Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XII

Article XII.

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 judgment; 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.

De Bonis Operibus.

BONA opera, quæ sunt fructus fidei, et justificatos sequuntur, quanquam peccata expiare, et divini judicii severitatem ferre non possunt: Deo tamen grata sunt, et accepta in Christo, atque ex vera et viva fide necessario profluunt, ut planè ex illis, æque fides viva cognosci possit, atque arbor ex fructu judicari.

Section I. — History.

THE great length at which the last Article was considered renders it less necessary to say much upon this. Our present twelfth Article did not exist in the forty-two Articles of King Edward’s reign, but was added in the year 1562, after the accession of Queen Elizabeth. It is evidently intended as a kind of supplement to the eleventh, lest that should be supposed to teach Solifidianism. Archbishop Laurence traces the wording of it to a passage in the Wirtemburg Confession, to which it certainly bears great resemblance.[1]

The general object of the Article was, no doubt, to oppose the Antinomian errors, which had originated with Agricola, and which there was some danger might spring from Lutheranism.[2] With such the whole Reformation was charged by the divines of the Roman communion, and therefore it was the more needful that the reformers should protest against them.

There are certain particular expressions also in the Article which require to be explained historically. We have seen that the schoolmen talked of good works, done without the grace of God, meriting grace de congruo. To this Luther and the reformers opposed the statement that works done without the grace of God might be apparently, but were not really good. And to this purpose is the thirteenth Article of our Church, which we have soon to consider. Luther asserted that good works, which are pleasing to God, are not wrought but in faith; for “whatever is not of faith is sin;” and where there is faith, there is justification; therefore good works follow, not precede justification. Our Article uses this language without in this place discussing the merits of it. In the thirteenth Article the question is more fully entered on. It may be mentioned that language very similar had before been used by Augustine, and from him very probably was it borrowed by Luther. “Good works,” says that father, “follow a man’s justification, do not precede it in order that he may be justified.”[3]

Another expression in the Articles is, that “good works cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God’s judgment.” In the historical account of the last Article we saw that the Council of Trent condemned Luther for denying intrinsic goodness to works done after grace, and asserted that, as they were wrought by the Spirit of God, they were essentially good and perfect. The Council also taught that to the justified God’s commandments are possible, that justification is preserved and increased by good works, that the good works of the just, which are the gifts of God, are withal the merits of the justified.[4]

We have seen also that Bellarmine and the Romanist divines assert, that good works which are wrought in us by the grace of God are, by virtue of that grace, meritorious of eternal life;[5] i. e according to the schoolmen, they merit reward de condigno. The words of our Article are evidently opposed to these opinions. For, though they speak plainly of the necessity and value of works wrought by grace, they declare that “they cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment.”

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

WE may perceive, from what has been said, that the Article opposes three doctrines.

I. Merit de congruo; — II. Merit de condigno; — III. Antinomianism.

Or otherwise the Article teaches: —

I. That good works follow after justification;

II. That though they spring from the grace of God and a lively faith, still they cannot put away sin and endure the severity of God’s judgment.

III. Yet (1) that in Christ they are pleasing to God: and (2) That they spring out necessarily of a true and lively, i. e. a justifying faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit.

I. The question of merit de congruo and works before justification being the special subject of the next Article, we may defer its consideration till we consider that Article.

II. That the good works of justified men are not perfect enough to put away sin, and endure the severity of God’s judgment, may be proved as follows.

Our Lord tells us, that after we have done all that is commanded us “we are still unprofitable servants, having done only that which was our duty to do” (Luke xvii. 10). But, if this be the case, how can we ever do anything to put away our former sins? Our best deeds leave us still unprofitable; and if we had never sinned, we should still have only done our duty, and could claim no reward. But when we have sinned, it is clear that no degree of subsequent obedience (which would have been due even if we had not sinned) can cancel the sins which are past. And to this we must add that, even under grace, obedience is never perfect. “In many things we offend all,” says St. James (iii. 2); and St. John tells us that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John i. 8). And both the Apostles are evidently speaking to and of regenerate Christians. The Psalmist prays God not to “enter into judgment with him, because in His sight, no man living could be justified” (Psalm cxliii. 2). Accordingly, St. Paul argues that the person who is blessed in God’s sight is not the man who lives blameless in the Law, but “he whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered,” even “the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom. iv. 7, 8). “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God;” and therefore must be “justified freely by His grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. iii. 23, 24). Such passages fully prove that, in whatever strength or power good works are wrought, they are not perfect enough to put away sin, and to endure the judgment of God.

