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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Good works is not the root but the fruit of our righteousness before God
Text:LD 24 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

From 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 116:1,4,5

Hymn 58:1,2

Psalm 116:7,8,9,10

Psalm 130:2,3,4

Psalm 43:3,4


Read:  Isaiah 64; Philippians 3 – 4:1.

Text:  Lord’s Day 24.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Both Lord’s day 23 and 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism deal with that most fundamental question:  what must we do to be saved?  The heading above these Lord’s Days is “Our Justification” and “justification” means to be declared just or righteous.

We are declared just or righteous.  It is a judgment that is made concerning us.  And this judgment is made, Lord’s Day 23 taught us, not because of anything that we did, but because  of what Christ has done for us.  Lord’s Day 23 taught us that we have sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them and are still inclined to all evil.  But what we could not do, Christ has done for us. His satisfaction, His righteousness and His holiness, are imputed to us, are counted as belonging to us and on that basis we are justified, on that basis we are saved.  And therefore, Lord’s Day 23 taught us, it is through Christ’s work alone that God sees us as righteous.  It is through Christ’s work alone that God sees us as holy.  He grants these things to us as if we had done all that Christ did for us.  Although our hearts are inclined to all manner of evil, God sees us as if we had never sinned.  That’s what the result of justification is:  just-as-if-I’d-never sinned! 

And so we confess that our righteousness before God, our justification, is all of Christ from beginning to end.  And Lord’s Day 23 also taught us that the manner in which the righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness is by faith only.

But now in Lord’s Day 24 we are encouraged to take a closer look at the last word mentioned in Lord’s Day 23, the word only.  For is it indeed true that it is only through Christ that we are righteous before God?  Partly or mostly, perhaps, but only?

In the time of the Reformation, when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, as is the case today, not everyone believed that you are only  justified by faith in Jesus Christ.  This was considered “too easy”, even a dangerous teaching.  For it was thought that if you are justified and saved only because of Christ, that gives you a free license to live as you please; it frees you up to live a sin-filled life without the fear of damnation, for all you have to do is say you are sorry, believe in Jesus and all those sins are washed away!

The Roman Catholic Church did not teach justification through faith in Christ alone.  They taught that through baptism, as well as the Mass, God put some of His righteousness in you, but that you then became justified through how you lived your life.  For the Roman Catholics, therefore, you are made righteous in God’s eyes through a combination of Christ’s works and your own.  He might have started it – but you have to finish it.  And that is the background to Lord’s Day 24, where we are asked,

“But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?”

This question may have been prompted by a debate the Reformed had with the Roman Catholics all those years ago, but it is a question that has not fully gone away.  Whenever we hear the gospel of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone, we are tempted to put on a “yes, but . . .”  Yes, but you need to remember that you still have to do this, you still have to do that.  Yes, but connected to faith is faithfulness – you need to be faithful to God and obey His commands if you want to be saved.  And then we begin to see-saw:  we may be saved by faith alone, but are not the things we do also a part of the equation?

Or you get the opposite extreme, where some say that since we are saved through faith in Christ alone, how you live your life has nothing to do with whether or not you are saved.  Any suggestion that a Christian should live like this or like that is legalism, is falling back into the trap of a pharisaical code of works-based righteousness.

But what is behind this confusion is the place of good works in the order of salvation.  The Bible clearly teaches us that we are justified, are declared righteous by faith in Christ, apart from works.  But while good works do not precede justification, they do flow out of justification.  And that is what I wish to explain further this afternoon.  I preach to you concerning good works and the gospel of our justification through faith in Christ under the following theme:

Good works are not the root but the fruit of our righteousness before God.

1.    Why they can not be the root.

2.    Why they have to be the fruit.

1. Why they can not be the root.

At first glance it does indeed seem like “easy believe-ism” to say that everything that is needed for our salvation was accomplished by Christ, and that all we need to do is accept what He has done for us by faith.  At first glance it also would seem that such a doctrine is a dangerous one, that it would encourage people to remain in their sin, and not to be too serious about a life of holiness.  This charge has been made by many people over the years.

