Article 13 of the Thirty-Nine Articles is one of the three consecutive articles that set out human works in their relation to salvation in Christ. We saw last time how Article 12 deals with the significance of good works of believing Christians in light of the gospel. Article 13 continues now in the condemnation of a way of thinking of human status and capability before God. And Article 14 discusses Roman Catholic "works of supererogation."
The language of article 13 and 14 may seem alien to us when they speak of “the School-authors,” “grace of congruity,” and “works of supererogation” (try saying, “supererogation” 5x fast!). But they are, in fact, the articles you hear each time you present the gospel to the unconverted: “But I am a good enough person, and God is a God of love. I am sure he will accept me” or “My grandma is up there, she’ll make sure I get in.” It is referenced in the brief eulogies we’ve all heard at their funeral and memorial services. A minister or a family member talks of how good the deceased was. Then they trail off vaguely into how they are “in God’s love now” or "in a better place." Conclusion: the gospel is about weighing up the good and bad in your life. And being more good than bad makes you fit for heaven and being extra good or very religious (my grandma went to Mass every day!) will somehow or in some way see you through too.
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.
To begin, to understand article 13 we need to start with what it meant at the time it was written. Article 13 rejects a form of preparation for conversion. It was a concept of preparation that sprang from the nominalist school of theologians (“as the School-authors say”). Thomas Aquinas had taught that God infused grace into a sinner apart from any merit or effort, and men and women then exercise the divine gift of love that will eventually lead to eternal life. But the medieval nominalists who came after went beyond Aquinas. They believed that God's natural gifts of reason and conscience had not been destroyed by the Fall. Were there not countless examples of unbelievers who loved neighbor above the self? And what of Scriptures like Luke 11:9, "If you seek me, you will find me," or James 4:8, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you"? With such concerns in mind, they reasoned that there was a prior step to salvation. Reasoning backward from Thomas they said that if God rewards good works done in a state of infused grace with eternal life as its just merit, could he not also reward good works done in a state of nature with an infusion of grace? The nominalist said, "Yes." The man or woman who does his or her best in a state of nature receive grace as a fitting reward (deserve grace of congruity). Nominalists were convinced that God meant for people to acquire grace as “semi-merit” within a state of nature and to earn salvation as full merit within a state of grace by doing their best with their natural abilities. This theology taught that people could initiate their salvation.
The Reformers rightly rejected both Thomas' notion of justification by merit and they rejected the nominalist notion of grace by semi-merit within a state of nature, calling the nominalists the "new Pelagians." They insisted that God's Word says that humanity is unable to move toward God, teaching that salvation is by His grace alone (Rom. 3:21-26). They understood that humanity by its very nature was dead in its trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3) and that all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa. 64:6; ESV) before Him.
Article 13 warns us that grace of congruity turns the gospel on its head. It diminishes, if not evacuates, the mercy and grace of God. Instead of turning us toward Christ and the blessings that are ours in him, we are turned inward to ourselves. Article 13 underlines the default position of every fallen human heart.
XIV—Of Works of Supererogation
Voluntary Works besides, over, and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.
This article is one of the few with direct quotations of Scripture. It cites Luke 17:10, “Christ saith plainly, ‘When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.’” It shows that we are still dealing with the medieval merit theology outlined in the article that precedes it. The logic was simple and deadly. If good works before justification merit God’s grace, then good works after justification that are more than God requires, merit more grace than I need. Therefore, additional prayers, observance of holy days, acts of self-denial, living under monastic rules, martyrdom, and an assortment of recommended works were considered "works of supererogation," as acts above and beyond our duty to God. Works of supererogation secured, even more, salvation, and accrued salvific merit in an individual’s salvation. Just in case I (or a deceased family member in purgatory) may be in deficit of God’s grace, I can compensate. I do something extra to top up my righteousness for those moments when I feel failure or experience distance from God, or I make restitution in the name of a deceased family member for what I perceive to have been lacking in their devotion towards him.
Works of supererogation are the reasoning behind the sale of indulgences, still practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. With the appropriate amount of money, repentance is for sale, and any sin could be covered. 500 years ago works of supererogation were the touch paper that sparked the Reformation. Going from town to town in what is now Germany with all the grandeur of Rome behind him, John Tetzel you hear supererogation preached to the crowds: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance…Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’” And then came Tetzel’s catchy jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” With just a quarter of a florin, (today about the cost of a good hot meal for two at a diner in New Jersey) you could liberate your loved one from the flames of purgatory and into the “fatherland of paradise.” But as article 14 points out, “works…cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety”. So by the end of 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther had had enough. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For previous articles in this series, see:
- One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
- The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
- The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
- The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)