Still, though the Church denies the merit of good works, and their sufficiency to screen us from the wrath and endure the judgment of God, she yet teaches,

III. 1. That in Christ, they are pleasing and acceptable to God; and 2, that they do necessarily spring out of a true and lively faith.

1. In Christ they are pleasing and acceptable to God.

(1). The words in Christ are introduced to remind us that whatever is good in us must spring from the grace of Christ, and whatever in us is acceptable to God is acceptable for Christ’s sake. In all the servants of Christ, God sees the image of His Son. In all the members of Christ, God sees the Spirit of His Son descending from the Head to the Members, like the holy oil on Aaron’s head, which flowed down to the skirts of his clothing. In all the branches of the heavenly Vine, God sees the fruit thereof, as put forth by virtue of the life and nourishment derived from the Vine itself; and that Vine is Christ. In every wedding-guest who has on the wedding-garment, the King sees the wearer clothed in the robe of His own Son, and acknowledges them all as His children: “for we are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus: for as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. iii. 26, 27). Accordingly, the Scriptures constantly, when they speak of Christians and the works of Christians as pleasing to God, teach us that it is “in Christ.” So we read, “There is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. viii. 1). “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. v. 6). “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Ephes. ii. 10). We are to “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. iii. 17). We are to “offer spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. ii. 5). We are to “give thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. v. 20). “By Him we are to offer the sacrifices of praise to God” (Heb. xiii. 15).

(2) But then the good deeds which Christians perform in Christ are pleasing and acceptable to God.

Our Lord tells us, that “not every one that saith unto Him, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of His Father which is in Heaven” (Matt. vii. 21). He assures us of the reward of those who have left all for His sake, that they shall receive a hundredfold, and eternal life (Mark x. 29, 80). He tells us, that, “if we forgive, we shall be forgiven; that if we give, it shall be given to us” (Mark xi. 26; Luke vi. 37, 88). He shows us by parables, that those who of two talents make five, shall receive five cities; those who make of five talents ten, shall receive ten cities (Matt. xxv. 14‒30. Compare Luke xix. 12‒26). He tells us that at the judgment-day they who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the afflicted, shall be placed on the right hand, and go into life eternal (Matt, xxv. 31‒46). He tells us of “a prophet’s reward,” and “a righteous man’s reward” (Matt. x. 41, 42). And, in short, assures us that He will “reward every man according to his works” (Matt, xvi. 27).

So, from His Apostles we learn, that “in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him” (Acts x. 35): that the sacrifice of our bodies is “acceptable to God” (Rom. xii. 1): that the labour of Christ’s servants “shall not be in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. xv. 58): that “God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. ix. 7): that, if we are not “weary in welldoing, in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. vi. 9): that our new creation in Christ Jesus is “unto good works, which God hath beforehand ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. ii. 10): that the new man “after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. iv. 24): that our call is “not to uncleanness, but to holiness” (1 Thess. iv. 7): that “every one who nameth the name of Christ must depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. ii. 19); must “be careful to maintain good works” (Tit. iii. 8): that “without holiness no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. xii. 14): that with “such sacrifices” for His service “God is well pleased” (Heb. xiii. 16): that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jas. i. 27): that faith without works will not profit (Jas. ii. 14): that “to do well and suffer for it, and take it patiently, is acceptable to God” (1 Pet. ii. 20): that whatsoever we ask of God we receive, if “we keep His commandments, and do those things which are pleasing in His sight:” and that “he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him” (1 John iii. 22, 24. Compare Rom. vi. passim, Rom. viii. 1‒14, and the concluding chapters of all St. Paul’s Epistles).

