Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XIII

Article XIII.

Of Works before Justification.

WORKS done before the Grace of Christ, and the inspiration of His Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the school-authors say) deserve grace of congruity; yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

De Operibus ante Justificationem.

OPERA quæ fiunt ante gratiam Christi et Spiritus ejus afflatum, cum ex fide Jesu Christi non prodeant, minime Deo grata sunt; neque gratiam, ut multi vocant, de congruo merentur; immo cum non sint facta, ut Deus illa fieri voluit et præcepit, peccati rationem habere non dubitamus.

Section I. — History.

THIS Article is intimately connected with the four preceding Articles, and is intended, probably, to prevent any mistakes, and more fully to explain some points in them. In the former Articles an account has been given of most of the errors against which this Article is directed; and the very wording of it shows that the scholastic doctrine of congruous merit is especially aimed at. Here, however, it may be proper to remark that the question has arisen concerning the nature of heathen virtue, a question of great difficulty, on which the fathers touched, both before and after the Pelagian controversy. Clement of Alexandria particularly speculated much upon the mode in which God’s grace and the teaching of Christ visited men before the coming of the Gospel. “His notion was, that philosophy was given to the Gentiles by God, for the same purpose for which the Law was given to the Jews: in order to prepare them for justification under the Gospel by faith in Christ.” “It is certain, however, that Clement did not believe that heathen virtue possessed of itself any efficacy towards justification. For he says, that every action of the heathen is sinful, since it is not sufficient that an action is right; its object or aim must also be right.”[1]

Indeed, these opinions of Clement do not seem to interfere at all with the doctrine of this Article; for Clement evidently considered that God mysteriously worked in the Gentiles by His grace, using, as an external means, the imperfect instrument of their own philosophy. So that whatever good, he thought, might have existed in heathens, he still ascribed to God’s grace, and therefore did not consider their goodness “as works done before the grace of Christ.”[2]

We have already seen, how the Pelagians and Semi-pelagians[3] denied the necessity of preventing grace; and held that, in the first instance, God only called men by His word and ordinances, and that by their own strength such as were called might turn to God, and seek His assistance.

In controversy, they appear to have referred to the case of virtuous heathens, many of whom might put to shame the lives of Christians. To Julianus, who advances this argument, Augustine replies at great length. Augustine’s position was, that “what was not of faith was sin.” Julianus supposes the case of a heathen, who covers the naked and does works of mercy; and asks, “If a Gentile have clothed the naked, is this act of his therefore sin, because it is not of faith?”[4] Augustine replies that it is; “not because the simple act of covering the naked is sin, but because none but the impious would deny, that not to glory in the Lord, on account of such a work, was sin.”[5] He then goes on to argue, that a bad tree cannot bring forth really good fruit, that an unbelieving tree is a bad tree, and that apparently good works are not always really so, as the clemency of Saul in sparing Agag was sin. So he, who does unbelievingly, whatever he does, does ill; and he who does ill, sins.[6] The good works which an unbeliever does are the works of Him, who turns evil to good. But without faith we cannot please God.[7] If the eye be evil, the whole body is dark; whence we may learn, that he who does not do good works with the good intention of a good faith (that is, of a faith which worketh by love), his whole body is full of darkness. And since the good works, or apparent good works, of unbelievers cannot bring them to Heaven, we ought to hold, that true goodness can never be given but by the grace of God through Christ, so as to bring a man to the kingdom of God.[8]

This was the kind of reasoning, which the fathers of that day used against the Pelagian arguments, that truly good deeds might be done without the grace of God.[9]

The doctrine of the schoolmen concerning grace of congruity bore a suspicious resemblance to that of Semi-pelagians. In the history of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh Articles enough has been said on this subject; and of the zeal with which Luther maintained the absolute necessity of preventing grace, in order that man should make any efforts, or take any steps towards godliness.[10]

The case of Cornelius (Acts x.) was an argument often made use of in favour of grace of congruity. He, it was said, was a Gentile, and therefore not under the influence of God’s grace; and yet it was told him, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (ver. 4). Hence it was argued, that he did what was acceptable to God, though without the grace of God.

