"Why study the 39 Articles of the Church of England that might have been relevant 400 years ago but," you say, "we are living in 2016?" Maybe someone is asking that question this morning. Well, Shakespeare lived 400 years ago, and the Royal Shakespeare Company comes to the Theatre Royal every year and people pay good money to see Shakespeare and hear what he has to say only about human life. Why then should it be so odd that at Jesmond Parish Church you can get Archbishop Cranmer, whose writing style like Shakespeare's is amazing, and study these articles which are about God as well as human life?
Cranmer, you need to know, was the author of most of our Articles, the author of the famous 1662 Prayer Book, many of the Homilies in the Anglican First Book of Homilies and much else; and Cranmer is always worth reading and studying as he brilliantly and simply spells out the apostolic teaching that you have in the Bible. He was, of course, writing these Articles of Religion at a time of religious controversy. Along with many others, he was taking issue with what he, and they, judged to be theological errors, or wrong understandings, of what Jesus and his Apostles had actually taught. But unlike some of his fellow Reformers he was not writing a complete theology. In the 39 Articles he was simply highlighting essential parts of apostolic truth you need to be taught, or reminded of, again and again. In the 16th century the truths needing to be highlighted were especially truths relating to the Bible itself and the reality of "justification by faith alone". But those truths also need to be highlighted in the 21st century. As he saw it, Cranmer was not discovering something new, but just returning back to the early church's teaching and essentially the apostolic teaching as you have it in the Bible and as taught by faithful theologians and teachers down the ages.
So much by way of introduction. Now in our series going through these 39 Articles, it was number 11 the article on "justification by faith alone" that we thought about last week. Today, therefore, we are to consider Article 12 which is about "Good works" and how they are related to justification by faith. But to start with I want us to look at Jesus' teaching on the subject. So my headings this morning are simple, first, Jesus' Teaching About Good Works; and, secondly, Article 12 – "Of Good Works" and its context, content and implications. Will you, then, now turn to Matthew 7.15-27, our Gospel reading. For there you have…
Jesus' Teaching About Good Works.
Jesus in these verses is at the end of his great Sermon on the Mount and he concludes with the subject of good works. And he says, first, that "good works" in this life are the only reliable evidence that human spiritual claims are true and genuine. Look at Matthew 7.15-16:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits."
It couldn't be clearer. Jesus is saying that the absence of good works and the presence of bad works (or negative consequences in the everyday world - bad fruit) proves prophecy or teaching to be false and phoney. And that is a vital message for today. For today's successful false teachers in the Church (and in the world) can sound orthodox and biblical. They can seem to be as innocent as sheep – but says Jesus, "inwardly they are ravenous wolves". Their actual contradiction of Jesus and his Apostles is often subtle and only in their small print (which is too often not noticed). But the test is the fruit of their lives and teaching in their ministry and churches. For, says Jesus, it is simple - verse 18:
"A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit."
When my wife was a medical student, for a period she was in a hostel with some theological students. But these theological students were losing their faith in Christ because of the very liberal theological teaching they were receiving. You don't need rocket science to see that such a result more than suggests false teaching and teachers. Sadly, I could give many similar examples. But Jesus also says, the lack of good works or positive obedience (bad fruit, if you like) also can prove more orthodox people to be sham and their spirituality sham. Look at verse, 21-22:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"
Over the years I've heard of, and known, people on the conservative and charismatic side of things – not the liberal theological side - who disobey, often sexually, but also in other ways. And when they don't repent, that too is evidence of hypocrisy and no real faith – the genuine faith that leads to obedience to God. And all this, finally, in terms of Jesus' teaching, is climaxed by Jesus' famous parable of the houses built on the rock and on the sand. And the point of the parable is this: the man with his house on the rock – the person who can expect real human flourishing, the truly good life, and, yes, long-lasting success – is the person, says Jesus, who (verse 24) …
"hears these words of mine and does them."
For Jesus wants obedience - for God's glory, others benefit and your own real good, long-term. And obeying Christ in all sorts of ways is what we mean by 'good working or acting' – or good works. So that brings us secondly, to…
Article 12 – "Of Good Works"
And we need to consider this under three sub-headings: first, the Article's context; secondly, its content; and, thirdly, its implication for us. So, first, what is the context of this Article?
Well, you don't only need to know that it comes after the Article on Justification by Faith (number 11) that we thought about last week. You also need to know that this block of Articles (11-17 and especially 12-14) relates to Article 18. For the truth of Article 18 is in the background of Articles 11-14. Let me explain. Article 18 is among the most important of all the Articles. It is the only one with an "anathema", which means someone is so utterly wrong in teaching or behaviour that they must be removed from the Church. Let me read Article 18: on Obtaining salvation only by the name of Christ:
"Those who presume to say that every person shall be saved by the rule of life, religion or sect that he professes, provided he makes diligent efforts to live by that rule and the light of nature, must be regarded as accursed. For holy Scripture declares to us that it is only in the name of Jesus Christ that men must be saved" [that was from our Epistle reading in Acts 4.12, you will remember].
