are good works bad?
by Douglas J. Simpson
Find out more about what Free Will Baptists believe by visiting the denomination website at www.nafwb.org.
Recent decades have seen an important and needed emphasis on the grace of God—understanding that grace is essential both in becoming a believer and growing as one. Unfortunately, however, some have over-emphasized what may be loosely (but not accurately) labeled a “grace-is-all-that-really-matters movement.” Few, if any, people would accept this label, although it is clear that some writers have undercut New Testament teachings about living like Christ and doing His will, which includes good works.
One outcome of this unbalanced equation is that some consider it misguided, if not wrong, to discuss the importance of good works in the life of the Christian. To imply or say such a thing contributes to an odd and unfortunate neglect of the grace of God in relation to good works. Such a disregard distorts Peter’s claim that the true grace of God (1 Peter 5:12) leads to doing what is right (1 Peter 4:19) as the God of all grace perfects, confirms, strengthens, and establishes us (1 Peter 5:10). Good works—contrary to the belief of those who ignore the subject—are important themselves, but they are also a means of attracting others to God (Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 3:1-2).
To fully explain why the biblical doctrine of grace and good works has been neglected is beyond the scope of this article, but a partial explanation is in order. First, the neglect of the subject of good works may rest in the justifiable wish to avoid soteriological and ethical legalism. Others have a regrettable tendency to confuse genuine good works (1 Timothy 6:18) with other kinds of deeds, such as works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19), the law (Romans 3:20), and the devil (1 John 3:8)—not to mention worthless works (1 Corinthians 3:13-15), pseudo-righteous works (Isaiah 64:6), and works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
As important as these distinctions are, this article will simply answer the question before us, “Are good works bad?” In doing so, we will explore two additional questions: What are good works? Why do good works emerge?
What are Good Works?
What does the phrase good works mean when New Testament writers use it in a positive sense? Primarily, the phrase refers to attitudes, behaviors, and practices produced by the Holy Spirit in and through the believer. For a believer not to exhibit these moral qualities, attitudes, behaviors, and practices is grounds to question whether he or she has experienced the grace of God through faith in Christ (1 John 3). Manifesting good works means we progressively abandon vices and continually grow in virtues (Galatians 5:18-24; Titus 3:3-6; Ephesians 5:1-8; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:12-23).
Living in the abundant grace of God is characterized by hope, mercy, peace, faith, and love (1 Timothy 1:1-2, 14) but also includes good works (1 Timothy 2:10), the development of a good reputation (1 Timothy 3:7), and being a good servant of Christ (1 Timothy 4:6) with a “good profession” (1 Timothy 6:12). In order to live a joyful life, we must instruct one another to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, and to be characterized by the qualities that result in pursuing matters consistent with the nature of God (1 Timothy 6:18). Based upon this limited definition, it is difficult to understand why anyone would slight the subject of good works.
Why Do Good Works Emerge?
Good works ultimately appear because we experience the new birth and partake of the divine nature of God and enjoy the benefits of His divine power in our lives (2 Peter 1:3-4). From another perspective, good works are manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23) that come from utilizing the gifts of God (1 Peter 4:10). Therefore, good works are an inherent part of the nature of God, the natural outflow of the fruit of the Spirit. We exhibit a variety of good works because the new birth and resulting new life allow God to produce fruitful and righteous lives (Colossians 1:29). This is not to say, however, that we are or can be passive as we grow in grace, knowledge, and good works. Indeed, we are challenged to labor circumspectly in the power of God, to engage seriously in good works (Titus 3:8), and to pursue diligently completeness in Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8).
Good works happen when we access the power of the Spirit and when we seek to mature in our faith, love, knowledge, self-control, kindness, godliness, and perseverance (2 Peter 1:5-7). Our good works (Matthew 5:16) are set in motion and advanced by God—the only one who is ultimately good (Matthew 19:17). Neither salvation nor maturation, consequently, result from our own human efforts (whether we call them good or otherwise). We can neither become believers nor mature as believers in our own energy. On the contrary, both salvation and maturity are matters of the grace and gifts of God. We are both initiated into the faith and completed in Christ by the Spirit—not by works (Galatians 2:16, 3:3). Of course, we can stifle the Spirit or be filled by Him (1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 5:18), but we cannot do anything spiritual without Him. In the end, we can do nothing spiritually worthwhile apart from the Spirit and Christ (John 15:4-10). The grace of God draws, regenerates, and empowers us to live righteously.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that we need to understand the connection between grace, faith, love, and good works. Paul captures the vital connection between grace, faith, and works when he tells us that God’s grace leads to our salvation through faith. Thereby, we are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). He adds that we should “be careful to maintain good works [because] . . . these things are good and profitable unto men” (Titus 3:8). James further clarifies the relationship of genuine faith and good works when he rightly claims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). John informs us that knowing and loving God are inextricably tied with living in the sphere of light and walking as Christ Himself did, including loving others and obeying God’s injunctions (1 John 2:4-11).
In view of these principles, then, we ought to discuss and promote good works for a variety of reasons, including (1) they are not the means of becoming and growing as a believer, but (2) they are the manifestations of having become a believer, and (3) are indicators of a growing, maturing Christian. Moreover, we need to engage in good works as the Spirit leads and energizes. Doing so indicates our love for God and others (1 John 5:2-3).
Return a final time to our opening question: Are good works bad? Definitely not! They are manifestations of a true and growing faith—a faith that is the gift of a good and gracious God Who enables us to be transformed, to live joyously, and to do His work, serving Him and others. To deny or diminish the importance of good works (both by individuals and the church) effectively dismisses a major emphasis of the New Testament. But to over-emphasize good works can lead to a misunderstanding about both salvation and maturation. A study of good works provides an important but partial picture of God and our relationship to Him and others. The full grace and knowledge of God awaits our attention. As we pursue a rich biblical picture of God, we should focus on understanding and relating to Him in ways that transform us into loving and compassionate people: believers who feel, think, and act in ways that glorify Him (Matthew 5:16).
About the Writer: Douglas J. Simpson coordinates graduate programs in Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University. Formerly, he taught at the University of Newfoundland, Tennessee State University, Texas Christian University, University of Louisville, and Free Will Baptist Bible College.