What are good works and what makes a work “good?” I believe this short quote by the Puritan Anthony Burgess is a wonderful explanation of what good works are and are not.
First, therefore, take notice what we mean by good works. We take not good works strictly, for the works of charity or liberality; nor for any external actions of religion, which may be done where the heart is not cleansed; much less for the Popish good works of supererogation. But [rather] for the graces of God’s Spirit in us, and the actions flowing from them. For, usually with the Papists and Popish persons, good works are commonly called those superstitious and supererogant works, which God never commanded. Or, if God has commanded them, they mean them as external and sensible; such as, coming to church, and, receiving of sacraments; not internal and spiritual faith, and a contrite spirit, which are the soul of all duties. And if these be not there, the outward duties are like clothes upon a dead man, that cannot warm him, because there is no life within. Therefore much is required even to the essence of a godly work, though it be not perfect in degrees:
1. It must be commanded by God.
2. It must be wrought in us by the Spirit of God. All the unregenerate man’s actions, his prayers, and services are sins.
3. It must flow from an inward principle of grace, or a supernatural being in the soul, whereby a man is a new creature.
4. The end must be Gods glory. That which the most refined man can do, is but a glow-worm, not a star. So that then only is the work good, when, being answerable to the rule, it is from God, and through God, and to God. (1)
Burgess would undoubtedly concur with fellow Puritan Thomas Brooks who said, “A man’s most glorious actions will at last be found to be but glorious sins, if he has made himself, and not the glory of God, the end of those actions.”