Good Works Shine to the World
Good works are to be an important part of each Christian’s life; in fact, God says He created us for good works.
Ephesians 2:10a (ESV)
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…
God intended Christians to go into the world and do good works that will help others, bring unbelievers to salvation, and cause people to praise God. Many verses encourage us to do good works and in that way we will shine the light of God into the world.
Matthew 5:16 (ESV)
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
The context of the verse above is Jesus’ statement, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). There is more to being a light than just telling others about Jesus Christ, although that is certainly part of letting our light shine. Going into the world and giving of our time and talent is an important way we can shine.
The Universal Language of Good Works
We have to do more than talk about Jesus if we are going to be lights in this dark world, because many of the spiritual things that are important to Christians do not make sense to unsaved people (1 Cor. 2:14). In contrast, good works are a universal language. Unbelievers may not like what Christians believe in or stand for, but they do often pay attention to the good works that Christians do. Doing good works is like advertising, and it brings glory to God.
1 Peter 2:12 (ESV) Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Why would the unbelievers say Christians are “evildoers” if the Christians are doing good works? A major part of the Roman culture was polytheism and worship of the emperor. Furthermore, brutality and slavery were normal parts of daily life. Dangerous and even deadly events such as the Circus Maximus (where the chariot races occurred) and the coliseum were often the talk of Rome, and every slave was defenseless against harsh conditions, inhuman treatment, and sexual advances.
In contrast to the culture around them, Christians separated themselves from idolatry, brutality, and sexuality. They refused to participate in the worship of the traditional gods, which they considered idols, and of the emperor. Furthermore, they avoided the violent games of the Romans as well as the sexual promiscuity of the day. In our modern world, which understands multiculturalism and individuality, that separation would be seen as simply a matter of choice. But in ancient Rome, national unity was expressed in the common worship of the gods and the emperor, and by participation at the games, festivals, and sacrifices. Romans were suspicious of people who were “different,” and saw non-participation as an insult to their way of life and a threat against the unity of Rome, and thus “evil.”
When we understand the culture of that time, we can see why the Romans considered Christians to be “evil.” In a repeat of history, today there are a number of people who consider Christian beliefs and character to be “evil.” Of course, it is not usually called “evil,” it is called “intolerant,” “ignorant,” “narrow minded,” “phobic,” and even “dangerous.” Today there is an increasing intolerance for a genuine biblical worldview.
Unbelievers usually have no trouble with Christians who just go to church on Sunday, play Christian music and have a fish bumper sticker on their car. But if we publicly express that salvation comes through Christ alone, or that God will judge people for disobedience, or if we try to embed Christian morals into our increasingly selfish and godless society, then we incur the wrath of those who do not believe. We need to pay attention to the parallel between the first century and today, because God told the first century believers how to let their lights shine, and they will shine now in the same way they shone in the Roman world.
Comparing verses such as Matthew 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:12, which speak about good works, with verses such as 1 Corinthians 2:14, which tells us unbelievers do not understand spiritual things, helps us understand what good works are: they are works that any unbeliever can see and understand. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that the only “good work” that God wants us to do is preach and teach the Word of God. While that certainly is a good work, and even a great work, it is not the type of good work that is conspicuous to unbelievers. Just as some people’s sins are conspicuous, our good works are to be conspicuous.
1 Timothy 5:24 and 25 (ESV)
(24) The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.
(25) So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
We should pay special attention to the last half of verse 25, about good works that do not seem to be noticed. It is very frustrating and demoralizing to do good things and have nobody notice. Likely each one of us has said to ourselves, “No one cares what I do; no one ever notices.” Although it is human to feel that way, the promise of God is that even those good works that seem to go unnoticed “cannot remain hidden.” Eventually they are seen and appreciated. Eventually, our good works speak so loudly that even people who think we are “evil,” have to acknowledge the good that Christians do, and our prayer is that our good works, combined with our testimony of Christ, will lead them to salvation.
Good works and Christian testimony can lead people to Christ in a way that “just words” cannot. Of course there are people who get saved only by hearing the message of Christ without really knowing any Christians. That is why Christians are to preach the Word whether it is convenient or not (2 Tim. 4:2). Nevertheless, we know that words without deeds often bring the cry of “Hypocrites!” upon us, and even turn some people from the faith. The last thing we want as Christians is for the same judgment God leveled against the Jews to be leveled against us: “…The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24, ESV).
Zealous for Good Works
A major way to get unbelievers see the value of the Gospel is to do good works, so it make sense that the Bible says Christians are to be zealous to do good works.
Titus 2:14 (ESV)
[Jesus Christ] who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Being zealous to do good works is in contrast to the way worldly people act: they are usually zealous to “have fun” and get absorbed in activities that take all their time but that do not help mankind. Good works are an expression of God’s love and help bring people to Christ.