Already when the church was newly established the apostle Paul was faced with such claims by the Judaizers, the ones who taught that righteousness was attained through both keeping the Old Testament law and through the sacrifice of Christ.  It was this that caused Paul to ask, and then answer the question of Romans 6:1,

“What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”

During the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church charged the Reformers with the same thing:  teaching justification by faith alone through Christ alone is dangerous, they said, for it leads to complacency.  It was due to this charge that the Catechism asks in question 64,

“Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked?”

It was also against this charge of the Roman Catholics that article 24 of the Belgic Confession says,

 “It is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life.

The next time the claim that the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, without any merit of our own, led to carelessness and wickedness was made by the Arminians at the Synod of Dort.  In the Rejection of Errors chapter 5, number 6, we can read that the Arminians claimed that,

 “the doctrine of the certainty of perseverance and salvation causes false security and is harmful to godliness, good morals, prayers and other holy exercises.”  (Rejection of errors 6 of chapter 5.)

It is all too easy, people say, and therefore it can not be right.  We can not receive our justification only through faith in Christ, they say.  Our choices and what we do must be a part of the equation.  “Justification by faith in Christ?”  Sure.  But “Justification by faith alone in Christ alone?”  To that people are often not too sure.

But is it really “easy believe-ism” to say that we are justified apart from anything that we do in and of ourselves?  Is it the easy way out? 

When we begin to examine objections to the doctrine of being declared righteous only by a true faith in Jesus Christ, we soon learn that the concern is not for the glory and the holiness of God.  The real concern is not that it makes people careless and wicked.  That is a smoke-screen for what is really the issue.  The real issue for proud and sinful mankind is that our righteousness by faith alone in Christ alone highlights the impossibility of man contributing to his salvation in any way.

Lord’s Day 24 brings this issue to a head in question 62.  Rather than begin with the objection that the teaching of justification by faith apart from works makes us careless and wicked, the catechism asks why this can be the only way to be declared righteous.  And Lord’s Day 24 makes it clear that our good works can not be our righteousness before God or even a part of it because God’s standard is absolute righteousness and perfection, whereas even our best works are unrighteous and imperfect and defiled with sin.  There is nothing that we have done or we can do that we can bring before God’s holy throne and say, “God, thank you for Jesus, thank you for Your part in my justification; now look at my part, my works, and let me be justified also by them.”

This brings us back to the doctrine of total depravity, the doctrine that we are all conceived in sin, are born as children of wrath, are incapable of any saving good, are inclined to evil, are dead in sin, are slaves of sin.  It brings us back to the doctrine that without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit we can do nothing, we can not even reform from our depraved nature or prepare ourselves for its reformation.  (Canons of Dort, chapter III/IV art. 3)  The simple fact of the matter is that good works can not be the root of our justification, or even a part of the root of our justification, for even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

This was the conclusion that the prophet Isaiah came to in chapter 64.  In Isaiah 64 the prophet Isaiah was struggling with the impending judgment that was to fall on Jerusalem.  In his mind he could already see Jerusalem turned into a desolation and the temple burned with fire.  Isaiah struggled with the question of why, and if there was nothing good in and of the people of Judah that should cause the LORD to change His mind, to stop the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from taking place.  But then Isaiah had to acknowledge that he had nothing to bring before the LORD as evidence that Jerusalem deserved anything else.  In verse 5 he said that God’s people had sinned and were in need of salvation.  And then in verse 6 he confessed,

6 But we are all like an unclean thing,

And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;

We all fade as a leaf,

And our iniquities, like the wind,

Have taken us away.

“We are like an unclean thing”, Isaiah admitted.  We are like those lepers of the Old Testament who had to separate themselves from the people of God and shout “Unclean, unclean!” whenever someone came near.  We are not fit to be the people of God, to enjoy fellowship with Him for our sin drives us away.  Indeed so sinful did Isaiah see himself and the people of Israel, that he confessed that even their “righteousnesses” were like “filthy rags”.  Even their best works, even their spiritual obligations, the sacrifices they made, the offerings they gave, the feast days they remembered, were so defiled that they were like filthy rags.  Literally, they were like a garment that was polluted by the monthly discharge of a woman.  Even those “righteous acts” of keeping the law of God were still the outflow of a sinful, fallen nature.

