"Works" is not a dirty word

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1

When we were pregnant with our first baby, my wife and I decided that we did not want to find out the sex until our child was born. To be honest, we both wanted a girl. We tried not to share this publicly, but in the privacy of our home we felt the freedom to express it often.

We finally finished preparing the nursery the day before we went to the hospital. That evening, before we went to bed, I walked towards the door of the nursery, leaned my head inside the empty room, and said, “Ok, Zoë. It’s time to go to sleep. Tomorrow is your first day at Daddy’s school! I love you; goodnight.”

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At this point I had been teaching for a number of years at a local Classical Christian school, and I was already counting down to the day when I would be able to take my daughter to this school that I had grown to love. I didn’t know for sure that we would be having a daughter, and I didn’t know for sure that I would still be working for the school when she was old enough to attend, but a dad can dream.

The next day I had the joy of announcing the birth of our child to family and friends. “It’s Zoë Ly!” We had a daughter, and my dream was one step closer to being fulfilled.

Four years later I told this entire story to Zoë on the eve of her first day of attending Daddy’s school. I shared every detail. I tried to communicate the fact that I had been waiting more than four years for this day to finally arrive, and how excited I was to drive her to school, sneak into her classroom on occasion, and even stop by and see her during lunch. After a five-minute conversation with Zoë, I closed with this line:

“Tomorrow we will wake up, eat breakfast, drive to school, and spend our first of many daddy-daughter school dates together!”

Her response summed up all that it means to be four years old.

“What are we eating for breakfast? Can we have pancakes?”

Toddlers are masters at selective hearing.

Listening to the Bible

Christians are no strangers to the concept of being selective hearers. This may be especially clear in many Protestant readings of Matthew 6:1. It seems that “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them” has been truncated to “Beware of practicing your piety.” Period. Done. I don’t want to rely on my works for salvation, so I will make sure not to do any. Others may choose to listen to a little bit more of the verse, “Beware of practicing your piety before men.” I would serve sacrificially like those people, but then others would see me. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

We take a warning against doing something in public with improper motives and make it into a warning against doing anything period.

Works has become a dirty word.

This notion, however prevalent it may be in many circles today, is completely foreign to the world of the New Testament. In fact, this notion is foreign to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the very sermon that Matthew is quoting in Chapter 6.

If we were to be better hearers of Scripture, we would always read Matthew 6:1 in light of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And when we do this, we notice that moments before warning against “practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them,” Jesus teaches us to “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.”

And when we read 6:1 in light of 5:16 we notice that doing good works is not the problem. Doing good works in front of other people is not even the problem. And, perhaps to our surprise, it also appears that doing good works in front of other people hoping that they will see the good works happening is still not the problem. So what is the problem? What are we to avoid?

We are to avoid doing good works in front of others in order for us to be seen by them. The good works themselves, according to 5:16, are actually meant to be seen. We, according to 6:1, are not. This is a subtle, but important distinction. Does this mean that we should always act as anonymously as possible? Probably. Does this mean that we should avoid announcing our good works before, during, and after we complete them? I happen to think so. But is there any hint that good works themselves should be avoided? Certainly not.

As we are reminded countless times throughout Scripture, it seems that once again it comes down to a difference of attitude, not of action.

For many of us, this is not breaking news. Intellectually, we get it. I am supposed to do good works, but I shouldn’t do them for the wrong reasons. But more often than not, we use this correct reasoning to avoid putting any effort or work into our Christian faith. We “play it safe” by avoiding the pursuit of growing in our ability to do good works year after year in order to avoid doing anything with improper motivation. And reading only part of Matthew 6:1, we use the Scriptures themselves to justify our lack of effort.

If this rings true in your own life, as it does in mine, do not beat yourself up about it. Allow the conviction to set in, but keep this in mind: there is something good about our tendency to be cautious when it comes to thinking about good works. Jesus, who knows what it means to be human, has good reason to warn us to avoid doing good works for the wrong reason.

