This article first appeared in the September 1, 1952 issue of the Standard Bearer and was penned by Rev. Herman Hoeksema, pastor of First PRC in Grand Rapids, MI and PRC Seminary professor. The article belongs to "HH's" lengthy exposition of the Heidleberg Catechism, which was later published as The Triple Knowledge.
Part 3—Of Thankfulness, Lord’s Day 32.
Chapter 4: The Fruits of Good Works
Besides the praise and glory of God, the Heidelberg Catechism still mentions another twofold purpose of good works. The first is “that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof.” And the second, “that by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ.” Rather than coordinate this twofold added purpose of good works with that of the glory and praise of God, which after all is the sole purpose of all our life and walk and conversation in the midst of the world, we would prefer to view these two, the assurance of faith and the gaining of others to Christ, under the aspect of fruits of good works.
The Heidelberg Catechism here teaches, in the first place, that good works are the fruits of faith; and secondly, that by these fruits one may be assured of his faith. Of the first, namely, that good works are the fruits of faith, we must speak in connection with Question and Answer 91 of the next Lord’s Day. Be it sufficient in this connection once more to emphasize the fact that these fruits of faith are inevitable. For as we were taught in Question and Answer 64 of the Catechism, “it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.” It is important to emphasize this truth especially in this connection, because it serves to show why one may be and actually is assured of his faith by the fruits thereof. It is quite impossible that one who lives a life of sin can possibly have the assurance that he is a believer. As the Heidelberg Catechism has it in Question and Answer 87, “no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” And the Lord Jesus teaches us: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” Matt. 7:16-20. And in James 2:14-17 we are taught: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works is dead, being alone.” It is certainly Scriptural, therefore, to teach that faith can be known by the fruits thereof.
Nevertheless, we must guard ourselves against misunderstanding of this truth.
When the Catechism teaches here that everyone may be assured by good works of his faith, we must not change this into the statement that good works assure faith. True and saving faith does not require any props, or external supports. It can and does indeed stand alone. For faith is itself assurance. As we have been taught in Lord’s Day 7, Q. 21, of the Heidelberg Catechism, faith is in the first place, a certain knowledge. It is a firm assurance of all that God has revealed to us in His Word. Faith, therefore, is spiritual assurance of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And again, according to the same question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, faith is an assured confidence that we have the forgiveness of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation only for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. We must therefore never say that faith is assured by good works. For faith is itself assurance.
Nor must we ever attempt to make our good works the ground of our assurance of faith. In the deepest sense of the word the ground of our assurance is always God’s gracious and unchangeable election. Only this gracious election of God must never be viewed as an abstract doctrine, upon which we lay hold apart from Christ. It is in Christ that we are chosen from before the foundation of the world. And therefore it is only in Christ that we can possibly lay hold upon the assurance and comfort of eternal election. Christ as He is revealed in the gospel is the ground of all the assurance of our faith. It is in His cross that we behold the everlasting love of God, and that too, in the midst of the darkness of sin and death. It is in His cross and through His resurrection from the dead that we are assured of perfect righteousness, of the forgiveness of sin, and of the everlasting adoption unto children of God. Faith is after all nothing but a means, or instrument, whereby we are engrafted into Christ and are made one plant with Him. And it is by that God-given faith that we lay hold upon Christ and all His benefits. He is the only ground of our assurance, and through Him we know that God has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world and that He blesses us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places. It certainly is not our good works, but the promise of God in Christ, and back of that promise the eternal and unchangeable election of God that can possibly be the ground of our assurance.
Besides, if any believer would attempt to view his good works as the ground of his assurance, he would no doubt presently fall into the slough of doubt and despondency. It is true that faith produces good works, and that therefore the believer will certainly observe the fruits of that faith in his life. But it is also true that he still performs many works that do not appear to be the fruit of faith whatsoever. Not only are his best works always polluted with sin and does he have but a small beginning of the new obedience, but he also performs many works which he cannot possibly classify as good works. He sins; he sins repeatedly. He still transgresses all the commandments of God. And to be sure, he repents. But even after he repents, he commits the same offense again and again. His whole life is characterized by what the apostle Paul confesses concerning himself as he is led by the Holy Spirit to write as follows: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent to the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” Surely, if we look upon our good works in order to find assurance of faith, we are bound to sink into the pit of despair.