The point of Isaiah 64 is not whether or not their righteousnesses, their observance of God’s law with sacrifices and with feasts etc. were done correctly, in accordance with what the LORD had commanded them.  The point was that these things did not take away sin.  These things instead proclaimed their sin, exposed their lack of true righteousness.

And that is what the apostle Paul also found in the New Testament.  During the time that Paul tried to become righteous through his own works, there was nothing wrong with his zeal nor with his credentials.  He was circumcised on the eighth day, a true covenant child of Israel, he could prove his lineage all the way back to Benjamin, zealous for his people and his religion to the point of persecuting those he considered God’s enemies, and concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.  But all these things, he concluded in Philippians 3:8, he had to count as rubbish when he looked for his righteousness before God.  In fact, literally Paul says, “I count them as dung” as something polluted and unclean before the pure and holy face of God.”  Not even Paul’s best works could count for his righteousness in the sight of God.  Paul might have been impressed with his zeal and his good works, but in the nostrils of God, they stank. 

And that is why our good works can not be the root of our righteousness before God.  That is why our good works can not make even the smallest contribution to our salvation.  Rather, like the apostle Paul, we must confess our total depravity, and our total inability to do any good in and of ourselves, and our total dependence on Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. 

Sinners can only stand before God and be accepted by Him if they are completely free from sin and are fully righteous.  The attempt to be righteous through keeping the law and the attempt to contribute to your righteousness by observing the law and through good works will never work.  Sinners can only stand before God and be accepted by Him through the righteousness that comes from Christ.  And that is what the apostle Paul confessed in Philippians 3:9,

“. . . not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

That’s the only way.  The righteousness which can stand before God’s judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God.  Rather than find that righteousness in ourselves or in the things that we do, we can only find it in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Good works can not be the root, they can not be the cause of our righteousness before God.

But good works are the fruit of our righteousness.  We will see that in our second point.

2. Why they have to be the fruit.

It is not just that Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficient and so God does not need our works in order to declare us righteous; the point is that we have no works that God can use to declare us righteous.  With Isaiah we have to conclude that our righteousnesses are like filthy, polluted and unclean rags, and with Paul we conclude that even our best works are to be counted as rubbish, as unclean dung in the eyes of God.

But that does not encourage us to be careless and wicked, nor is it harmful to the pursuit of godliness.  For while good works can never contribute to our righteousness and justification, they do flow out of our justification.  As answer 6 says,

“it is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

The wonder of God’s work of justification is that when we are justified, we can no longer live to sin.   Although our justification is a legal declaration of us being declared righteous because of what Christ has done for us, it is not separate from the work of sanctification that Christ does in us.  Along with justification is a change in us that breaks the power of sin in our lives.  And then we will live as God’s righteous children.  Then we will want to do good. 

  So when we are justified in Christ, why don’t we keep on sinning?  Because we can not!  Since we have been raised to life, it is impossible that we live the old life that we lived when we were dead in our sins.  When in Jesus Christ we are declared righteous, we will then seek to live righteously.  The more we believe and comprehend our justification in Christ, the stronger our desire to serve and praise God in all our words and works.

And that was also Paul’s response to his confession of being declared righteous only through faith in Christ.  In Philippians 3:12-14 he wrote,

12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.


I press on.  I press toward the goal.  I yearn for a life of godliness, for the fruits of faith to grow in my life.  Our good works are not an attempt to earn our justification, nor are they a burden.  But we do these works as fruits of thankfulness, as the consequence of our justification in Christ.

And these works will even be rewarded.  Not because we have earned anything, but just because God wants to do so.  He is pleased to reward them because He loves us.  And more, we may look forward to the blessings of everlasting life, of perfect wisdom, of full joy, of holiness, peace, and fellowship.  We may look forward to living life forever in the glorious presence of God.

Good works are not the root of our righteousness before God, for we are only made righteous through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  But good works are the fruit of our righteousness before God.  For when we, without any merit of our own, are truly righteous before God, then we share in the righteousness and holiness of Christ.  And then we will bring forth fruits of thankfulness.  Then we will live in love and faithfulness to the praise of His glorious grace.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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