Luther treats Cornelius as a man who had faith in a promised Mediator, although he did not yet know that that Mediator was come; and so, he argues, that his good deeds were of faith, and therefore acceptable.[11]

At the Council of Trent the general opinion was strongly against Luther on these points. Catarinus indeed maintained, with great learning, that “man, without the special help of God, can do no work which may be truly good, though morally, but sinneth still.” In confirmation of which, he quoted Augustine, Ambrose, Prosper, Anselm, and others. He was violently opposed by the Franciscans, but supported by the Dominicans.[12]

In the end, the seventh canon of the sixth session of the council condemned those who said, “That works done before justification are sins, and that a man sinneth the more, by how much the more he laboureth to dispose himself to grace.”[13] Which canon does not exactly contradict the words of our Article, except it be in the last sentence of it.

The Lutheran Confessions of faith speak very reasonably on this subject. The twentieth article of the Confession of Augsburg states a principal reason for maintaining justification by faith to be, that we might not think to deserve grace by our own good works antecedent to grace.[14]

Our own reformers seem to have been influenced by a very similar view. The Homilies say, that “without faith can no good work be done, accepted and pleasant to God.” “Without faith all that is done of us is but dead before God; although the work seem never so gay and glorious before man.”[15]

Again, “As the good fruit is not the cause that the tree is good, but the tree must first be good before it can bring forth good fruit; so the good deeds of man are not the cause which maketh man good, but he is first made good by the Spirit and grace of God, that effectually worketh in him, and afterwards he bringeth forth good fruits.”[16]

“They are greatly deceived that preach repentance without Christ, and teach the simple and ignorant that it consisteth only in the works of men. They may indeed speak many things of good works, and of amendment of life and manners: but without Christ they be all vain and unprofitable. They that think that they have done much of themselves towards repentance, are so much the farther from God, because they do seek those things in their own works and merits, which ought only to be sought in our Saviour Jesus Christ, and in the merits of His death and passion and bloodshedding.”[17]

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

THE subjects embraced by the Article are, —

I. That works before grace and the inspiration of the Spirit are not pleasing to God, forasmuch as they are not of faith.

II. They do not make men meet to receive grace de congruo.

III. Rather, as not being done as God hath willed, it is believed that they have the nature of sin.

Of these three positions, the second must follow from the proof of the first. For if good works without grace are not pleasing to God, they cannot predispose to grace. As regards the title of the Article, “Of Works before Justification,” we may observe, that it was probably adopted because the question discussed in the Article itself went, at the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent, under that name.[18] All questions concerning merit de congruo, and works done before grace, were considered as embraced in the general term, “the question concerning works before justification.” The Article itself says nothing about justification. All that it determines is, that, in order for works to be acceptable to God, they must be done by the grace of God, and must spring from a principle of faith.

Against the whole tenor of the Article, and in favour of all which it condemns, the principal arguments from Scripture are such as these. Certain passages of Scripture seem to speak highly of particular individuals, who were not Christians or true believers, e. g. Naaman the Syrian, and Cornelius the centurion. They had not the faith of Christ, and yet their good deeds are approved. It may, however, be replied, that both of them evidently acted from a principle of faith. Naaman went to the prophet and sought relief, because he believed that, as a prophet, he had power to heal him. Again, Cornelius, though not a Jew, was evidently a believer in the One true God, a proselyte of the gate, if not a proselyte of righteousness; and therefore we cannot say that he had no faith, nor that he was without the grace of God.

The same may be said of the Ninevites. Their repentance, it is argued, was accepted by God; and yet they were heathens, and therefore not true believers. But it is certain that their repentance sprang from their faith in Jonah’s preaching, and may very probably have been produced by that Holy Spirit who at all times has striven with men: and hence it was not of the nature of simple, naked, unassisted efforts to do good.

A stronger argument against the doctrine of this Article seems derivable from the language of St. Paul, Rom. ii. 14, 26, 27. There he speaks of the Gentiles or heathens, “which have not a law,” and yet “do by nature the things contained in the Law,” and so “are a law unto themselves.” And he says, that “if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the Law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the Law?” Here the apostle seems to speak as if the heathen, who had not the revealed knowledge of God’s will, yet might so do His will as to be acceptable with Him.

In like manner, many learned men, of the Reformed Communions, as well as of the Roman, understand St. Paul’s reasoning in Gal. iv. to be like what was shown in the last Section to have been the opinion of Clement of Alexandria; namely, that before the Gospel both Jews and Gentiles were kept by God in a state of bondage or tutelage, waiting for the liberty of the children of God; that to the heathen their condition was one of elementary servitude, preparatory to the Gospel, as was that of the Jews. If the first seven verses of this chapter be compared carefully with the eighth and ninth, there will appear some ground for such an interpretation. From these passages it is argued, that heathens, who could not have faith, and were not subjects of grace, were yet capable in their degree of pleasing God.

