“If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Galatians 5:25
Depending on when you are reading this, you may have already broken most or all of the resolutions you set for the new year. The old joke is that resolutions are made to be broken. And yet, we smile at that line somewhat reservedly. We do feel that we would like this year to be better than the last. But this really begs the question . . . why? Why strive to do good in the new year? Or, more generally, why do good at all? The Bible addresses this question head-on, giving three solid answers. We should do good for God’s sake, for our neighbor’s sake, and for our own sake.
Doing Good for God’s Sake
It’s no surprise that the primary reason for doing good has to do with God; but not in the way many people tend to think. No good that we do could possibly earn God’s favor. God saves sinners based on his graciousness, that is, based on his sovereign good pleasure. He does not save sinners because of their good deeds (Eph. 2:8). In fact, the Bible teaches that no one can actually do real good in God’s sight until that person has trusted in Christ and repented of his sins (Rom. 14:23). But if we don’t do good to catch God’s saving attention, then why bother?
To Demonstrate Our Thankfulness to Him
First of all, Christians do good because they have grateful hearts for who God is and for what he has done for them. Consider an illustration from an ordinary parent-child relationship. Why do children do good toward their parents?
First, because of all the good their parents have already done for them. Think of all the sacrifices a parent makes for a child. Before a child enters kindergarten his parents had provided almost 5,500 meals. Before the child turned age three, his parents had changed nearly 5,000 diapers! These actions warrant gratitude.
But we must also love our parents because of what they are to us. They are merciful, kind, just and wise. In the best situation, their character warrants our respect. In a similar way, Christian duty is a proper expression of gratitude to God.
The Ten Commandments illustrate this point well. God’s introduction to his law is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:1). Then he gives Israel a summary of his will for their lives; the good that they are commanded to do is in response to his salvation.
The same point is made in Psalm 116:12. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?” The answer: “Be obedient.” You are obligated to do good in light of God’s mercies, as an expression of gratitude (Rom. 12:1).
That He Might Be Praised through Us
We tend to compartmentalize worship as something that happens in church. But the Bible teaches us that we do good so that through our entire lives God will be praised. This happens in two main ways.
First, our good works praise God directly. God is praised as his children are renewed by the Holy Spirit. He causes them to become more like Christ by honoring God and his will. Christ teaches that his Father is glorified as we bear much fruit (John 15:8).
Second, the life of an obedient Christian results in the praise of God indirectly through others who see this obedience. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, Cf. 1 Pet. 2:12). God is praised when others notice the way a Christian’s life matches his walk. Conversely, he is mocked when our lives are incongruent with our profession. Doesn’t this ring true in the life of an earthly parent/child relationship as well? Is your life an instrument of God’s praise?
Doing Good for Our Neighbor’s Sake
We have seen that God is glorified through the impact our good works will have on others. In fact, there is the possibility that through our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.
You’ve heard that Christianity is sometimes taught and sometimes caught. The point is that, notwithstanding our duty to speak about Christ, God can use our right living as a means to convert others. The apostle Peter reminds us that people are watching our conduct (1 Pet. 3:1, 2). Christians are being scrutinized at home, on the job site, in our cars, and in our recreation. The way people view Christians matters a great deal.
In the public high school that I attended, it was frequently observed that at the same party there would be drunkards and drug users from the public school as well as from a prominent local Christian school. This was noticed by my peers. We asked ourselves, “What’s the difference between a Christian and anybody else?”
I’ve been on construction job-sites with foul-mouthed, angry men—who are also well known to be Christian leaders. I’ve heard people say, “That’s a Christian man? I’m not interested.”
What do our neighbor’s see in our lives? Do they see hope? Do they see joy? Do they see a human being who strives for obedience and godliness even under pressure? Do they see love? These are the attributes that God can use to soften the hearts of our neighbors. We must do good, not only for God’s sake, but also for our neighbor’s sake.
The final answer to the question, “Why do good?” has to do with yourself.
