Politics as Good Works

William Wilberforce (Wikipedia Commons)


            In my own life, I have often heard that one reason Christians don’t engage in political activity is because the realm of politics is intrinsically corrupt and dirty. One author phrases this objection as, “It’s a Dirty Game. They’re All on the Make. They Can’t Be Trusted.”[1] Therefore, for a Christian to engage in such a process would taint our witness for Christ and would get us involved in a worldly power struggle when Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Yet, is this how Christians ought to think? I argue no. This objection ultimately fails because it misunderstands the nature of politics and the nature of a Christian’s relationship to the world, culture, and the political process. In order to demonstrate this, a positive vision must be drawn which sketches these relationships in a biblical fashion.

            In this paper, I will make the argument that Christians ought to look at politics through the lens of good works­—that is—involvement in the political process can be just as pleasing, good, and glorifying to God as other activities that we typically think of as good works (like serving the poor). To accomplish this, I will explore the doctrine of good works, a theology of the state, and how these two doctrines are able to interact with one another, giving particular attention to the Reformer’s views of both good works and the state.

The Doctrine of Good Works

            In this section, I will briefly discuss some of the key aspects of what constitutes a good work, as this will be necessary in seeing whether political works can meet that criteria.

            Scripture, while calling certain actions good, does not seem to define “works” as a whole in terms of a set list of such actions. Instead, Jesus answers the very question of “What are works?” directly in John 6:28-29. When asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Therefore, faith in Jesus Christ, as Martin Luther put it is “the first and highest, the most precious of all good works…For in this work all good works must be done and receive from it the inflow of their goodness, like a loan.”[2] So, at a fundamental level, “good works” coincides with faith in Jesus. In fact, God is said to have prepared works for those who are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10).

            Yet, this does not paint the whole picture. There still seems to be works which subsequently flow from faith. Romans 14:23 states, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Likewise, Ephesians 2:8-10 talk about God having prepared works for us to do. Therefore, a full account of good works must include those works which proceed from faith.

            The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 91, gives a more robust definition of good works when it asks, “But what are good works?” It answers,

Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.[3]

Notice the three components of good works mentioned in the catechism: 1) Good works proceed from a true faith, 2) They are performed according to the law of God, and 3) Good works are performed according to his glory. The first component has just been discussed above and will not be elaborated further for the sake of space. However, the second and third points should receive some additional attention.

            The second component of the Heidelberg Catechism‘s definition helps fortify the first. While recognizing that true faith would not violate God’s law, people, under the guise of true faith, do violate God’s commandments. Therefore, it must be stated that good works must be in accordance with God’s commands. In this vein, Luther says, “We ought first to know that there are no good works except those which God has commanded, even as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden. Therefore whoever wishes to know and to do good works needs nothing else than to know God’s commandments.”[4] This prevents good works from being formed by “our imaginations” and “the institutions of men” that Heidelberg 91 mentions. R. Michael Allen, commenting on this second aspect of good works states, “Social mores, personal proclivities, cultural approaches to life are not the guidance and the discipline that are to lead us to live according to God’s pleasure. No, our good works—if they’re to be truly good works—must be performed according to God’s law.”[5] This helps to eliminate the subjective elements of what can be called ‘true faith’ by grounding it in God’s objective moral law, preventing us from being those who are zealous, but without knowledge (Romans 10:2-4).

            The third element of the Heidelberg Catechism‘s definition of good works speaks to the telos of good works. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). This, and other passages like it (Colossians 3:17, 23) make it clear that good works must be directed away from ourselves and toward the glory of God. Speaking of this aspect of good works, Louis Berkhof says, “Whatever their proximate aim may be, their final aim is not the welfare of man, but the glory of God, which is the highest conceivable aim of man’s life.”[6] So, even works done even on behalf of other people should be performed with the aim of glorifying God.

            As stated in Heidelberg 91, good works must proceed from true faith, be founded in God’s law, and be done for God’s glory. It is this definition with which I will evaluate the nature of politics. Before making a direct evaluation, though, some groundwork must be laid about a theology of the state.

A Theology of the State

            Foundational to this discussion is Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. These passages lay out three key principles concerning the nature of government.