To this reasoning we may reply, that nothing can be more obscure than the question as to God’s dealings with, and purposes concerning the heathen world. Revelation is addressed to those whom it concerns, and tells us very little of the state of those to whom it is not addressed. Our business is to follow Christ, and not to ask “Lord, and what shall this man do?” There is a marked purpose in Scripture not to satisfy man’s idle curiosity. The question therefore, at times so much debated, whether it be possible or impossible that the benefits of Christ’s redemption should reach to those millions of human beings who never have heard and never could hear of Him, is left in deep obscurity; and when people have reasoned on the subject, their arguments have mostly been inferences deduced from other doctrines, and not express statements of Scripture.

This much, however, we may fairly conclude, that if the passages just referred to prove that the heathen can do what is pleasing to God, and be accepted by Him, it is because His Holy Spirit can plead with them, even through the imperfect means of natural religion. St. Paul says, it was God’s will that men “should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him” (Acts xvii. 27). And he is there speaking of the world in its times of heathen darkness. It is possible that there may have been an imperfect faith, even “in times of ignorance which God winked at.” We know not, but that they who touched but the hem of Christ’s garment, may have found virtue go out of it.

But with regard to the teaching of our Article, we may fairly conclude that it rather refers to the case of persons within, not without the sound of the Gospel. This is the practical question. It does not concern us practically to know how it may be with the heathen; although, of course, their case affects the general question. And the case of the heathen is so obscure, that we can hardly be justified in bringing it to throw light on a case which concerns ourselves and our own state before God.

But it may be farther said that God approves of justice, and temperance, and charity, in themselves, and of themselves; and therefore if a man who has neither faith nor grace, acts justly, and does mercy, and lives soberly, God must approve and be pleased with such acts, just as he would disapprove and hate the contrary. But, in reply, it is urged, that God sees the heart, and loves what is good in us, only when it springs from a good source. Indeed, there are some sinners much greater sinners than others, whom He will visit with “greater damnation.” But though in themselves He loves justice and mercy, He does not love and accept the man who does them, unless that man does them from right motives; and as “every good and perfect gift is from above,” we infer that good motives cannot come but from Him, “who worketh in us to will as well as to do according to His good pleasure.” The man “dead in trespasses and sins,” must have life given him from above, before he can walk in newness of life, and do what is well pleasing in God’s sight.

Having thus considered the principal objections, we may now proceed to prove our propositions.

I. And first: “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of His Spirit, are not pleasing to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith.” The language concerning the new birth may come in here. John iii. 3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God:” the language of our Lord to His disciples, John xv. 5, “Without Me ye can do nothing:” and the language of St. Paul concerning the state of the unregenerate and carnal mind, “In me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing,” Rom. vii. 18. “The carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God,” Rom. viii. 7, 8. All these and many similar passages were considered at length under Article IX.; and they surely prove that the natural man, without the aid of God, cannot bring forth fruits which are pleasing to God. As our Lord says expressly, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me,” John xv. 4.[19]

But, moreover, as it is taught us that the source of all true holiness is faith, so if our good works do not spring from faith, they cannot be pleasing to God. Thus, “without faith it is impossible to please God,” Heb. xi. 6. “The just shall live by faith,” Rom. i. 17. Nay! we are even told that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” Rom. xiv. 23: and that evidently, because apparently good works, if not springing from a good source, are not really good.

Hence the statement of our Article seems fully borne out, that “works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of His Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith.”

II. The second proposition follows from the first: namely, that works done without grace do not make men meet to receive grace de congruo.

If they are not acceptable to God, it is manifest that they cannot procure grace from Him. It is true, that “the Law of the Lord is an undefiled law, converting the soul;” and that he who strives earnestly to fulfil God’s commandments may always expect to have his exertions assisted by fuller supplies of the grace of God.[20] But this is because God loves to reward His grace in us by farther gifts of that grace — because all those earnest strivings are in themselves proofs of the Spirit of God working in us. Good works are in no degree to be underrated; and the more a man does of them, the more he is likely to gain strength to do more.

