What Makes Our Works Truly Good?

What Makes Our Works Truly Good

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

William Perkins, Of Good Works,
An Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount,
Works, vol. 1, pp. 233-242.

Now, because Christ requires of every minister, besides teaching, the evidence of good works in a godly life, therefore here will I handle this point of good works: first, what a good work is; secondly, the differences of good works; and then the necessity, the dignity, and use of good works.

1. A Good Work Described.

A good work, is a work commanded of God, and done by a man regenerate in faith, for the glory of God in man’s good.

1. Good works must be commanded of God.

First (I say) it is a work commanded of God, for God’s will is goodness itself, and the rule of all goodness in the creature, and every good thing is therefore good, because it is answerable to the will of God. No work therefore can be good, unless it be appointed, ordained, and commanded of God. Men indeed may invent and do many good works, but they shall have no goodness in them, unless they do accord with God’s will. Again, good works must be done in obedience to God. Now, unless God appoints them, the doing of them cannot be any obedience to His will. Thirdly, will-worship, whereby men thrust upon God their own inventions for His service, is everywhere condemned [Deut. 12:32; Col. 2:22–23], and of like nature be all those actions, wherein men themselves do fasten goodness, without the will and appointment of God. This point must be remembered, because the Church of Rome does teach the contrary, that a man may do good works, not required, or appointed by God.74 But the former reasons show this to be false, and the arguments which they bring for their opinion, are nothing but abuse of Scripture, as in these few may plainly appear.

Objection 1. First, they say, the Jews had freewill offerings [Lev. 7:16], which were not commanded in the Word, and yet were acceptable unto God, and so do many nowadays many good works acceptable to God, though not commanded.

Answer. Their freewill offerings were ordained of God, and therefore were acceptable. They were only free, in regard in the time of offering them, but for the manner how, and the places where they must be offered, both these were appointed of God.

Objection 2. Again, they say, Phinehas slew Zimri and Cozbi with God’s approbation [Ps. 106:30–31],75 though he was no magistrate, and therefore works not commanded of God, may be acceptable unto Him.

Answer. Though Phinehas had not any outward commandment, yet he had that which was answerable thereto; to wit, an extraordinary instinct by the Spirit, whereby he was carried to do that act, which was as much, as if God had given him an express commandment. And so we may say of the ministry of sundry ancient prophets, who by extraordinary instinct were moved thereunto, and upon this ground did Elijah slay Baal’s prophets [1 Kings 18:40].

Objection 3. Thirdly, Mary’s act (say they) “in pouring a box of costly ointment on the head of our Savior Christ” [Matt. 26:7], was a good work, and yet there was no commandment for it in God’s Word.

Answer. Mary’s act was a work of confession, whereby she testified her faith in Christ, and so was generally commanded, though not in particular. Again, she was carried thereto by a special instinct of the Spirit, for “she did it to bury him” (as Christ Himself testifies [Matt. 26:12]) because His burial was so speedy after His death, in regard of the approaching of the Sabbath, that they could not embalm Him, as the manner of the Jews was. Now every instinct of God’s Spirit in the conscience of the doer, has the force of a particular commandment.

Objection 4. Fourthly, the Spirit of God (say they) moves every man to any good work that is done, and therefore men need not a particular commandment for every work, for those that are carried by the Spirit, cannot but do well.

Answer. True it is, the Spirit moves men to good works freely, but yet this motion of the Spirit, is in and by the Word of God. At this day, those instincts which are besides the Word, are men’s own fancies, or illusions of the devil. Many other reasons they allege to this purpose, for the justifying their vows of chastity, of regular obedience, pilgrimages, trentalls, [1] and such like, but they are like to these, and not withstanding them all, the truth is this, that for substance, a good work is such a one, as is ordained, appointed, and commanded by God. And here by the way, we may observe, that they are far deceived, who so much commend the times of popery for good works, for the truth is, that all their oblations to images, to monasteries, and to churches, for masses, pardons, and such like, were no good works, but only in their own opinion, for God commanded them not. Now it is the Lord’s revealed will, that must give the goodness to man’s work. “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requireth of thee” (Mic. 6:8).

2. Good works must be done by a regenerate person.

Next I add, done of a regenerate person. The author of a good work, is not everyone in the world, but that man or woman that is a member of Christ, born anew by the Holy Ghost, so Christ here says, “Let your light, etc.,” restraining His speech to the persons of His disciples. True it is, that among Turks and infidels, many a civil man will do works of mercy, of civil justice, and liberality, and will abstain from outward sins, and live orderly. Now these, and such like, though in themselves they be good works, so far forth as they are required by the law of nature, or commanded by God’s Word, yet in an infidel, or an unregenerate person, they are sins, for first, they proceed from a heart which is corrupt with original sin, and with unbelief (for the heart is the fountain of all actions [Matt. 12:35]) and also they are practiced by the members of the body, which are weapons of unrighteousness. Therefore they must needs be like unto water springing from a corrupt fountain, and running through a filthy channel. Secondly, these works are not done for God’s glory, and the good of men. Thirdly, they are not done in obedience to God, according to the rule of goodness, the will and Word of God, and therefore cannot be good works. And this must teach everyone that would do good, to labor for regeneration by the Holy Ghost, that so his person may be good, and then shall his works of obedience be good in God’s sight. For such as the tree is, such will be the fruit: “An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit, nor a good tree evil fruit” (Matt. 7:18). We must therefore labor to be engrafted into Christ, for without Him, we can do no good thing, but being partakers of His grace, we shall “abound with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the praise and glory of God” (Phil. 1:11).

3. Good works must be done in faith.

Thirdly, I add that good works must be done in faith; for faith is the cause of every good work, and without faith it is impossible to do any good work. Now, in the doing of a good work, there is a twofold faith required: first, a general faith, whereby a man is persuaded that God requires of him, the doing of that work which he takes in hand, as when a man gives alms, he must be persuaded it is God’s will he should give alms; and so for other good works, for “whatsoever is not of faith, is sin” [Rom. 14:23], that is, whatsoever proceeds not from this persuasion in the conscience, that it is God’s will that such a thing should be done, or should not be done, is sin. For he that doubts of the thing he does, sins therein, though the thing done be good in itself. Secondly, herein is required justifying faith, whereby a man is persuaded in his conscience, of his own reconciliation with God in Christ. Of this it is said, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). This justifying faith has a double use in the causing of a good work: first, it gives the beginning to a good work, for by justifying faith, Christ with His merit is apprehended, and applied to the person of the worker, and he thereby is united to Christ, who renews the mind, will, and affections of the worker, from whence the work proceeds, and so it is as pure water, coming from a cleansed fountain. Secondly, faith covers the wants that be in good works (for the best work done by man in this life has its wants). Now faith apprehends Christ and His merits, and applies the same unto the worker, whereby his person is accepted, and the imperfection of his work covered in the sight of God; and this must provoke us to labor for faith.

4. Good works must be done for God’s glory.

Lastly, I add the end of a good work; namely, God’s glory in man’s good. The honor of God must be the principal end of every good work. Now God’s honor stands in reverence, obedience, and thankfulness, so that when we do any good work, we must do it in reverence unto God, in obedience unto His commandments, and in token of our thankfulness unto Him for His manifold mercies. The good of man must herein also be respected. The apostle says, “The law is fulfilled in one word, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” [Gal. 5:14]. How can this be, seeing to love the Lord our God is the great commandment of the law? It must therefore thus be understood, that the law of God must be practiced in the love of our neighbor, and not apart by itself. Again, the end of a man’s life, and of all his actions, is to serve God, in serving of man, and by serving of man, to serve God. As when we pray (which is a good work) we must not only respect ourselves, but pray for others, as for the church of God, and for our brethren, as well as for ourselves; yea, and for our enemies. So we must hear the Word, and receive the sacraments, that thereby we may be better able to further our brethren in the way of salvation. This our Savior does here express, saying, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven,” as if He should say, you glorify God, and also cause others to do the same.