When I was taking classes at a theological school in Charlotte, NC, I had a classmate who had been part of a major missionary work in the country of Chile. He told about how his denomination had gone to an area they thought needed the Gospel and set up a radio station to preach the Word. Then to support the radio station, they built a hospital that they staffed with doctors and nurses from their denomination. The system worked great and brought many people to Christ—but not as they planned. The indigenous people felt such love and care in the hospital that many of them came to Christ. The radio station hardly won any converts at all, but it greatly supported the new Christians, who faithfully listened to it. It was the conspicuous love of the doctors and nurses, combined with their personal witnessing, that changed many lives.
Doing good works is not a “man thing,” or a “woman thing,” but a “Christian thing.” God admonishes both men and women to get involved in doing good works. Women are told to clothe themselves “…with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works…” (1 Tim. 2:10, ESV). In a similar manner, Paul admonished Titus to “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (Titus 2:7 ESV).
Instruction in Good Works
What are the good works that we should be doing? Are there any guidelines? Certainly. It is the Word of God that makes us competent and equipped for every good work so that we are not deceived into doing things that are contrary to God.
2 Timothy 3:16 and 17 (ESV)
(16) All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (17) that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
We need to pay attention to the fact that one of the clearest verses in the Bible that says the Scripture comes directly from God is in the context of the man or woman of God being “equipped for every good work.” The message is clear: there are many “works” that any person can do to fill his life, but not all of them are “good,” in the sense that they benefit God and His purposes.
Having a solid foundation in the Word of God will help keep us from being misled about what are considered good works that are profitable for the Kingdom of God, and what works are part of the “unfruitful works of darkness.” Some works are ungodly, and we are called to avoid them and expose them for what they are.
Ephesians 5:11 (ESV)
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
Although we must determine what works are good and what works are unfruitful, we must also remember that each of us sees the world through the lens of our own life experience and the ministry that God gave us. Therefore, we must be cautious in evaluating the works of others. Everyone is called to a unique way of serving God. What is a “good work” for one person might not be a good work for another. The Bible provides an example of that in the record of the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ head shortly before his crucifixion. The disciples, who were ordinarily quite good at separating good from evil, said, “Why this waste?” They rebuked the woman and suggested her ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus disagreed, and said the woman had done a “good work” (Matt. 26:8-1, ESV). The good works of an evangelist, a pastor, a person with a ministry of mercy, a person with a ministry in administration and government, and a person whose ministry is service, will often look totally different. In fact, the ministries of God on earth are so diverse that, as we saw with the disciples of Christ, we must be careful not to wrongly defame work that someone else is doing, thinking it is not God’s work when it really is.
Our Time and Money
It usually takes a diligent effort to do good works, which is why God says we have to be “zealous” for them. But doing good works is like giving money to the church: if we wait until we have “extra” it will never happen. We have to pray and make wise decisions as to how we can give of our time and talents, then follow through and act.
A couple years ago I went to a charity dinner for unwed mothers. One of the speakers was a man who had come to the conclusion that he should do more for the Lord. He prayed about what to do, and the thought came to him that he lived in a university town in which he knew there was a lot of sexual activity and quite a few scared and unprepared girls who had gotten pregnant. So he went to the local crisis pregnancy center, knocked on the door, and asked the lady who answered if they needed help. Within a couple years he was on the board of directors, helping to raise money and allocate the resources that came into the center. This man did not have lots of extra time in his life, but because of his desire to help others, he made time for something he thought was important. Similarly, most of us will have to make the time in our lives if we are going to systematically do good works.
Supporting Each Other
Christians need to become good at supporting one another. The world is an unholy, dirty place, and people who choose to help it be a better place get dirty in the process. In fact, it seems that one of the reasons that more Christians do not get involved in doing volunteer work is that it can deeply affect one’s attitude. It can be deeply discouraging to try to make the world a better place and daily be faced with “the system,” that includes: unjust and counterproductive laws; greed and financial mismanagement; many promises but little action; insensitivity to sin and obliviousness to the value of Christian morals; not to mention the human weakness, failures, and often unthankfulness toward the very people we are trying to help. To keep going under those circumstances, Christians need the support of other Christians, which is why the Bible says we are to be especially good to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).
Sadly, some of the harshest criticism Christians get often comes from other Christians who do not agree that the work being done is the “best” or even “God’s work.” We have to judge the situations around us by the Word of God and not our own personal opinion. We all need to heed God’s command:
Romans 14:13 (HCSB)
Therefore, let us no longer criticize one another, but instead decide not to put a stumbling block or pitfall in your brother’s way.
If each of us would put on our shoulders the good works God has created us to do, and not criticize others about the work they are doing, Christian work, which is difficult enough on its own, would be easier.
Get Out of the Shaker
This article started with Matthew 5:16, about being a light and shining out to others by doing good works. In the same context, Jesus said we are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Just as a light shines to no one if it is under a basket, salt does not work if it is in the salt shaker. Salt can cleanse, heal, preserve, add flavor, and “kill slugs,” but it does not do any of those things in the shaker. The world desperately needs salting. Let us become zealous for good works by prayerfully searching for ways to help, and then act according by helping when and where we can.
Although some versions do not say, “good work,” it is a very good translation of the Greek text.