            The first principle which Scripture establishes is that government is established by God. Romans 13 says that the governing authorities are “instituted” (Romans 13:1) and “appointed” (Romans 13:2) by God and are also called God’s “servant” (Romans 13:4) and “ministers” (Romans 13:6). Thus, because government is established by God, government cannot be looked at purely in secular terms.

            Second, God establishes government for the purpose of maintaining moral order. Paul states that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad” (Romans 13:3) and that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4) Government is even said to carry out “God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Likewise, Peter says that governors are sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). Government, while attending to the things of this world, carries out a divine mandate to uphold moral order in society.

            Lastly, because God has established government to maintain moral order, Christians are commanded to be in submission to government “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13) and “for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). By doing so, we maintain a good witness to the world around us and can “put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15) who might accuse us of doing evil by subverting authority.

Theology of the State in Reformed Tradition

            All three of these Scriptural principles feature prominently in the works of Martin Luther John Calvin, and Abraham Kuyper as they seek to address the political and societal issues of their time. Space will not permit me to point out the various ways in which they use these Scriptures. However, I did want to address the way in which they approached the nature of government in the world and the Christian’s relationship to it.

            Luther’s approach has often been called the ‘two kingdoms’ model. He makes this division based on the type of person. “We must divide all the children of Adam into two classes; the first belong to the kingdom of God, the second to the kingdom of the world.”[7] In other words, he is distinguishing between Christians and non-Christians. Luther claims that if the whole world were true believers in Christ, then no civil government would be necessary because they would be subject to Christ.[8] However, since this is not the world we live in, secular government is necessary in order to govern the behavior of non-believers.[9] This has been the case throughout Scripture from Genesis 4 until now in which God has set up secular powers to regulate the actions of mankind.[10] Christians, although not intrinsically subject to the power of the sword (for amongst themselves they have no need of it), still submit to its authority out of love and necessity of their non-believing neighbor.[11]

            Calvin also envisions a two-kingdom model, although it varies somewhat from Luther. While Luther divides the kingdoms based on two types of people, Calvin divides it based on two different laws which are present in man. He says,

Let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men…There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority.[12]

There needs to be differing authorities which preside over these different laws, both a spiritual government and a political government. The spiritual government has begun its work already in the lives of believers and offers a “forecast of an immortal and incorruptible blessedness.”[13] Yet, because we are all pilgrims upon the earth awaiting a “true fatherland,” he also recognizes the necessity of political government.[14]

            Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), appearing later in the reformed tradition, is best known for his idea of sphere sovereignty. According to his model, Christ is sovereign over all. As Kuyper is often quoted as saying, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ…does not cry: ‘Mine!'”[15] Yet, at the same time Jesus divides life into “separate spheres, each with its own sovereignty,”[16] in which he delegates his authority to be stewarded by men. There exists a sphere of nature over which God has authority, a sphere of faith where the individual remains sovereign, a sphere of the home, of science, of the church, of business, and many more.[17] Each contains its own authority and sovereignty within its own sphere which it derives from God.[18] But the greatest of the spheres, what Kuyper calls the “sphere of spheres, which encircles the whole extent of human life”[19] is the State, which governs the boundaries of the other spheres and ensures that they do not encroach on one another’s territory. As the State is the only sphere which carries the power of the sword, it is the only sphere that is capable of this role. Yet, it itself must be weary of encroaching into the boundaries of other spheres as well.

            The models offered by Luther, Calvin, and Kuyper fit well within the biblical principles outlined in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. All affirm that the State derives its sovereignty from God, that it exists to maintain moral order, and that Christians ought to submit to its authority.      

Politics as Good Works

            With the foundations now laid, the task that now remains is to evaluate whether political action can be aligned with the Heidelberg Catechism‘s definition of good works: “Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.”

1. True Faith

            Can political action proceed from true faith like other works? One objection sometimes presented is that government is inherently “demonic”[20] based on a reading of Luke 4:5-7 where Satan claims that all the kingdoms of the world have been delivered to him. Yet, as Wayne Grudem correctly points out, not only do we have to deal with the fact that Satan is the father of all lies (John 8:44), but this would seem to contradict the rest of Scripture pertaining to government, much of which we already mentioned above.[21] Since government is a God-ordained institution, then there seems to be nothing that would intrinsically prevent Christians from being able to do works in the political sphere.