Thus we plainly see that good works wrought in Christ are not only useful and desirable, but are absolutely necessary for every Christian, and are pleasing and acceptable to God. “We do not take away the reward, because we deny the merit of good works. We know that in the keeping of God’s commandments there is great reward (Ps. xix. 11); and that unto him that soweth righteousness there shall be a sure reward (Prov. xi. 18). But the question is, whence he that soweth in this manner must expect to reap so great and so sure a harvest; whether from God’s justice, which he must do, if he stand upon merit, or from His mercy, as a recompense freely bestowed out of God’s gracious bounty, and not in justice due for the worth of the work performed. Which question, we think the prophet Hosea hath sufficiently resolved, when he biddeth us sow to ourselves in righteousness, and reap in MERCY (Hos. x. 12). Neither do we hereby any whit detract from the truth of that axiom, that God will give every man according to his works; for still the question remaineth the very same, whether God may not judge a man according to his works, when He sitteth upon the throne of grace, as well as when He sitteth upon the throne of justice? And we think here, that the Prophet David hath fully cleared the case in that one sentence, Psalm lxii. 12, ‘With thee, O Lord, is MERCY; for thou rewardest every one according to his work.’

“Originally therefore, and in itself, we hold that this reward proceedeth merely from God’s free bounty and mercy; but accidentally, in regard that God hath tied Himself by His word and promise to confer such a reward, we grant that it now proveth in a sort to be an act of justice; even as in forgiving of our sins, which in itself all men know to be an act of mercy, He is said to be faithful and just (1 John i. 9), namely, in regard of the faithful performance of His promise.”[6]

To conclude, then, the Scriptures prove, and the Church teaches, that, not upon the ground of merit, but yet according to God’s will and appointment, good works, wrought in Christ, are necessary for every Christian, are pleasing and acceptable to God, and will in the end receive “great recompense of reward,” even that “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give in that day” (2 Tim. iv. 8).

2. That good works “do spring out necessarily of a true and living faith,” is a proposition which may be considered to have been incidentally but fully proved in treating on the eleventh Article. It may therefore here be sufficient to refer but briefly to a few of the passages of Scripture in which this is most plainly set forth.

The sixth chapter of Romans throughout is an explanation entered into by the Apostle, to show that this doctrine of justification does not supersede the necessity of good works; inasmuch as justified persons walk in newness of life, are made free from sin, and become servants of righteousness. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is an enumeration of signal works of holiness, which were produced through the energizing power of the faith by which the saints of old lived and acted. St. James, in his famous chapter (ii. vv. 14‒26), explains at length, that if faith be living, it will necessarily bring forth works, and that if there be no works, the faith is dead. We read of being “sanctified by faith” in Christ (Acts xxvi. 18). God is said to “purify the heart by faith” (Acts xv. 9). Faith is said to be “the victory which overcometh the world” (1 John v. 4). The faith which “availeth in Christ Jesus,” is called “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. v. 6). Perhaps the strongest proof of this proposition is, that in all those writings of St. Paul (especially his Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians) where he peculiarly treats of faith, he passes directly from faith to speak of holiness, counselling Christians, as the consequence of his doctrine concerning faith, to bring forth good works. This we may observe in the latter chapters of both these Epistles, and indeed of all his Epistles. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews indeed, which professes to explain to us what faith is, does so almost entirely by giving a list of the works which have sprung from it; just as one who wished to describe the excellence of a fruit-tree would dwell chiefly on the beauty and goodness of its fruit.

We may be assured, therefore, that we cannot assign too high a place to good works, so long as we do not assign to them the power of meriting salvation. They spring from faith, and they feed faith; for the more faith is called into action, the brighter and the stronger it grows. And as in the bodily economy of man, good health gives birth to good spirits, and yet again, good spirits support and invigorate health; so it is in his spiritual life. Faith gives rise to holiness, and holiness gives energy to faith.


  1. The passage is: — De Bonis Operibus. Non est autem sentiendum, quod in bonis operibus, quæ per nos facimus, in judicio Dei, ubi agitur de expiatione peccatorum, et placatione divinæ iræ, ac merito æternæ salutis, confidendum sit. Omnia enim bona opera, quæ nos facimus, sunt imperfecta, nec possunt severitatem divini judicii ferre. — Laurence, B. L. Notes on Serm. II. p. 235.
  2. Mosh. Ch. Hist. Cent. XVI. § III. pt. II. as quoted in the last Article.
  3. Sequuntur opera bona justificatum, non præcedunt justificandum. — De Fide et Operibus, c. 14.
  4. Session VI. Canons 18, 24, 32.
  5. Bellarmine, De Justificatione, Lib. v. cap. 12, quoted in the History of Art. XI.
  6. Usher, Answer to a Jesuit, ch. XII.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

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