“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
—Ephesians 2:10, emphasis supplied
“You Protestants,” said the pious and elderly lady standing at the back of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to the teenage art school student (who was there for strictly aesthetic reasons), “don’t believe in good works.” Of course, she was wrong. What she should have said was “You Protestants don’t believe in good works for salvation.” Bible-believing Protestants do indeed believe in good works as a normal fruit of salvation, but grace alone as the root. The Reformers were clear on this, even if their descendants are not always so. In taking a firm stand against Rome’s salvation by faith plus works (their seven-fold sacramental system) Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the English Reformers were crystal-clear on this very important topic. Would that it were still true in most “Protestant” quarters. Even the conservative remnants of the so-called mainline denominations and the generally smaller, but typically more biblical, groups seem to have drifted from sola gratia.
If salvation were by grace through faith plus a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or a gift of $50 to the Church, we would be saying through all eternity, “Am I glad I made that pilgrimage (or gave that gift)!” We would share the glory of our salvation. And God does not wish to share His glory with anyone—even with us!
In stressing the grace-alone aspect of salvation we are always in danger of becoming (or at least appearing) uninterested in good works. Our lead verse shows that we were specifically created for good works. Hence they must be important. Before examining what good works are, who does them, and with what result, for newer readers of our Journal we would like to underscore one of our strongest emphases, the finished work of Christ.
II. The Greatest Good Work
The only reason a Christian can do any work that can be considered good in God’s eyes is because he or she is building on the foundation of the once-for-all good work of Christ.
In John 6:28, after Jesus fed the 5,000 with the five loaves and two fishes, the Jews asked Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” A very good question deserving a clear, concise answer! If ever there was an opportunity for our Lord to stress the necessity for keeping the law (or part of the law) or availing oneself of the grace said to come through baptism (or holy communion, etc.) or total submission to His Lordship, or character-building, or ten or fifteen other “faith plus” systems that Christendom has devised—this was it!
But note carefully His response: “Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent [emphasis supplied].'”
Believing in the One whom God the Father sent is the only “work” He gives them! How can this be? It can be because, when He dares to predicate acceptance with God upon belief in Himself, He knows what He will shortly do to accomplish the “greatest work” of all—redemption at Calvary.
And that “work” has been accomplished. Thus, when Jesus cried out on the Cross, “It is finished!” John 19:30) the perfect tense of the Greek verb (tetelestai) implied a completed deed with lasting results. He wasn’t merely saying that His life was over! He had finished the work of redemption. The Book of Hebrews stresses the same truth—the “once-and-for-all” character of the work of our Lord at Calvary (Heb 7:27; 9:26, 28; 10:10, 12). For us to add our poor efforts to that infinite sacrifice—however well-meant they might be—is a great insult to God. To show His acceptance of Christ’s work God raised Him from the dead on the third day.
Because Christ has paid it all and done it all for our salvation, through faith in Him we are enabled to do the good works for which He has created us.
III. The Nature of Good Works
Exactly what constitutes good works from a biblical standpoint? How can we define our subject? A good work is one done by one of God’s people, for God’s sake, and in God’s will. A “good work” is a “God work.” The classic French Dictionnaire Larousse has an old motto that is helpful: A definition “without examples is a skeleton.”1
Assuming that every Christian reader of this article wants to actually do good works, let us try to flesh out this skeleton outline with some biblical examples of good works.
Our Lord’s Example
“[He] went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). When threatened by His enemies with stoning, Jesus said, “For which of these good works do you stone Me?” John 10:32). What good works did He mean? He fed the hungry in the feeding of both the 5,000 and the 4,000, and He healed the sick. We cannot do either in the same way He did, but nevertheless we can provide food for the hungry. Traditionally Christian missions have also supplied doctors and nurses to undeveloped areas. In fact, hospitals and orphanages are both byproducts of Christianity. They did not exist before the days of the Church.
Jesus Himself appreciates the good works we do for the poor—and gives credit as if it were done directly to Him.
In the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus tells the sheep why He wanted to reward them:
“…for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Early Christian Examples
Feeding the Hungry
In Acts 6 the destitute widows in the Church at Jerusalem were fed by the generosity of the congregation. Generally speaking, the Church has been active in feeding the hungry through all her long history, a fact which is often oyerlooked by her many critics.
Clothing the Poor
In Acts 9:36-42 we have the account of a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas (Aramaic and Greek for gazelle) who “was full of good works and charitable deeds” (v 36). The good work for which she has been remembered is clothing the poor widows: “And all the widows stood by him [Peter] weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (v 39).
My mother, who was a typical old-fashioned European in her skill with the needle, belonged for years to the “Dorcas Sewing Circle” in our congregation. Untold millions of believing women (and men!) have been and are active in clothing the world’s underprivileged, at home and abroad. The King takes notice.
“Remember the prisoners,” writes the author of Hebrews, “as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also” (Heb 13:3). There have been prisons since earliest history. Christians themselves have often been prisoners for their faith (as in Hebrews), but Christians in countries with freedom of religion have been in the vanguard of trying to reach and help people behind bars.
