Even Your Best Works Aren’t Part of Your Righteousness (HC LD 24, QA 62-64)

Would you consider two verses for a moment? The first is Deuteronomy 27:26, “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” The second is Galatians 3:10 where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” Think about those verses.

God has given us a law to follow. We can sum up that law pretty easily: love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love others as yourself. As Paul said, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). God demands that we love perfectly. And this command to love perfectly is further defined by the Ten Commandments. The first four define how we love God, and the remaining six overflow from the first four; they explain how we are to love others. And each of the Ten Commandments gives us something to put off and something to put on. For example, the seventh commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery.” We are to put off all lust, covetousness, unchastity, sexual immorality, sensuality, and the like. We are to then put on purity, chastity, holiness, and righteousness in our thoughts, desires, gestures, words, and behaviors (HC 108-109). Remember, each of the Ten Commandments tells us wicked things to put off and righteous things to put on by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Now, back to Deuteronomy 27:26 and Galatians 3:10. Think about this phrase in light of the Ten Commandments and God’s command to love perfectly. Paul said, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the law, and do them.” So if you or I fail to love perfectly as God demands of us, we are actually cursed by God. That’s a sobering thought. If we stumble at any point, we are cursed. This is the Covenant of Works in which God says do this perfectly and live; don’t do this at any point, and die.

Most people are trying to be good people and think of themselves as pretty good people, at least good enough. Many people believe they are accepted and loved by God because, by their self-assessment, their good works eclipse their bad works. They are not perfect, of course, but they are self-righteous.

Asbury.edu posted an article titled “Wesleyan-Holiness Theology.” In this article, Asbury University claims to follow John Wesley’s teaching on entire sanctification. The article said the following:

Unlike the Reformers, who had taught that sanctification only occurs at death, Wesley argued that he could see no reason why it could not occur ten, twenty, or even thirty years before death. Certainly, he said, there is no biblical evidence that would lead one to think otherwise. Though he never himself claimed to be entirely sanctified (he believed that claiming it was a fair sign that one was not so), Wesley recorded the experiences of others whom he had no doubt were delivered from all sin and filled entirely with the pure love of God. [1]     

John Wesley claimed to have met people who were completely sanctified and without sin. This would mean that everything they did was entirely pure, holy, and righteous before the Lord. This would mean that, in this life, they no longer had any sinful thoughts, words, or actions. This would mean that they had been completely conformed to Christ. What about Philippians 1:6? The completion of God’s good work of grace in us comes at the day of Jesus Christ. Correct? I would call Wesley’s idea of entire sanctification poison. Drink enough of it, you die in your self-righteousness. Every day we are in need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  

Heidelberg 62 asks, “But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God or at least a part of it?” Christians do good works by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. They are not good works because they are inherently perfect. They are good because they are done in solidarity with Christ who alone is good. They are done by the power of the Holy Spirit and our Father accepts them, not because they are without sin, but because they are done in union with Christ who is without sin. Why aren’t our good works even a part of our righteousness before God? First, because Christ is the entirety of our righteousness. But also because of what Heidelberg 62 answers:

Because the righteousness which can stand before God’s judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

Are you connecting the dots? God only accepts moral perfection of thought, word, and deed. If original sin remains, a person cannot completely obey God’s commands. Unlike our glorious Savior Jesus Christ, in this life, even our best works are still tainted or corrupted by sin. We truly love God, but our love is imperfect and not what it will be when our Lord returns. We truly love others, but our love is imperfect and not what it will be when our Lord returns. How could entire sanctification be true if we are still in our bodies of sin and not yet glorified? What did Paul mean when he said:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Rom. 7:24–25)

Paul didn’t say “Wretched man that I was.” He said, “Wretched man that I am.” He was justified, but he was also still wretched. He was delivered but still awaiting his entire sanctification at his death. Yet he also did good works by God’s grace and Holy Spirit because he was united to Christ by faith alone and was accepted and loved by God.

God does not justify us and then tell us to get to work to keep ourselves saved. He doesn’t impute to us the righteousness of Christ through faith and then tell us that’s only part of it and that we need to get to work to do the rest of it. We can’t add to Christ’s righteousness. All our works, even our best ones, are still corrupted by sin. They are accepted by God though. How? God is pleased with our good works and accepts them because He produces them in us and because we do them in union with Christ His perfect Son.

As we continue in the tiring struggle to everlasting life, we must continue to remember Isaiah 64:6 alongside the gospel of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Isaiah said, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” We are not inherently righteous. Our acts are not inherently righteous. Christ is righteous, and our good works are good because the Holy Spirit is acting in us and we do them by faith in solidarity with Christ. And as Heidelberg 63 says, our reward for our good works is “not earned; it is a gift of grace.”

Some may ask, “Well, if good works aren’t part of our righteous standing before God, people won’t do them. They will live unrighteous lives instead.” I think this is one reason some professing Christians embrace false doctrines like entire sanctification. Where’s the motivation for holiness? But see, they are missing a huge truth. God’s grace, love, and Spirit motivate holiness, not the law. The law can describe holiness but can’t motivate it. Heidelberg 64 says, “It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.” In other words, God grants us His sovereign and saving grace which inevitably sanctifies us. Grace does not produce spiritual apathy and laziness in God’s people, it produces fruit. As I like to say, “Grace motivates.”

As you live for Jesus, please don’t put yourself back under the Covenant of Works. Don’t put yourself back under the law. You are under grace. Therefore, though your best works are still defiled with sin, God loves you and accepts you because of Christ and is growing the fruit of righteousness in your life. You are a wretch. So am I. But our Father loves us because of Christ and will reward us with grace when our race is finished.

[1] https://www.asbury.edu/about/spiritual-vitality/faith/wesleyan-holiness-theology/

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

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