Doing Good for Our Own Sake
The third reason for doing good centers on the issue of assurance of salvation, or, perhaps, the lack thereof.
Good Works and Assurance
The Bible teaches three primary means of assurance.
First, believers gain assurance by embracing and dwelling on the promises of God. Jesus’ promise that “ . . . the one who comes to me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37) is more reliable than death or taxes. We take personal comfort that God will keep the promises he has made to repentant sinners.
Second, there is a more mystical means of assurance, namely, the witness of the Holy Spirit to our spirits. Without using words, the Spirit’s internal testimony tells those in whom he dwells that they are God’s children (Rom. 8:16).
Third, and the point in focus, is that good works are a means of assurance. Jesus said that you will know a tree by its fruit (Matt. 7:16, 17). If you happen upon a tree in an orchard that has lush foliage and beautiful fruit, you may have confidence that the tree is good. On the other hand, if you happen upon another tree with sparse foliage and poor fruit, you may rightly conclude that the tree is bad. Far from good works being proof that we have merited anything from God, they rather serve as an external evidence of God’s internal work in our lives.
Interestingly, all three means of assurance are interconnected. The promises of God, which are not conditioned on our good works, always contain a human action that God works in us (Phil. 2:13). When Paul teaches on the Spirit’s assuring witness, he does so in the context of the freedom that believers have from sin and unto holiness, both of which result from the gift of God’s salvation. The Spirit does not give personal assuring testimony to anyone apart from holiness and a life of good works. This means that a lack of good works is a reason for great concern.
A Warning to the Unrepentant
First Corinthians 6:9, 10 and Galatians 5:19-21 emphasize that without a conversion from sinful acts to good deeds, no one will enter the kingdom of God. Without good works, no one can be saved. This is the other side of the “assurance coin.”
If you are presently living in unrepentant sin, you have no biblical grounds to conclude that you are saved. But, please notice that this does not mean that you cannot be saved. Through the gospel, God takes hold of unchaste persons, idolaters, adulterers and the like and transforms them. Paul says this is what some of you were (1 Cor. 6:11). The gospel takes hold of people where they are but does not leave them there.
A Need for Balance
We need to keep a scriptural and theological balance in examining our works as a means of assurance. On the one hand, we each need to examine our lives to see if we are practicing righteousness. The Bible says, “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:10b). Still, we know that “in this life, even the holiest have only a small beginning” of the obedience that God requires (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 114). We are not to look for perfect fruit in us but rather for fruit that is a true reflection of the character of God which has been worked in us by the Holy Spirit.
The Good Works of God
If I pour a gallon of water into an eight ounce glass it must overflow. So it is with good works. If God has poured out his Spirit upon you, then you will overflow with good works. You can’t help it! Jesus said, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit . . .” (John 15:5). The Spirit of Christ is renewing believers to be like himself (Gal. 5:22–25).
An exercise of the Spirit will necessarily result in fruit. Such a life is an expression of gratitude to the Lord and gives praise to God. This fruit is a fruit of the Spirit. That is, it is not only performed by the Spirit through us but is also a reflection of the Spirit in us. Christian good works give praise to God because they point to his character.
This same work of God provides comfort to believers. Are you loving? Are you joyful? Are you peaceful? Are you longsuffering? These are not natural human attributes! If, trusting in God’s promises, these attributes describe you, then you can be confident of the Spirit’s work in you.
Finally, imagine what your neighbors would think if you lived this way. Imagine if you began to be truly kind. Imagine if you began to demonstrate true goodness. What if you were the most faithful person they knew? Or what if you had a gentle spirit or exhibited true self-control. To say the least, curiosity would be piqued by the person who lived like this in our culture.
So don’t feel bad if you’ve already broken your resolution to wake up every morning with a two-mile jog followed by a regimen of fifty pushups. Don’t fret if you only gave up saturated fats for two days. But do realize that we have many reasons for doing eternally valuable good works in the coming year. We also have a God who will abundantly work that good in those who turn to him.
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, PA. This article first appeared in Proclamation, a free monthly discipleship newsletter.