Various prison ministries spread the Gospel and Bible studies among prisoners and they thus alleviate the root causes for which people are behind bars in the first place. Many who wouldn’t go near a church while on the outside have received a fresh beginning in life through accepting salvation in prison.
Taking people into your home is a good work that demands patience and kindness and a willingness to put up with inconvenience.
Elders are to be hospitable men (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8), but all Christians who are able should practice this good work (1 Pet 1:9). Military personnel away from home, students (especially internationals), traveling Christians—all need to find a hospitable reception in Christian homes.
In early Church days the inns were often virtually brothels, and so itinerant preachers, prophets, and ordinary believers, would be put up in Christian homes.
At least one denomination (the Mennonites) has a good reputation for practicing this even in today’s culture of clean motels and hotels. They have this idiom: “Mennoniting it across the country.” I have seen similar hospitality among the Brethren Assemblies and other biblically-oriented fellowships.
“Do not forget,” writes the author of Hebrews, “to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb 13:16).
Sharing takes in an enormous spectrum of good deeds! A person with a Christlike heart is ready for new and creative good deeds—or, more often, variations on an ancient theme by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Since space forbids detailing more good works than these, we close this section with some good words from that great Germanic giant of God, Martin Luther. Luther maintained that the “noblest of all good works is to believe in Christ.”2 All other good works flow from this. The Reformer protested against limiting good works to “praying in church, fasting, and giving alms,” and held that these could also include “laboring at one’s trade, coming and going, eating, drinking, and sleeping, and all the other acts that help nourish the body or are generally useful.” Anything that the believer does to the glory of God is a good work.
The Importance of Good Works
In the “Letters of our Lord” (Revelation 2, 3), Jesus again and again writes, “I know your works.” Even corrupt Thyatira had many good works. Ephesus had maintained her good works but cooled in her ardor for the Lord. This is always a danger-getting so caught up in charities that the supreme charitas, love for Christ, is dimmed in the daily grind of duties. To be put on the “dole,” Christian widows had to have a reputation for good works (1 Tim 5:10).
As is well known, the Pastoral Epistles are especially rich in exhortations to good works. Consider, for example, the following verses, which we have boldfaced in places to emphasize our theme: “Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (1 Tim 6:18). Titus is told by senior missionary Paul to show himself “to be a pattern of good works” (Titus 2:7).
The very purpose of Christ’s redemption, as we saw in this article’s theme verse, was to create a people to be like Him, going about doing good. Paul expresses this in Titus 2:14: “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”
An occasional good deed is not enough. Neither is starting out well and then letting our good deeds slide and gradually forgetting to do them.
We must “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb 10:24). In the last chapter of Titus Paul says twice within a few verses that “our people” have to keep at it:
This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men…. And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful (3:8, 14).
Using our Lord’s examples, illustrations from the early Christians, and NT exhortations, we have tried to put some meat on the bare bones of a purely verbal definition. This material is merely suggestive.
Eternity alone will be “time” enough to recount the untold billions of good deeds—ordinary, creative, and occasionally unique—that God’s people have done.
IV. The Good Worker
Many of the things encouraged in our previous discussion have been and are practiced by people who are clearly not believers in the biblical sense or even professing Christians at all. Jews, Muslims, and even humanists can do many nice things. The same outward act can be done by a believer and an unbeliever, yet only one deed will be counted as a good work in God’s eyes because it springs from His Spirit. What Shakespeare calls “the milk of human kindness” is an observable trait. Sometimes unbelievers are more active in doing nice deeds than Christians, and people judge accordingly. However, the comparison should not be between the best that a refined or religious unbeliever can do versus what a lazy, immature, or carnal believer is doing, but what would be the difference in the same person before and after salvation and sanctification. This is hard to gauge, but many Christians struggling with a bad temper, lust, sharp tongue, or selfishness, are quick to point out how completely hopeless they were before their conversion!
Some people by nature seem endowed with the milk of human kindness and actually enjoy helping others, often with mixed motives, however. But when a basically selfish person does good works for Christ’s sake, he is “doing what comes supernaturally.”3
The goals to which a practicer of good works should strive are amply presented and elaborated in the NT, especially, as we have noted, in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Again and again in these three short books Christians are commanded or encouraged to maintain good works.
Trained by Saving Grace
A passage that succinctly and beautifully summarizes the kind of person who should be doing good works is Titus 2:11-12. The paragraph heading for Titus 2:11-15 in The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, “Trained by Saving Grace,” nicely sets the tone:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.
Our English word pedagogy comes from the verb translated “teaching” here. It is teaching, training, or discipline. Some contexts suggest self-denial (“just say no!”). Good works are hard to do. By nature we would much rather cushion our lives with all the creature-comforts we can afford (or can’t afford in this age of plastic money!).
The Selfward Lifestyle
The first adverb that Paul uses describes the selfward attitude of one who wishes to be a good worker for God: soberly (sophronos). This word suggests a serious (not morbid), sound-minded manner of life with deep consideration of eternal values. Our present conduct will greatly affect our future rewards and position in God’s kingdom. As someone has well said, “Time is the embryo of eternity.”