But that being said, if you lean towards a negative view of works — if works has become a dirty word for you — then consider the following selection the beginning of a renewed understanding of how the New Testament talks about good works.

Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. Acts 9:36 

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

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. Hebrews 10:23–25

As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed. 1 Timothy 6:17–19

Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us. Titus 2:7–8

I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men. Titus 3:8

Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17

Why, despite the witness of the New Testament, do we still believe that good works are to be avoided, protected against, or even repented of? There are plenty of good answers to that question, but for now it is worth exploring one of them: we have blurred the incredibly important distinction between works and merit.

Works and Merit

When you encounter the word works or deeds in the Scriptures, you are simply encountering a word meaning “something that is done.” These words themselves do not carry a negative or positive connotation. This is why the Scriptures will usually describe what kind of work or deed is in mind. Throughout Scripture humans are credited with doing good works and with doing bad works. Simply put, humans do things all the time. Some of these things are better than others. Good works are those things that we do that actually please God.

Merit, on the other hand, is the basis for which something is earned. Think about merit-based college scholarships for a moment. Those applicants who have accomplished the most, academically or otherwise, receive the greatest rewards. Their works—high test scores, excelling in extracurricular activities—are the basis by which they can earn money for college.

In the previous section I hope you saw how clearly the New Testament speaks in favor of Christians pursuing good works. But we cannot ignore how clearly the New Testament also speaks against thinking that any of our good works earn us favor in God’s eyes. The Protestant instinct to avoid any implication that we can earn our salvation is a good one.

This instinct, rightly understood, is a refusal to accept salvation based on our own merit. It should not be a refusal to accept the rightful place of good works in the Christian life.

So let me be very clear here: because of the work of Christ, the door to God’s family is wide open. There’s nothing you can do that will get you in that door. God’s grace is amazing, free, and offered through no merit of our own. Those who least deserve it actually receive it most fully. No exceptions. Full stop. You are invited into God’s family by grace, through faith.

But once you are in the family of God, you are not finished, and God is not finished with you. “Getting in” is not the only goal. In a sense, once you are in God’s family, your real work begins.

Or as Dallas Willard once wrote, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”

I want to go one step further and suggest that practicing good works on a daily basis actually helps us avoid trusting in our own merit. By doing — or attempting to do — good works we are actually given the grace of realizing how dependent we are on the Grace of God.

If I do not give to the poor or tithe to my church, I never really notice how hard it is for me to let go of my possessions. I never quite see that at the end of the day I view my money as my money. This is my hard-earned cash, not theirs. By not practicing almsgiving and tithing, I don’t realize how selfish I actually am. But when I do give, I am confronted with the reality that it is not uncommon for me to see the money come out of my bank each month and think Man, it would be really nice to spend that on a bike, or a new phone, or a new kitchen.

If I do not regularly fast, I never really notice how difficult it is for me to say no to so many of my basic impulses. By not practicing fasting, I don’t realize how prone I actually am to temptation. But when I do fast, I am confronted with the reality that my joy is more often than not rooted in the fact that I am fed and caffeinated, not the hope I have as a child of God.

If I don’t regularly read Scripture, and I never encounter the high standard it paints for disciples of Christ, I never really notice that the only way I feel “holy” is when I compare myself to those around me who don’t do certain things as well as I do. By not practicing daily Scripture reading, I don’t realize how far I have to go in this journey of becoming more like Jesus. But when I do read Scripture, I am confronted with the reality that as soon as I start to make progress in one area of sin another one is exposed.

It is by practicing good works that I actually realize how much I rely on the grace of God for everything.

So do good works. Don’t be concerned about whether you get credit for them or not. (In fact, try not to get credit for them if you can help it.) And please recognize that our good works are the result of the grace of God and not the basis for God giving us that grace.

This is the goal. It is difficult. And, like anything else worth doing well, it takes practice — or what wise people of old called habits.

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