Good Works

Preaching and Worship Resources about Good Works

In Christian thinking, good works are beneficial actions — typically motivated by faith, gratitude, or love — that conform to God's will and so please God. God's pleasure in good works is that they bless people and other creatures by delivering value to them. Good works take many forms. There is no single recipe for them. But they all shine in the world, making God more believable.

In Scripture

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:9 - 10).

"To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Prov. 21:3).

"[The Lord] has told you, O mortal, 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?" (Mic. 6:8).

"Bear fruit worthy of repentance" (Matt. 3:8).

"Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

"Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

"[God] will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek" (Rom. 2:6 - 10).

"Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up" (Gal. 6:9).

"By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Eph. 2:8 - 10).

"As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col. 3: 12 - 14).

"The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly" (Titus 2:11 - 12).

"Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God" (Heb. 13:16).

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:14 - 17).

"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead" (James 2:24 - 26).

Points to Ponder

In an upright life, good works make up a good part of everyday life. Spouses encourage each other, cook for each other, run each other's errands. Parents embrace and nourish their children. Friends visit, support, and gift each other. Citizens pay taxes and vote. Church members bring soup to the sick. They don't just pray for boring people; they visit them and try to take an interest in them. They rebuke sexist remarks. They tell the truth even when it's difficult to do it. They take good care of animals, and of trees and shrubs. They shovel snow, rake leaves, and cut grass for the elderly, the grieving, those with disabilities. They show hospitality not only to friends, but also to strangers, including refugees. They guard each other's reputations. They own up to being wrong when they are. They work on forgiving people who have hurt them. They plant trees that will shade future generations.

Good works are not mere niceties or add-ons or ornaments. They are the daily stuff of a righteous life, and they include all the acts of justice in society, such as fighting racism with workshops, votes, boycotts, and online publicity. Acts of justice include performing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay and paying an honest day's wage for an honest day's work. Upright people love justice and hunger for it.

Faith may motivate good works. The faithful person trusts that God is good, and good to her. This trust moves her to please God by doing the good works God loves. Such trust easily morphs into gratitude, the powerful, mixed sense of being blessed and indebted. Gratitude moves good people to do good works. So does love of God and love of neighbor. To love God is to want to please and bless God with a fruitful life of good deeds. To love one's neighbors is to strive to confer value on them through favorable action toward them.

In Matthew 5 Jesus teaches that good works are one form of evangelism. They are a light shining in the world, making God and goodness more credible. In an interview at Calvin Theological Seminary, journalist Sonia Nazario told of witnessing scores of Central American kids trying to get to the United States by riding on top of boxcars. They were buffeted by winds and rain, harassed by gangs, tormented by hunger and thirst. But the kids met kindness in some towns in the persons of Catholic padres, who heaved sandwiches and bottles of water up to the kids. "I'm an agnostic Jew," said Nazario, "but I want to tell you, those padres have made me pause."

Paul and James appear to tug at each other over good works. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that this is not the result of works. James says faith alone won't save us; faith needs to be completed by works. Their emphasis differs, but they fundamentally agree that mere intellectual assent (James's idea of faith) comes nowhere near saving faith. Saving faith includes trust in God's benevolence, and it inevitably generates fruitful works. Good works are the fruit of a good tree.

According to Jonathan Edwards, good works are the evidence of saving faith . According to Edwards, the way to tell whether we have been truly born again by the Spirit of God is to see whether we have a Godly practice. Do we have in our lives a pattern of good works governed by the Ten Commandments and other biblical guides? Do we make good deeds our central business the way a physician makes medicine her central business? And do we keep on in our practice of godliness for the long run of our lives, not just in little spurts while other people are watching?

Of course, in urging good works Edwards was not discounting the place of prayer, Bible reading, or attendance at public worship for preaching and sacraments. He prescribed these things as basic spiritual exercises by which Christians commune with God and excite their hearts with love toward God and fellow believers. But how genuine are these exercises? Given the danger of hypocrisy, how do we know we aren't just thrilling ourselves at church while ignoring God? How do we know we aren't deceiving ourselves?

The way to tell, said Edwards, is not by noticing how much we talk about Jesus. According to the gospels, people who say "Lord" all the time don't necessarily impress God. After all, talk is cheap — and Edwards uses exactly those words. To follow Jesus we have to practice what he preached. And what Jesus preached is that a good tree is known by its fruit — not by its twigs or leaves or heaving branches. And a Christian is known by his godly practice, not by his good intentions or pious talk or spiritual handwaving. A good tree is known by producing actual fruit, and a good Christian is known by producing actual good works. "Godliness consists not in a heart which intends to do the will of God but in a heart which does it" (Edwards, 348).

But can't good works be counterfeited too? Can't people make a show of them, try to get credit for them, and go after them not to do good but just to look good?

Absolutely. So to see whether we have the Spirit of Christ in us, and not just the spirit of self-advancement, we should ask whether our good deeds cost us something. Are we willing to accept the pain of new life as well as its joy? Do we give money away that we would rather have kept, and do we (eventually) find satisfaction in doing so? Do we accept other people's suffering as a shared burden, and thus try to relieve them of a part of it? Are we able to rejoice in God right through allergy season? Do we praise freely and complain rarely? Do we put the best face on other people's motives while also suspecting our own?

Only God knows a human heart. But we can see a Christian practice. We can tell a good heart by good deeds that express the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

David Swing was pastor of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church in the 1870s. Three thousand people came to hear him preach each week. In his sermons, Swing emphasized the need for good works in the Christian life. He did this so consistently that certain other Presbyterian ministers suspected him of harboring a doctrine of salvation by works. To them Swift replied that it is a fine thing to center salvation on faith in Christ, but how can you say you believe in Christ but overlook what Christ taught? Jesus constantly taught the need for good works. Swing said he was only trying to give Christ his due: "To the teachings of Calvin and Luther," he said, I only want to "add in the teachings of our Savior as an important supplement" .

Tried for heresy by the Presbytery of Chicago in 1874, Swing was acquitted.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.