This is the regular course of growth in grace. Even naturally, good habits are acquired by performing good actions: and spiritually, those that use the grace of God find it increasing in them. But this is quite a distinct view of the case from that taken by the maintainers of congruous merit. Their doctrine is that a man, without any help from God, and by a strong effort of his own will, can so fulfil the commandments, as, though not of actual right, yet, on a certain principle of congruity, to draw down the grace of God upon him. Scripture, on the contrary, seems to teach that every attempt of this kind is displeasing, as being the result of arrogance and self-sufficiency. The Pharisees, who thought themselves not blind, are told that that was the very cause of their condemnation, whereas, if they were aware of their own weakness, they should receive their sight. “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John ix. 41). The Jews are spoken of as cast off and blinded, because they sought to find their way to God, and to attain to righteousness, through the works of the Law, and through their own righteousness, instead of by the faith of Christ (see Rom. ix. 30, 31); for they “were ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. x. 3).

III. The Article concludes by saying, that forasmuch as such works “are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but that they have the nature of sin.”

Works done in self-righteousness, done with a view to justify ourselves by our own merits, are not done as God hath willed, but in a wrong spirit and temper; and therefore, proceeding from a bad principle, must be bad. There may be in such works a mixture, as there often is, of good with the bad motive. This God alone can see, and will approve the good, whilst He disapproves the bad. Many a person tries to do right, acting in ignorance, and on the principle that such a mode of action is what God has appointed, and what He will reward. Such a person may have very imperfect knowledge of the truth, and may not be sufficiently aware of his own weakness, and his own need of Divine strength. But mixed with such errors, there may be pure principles of faith and desire to serve God; and God, who sees the heart, may give more blessing to such a person than to many a better instructed Christian. The Article, however, may be quite right, notwithstanding, in saying that works, not springing from grace, and not done in faith, have the nature of sin. As a general proposition, it is true that “whatever is not of faith is sin.” And the spirit which leads a man, instead of relying on God’s mercy in Christ, and seeking the aid of His Spirit, to rely on his own unassisted efforts, is also sin. It is a virtual denial of human infirmity, of the Atonement of Christ, and of the need of the Spirit.

Again, the only thing, which makes good works to be good, is the fact that God has commanded them. Hence, if we find them not done in the way and for the end to which God has ordained them, we are justified in saying that they are not good works, but bad works. The passages quoted from the Homilies in the former section show sufficiently that this was what the reformers meant by the words of the Article.


  1. Bishop Kaye, on the Writings of Clement of Alexandria, p. 426. See also pp. 122, seq.
  2. See Bishop Kaye, as above, p. 122, &c.
  3. See History of Art. IX. and X.
  4. Si gentilis, inquis, nudum operuerit, numquid quia non est ex fide, peccatum est?
  5. Prorsus in quantum non est ex fide, peccatum est. Non quia per se ipsum factum est, quod est nudum operire, peccatum est; sed de tali opere non in Domino gloriari, solus impius negat esse peccatum. — Cont. Julianum, Lib. IV. c. 30.
  6. Cap. 31.
  7. Cap. 32.
  8. Aut certe quoniam saltem concedis opera infidelium, quæ tibi eorum videntur bona, non tamen eos ad salutem sempiternam regnumque perducere: scito nos illud bonum hominum dicere, illam voluntatem bonam, illud opus bonum, sine Dei gratia quæ datur per unum Mediatorem Dei et hominum nemini posse conferri; per quod solum homo potest ad æternum Dei donum regnumque perduci. Cap. 33. See also Augustine, De Fide et Operibus, where, in opposition to the Pelagian opinion that good works must be added to faith, he contends that good works spring from faith.
  9. The reader may see many passages from Jerome, Prosper, and others, to the same effect, in Usher’s Answer to a Jesuit, ch. XI.
  10. See especially Luther on Gal. ii. 16.
  11. Luther on Gal. iii. 2.
  12. Sarpi, pp. 183‒185.
  13. Session VI. Can. 7, and Sarpi, p. 210.
  14. Sylloge, pp. 130, 131.
  15. First part of Homily on Good Works.
  16. Second part of the Homily on Almsdeeds.
  17. First part of the Homily of Repentance.
  18. Luther had used this language, that a man was justified first, and then did good works: and so “works before justification,” became a common expression. Our Church in the XIIth Article speaks of good works as “following after justification.” We are not, of course, bound to consider that every act of a man, who is not in a state of full sanctification, is therefore devoid of goodness, and of the nature of sin. This article sufficiently explains both its own meaning and the meaning of the phrase, “follow after justification,” in the XIIth Article, namely, that no works are good which do not come of grace.
  19. The reader may refer to what was said under Art. X. on Free Will.
  20. On this principle it is that “If any man will (θέλῃ) do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God,” John vii. 17. “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace to the humble,” 1 Pet. v. 5.


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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