But although faith is assured in itself, and although it is in itself a hearty confidence that I belong to Christ and that I am partaker of all His benefits of righteousness and eternal life, I can nevertheless be assured from the fruits of good works of the fact of my faith, or rather, of the blessed fact that I am in the faith. This is exactly what the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in the 86th answer of the thirty-second Lord’s Day. It does not teach us that faith is assured by good works, but that “everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.” As the German has it: “Darnach auch, dasz wir bei uns selbst unsers Glaubens ausz seinen Fruchten gewisz sein.” Just as a walk in sin can never produce in him that continues in sin the assurance of faith, so a walk in sanctification produces in him that walks in a new and holy life the glad assurance of faith that he belongs to Christ. And this assurance of faith, which is the assurance that he is a member of Christ Jesus, and in the deepest sense the assurance of God’s unchangeable election, is produced in the believer not by a sort of logical syllogism, or reasoning, but is wrought spontaneously in his heart by the Holy Spirit as he walks in the way of sanctification. Never forget that the Holy Spirit is the author of our faith. And He is also the author of the assurance of our faith. Faith and the well-being of faith both are the work of the Holy Spirit of God in Christ. It is He that, according to the Heidelberg Catechism works faith in our hearts and strengthens the faith by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. He is the author also of the assurance of our faith. By the Spirit we are sealed both objectively and subjectively unto the day of redemption. It is the Spirit that testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. And without that Spirit we cannot have that blessed testimony in our hearts. That assurance and that testimony of the Holy Spirit is wrought in our hearts through the Word of God through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. But He works that assurance of faith in our hearts, so that we are confident that we are in the faith, not in the way of sin but in the way of sanctification only. For thus we read in Rom. 8:12-16: “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” From this it is very plain that the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the assurance of faith, cannot possibly be our experience, unless we walk in the way of sanctification, not living after the flesh, but mortifying the deeds of the body. This, of course, may never be understood in the sense of an Arminian, or even of the Synergists, as if we walk in the way of sanctification and then receive the testimony of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God. But it must rather be understood thus, that both faith and sanctification are the work of the Holy Spirit. He makes us walk in the way of God’s precepts, and we walk. He gives us the faith, and we believe. God works within us to will and to do of His good pleasure; and as the fruit of His work we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. He gives us the strength to fight, and we fight. It is all of God, nothing of us. The Spirit is the author of our faith. He is also the author of the fruits of our faith, though we bear those fruits. And thus He is the author of the assurance of our faith in the way of sanctification. Christ is the vine, and by faith we are engrafted into Christ by His Holy Spirit. It is Christ that bears the fruit in us and through us. And when He does bear that fruit, we may glorify and praise the God of our salvation in thankfulness of heart that we may walk in the way of sanctification and that thus we may be assured of our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is in this way that we make our calling and election sure. For thus we read in II Peter 1:10: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fail.” Notice that the Word of God here exhorts the believers to give diligence to make their own calling and election sure. That is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exhorted by the Word of God, they must and they do fight the good fight of faith. And only by fighting that good fight can they make their calling and election sure. This is plain from the context. For we read in vss. 4ff: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.” It is in this connection that we read the exhortation: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure.”
This is also the teaching of our Confessions. In Canons I, 12 we read: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God,—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” And to this we may add Article 14 of the same chapter of the Canons: “The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before him, for adoring the depth of his mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands, or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption, or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election, in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”
These Scriptural passages, as well as the quotations from the Canons given above, also inform us as to the nature of the fruits of faith whereby one may be assured of his sonship. These fruits are not to be found in great outward works, although it stands to reason that the external manifestation of a life in sanctification results also in these. It is indeed true that we must show our gratitude to God in the whole of our conduct, in every phase and department of life. But it is not true that external works alone are necessarily the fruits of faith. That this is not true is evident from all Scripture, but we will quote just one passage to prove that an outward show of works is by no means evidence of faith. In Matt. 7:21-23 we read: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name have done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” And therefore, although the outward manifestation of the Christian must certainly show the fruits of faith, these fruits must nevertheless first of all be inward. They are the fruits of filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, a true love of the brethren, an attending constantly to the Word of God and to the preaching of the gospel, a willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake and to bear His reproach. These and similar fruits of faith are the indubitable evidence of the fact that we are in Christ. And manifesting these spiritual fruits of faith, we spontaneously have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we are children of God.
