Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Do Good?

Calvin begins his discussion about justification and works by stratifying shades of faithfulness, ranging from complete ignorance to complete immersion.  He seems to create these distinctions largely to be able to discuss the latter category – those that acknowledge Christ, and seek to live faithful lives. 

Calvin, while recognizing that some people do, in fact, inhabit this fourth faithful category, still insists that there is no merit in their actions apart from God.  He gives a nod to Augustine when he agrees that outside of God’s participation, human efforts have no worth. 
Section 9 outlines the basic value of good works:  our good works are merely evidence of God at work in us.  Rather than a system of purchasing good standing with God, anything we do to contribute to our own justification begins with God.

Section 14 really begins what feels like the crux of Calvin’s argument:  we can never repay more than the debt of service we owe God.  Calvin insists that since we owe our Creator a debt of service for our existence, we can never over-perform our service to God.  And since God enables us all differently, whatever service we are able to do at best meets our obligations.  This to me sounds like a loan we can only hope to just barely satisfy.

This chapter demonstrates the reason I struggle with Calvin’s logical approach to Christian faith (if we can agree there is such a thing as logical faith).  For Calvin to claim predestination, he must be willing to give all credit (and blame) to a cosmic system of God’s creation and engineering.  As such, anything good, bad or indifferent is a natural extension of God.  But Calvin doesn’t quite say that.  Rather, he assumes human corruption within God’s creation.  Due to that inherent corruption, we can only hope to achieve justifying works as the fruits of seeds God planted.  Since God is the source of our own good intentions and actions, our good works become more like tithes than voluntary gestures.

So, the question I might ask is this:  within Calvin’s framework, why would we bother to do good works – especially if they mean any form of sacrifice?  


  1. Hi Matt,
    Thank you for this post regarding good works and for the questions. As I reflect on why we might do good works and what purpose good works play in the life of faith, I am reminded of Calvin's definition of righteousness that this is not of our own accord but it is through Christ that we are made righteous. When people see Christ reflected in us, it is the glory of God which is showing forth! When I think of good works and why we should do them, it is that God's true nature might be reflected (only dimly) through what we are doing. It seems as though Calvin is saying that the good works we do must not be done for our own justification and glory (indeed they cannot justify us)

  2. Two thoughts:

    Anselm is the most thorough Christian writer I know on the subject of what humans owe God. We read him in the first semester of church history.

    The origin of the band name "Sixpence None the Richer" speaks to human inability to give God anything he hasn't already given us. It's from a passage in C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity:

    "When we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to his father and saying, 'Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.' Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child's present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction."

  3. "But someone will say, you have faith; I have deeds, show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds." James 2:18, it is out of our faith our deeds begin to develop. The closer we come to God the more our deeds are taken into account. We all need to work out our salvation, and know that everything that is accomplished is because we remain in the vine. Jesus spoke of this in John 15, we are branches out of the vine that is suppose to produce good fruit. It is out of the love we have for God that our works even mean anything. They go beyond being "charitable", or "good spirited", they transcend the culture and give God glory because they are above the culture norm. Remember what James concluded his thoughts, James 2:26, "as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. Is your faith alive?

  4. First, thank you for the post.

    I have read over one of your comments a couple times, and I just am not sure I can agree with some of the comments you have made.

    After stating that Calvin assumes human corruption within God's creation, you then share that our hope to achieve justifying works (which I do not recall Calvin agreeing to our justification by any works), are seen by Calvin as the fruits of seeds God has planted within us... I do see our good works as evidence of God's presence in our lives, and as the fruit of the seed planted within us. But I do not think and I do not recall Calvin's message being that our works are merited toward justification in any sense. I am also having a hard time understanding the correlation of tithes and good works, tithes are given in support of the mission/ministry/church/God... and good works are, for me, outward reaching to all of our neighbors on an individual basis as we go about our daily lives. Not necessarily through the Church, not Missional, but in and through our daily tasks... Maybe I see this incorrectly, or maybe just differently... Or maybe I am not understanding you :)

    The question you pose is interesting, "why would I bother to do good works (if there is no merit to them)"? Because it is simply in my heart and mind to do so. I find there is pull or a nudge within me to offer what I have to someone who needs .. something, my time, my help... whatever it might be. If I have something, I have it by the Hand of God, and what is 'mine' is mine to share.

    I am a little surprised by your question, why should we be bothered, maybe your intention is to trigger something, but I do not think along the lines of being bothered, so this really stumps me.

  5. Thank you for the summary of this chapter. It was interesting to me to that Calvin quoted so much of Augustine’s work. Today it is really amazing how timeless and impacting it still is today. The question of why have good works at all is tough to answer, but perhaps we can start to see the answer as Calvin quotes Augustine. It is better for a runner to limp the course than to run off the course (Institutes, 3.14.4). I think we are often finding new ways to be busy. One way to look at this point from Calvin is to inch every so closely to the communion with Christ. Good works can be a result of the path we choose.

  6. Thanks to folks holding me accountable for my conclusions! If I seem a little cranky about Calvin's stance on works, it's probably because I don't always buy Calvin's use of logic to explain mystery.
    Claire - I agree that good works can often well up from within - but I don't think Calvin would agree - unless we qualified that notion by saying that God created and equipped the well of goodness within us. I don't disagree with that perspective, but Calvin also seems to indicate that good works are responses we make in gratitude to God. My understanding of a "response" guides me to believe that we have some control over responding.
    Maybe I need to get more comfortable with Calvin's version of predestination to be able to say that gratitude is simply a symptom of being one of the elect.

    1. Calvin challenges me. I chose to take this course so that I might understand the stances he makes and in some way be able then, to explain ... to myself and others the thought(s) behind 'Calvinism'.
      My thought so far is that Calvin is arguing against a cultural presence I cannot fully grasp, and so I cannot quite understand his intentions.
      I concur that our responses are bound with our will and the choices we make. We have control over our own actions, we decide how we react/respond, however I also think that there is a huge element in the Holy Spirit in the decisions I make. There are times, when I 'look back' at a comment I just made, or a thought I just had and giggle, because that was not 'me'... that was from a deeper more wonderful place. And so, there are influences in us, I am humbled and grateful to God when the expression I make is derived from a holy place somewhere within me. (I pray these holy expressions would be present more and more, and I regret when the expression I feel and express is not from the holy place in me)
      I have learned from reading the Institutes is that I am not a 'Calvinist'. I accept much of what Calvin states, but cannot take his premises to the extremes he seems to take them. For instance, I am not convinced that Calvin's concept of predestination is the whole story, the concreteness Calvin searches for is not, I believe something which is proclaimed by or of Almighty God in Scripture... Thank you for your thoughts, your post and response. Peace,

  7. I do think we have a choice in our response. I think that is what Calvin describes in the four classes of men. All men have the choice of how/or if they respond to God.

  8. Thank you so much for the summary. Thought provoking question you have asked. Scripture tells us in Matthew 25: 31 - 46: the the Son of Man will come in His glory and separate people from one other as shepherd separates sheep from goats. Then those on the right who would inherit the kingdom are those whose works were acceptable to the Son of Man - "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world - for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." This is because of the works they did. But those on the left were condemned. Works are acceptable in the sight of the Son of Man but the "righteous into eternal life." The text ends.