Evangelical Protestants have an uneasy, semi-anxious relationship with the doctrine of good works, like a modern-day parent’s view of their child’s sugar consumption — best kept in moderation and mentioned only with plenty of caveats. It might seem like the average Protestant preacher’s main talking point from what the Bible says about good works is that we must never rely on them to earn our salvation. “Filthy rags,” the prophet Isaiah has said.
If this caricature is even somewhat true, then Christians have made a serious error that is first theological (biblically and historically), and then practical. So goes the argument from Thomas H. McCall, Caleb T. Friedeman, and Matt T. Friedeman in their new book, The Doctrine of Good Works: Reclaiming a Neglected Protestant Teaching.
And yet, there are reasons for such anxiety. The church has worked hard to stamp out historical heresies like Pelagianism and works-based righteousness. In American church history, certain social gospel movements have emphasized good works while simultaneously denying the exclusivity of Christ in salvation and the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead — as if Christianity could be broken down to one component part: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The problem is that overcorrections lead to serious errors too, like Martin Luther’s example of the drunk man who, after falling off one side of the horse, immediately got back on and fell off the other side.
The Doctrine of Good Works calls us back to where our attention should always return: Scripture itself, and then to the wise doctors in church history who made sense of those Scriptures. And what we find when we do is a rich, biblical theological emphasis on the necessity of good works, from creation all the way to new creation. The Bible speaks of the necessity of doing what is good not with endless caveats and cautions, but with serious attention throughout the canon (not merely James): Good works must accompany the life of the justified.
At its best, a Christ-centered, gospel-oriented Christian life should lead to an unwavering commitment to good works, often expressed in our daily work. This important book reminds us that if we have forgotten or even become suspicious about the connection between grace and good deeds, we must return to Scripture as our authority and church history as our example. Those who have experienced God’s grace in Christ must commit themselves to good works.
Review by Matt Rusten