A word must be said here about another fruit of good works which the Catechism mentions in this eighty-sixth answer. It is this, “that by our godly conversation others may be gained for Christ.” The texts that are usually quoted in this connection are especially Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” And also I Peter 3:1, 2: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.” In connection with these passages we wish to make a few remarks.
In the first place, it must be plainly understood that no man can gain anyone for Christ. Even if God is pleased to use our godly conversation or our good works as a means to bring the unconverted into the kingdom of God, it is never more than a means, and all boasting on our part is absolutely excluded. When men see our good works, they certainly glorify our Father which is in heaven. This may mean that God uses our good works to bring the ungodly to Christ, the result of which is that they glorify our Father which is in heaven in true faith and thankfulness. But it may also mean that they glorify the work of grace which our Father in heaven performs in them that are chosen in Christ, without themselves ever being brought to the faith in Christ Jesus. It may even mean that they hate the light and hate the works of the light as manifested by the believers in Christ, that they persecute them because they love the darkness rather than the light. Even so, they must and shall glorify our Father which is in heaven, both in this world and in the day of judgment. However this may be, it must be plainly understood that the walk of believers may be indeed a means to gain others for Christ, but it is never more than a means in the hands of God unto the salvation of the unconverted. Secondly, from this it follows that those who are gained unto Christ by our godly walk and conversation can only be the elect. As has already been stated, the darkness hates the light. In the world we shall have tribulation, because the world hates us. And that reprobate world surely will never be gained unto Christ. It is only the elect that by the grace of God, even through our godly conversation, shall be converted. And finally, especially in connection with I Peter 3:1, this gaining for Christ can never take place without the preaching of the gospel in the strict and absolute sense of the word. When we read in I Peter 3:1 that unbelieving husbands may be gained to Christ by the godly conversation of the women without the Word, this must not be understood as if it were possible to bring anyone to Christ without the preaching of the Word or without the gospel whatsoever. No doubt, when without a word on the part of the wives the husbands are brought to Christ by the grace of God, it presupposes either that there was some knowledge of the gospel in the husbands before they came to Christ, or that by the godly conversation of the wives they were induced to seek Christ and the knowledge of the gospel. But it stands to reason that no one is ever brought to Christ by a mere silent walk in godly fear without the testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, a word may be said about the second question and answer of the Catechism in this Lord’s Day: “Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God? By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” This is simply the antithesis of all that we have written before in this chapter. The Heidelberg Catechism here speaks of those that are not converted and that consequently do not convert themselves. For conversion is first of all the work of God, never of man. And only when God converts, when He regenerates the heart of the sinner and engrafts him by a true and living faith into Christ Jesus our Lord, can he convert himself and depart from iniquity. Hence, they that are not converted to God continue in their wicked and ungrateful lives. Principally they are all unchaste persons, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, covetous men, drunkards, slanderers, robbers. Yet, not so that all commit the same sins; but each walks in that sin which is in accordance with his inclination, nature, power, circumstances, occasions, talents, and abilities. For in the organism of the human race every man so bears the fruit of the original sin in Adam that altogether they fill the measure of iniquity. The emphasis here is, of course, on the words “continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives.” That means that they walk in their sin, that they love their sin, that they love the darkness rather than the light. They are not converted by God, but neither do they want to be converted, because their mind is enmity against God. They never repent of their sin. Their heart is never filled with sorrow after God. And hence, they cannot see the kingdom of God, neither do they seek it; but with all their heart and mind and soul and strength they pursue after the kingdom of darkness. They cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer