Works: what are they good for?

The twelfth Anglican article is one of several dealing with that hot topic of the Reformation, the relationship of faith and works. In the previous two posts I’ve noted my view that Paul is not, in fact, talking about the same things as the Reformers, and that view inevitably forms the backdrop to my comments.

XII . Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

It seems that the Anglican Reformers are worried that if people accept the idea that nothing we do can earn God’s favour (outlined in the preceding articles), then they may feel there’s not much point in trying to do good. Because they have collapsed Paul’s very specific “works of the Law” into generic “good works” they were able to find a similar view opposed in their reading of Paul:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? (Romans 6:1-2 NRSV)

For Paul this is largely a rhetorical strategy; for the Reformers it seems to be a real fear. Once you’ve stressed, as they did (articles XII and XIII are really the wrong way round) that good works can’t earn God’s favour, and in fact, aren’t really good at all, it can be difficult to assert the place of them in Christian life. Insisting on their uselessness before conversion, they have a harder task to make them useful after conversion – and, we have to remember, that conversion is largely theoretical. Their experience is framed by a Christian commonwealth in which most works accomplished by most people come after (infant) baptism.

However, we may be grateful the Anglican reformers avoided the error of, for example, the statement of the Westminster Confession, that “Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word”. Instead they allow more attention to be paid to the art of moral discernment and judgement as itself a gift of the Spirit, and the work of the biblically informed mind. The Anglican Reformers did not believe that for a thing to be good or right it had to be commanded in Scripture.

Despite the apparent wording of the article, it is far less the case in scripture that good works come naturally to those who have faith. It is rather more the case that, living by the gracious love of the covenant God, the people of God seek to live lives of loving faithfulness in return. Practices of prayer, acts of love and spiritual disciplines are about how a person cultivates their life so that what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit might grow.

Paul, at least as I read him, believes that faith implies and encompasses faithfulness, and that the Spirit engenders and empowers virtuous character and good deeds. We can be thankful that the article affirms that right faith and righteous living are meant to go hand in hand, even if the means by which it gets there, and the way it expresses it, are rather strange. The mystery is that anyone ever thought (or more likely were thought to think) otherwise.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)