This part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 13 states:
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.
This might seem a bit harsh at first – is it really impossible to do any good works without the inspiration of God’s Spirit? Romans 14:22-23 says “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” The immediate context there is dealing with whether it is appropriate or not to eat food that had been associated with pagan sacrifices, which is irrelevant to the issue put forth in Article 13, but the underlying theological assertion made by St. Paul there is very telling: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” To a large extent, this simple phrase sums up Article 13 simply and effectively.
But there are a few details and questions that still come up. As argued in previous Articles, it is reasserted here that good works do not “make men meet [worthy] to receive grace.” Grace is a gift freely given by God, and our justification is on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not our own. Our good works before faith in Christ also do not “deserve grace of congruity,” which means they aren’t even good enough to deserve a matching appropriate reward of any sort from God, because those works “have the nature of sin.” For, again, as Romans 14:23 says, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Now, this does not mean that everything a non-believer does is entirely and utterly wretched and damning. There is many a “noble pagan” in the world, both today and throughout history. The assertion made here (and in the previous Article) is that no amount of good deeds will ever outweigh one’s sins, and that even the good that a non-believer does is still tainted by sin. Perhaps there is a desire for recognition or reward for one’s apparent good works – this would be a sin of pride. But even when a non-believer does a good work with no selfish motive at all, sin is still present. Why? Because a lack of faith in the One from whom all good things come. Even when good works are done by non-believers without desire for selfish recognition, they are still done from a view of selfish achievement. Without faith, one cannot credit and thank the Lord who made the good work possible. Thus a sin of omission is accrued along with the good work.
This is a warning and concern to the regenerated (or “born again”) Christian also. Our good works, too, are tainted with sin when we do not acknowledge the good grace of God at work within us. This is perhaps why Jesus taught at length about doing our good works out of public view, with God as our “audience” instead (Matthew 6).