First, here we may see what to judge of the works done by papists. It is commonly thought that they abound with good works, but it is not so. Their best works are sins before God, for they fail principally in the main end of well-doing, which is to glorify God, in the good of men. For a papist doing a good work, according to the rules of their religion, does it to satisfy God’s justice, for the temporal punishment of his sins, and to merit heaven by it, and so errs quite from the right end of a good work, respecting therein, his own good, and nothing at all the good of others.

Secondly, hereby we may see for ourselves, how far we come short in our good works, for commonly we fail in the main end thereof. Men spend their days and strength in labor and toil, but all is for themselves, for their own pleasure, their own profit and preferment, without respect to the good of their brethren. Now all such actions wherein men seek themselves only, and not God’s glory in the good of others, be sinful in the doer, though otherwise good in themselves. And therefore we must learn, in all our actions, to aim at the glory of God in the good of men.

2. Two Sorts of Good Works.

Thus we see what a good work is. Now follow the differences of good works. Good works be of two sorts: first, those which God in His Word has directly commanded, as parts of His worship. Such are prayer, thanksgiving, receiving the sacraments, hearing the Word, and relieving the poor; and these are the more principal kinds of good works. The second sort, are actions indifferent, sanctified by the Word and prayer, and done to God’s glory, as to eat, to drink, and such like. For howsoever in themselves they be neither good nor evil, being things neither commanded, nor forbidden, and therefore in respect of the things themselves, may with good conscience be either used, or refused, yet because God has commanded the manner how they must be used, namely, by being sanctified by the Word of God and prayer [1 Tim. 4:5], and the end thereof, to wit, God’s glory, therefore when they are so used, they become good works.

Upon this difference of good works, observe the largeness thereof, how far they extend. There be three estates ordained of God: the church, the commonwealth, and the family. For the preservation of them, there be sundry callings required, some whereof, are prescribed of God, and others left to be appointed by men, as all trades, and such like. Now not only the callings, appointed by God, and the duties thereof, are good works, but even all inferior callings appointed by men, for the good of these three estates; and the duties thereof, be they never so base, if they be sanctified by prayer, and done to God’s glory, are good works. Example. A man is called to be a shepherd, and does willingly accept thereof. Now, though the calling be but base and mean, yet the works thereof being done in obedience to God, for the good of his master, are good works; yea, as good in their kind, as the best works of the highest callings. And the same may be said of all lawful callings, and the works thereof, be they never so base, for God judges not the goodness of the work, by the excellence of the matter whereabout it is occupied, but by the heart of the doer. This point must be learned, for the papists’ conceit does stick fast in men’s hearts, that there are no good works, but the building of churches, and hospitals, the mending of highways, giving of large alms, etc., but we must learn, that every action of a man’s lawful calling, done in obedience to God, for the good of men, is a good work before God. Therefore, every one of us must so walk in our callings, that the duties thereof may be acceptable to God. Again, this will hence follow, that in these our days, we may as well abound in such works as be good indeed, as the papists did in their superstitions. Thus much of the differences of good works.

3. The Necessity, Dignity, and Use of Good Works.

Now more particularly, in the text are further set down three points touching good works: the necessity; the dignity; and the use of good works.

The Necessity of Good Works.

The necessity of them appears by Christ’s commanding of them, saying, “Let your lights so shine, etc.,” for hereby He binds all Christians, after the examples of His disciples, to walk in good works. If it be said, that Christ has freed us from the law, and therefore we are not bound to do good works, I answer, Christ has freed us from the law, in regard of the curse and rigor thereof, but not as it is a rule of Christian obedience.

Question. How far forth are good works necessary to salvation, or to us that do them?

