Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"TH' Action Fine": The Good of Works in George Herbert's Poetry and Prose

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"TH' Action Fine": The Good of Works in George Herbert's Poetry and Prose

Article excerpt

It is a good work, if it be sprinkled with the blond of Christ.

--Nicholas Ferrar, quoting Herbert's words spoken on his death bed (WGH 4) (1)

This paper will examine George Herbert's treatment in his poetry and prose of human merit or demerit and good works, as these doctrines relate to God's grace. In Herbert's poem "Judgement," which belongs within the eschatological sequence with which The Church reaches its climax, the lyric's speaker attributes all he is and has been, and all that he does and has done, warts and all, to Christ's saving imputation of righteousness. (2) The poem's setting derives from the account of Judgment Day at Revelation 20:12: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." The speaker asks his "Almightie Judge" (1) how he should behave at that time when each human must present an account of each life's conduct and will be found either to merit or not to merit a place in the Book of Life. The sting in the poem's tail is that the speaker decides that he will "decline" (12) to present a ledger recording his own good works and will instead place a "Testament" (13) in God's hand, namely the New Testament in which Christ's imputed righteousness enables all sinners, despite their lack of merit, to be deemed by God as at once just and a sinner. The speaker of "Judgement" boldly explains to God that, since Christ took sin upon himself and "bore the blame" ("Love (3)" 15), "There thou shalt linde my faults are thine" (15). It is noteworthy that the poem's speaker singles out one particular group standing before the Great Tribunal, whom he distinguishes from himself in believing "That they in merit shall excell" (10). Helen Wilcox has identified "[t]his unspecified group who plan to face judgement relying on their own achievements" as, in all probability, members of the Roman Catholic Church, "who traditionally place more emphasis on good works" (Herbert English Poems 655). Yet the lyric's distinction in theological attitude between those who wholly trust to their own merit and those who entirely rely upon Christ's merit should not obscure the importance that many Protestants, Herbert included, attribute to good works.

A consideration of the twelfth and thirteenth articles of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion is a suitable place to begin:

12. Of good Works. Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of Gods judgment, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known, as a tree discerned by the fruit.

13. 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. (Book of Common Prayer 677)

The crucial points in these two articles are that good works proceed from a state of justification and a soul made right in Christ. Although works possess no efficacy in themselves, a good Protestant and a justified sinner will not sit idly by and wait until Judgment Day, but will commit to good works, because, as in Jesus's parable, a tree is known by the sweetness or the rottenness of its fruit. (3) Good works undertaken before justification are invalid, because "they spring not of Faith in Jesus Christ." In light of these two articles, it becomes clear why the lyrics in The Church section of Herbert's The Temple so frequently emphasize the condition of the human heart--the softening of the stony heart once hardened by sin and now made right with Christ. …

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