God-willing we will look at this article at another time, another year, in this series. But, for now, I just need to underline its truth, namely that Jesus Christ is the only saviour in the world. That, of course, is to many a shockingly exclusive claim and one that down the centuries in every generation is hard to make. For it is saying that all religions and philosophies are not different paths up the mountain to God - because there is no other name for salvation except that of Jesus.
But one of the main reasons why this Article and the Scripture quotation make this exclusive claim is because of what Articles 12,13 and 14 teach. For they teach, namely, that your good works, even when you trust in Christ, let alone before you believed, are never good enough to make amends to a holy God for all the wrong you have done and still do and will do. And that is so, even when you are improving as the Holy Spirit makes you more conformed to Jesus Christ, now that you do believe. But the good news is as Article 11 on Justification by faith states. And that is that amends have been made by Christ for you and for billions without our good works – that is why he is unique. As 1 John 2.2 says:
"he [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world."
You see, Calvary was a cosmic event. The terrible nature of it, in terms of Jesus' suffering, was such that it affected the physical order – with it being pitch-black at midday and the curtain of the temple torn in two, as Luke describes it. For sinless Jesus, the divine son, was paying the penalty for "the sins of the whole world", as John says; such was God's love. And that must mean sins past, present and future. But the good news became clear following the Resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit. And that is that by faith in Christ, as you trust him and are united by his Holy Spirit with him, God treats you as one of his family, with eternal punishment for your sins paid through that sacrifice of Christ on that first Good Friday. So as Article 11 says:
"We are accounted righteous before God [so we are fully accepted by God and adopted into his family], solely on account of the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ through faith [alone] and not on account of our own good works or of what we deserve."
Obviously, therefore, all the good works in other religions, in the same way as your good works before or after you come to faith in Christ, are never adequate to atone for your sin. Christ alone can. It is only those who do not understand God's view of human sinfulness (as Article 9 explains), on the one hand, and his utter holiness, on the other hand, that could think otherwise. But Christ's sinless life was adequate, and that life he sacrificed for us on the Cross as we celebrate this morning at Holy Communion. So much for the context of Article 12 – now, secondly, the content. Article 12 says:
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."
What does that teach? Four things:
- Genuine faith or discipleship results in good works and Christian obedience, as Jesus taught.
Good works, the Article says, are the fruits of true faith and follow after justification. For once united with Christ, God by his Holy Spirit works in you, helping you with good works. Paul, therefore, told the Philippians (Phil 2.12):"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
- Good works of believers do please God, even though in no way can "they put away our sins".
- In this life they are never perfect for they still "endure the severity of God's judgment".
And you know that is true. There are mixed motives in our good works, unwise words when saying what you should say, lack of balance even in good judgments, and just not doing a host of things as well as you could have done them or failing to do them at all. But God views your 'good works' from you being "in Christ" – notice that qualifier in the Article, "acceptable to God in Christ" – being in a position in his family with heaven and perfection awaiting one day.
Our good works in this life are a bit like a sheet of paper blue-tacked on our kitchen door. It contains the spidery writing of one of our grandchildren when just learning to write. It says, "I love you Gran. You ar grate. You ar very cinde [kind]." That is pleasing to my wife from a grandchild, just learning to write. But it would not be pleasing from an intelligent adult, whom, you learn, had intentionally messed up at school. And that relates somewhat to Article 13, where we are told that:
"Works done before receiving the grace of Christ and the inspiration of his Spirit are not pleasing to God. This is because they do not spring out of faith in Jesus Christ. Nor do they make people fit to receive grace or (as the schoolmen say) to deserve grace of congruity."
This is not to say that it is better if such works were not done. Of course, not. Take writing; it is better that someone can, if necessary, communicate badly than not at all. But in God's economy what is not perfect, or potentially perfect in heaven one day, is not pleasing.
- 'Good works' are evidence for claims to a true and lively faith.
That is the message of James' Epistle and of Jesus. It is in no way a contradiction of Paul. It is simply saying that true faith is proved by good works, which come as an expression of gratitude to God's grace and as being self-evidently for the good of all. So James bluntly says, "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2.17). As the theologians say, if justification does not lead to sanctification at all, there has been no real faith commitment to Christ in the first place.
So to recap – one, genuine faith or discipleship results in good works; two, good works of believers do please God; but, three, in this life are never perfect; and, four, 'good works' are evidence for claims to a true and lively faith.
So, finally, what then is the implication of Article 12 for today?
Certainly it is not that you should try to generate spurious good works to create a store of merit with God, that Article 14 is talking about and that we don't have time to discuss. No! Surely, it is, as Paul told the Ephesians, it is to do the good works God is calling you to do for him while this life lasts. Ephesians 2.8-10 says, and with this I conclude:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."