Answer. There be three opinions touching the necessity of good works: first, of the papists, who hold them necessary, as causes of our salvation and justification, but this we have confuted heretofore. Secondly, of some Protestants, who hold them necessary, though not as principal causes (for they say, we are only justified and saved by Christ), yet as conservant causes of our salvation. But the truth is, they are no causes of salvation, neither efficient, principal, nor conservant, nor yet material, formal, or final, as has elsewhere been shown. The third opinion is the truth, that good works are necessary, not as causes of salvation, or justification, but as inseparable consequents of saving faith in Christ, whereby we are justified and saved, or as a way is necessary to the going to a place.

The Dignity of Good Works.

The dignity of good works is expressed in this, that they are called good. Now they are good only in part, not perfectly, as I show thus: such as the tree is, such is the fruit. But everyone regenerate is partly spirit, and partly flesh; that is, in part regenerate, and in part natural and corrupt. This is true of his mind, will, and affections, which are the fountain of all his actions, and therefore the works that proceed thence must needs be answerable; that is, in part corrupt, as they come from nature, and yet good in part, as they come from grace.

Question. But how can God approve of them, if they be evil?

Answer. We must consider good works two ways: first, in themselves, as they are compared with the law, and the rigor thereof, and so they are sins, because they answer not to that perfection, which the law requires. For there be two degrees of sins: rebellions, which are actions flatly against the law; and defects, when a man does those things that the law commands, but yet fails in the manner of doing, and so are man’s very best works sins. Secondly, consider good works, as done by a person regenerate, and reconciled to God in Christ, and so God accepts of them, for in Christ the wants thereof are covered. But here we must take heed of the Romish doctrine, which teaches that good works are so far forth good, that there is no sin in them. Their reasons are many to prove this point, but they have been heretofore confuted.

First, they say, good works have God for their Author, and therefore are perfectly good?

Answer. This were true, if He alone were the Author of them, but man is another author thereof, from whom they take their imperfection.

They say again, that here they are called good, but if they had any sin in them, they should be called evil, for every sin is perfectly evil.

Answer. Where sin is unremitted, it is perfectly evil, but when it is pardoned in our Savior Christ, it is as though it were not.

Thirdly, they object, that if good works be sinful, then they must not be done, and hereupon they say, that by our doctrine men are bound to abstain from all good works.

Answer. That which is evil must not be done, so far forth as it is evil. Now good works are not simply and absolutely evil; they are good in themselves, and in us in part, coming from grace; and therefore they must be done, because God requires them at our hands; and for the imperfection of them, we must pray for pardon to our Savior Christ. And here by the way, we may justly tax the proud doctrine of the papists, who teach, that man may be justified by good works, when as the best works of any man, in this life, are tainted with sin, and are far unanswerable to that perfection, which the law requires [Isa. 64:6]. We must be of a far other mind; namely, that for our best works, God may justly condemn us, because we have not done them as we ought. Therefore Christ bids us say of ourselves, that “when we have done all that we can, we are unprofitable servants” [Luke 17:10].

The Use and End of Good Works.

The use of good works is here set down by our Savior Christ, to glorify God. This is not the whole end of good works; and therefore I will propound the same more fully, out of other places of Scripture, for Christ here only propounds that end of good works, which concerned His intended purpose.

The use and end of good works is threefold: either concerning God, or ourselves, or our brethren.

Concerning God.

As good works concern God, they have three uses: first, they serve as means whereby we give unto God testimony of our homage, and obedience unto His commandments. For by creation, preservation, and redemption, He is our Lord and our God, and so prescribes laws for us to keep, in which regard, we owe homage unto Him, which, that we may show forth and testify, we must walk in good works, as He in His Word has commanded us. Secondly, they serve to be tokens of our thankfulness unto God, for our creation, redemption, and manifold preservations, both in soul and body. Thankfulness indeed, is shown in word, but yet true thankfulness stands in obedience, and our obedience is shown by doing good works. And therefore the apostle Paul exhorts us, “to give up our bodies, as holy and acceptable sacrifices unto God” (Rom. 12:1). Thirdly, they serve to make us followers of God. We are commanded “to be holy, as he is holy” (1 Pet. 1:15), and to put in practice the duties of love one towards another, “as the Lord loved us” [Eph. 5:1–2]. Therefore we must walk in the duties of the moral law, that therein we may imitate God. “He which hath this hope purgeth himself, as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Concerning Ourselves.

