The Westminster Confession of Faith in Plain Language1. Good works are only what God has commanded in the Bible. No one has the right to make up additional “good works” that are not grounded in God’s Word, no matter how good their intentions are or how strongly they believe in them.
2. True good works are the result and proof of authentic saving faith. Through good works, believers show their gratitude to God and encourage their brothers and sisters in Christ. By showing that the Gospel can really change lives, good works provide assurance of salvation and leave enemies with nothing bad to say. By good works, believers glorify God because he alone is responsible for their changed lives through Jesus Christ. And since real good works flow from authentic saving faith, the end result will be eternal life.
3. Believers cannot do good works on their own, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is not a onetime thing—for Christians to have the ability to do good, the Holy Spirit must continue to empower them, to give them the desire and the ability to do good works as he sees fit. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians can use this as an excuse to avoid good works until they feel some special moving of the Holy Spirit. Christians should always take the initiative to act upon the grace that God has already given them.
4. No one is able to go above and beyond what God requires. Even Christians who reach the highest levels of obedience in this life fall far short of what God expects.
5. Our best works can never earn forgiveness or eternal life from God. They are nothing compared to the glory that is to come. And the difference between us and God is so great that nothing we ever do goes beyond his expectations or makes up for the all the sins we have committed. Even when we have done our best, we have only done what we were supposed to do, like servants who refuse to do more than asked. Our works are good only because they come from the power of the Holy Spirit. But because we are only human, they are still sinful, corrupted by our weakness and imperfection. Even our best works cannot stand up under the judgment of God.
6. In spite of this, God accepts our good works through Christ, because he accepts us through Christ. Our works may be sinful and worthy of judgment in God’s sight, but when he sees them, he sees his own Son. So he is happy to accept and even reward our sincere good works, even though they are stained by human weakness and imperfection.
7. Works done by people who are not born again may very well be the same as what God has commanded in his Word. They may even result in a better life for themselves and others. But they still do not come from a heart purified by faith in Christ. They are still not done in the right way—in submission to God’s Word. They are still not done with the right motive—for the glory of God. In other words, they may be good works, but they are still sinful. They cannot please God and they do not give anyone an advantage in God’s eyes. Having said that, it is even more sinful, and God is even more displeased, when unbelievers fail to do good works.