Article XIV: Of works of supererogation

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

Article XIV: Of works of supererogation
Voluntary works besides, over and above, God’s commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to do, say, We be unprofitable servants.

Hey, guess what? It’s another Article about works! Only this one is about super-works. Supererogation is one of those fancy words you learn in seminary, along with classics such as infralapsarian, deontological, and homoousiontastic. Basically, today’s fancy word is about the desire of some folks to go above and beyond the call in sinful and unhealthy ways.

You know those steps in Rome where people go crawling up on their knees in a tortured way in a desire to get past some real or imagined sin? That’s supererogation. In this line of thinking, when you have done something wrong, saying you’re sorry to God (and even to the other party) is not enough. Back in medieval times, people thought that perhaps God would like them just a bit more if they went overboard in trying to make right after doing wrong.

This was a big deal back in the day. People didn’t get that if you’ve begun to work on repentance (the amendment of life, including the bits about confession), that’s enough. It is enough to repent. There’s no need to do more than that, and this can actually be harmful. The article doesn’t use this language, but I imagine one problem to be “opportunity cost”. If I’ve said I’m sorry and if I worked to correct my wrong, any further time spent on it beyond that is time I could spend doing edifying and profitable things. And I don’t think God wants us to suffer for suffering’s sake by doing painful penance and other over-the-top deeds.

Your faith will inspire you to do good things. Your sins will compel you to amend your life. That is enough. More is not required.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Do you agree that we can go above and beyond in our desire to please God?
  • How do we know what is enough?
  • Is it always wrong to do more than what God commands? Might it be OK to do more than we are commanded?
  • Is supererogation a problem for you? For our church today?

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Image courtesy of flickr user Leo Reynolds.

Previous: Article XIII: Of works before justification
Next: Article XV: Of Christ alone without sin

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3 Responses

  1. Doug Chaplin says:

    Scott, I wonder if you’re setting up “back in the day” as a straw man – as I suspect the Reformers did. I offered a rather different take – although not such different conclusions – in my series on the articles a year or so back.

  2. Cathy Iacobucci says:

    I was once told that if I was asking the question “Lord, is it enough?”, that it probably was NOT enough.

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    Any attempt to pay the cost of our sins is, pretty much by definition, doomed to failure before we start. We do not appreciate the full and complete cost of any one of our sins, as in the Butterfly Effect.

    That attempt to go above and beyond means we do not understand the full cost of our sins, nor do we understand the one solution for our sins. To know Christ means to get up from our knees because we know Jesus has made us worthy to stand before God (lex orandi, lex credendi).

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