The Manward Lifestyle
The word righteously (dikaios) stresses how we are to deal with our fellow men—both saved and unsaved. Our relationship with others should always be fair and just, which is at least part of the somewhat theological word “righteous.” Righteous living is a positive necessity if we are to treat others as we would like to be treated. We should not be satisfied with a legal fulfillment of the minimum requirements of fair play. We should be actively doing “good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
If we don’t strive to do right by ourselves we will not treat other people properly either. Actually our personal lives stem from our condition in God’s sight, which is the third aspect in an ascending scale of life values for the doer of good works.
The Godward Lifestyle
Paul uses the word godly (eusebos) for the third and most important part of a Christian’s doings. The word may be translated “piously” or “devoutly,” and comes from roots meaning “good” (eu-) and “worship” (seb-). The idea is that we do good works for God’s sake, being inspired by His promptings.
If we are well-adjusted to God’s will we will be doing good works whether they are visible or known to others or not. We should never “advertise” our good works. As our Lord said regarding giving, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). This command has been honored largely in the breach. Much of Christendom encourages giving with outward recognition: “To the glory of God AND ____.” Furthermore, the “AND” part (glory to the giver) is generally what people notice.
To help us maintain our good works when all around seem bent on self-aggrandizement and pampering self (for, after all, “You deserve it,” say the TV commercials), an incentive is given in v 13: “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Good Works Observed
I hope I will be forgiven two anecdotes about a good worker to whom I had the good fortune of being related. Of my late Uncle George it was said, “He went about doing good.” He was a bachelor who lived in a brownstone house in the Bronx with his sister, Anna.
Uncle George worked very hard all week as a gifted mason (he helped build St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the United Nations Building). On Saturdays, instead of taking it easy, he would buy fruit and coffee cake and visit elderly shut-in folks from the old country (in this case Norway) and also, from time to time, elderly Swedish4 folk as well.
Two incidents stand out from my boyhood out East. Once a Danish sailor named Magnus, who knew no English, got his leg caught in between a subway train and the platform. It was so badly mangled that the doctor said it would almost certainly have to be amputated. Uncle George took Magnus into his brownstone, gave him his room, and said, “Nei, da!” (Nothing doing!). Through care and mostly prayer, Magnus ‘s leg was saved. After a long recovery he went back to his wife and family in Denmark.
One blustery winter day, wearing his new, expensive overcoat ($40 was a lot in those days!), Uncle George was accosted by a shivering tramp on the windy streets of the Big Apple. Yes, you guessed it. He took off his coat, gave it to a man most people would call a “bum,” and went home shivering himself. “Tante” Anna was scandalized. “And your new coat, too, George!” But I’m sure Uncle George is glad now.
I think Uncle George would have liked the following motto by John Wesley. It deserves to be lettered in calligraphy and put up in every Christian home:
DO ALL THE GOOD YOU CAN,
IN ALL THE WAYS YOU CAN,
TO ALL THE PEOPLE YOU CAN,
AS LONG AS EVER YOU CAN.
When Christ comes, all of these good works will be duly rewarded. It will be worth it all then.
V. Rewards for Good Works
To be rewarded, our works don’t have to be big, impressive, or cause great expense.
Listen to Jesus: “And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward” (Matt 10:42). A cup of cold water! Not a hard thing to do. But notice it is cold water, not lukewarm—a beautiful little touch.
First Corinthians 3 is the central passage for rewarding a believer’s good works:
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (v 12-15).
Some of our works are showy and to be seen by others. Some are done for the wrong reason. God knows our hearts. I believe each believer will receive some reward. Even death-bed converts, like the thief on the cross, have the fruits of their dying confession.
Years ago a seminary student had the following dream which was related to the class by our Greek professor:
The young man was being “graded” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema). When his turn to be reviewed came up, an angel wheeled out something resembling a booth at a county fair bedecked with fruits, flowers, and ribbons. This represented his good works, and the young man was pleased because it looked quite impressive. Then the angel put a match to it, and to the seminary student’s dismay, the whole thing went up in smoke! Soon it was just a little pile of charred embers and ashes. Crestfallen, the student was about to despair, when the angel pulled out a little rake and started to sift through the ashes. From the charred remains he retrieved several lovely precious jewels—those works which had withstood the fire.
Only a dream. Yet it has a good lesson for all Christians. Do practice good works—but do so out of love for Christ, your fellow-men, and especially your fellow-Christians: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
Yes, we who believe in salvation by faith alone do also believe in good works. But we are careful to maintain the great gap between the finished work of Christ and the good works for which we have been created. His work is the basis for our salvation by faith apart from works. It is also the basis for good works after our conversion.
One of the evangelical stalwarts of the last generation, Dr. W. H. Griffith Thomas, shared the following little poem on faith and works with his daughter Winifred:
I will not work my soul to save,
For that my Lord has done;
But I will work like any slave
For love of God’s dear Son!”
1“Un dictionnaire sans exemples eat un squelette” refers to the entire body of definitions, but it is equally true of individual words.
2This and the following quotations are from Luther’s tract entitled “Sermon on Good Works.”
3The phrase is from a book title by Dr. Frye, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas.