Article 11 of the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, “Of Works of Supererogation,” is taken verbatim from Article 14 of the Thirty-Nine Articles:
Voluntary works, — besides, over, and above God’s commandments — which are called works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogance 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 says plainly, “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.’”
Voluntary works, — besides, over, and above God’s commandments — which are called works of supererogation — Article 11 begins with a definition of supererogation: works that go above and beyond what God commands. Scripture teaches what duty God requires of man; works of supererogation go “beyond the call of duty.” The word supererogation is from the Latin super (beyond) and erogare (paying out); that is, paying out more than is due.
An example of supererogation is the strict monastic lifestyle described in Article 27 of the Augsburg Confession, “Of Monastic Vows.” While monasteries were once “free associations” in which Christians came together to learn, they became like “a carefully planned prison” in the late Middle Ages. Rigorous vows were pressed upon young men and women who were then “ensared” and “compelled to remain” in the monasteries. One of the “wicked opinions” that was “inherent in the vows” was “that they have works of supererogation.”
They taught that vows were equal to Baptism; they taught that by this kind of life they merited forgiveness of sins and justification before God. Yea, they added that the monastic life not only merited righteousness before God but even greater things, because it kept not only the precepts, but also the so-called “evangelical counsels.”
Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands, without any man-made services.
cannot be taught without arrogance 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: — It is easy to detect the arrogance in the example above. Pastors “serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands,” yet the monastics of the late middle ages “put [monasticism] far above all other kinds of life ordained of God,” as if they knew better than God and could come up with a more righteous and honorable life than the “noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1) of shepherding the flock. Instead of doing what “of bounden duty is required,” they went beyond the call of duty “for his sake,” as if God needed or was indebted to them by their works. Their manmade works of supererogation were pressed on others as if commanded by God.
In his exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Gerald Bray explains that implied in the condemnation of supererogatory works is the assumption that these works were done to gain merit with God:
In the merit theology of the middle ages, it was often thought that such works of supererogation, as acts above and beyond the call of duty were called, could be used as credits to set off against other misdemenours elsewhere, even those committed by other people. For example, by doing a bit more than is strictly necessary, I might be able to reduce the time one of my loved ones was spending in purgatory, by transferring my superfluous merit to him. Of course this all makes sense in the context of salvation by works, but once we start believing in justification by faith alone, such behaviour loses its meaning. It is no more than an attempt to buy favour with God, which is not only impossible but blasphemous.
Bray notes that “this way of thinking may be common in human affairs.” He gives the example of forgetting your mother’s birthday, then giving her a gift that goes above and beyond what you would normally give in the hope that she will forget all about your original thoughtlessness. When it comes to our relationship with God, however, this way of thinking is blasphemous, “because it detracts from the sheer mercy and unmerited grace of our salvation in Christ.”
In Chapter 14 of Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes against works of supererogation for the same reason. He rejects the medieval scholastic notion that “faults which are committed are compensated by works of supererogation,” and answers that “the grace which they call accepting, is nothing else than the free goodness with which the Father embraces us in Christ when he clothes us with the innocence of Christ, and accepts it as ours, so that in consideration of it he regards us as holy, pure, and innocent.”
Martin Luther wrote even more forcefully against works of supererogation in his Commentary on Galatians:
Of all the diseased and vicious doctrines of the papacy the worst is this: “If you want to serve God you must earn your own remission of sins and everlasting life, and in addition help others to obtain salvation by giving them the benefit of your extra work-holiness.” Monks, friars, and all the rest of them brag that besides the ordinary requirements common to all Christians, they do the works of supererogation, i.e., the performance of more than is required. This is certainly a fiendish illusion.
whereas Christ says plainly, “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.’” — Article 11 concludes with a citation from Luke 17:10:
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (ESV)
The humble servant does his duty from morning to night—nothing more, nothing less. He keeps his hand on the plow. He doesn’t expect any special recognition or reward for his labors. His bread is to do the will of his Master. Such is the life to which Christ has called us, not to a life of vain supererogation. In his Notes on Luke 17:10, John Wesley explains that this is for our good and happiness:
When ye have done all, say, We are unprofitable servants – For a man cannot profit God. Happy is he who judges himself an unprofitable servant: miserable is he whom God pronounces such. But though we are unprofitable to him, our serving him is not unprofitable to us. For he is pleased to give by his grace a value to our good works, which in consequence of his promise entitles us to an eternal reward.
Article 11 has a negative and positive application. First, Article 11 warns against spiritual pride and legalism in all its forms. While it sounds super-spiritual to go above and beyond God’s commandments in the name of “carefulness” or “holiness,” there is an underlying spiritual arrogance and pride in such works. They make us feel superior to other Christians who “merely” focus on God’s clear precepts in Scripture. What sounds pious is a great impiety, because it detracts from the free grace of God in salvation and undermines the sufficiency of Scripture “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Today, there are still those who would make “the narrow way” more narrow than what Christ himself has ordained. They boast in their manmade standards and impress them on others as necessary for having God’s blessing. Avoid such people.
Second, Article 11 reminds us to be humble and dutiful servants of Christ. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13).