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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

Anglicanism's teachings on moral thought and action are similar to those of other traditions of Reformed Protestantism.  Before a person receives the gift of saving faith in Jesus Christ (which is trust that one's sins are forgiven on account of Christ's sacrificial death on the cross), none of that person's deeds is "good" in the sense of being pleasing to God.  All works done apart from faith have the nature of sin because they are not done as God wills.  That is not meant to imply some defect in the action itself (as if a believer's method of, for example, helping a needy person is more effective than that of a non-believer), or that only believers are capable of helping their neighbors in need.  Rather, it refers to a lack in the heart of the non-believer.  Good works, works that are pleasing to God, are works that flow out of faith in Christ.

After a person receives saving faith, good works follow as the fruits of that faith.  Indeed, a true and lively faith necessarily produces good works.  Further, there is a visible goodness about a believer's good works, for they indicate a person's lively faith just as the nature of a fruit indicates the nature of the tree from which it came.

Although one might conclude from this position that Christians are capable of attaining moral perfection in this life, that is not the teaching of Anglicanism.  Anglicanism teaches that even the good works of believers could not withstand God's judgment.  In other words, there is no human work that is untainted by sin.  But the good works of the believer are nevertheless pleasing to God in Christ, that is, on account of Christ.

Moreover, Anglicanism teaches that Christians continue to sin in many things.  Not all of a believer's works are pleasing to God.  Many, in fact, are offensive, and even willfully so.  Thus may a Christian depart from God's grace, but also may by God's grace return and amend his or her life.

Before turning to the issue of how one may determine whether or not a work is good, it should be noted that not all Anglicans adhere to the beliefs about good works just described.  Some reject the idea that the works of non-believers cannot please God.  Others agree that Christians continue to sin, but disagree that no works are completely good.  The believer, unlike the non-believer, is empowered by the Holy Spirit to do works that are wholly good.  The believer does not do such works in all cases, but does do them in some cases.

The bases for determining the goodness of a work are scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Opinions are quite diverse as to the roles of the four.  As originally described by Richard Hooker, scripture had primary authority, reason secondary, and tradition tertiary.  Experience was not included as a source of authority.


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