The Christian and Good Works
The idea of satisfying God by so-called "good works" and in virtue of them being entitled to a place in heaven, not only characterized a long period of church history but is still to be found in our day. So it should be stated right at the beginning of this article that good works will never bring us to God or secure our place in heaven. "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24); "For by grace are ye saved through faith... Not of works." (Eph. 2:8-9).
But on the other hand Scripture speaks a great deal about good works and it is our purpose to take a look at what the Bible teaches about this.
God the source of all good.
First of all we must realize that everything good has its ultimate source in God. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17). The Lord Jesus who revealed the Father here on earth, "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38) and so He could say to the Jews, "Many good works have I shewed you from My Father; for which of those works do ye stone Me?" (John 10:32).
Everyone who is born of God possesses the divine life and will consequently show this divine character in his life: "He that doeth good is of God" (3 John 11). This shows that so-called "good works" done by unbelievers are only "dead works" in the eyes of God.
Good works in the epistle of James
It is understandable that the Reformers had their difficulties with the epistle of James. These men of God had realized afresh the doctrine of the epistles to the Romans and Galatians concerning justification through faith without works, yet James speaks of justification through works. Martin Luther is said to have called it "the epistle of straw." W. Kelly and F. B. Hole among others have pointed out that it is more an "epistle of iron," a sledgehammer of God.
Let us be sure about this: there is no contradiction in the Word of God. There is no "theology of Paul" that contradicts a "theology of James." The available space forbids our examining the epistle of James in detail, but two short remarks may suffice:
- While Paul speaks of justification before God, which indeed is through faith without works, James speaks of justification before men: "Though a man say he hath faith... shew me thy faith." (James 2:14, 18). My fellow-men can only see my faith in my works.
- The works James is talking about are works of faith and not necessarily those commonly considered to be good works. Abraham offered up his own son and Rahab hid the spies in her home. Ordinarily, neither action would be regarded as a good work. On the contrary, one would be considered murder and the other treason. But these works revealed their faith in God, giving testimony to their love of God (Abraham) and their love of the people of God (Rahab).
Good works the characteristic of believers
After Paul had made clear in Ephesians 2:9 that salvation is the work of God without any works done by men, he continues: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." This shows on the one hand that it is God's purpose that His people should perform good works and on the other that we need not look out restlessly for the good works we are to do, because God has ordained them for us. We simply have to abound in them. "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work" (2 Cor. 9:8).
The more we meditate about this subject the more surprised we may be how often the Word of God speaks about good works in the life of a believer. We will just mention a few passages, highlighting the particular exhortation contained in the different verses.
- "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
- "Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:12).
- "But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing" (2 Thess. 3:13).
- "All scripture is given by inspiration of God... That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
- "That He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people (people of His own), zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14).
- "Put them in mind... to be ready to every good work" (Titus 3:1).
- "And let us consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works" (Heb. 10:24).
How numerous and clear are these verses that admonish us to be eager in good works. But the Bible is not less clear when talking about the omission of good works: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). Reading this verse, I think we begin to see why Mr Kelly called the epistle of James a "sledgehammer."
Who shall do good works?
The exhortation to do good works is first of all an exhortation meant for each and everyone of us. But the Word of God also mentions special groups among the saints that are particularly encouraged to do good works:
"That women adorn themselves... (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works." "Well reported of for good works" (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 5:10). What a wonderful field of service opens for godly sisters. And certainly the adorning with good works is far more valuable than any adorning with gold and pearls.
The servant of the Lord
"In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works" (Titus 2:7). Every servant of the Lord should be a good example in this matter.
"Charge them that are rich in this world... That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate" (1 Tim. 6:17-19). They are admonished not to put their trust in uncertain riches, but instead to use what God has entrusted to their stewardship for the benefit of those in need.
"Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth" (Eph. 4:28).
God's purpose is not only that we cease doing wrong, but that we see and seize the privilege of doing good. If we enquire who should be the recipients of our good works, we will find the answer: all men, with a special emphasis on our brothers and sisters. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).
Two kinds of good works
It is interesting to note that the Greek has two words for "good" and both are used in connection with the term, "good works." As we have seen above that sisters have a special place in doing good works, it is nice to see that two sisters illustrate the use of these two expressions.
- One word for good is "kalos," meaning "good in appearance, aesthetically pleasing" but not necessarily beneficial for others. An example is Mary of Bethany of whom the Lord says: "She hath wrought a good work upon Me" (Matt. 26:10). This work was most precious and valuable in the sight of the Lord. Yet how many, even in Christianity today, wouldn't consider this act of worship as a good work, just as the disciples at the time thought of it as "waste " (Matt. 26:8). But it was a good work indeed in the eyes of the Lord.
- The other expression is "agathos" which has the meaning of good, useful, beneficial. A beautiful example for this is Tabitha in Acts 9:36: "this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did."
So we see from Scripture that there is a real challenge for every believer not to be "weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9). We don't want to close this meditation on the subject of "good works" in a believer's life without mentioning a word of our Lord which aptly describes the attitude which becomes us when doing anything for the Lord: "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10).