2. According to God’s Law

            Another potential objection could be whether government violates the commandments of God. For example, is it allowable for Christians to engage in an enterprise where force and coercion is used (even to the point of putting another person to death)? How do we reconcile this in light of Exodus 20:13 or Matthew 5:21, 39? John Calvin responds to this objection by saying, “If we understand that the magistrate in administering punishments does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgments of God, we shall not be hampered by this scruple.”[22] In other words, a Christian in government wouldn’t be using the power of the sword to exact personal revenge or carrying out personal vendettas, but since government acts on God’s behalf to punish the wrongdoer, likewise it is true for a Christian in government. Luther even more forcefully states that Christians ought to use “body, soul, honor or goods” to advance the use of the sword, since it is ultimately not for the good of the Christian but for the good of their unsaved neighbor.[23]

3. God’s glory

            One final objection presented is that political action is inherently self-seeking and self-aggrandizing, which would counteract doing good works for God’s glory. While it is certainly true that politics has this potential, it doesn’t necessarily have this quality any more than it is for a businessman to necessarily be greedy. Could a businessman be greedy? Yes. Does this mean that Christians should not engage in business? No. Similarly, just because politics can be used to bring glory to oneself, that doesn’t mean that Christians should avoid participation.

            Luther rightly outlines what should motivate a Christian to enter politics:

The reason you should do this is, that in this case you would enter entirely into the service and work of others, which benefited neither yourself nor your property nor your character, but only your neighbor and others; and you would do it not to avenge yourself or to recompense evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety and peace of others.[24]

Thus, we see a model attitude for the phrase “civil servant.” Christians who engage in political action should do so not as a way to serve themselves but as a way to serve their neighbor. In so doing, they will glorify God.


            Heidelberg 91 offers a definition of good works in which they must proceed from true faith, be founded in God’s law, and be done for God’s glory. According to this definition, can political actions or works be considered good works? Scripture and reason would seem to indicate that they can be.

            Since government is ultimately established by God for our good (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17), Christians acting in the capacity of the government should be viewed as carrying out God’s will (presuming such actions accord with God’s law).

            Within the Reformed tradition, first generation reformers like Luther, second generation reformers like Calvin, and later thinkers like Kuyper, though they hold to various views about the nature and role of the state, all affirm the legitimacy of government and see Christians as having an active participatory role in it. In fact, they would assert that if Christians do not participate in government, negative consequences are surely to follow. In this light, Christians could even be deemed necessary to the healthy functioning and flourishing of both government and society.

            Like other good works, Christians should seek to approach their political works through the lens of their faith as a Christian. By doing this, their political works will be motivated by the desire to uphold God’s law with the result being God’s glorification.

               [1] Andy Flannagan, “Five Reasons why Christians Shouldn’t be Involved in Party Politics,” Political Theology 12, no. 1 (January 2011): 5.

               [2] Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works (n.p.: The Floating Press), 28-29.

               [3] Rick Brannan (ed.), Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2001).

               [4] Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, 28.

               [5] R. Michael Allen, ET101 Law and Gospel: The Basis of Christian Ethics, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

               [6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 541.

               [7] Martin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent Should It Be Obeyed, Our Lord’s Lutheran Church, Accessed April 30, 2019, http://ollc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Secular-Authority-To-What-Extent-It-Should-Be-Obeyed.pdf., 5.

               [8] Luther, Secular Authority, 5.

               [9] Luther, Secular Authority, 6.

               [10] Luther, Secular Authority, 3-4.

               [11] Luther, Secular Authority, 9.

               [12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), III.xix.15.

               [13] Calvin, Institutes, IV.xx.2.

               [14] Calvin, Institutes, IV.xx.2

               [15] Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

               [16] Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper, 467.

               [17] Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper, 467.

               [18] Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper, 468.

               [19] Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper, 472.

               [20] Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 21.

               [21] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 37-38.

               [22] Calvin, Institutes, IV.xx.10.

               [23] Luther, Secular Authority, 10-11.

               [24] Luther, Secular Authority, 11.

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