Article XIII: Of works before justification

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XIII: Of works before justification.
Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

Seriously? We have to talk about works and faith some more? (Don’t look now, but it’s coming tomorrow too!) Clearly the issues of works vs. faith were a big deal in the 16th century. Why else would the topic get a bunch of Articles? Have a look at yesterday’s post to read some ramblings on works vs. faith.

Today’s Article takes a bold line: works done before justification “are not pleasant to God”. It seems harsh, but to argue the opposite claim might allow one to suggest that you can earn your way into God’s good graces apart from life in Christ. What the Article is saying is that even though you might be “a good person”, without Christ you are toast. More specifically, you are toast that is burnt badly, forever.

There is some relevance to the 21st century. I hear quite often these days, “She is a good person, but she isn’t Christian” or “He is a good person, but he doesn’t need to come to church to find God.” The Article says something to the contrary. I’m ambivalent on this one. I think it’s hard to make a biblical case that God takes no pleasure in good works done by those who are not Christians. Why wouldn’t God find favor with someone who feeds the hungry or with a Muslim who, for example, protects Christians?

For me, it is adequate to state something along these lines: 1. Jesus Christ makes salvation possible for the whole world. 2. In Christ, we can attain salvation. 3. It is the duty of Christians to share our faith with others, inviting them to join us on our pilgrimage. 4. I have enough to do working out my own salvation; I do not need to declare the damnation of others. 5. Christians who spend their energy declaring who is and who isn’t saved would do well to read what Jesus has to say about judging others.

The intent of the Article is clear: you can’t get on God’s good side apart from participation in the life of Jesus Christ. As far as that goes, I can find no theological or scriptural reason to object strongly. However, I find it unedifying to declare that good things done by non-Christians are always possessed of “the nature of sin”.

We Christians should spent most of our time inviting, not damning. We should be celebrating, not declaring. I’m not saying we can’t take a stand, but I am suggesting that salvation is a mystery that is beyond easy answers.

As for me, I intend to celebrate good works when I see them, regardless of the faith or even of the motive of the one who has done a noble act.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Can someone be a “good person” without Christ?
  • Is it necessary to say that others are not saved in order to claim our salvation?
  • From your reading of the bible, does it seem that God finds no pleasure in works apart from those done by Christians?
  • Can something be a sin if done by one person, and that same act be holy when done by another?

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Previous: Article XII: Of good works
Next: Article XIV: Of works of supererogation

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1 Response

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    “Can something be a sin if done by one person, and that same act be holy when done by another?”

    One of the marks of mathematics as it matured was the ability to substitute variables for specific quantities. For example, the Egyptians knew a triangle with sides of 3 units, 4 units, and 5 units resulted in a triangle that you could use when surveying to create a right angle at the corner of a building. It was Pythagoras, a later Greek, that expressed this as the Pythagorean Theorem using variables to stand in for the specific length sides of the triangle.

    For the pondering point of Scott, I needed to remove the variables and introduce specific values. Otherwise, I have trouble with the question.

    If I intentionally kill another person, it is murder. If Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators had been successful in killing Hitler, would they have been murderers?