes the acceptance of the works. As was noted above, the good works of believers do not constitute the grounds of their acceptance with God. Rather, they are pleasing in the context of one’s already having been accepted by God. And how does that occur? It occurs “in Christ.” As Eph. 1.6 has in, we are “blessed…in the Beloved” (ESV). Through union with Christ by faith, we are accepted of God and reconciled to him. He loves his children in Christ before any works have been done. It is persons that are the primary objects of his love.

Nevertheless, the works too are pleasing. The reason for this is that God’s operation upon persons is not only forensic and objective; it is also transformative and subjective. Thus when God redeems someone, he regenerates him and restores the shattered and deformed imago Dei. It is from this restoration–the purified heart–that goodness “flows,” and therefore the works that are a result of the true goodness in the regenerated believer are, Turretin says, truly good and truly pleasing to God (bonitatem…manentem…ex regeneratione cordis, et Imaginis Divinae restauratione).

Turretin’s position is widely represented among the Reformed. So, for example, Westminster Confession of Faith 16.6:

V. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.

VI. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

The notion of “reward” in the above quotation can serve as a point of transition to the next post in the series, for Turretin’s third argument for establishing the true goodness of the works of believers is that “[a] reward is promised to them”; we shall see what Turretin has to say about that in the next installment.

  1. The participle modifies “goodness.”
  2. Institutes, vol. 2, 708; Geiger translation (modified).

By E.J. Hutchinson

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