Secondly, the use of good works in regard of ourselves, is fourfold especially: first, they serve to be outward testimonies of the truth of our faith and profession, proving that the grace of our hearts is not in hypocrisy, but in truth and sincerity. And for this cause, “Abraham is said to have been justified by works” [James 2:21], because his works did testify that his faith was true and sincere. For where the fire of grace is, there it cannot but burn; and where the water of life is, it cannot but flow and send out the streams thereof, in good works.

Secondly, they serve to be signs and pledges of our election, justification, sanctification, and of our future glorification. As we know a tree to live by the fruit and bud which it brings forth, so by keeping a continual course in good works, a man is known to be in Christ, and to have true title to all His benefits. Therefore when the apostle wills men to “give all diligence to make their calling and election sure” [2 Peter 1:5–6], he propounds certain virtues, wherein they ought to walk, as being the most evident tokens of election, that we have in this life.

Thirdly, they serve to make us answerable to our holy calling, for everyone that professes the gospel, is called to be a member of Christ, and a new creature, whose duty is to bring forth good works: “Walk worthy of the vocation whereunto you are called, with all humbleness of mind, meekness, etc.” (Eph. 4:1–2); and “Ye are the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus, unto good works, which God hath ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Now this is a most excellent thing, for a man to be answerable to his calling. When David was a shepherd, he kept his father’s sheep, and lived as a shepherd, but when he was called to be a king, “he behaved himself like a king, in governing God’s people” [Ps. 78:72]. And so every Christian ought to do, being a new creature, he must walk as God’s child, and testify his vocation by showing forth the virtues of Him that has called him (1 Peter 2:9).

Fourthly, good works serve to be a way, in which we are to walk, that so we may receive the mercies of God promised to His children, and escape the judgments threatened against sinners, for God’s Word is full of most sweet promises unto the obedient, and of terrible threatenings against rebellion and iniquity. Now a man by walking in good works, eschews the paths of wickedness, wherein “God’s judgments light” [Rom. 3:16], and holds the ways of righteousness, wherein God’s blessings are scattered (Prov. 3:17).

Concerning Others.

Thirdly, the end of good works, in regard of our brethren, is principally this, that by our example in well doing, we may win some unto God, and keep others in the obedience of the truth, and prevent offences, whereby many are drawn back. The contagion of a bad example, especially in men of superior place, is such, that it will not only cast their own souls to hell, but also draw many with them. When Jeroboam the king sinned, “he caused Israel to sin” (1 Kings 15:34). Therefore we must carefully look to all our ways, in regard of others, and so live according to Christ’s commandment in this place, that others seeing our good works, may be won to the truth, and so glorify God which is in heaven. And thus we see the ends of good works.

Now considering good works be of such excellent use, we are hereby admonished to exercise ourselves therein, with all diligence, for hereby we benefit our brethren, we help ourselves, and we glorify God. Neither must any man’s poverty hinder him from this duty, for not only alms-deeds, and large gifts to churches, and highways, are good works, but also the special duties of every man’s lawful calling, done in faith, to the glory of God, and the good of men, be the calling never so base, by the doing whereof, in faith and obedience, he may get sure testimony of his election. This exhortation is most needful, for so soon as men have occasion to commit any sin, then they shake off the yoke of all obedience, as there were no way of good works to be walked in. The papists indeed make the merit of justification, and life everlasting, the end of good works, but that has been sufficiently confuted heretofore.

[1]. Trentalls: a set of daily prayers prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church.


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