Book Excerpt: Why Do Good?


The following article is an excerpt from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book What is the Mission of the Church?, forthcoming from Crossway in late 2011. This excerpt comes from chapter 9, “Zealous for Good Works: Why and How we Do Good, Both as Individuals and as Churches” and is printed here by permission.

One of the things we’ve noticed as we’ve had these conversations is that very often people will hear or read arguments like this, and their immediate response is to say something like, “But I think good deeds are important. We are supposed to be doing good things for the people around us, even the non-Christians around us.”

Let us, just for the sake of clarity, say this as straightforwardly as we can: We agree!  Fully, whole-heartedly, unreservedly, ex animo, and without the slightest contrary shiver in the liver, we agree!  We are of the strong opinion that the Bible teaches that we Christians are to be a people of both declaration and demonstration, and that our churches are to be communities of both declaration and demonstration. Our hope in this book, in fact, has not been in any way to discourage good works, but rather to encourage them in the long-run by being crystal clear about where and how good works fit into Christian theology and into the Christian life.

So why do we do good?  If “building for the kingdom,” “living the gospel,” and “joining God in his work of making all things new” are not the correct motivations for good works, what are?  Why should we do good works at all if those motivations are not biblically sustainable?  Actually, the Bible gives us plenty of reasons to do good works, and they are not small ones, either. We don’t want to leave anyone with the sinking feeling that we’ve pulled the rug out from under the Christian’s duty and desire to “not grow weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9), so here are just a few of the motivations that Scripture does give us for living a life that is filled with good works.

We do good works to obey God, whom we love.

Of course there’s more to say, but that’s the foundation of it all. At the end of the day, God commands us in His Word to do good works and to live good lives, and as those who love Him we ought to obey Him.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

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)

Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10)

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, (1 Timothy 6:18)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works. (Titus 2:7)

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. (Titus 3:14)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:24)

We do good works to obey the cultural mandate given to Noah.

If you’ve read this far in this book, you know that we are not saying that the cultural mandate calls us to build a new world. That cultural mandate has been taken up and completed by the Lord Jesus, the Last Adam. But there is a cultural mandate that we, as human beings, are under just like other human beings are under it—the one given to Noah in Genesis 9. Now part of that mandate is a command for humans to organize themselves into governed societies that will avenge human blood. But of course that is just a seed for the idea that the structures of society—including government—are instituted by God to reward good and punish evil, as Paul says in Romans 13. Because that is true, part of our obedience to that mandate is working to make sure that the institutions of our society do just that, and not the opposite—that is, that they encourage good and discourage evil, that they are just and not unjust, that they reward civility and punish crime. That’s not a part of our mission as Christians (though we are motivated in a special way to do it because we are Christians!); it is a part of our obedience to God as human beings.

We do good works because we love our neighbors.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment of all is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  And the second, he said, is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)  Not only so, but he also blew the walls out of the narrow strictures the Pharisees had placed on the definition of a “neighbor.”

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt. 5:43-45)

If the definition of “loving our neighbors” includes praying even for our enemies, then it includes everyone! Part of the reason for that is that each of us, from the least to the greatest, is a person created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-28). Therefore, in loving our neighbors we are showing that we value the fact that they, too, are works of our God and fellow creatures. So we Christians are to be a people characterized and marked by love—not just for those who are like us, or those who are in our churches, or those who are in our particular social groups, but everyone. We’ve argued elsewhere in this book that precisely how that love is expressed is a matter that requires much wisdom and a sensitivity to the fact that we can’t do everything. We are finite creatures, and therefore it’s important for us not to flog ourselves with undue guilt because we cannot show full, unbounded, active, suffering-relieving love to all seven billion people on the planet. But neither can we use our finitude to build walls around ourselves and excuse a lack of love toward those who are in a close “moral proximity” to us. We as Christians should be marked by a posture of love and generosity toward our neighbors, and that includes everyone, according to Jesus, from our best friends to our worst enemies.

We do good works to show the world God’s character and God’s work.

Jesus told his followers—that’s us!—to “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)  When we approach the world with a posture of love and generosity, our good works provide a powerful confirmation of our declaration that “God is love.”  They show the world that we really mean what we say, and they make it just that much more plausible that God really is there and that His influence in our lives is real, powerful, and different from anything else in the world.

That is at least part of what Jesus was saying when he told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)  Salt was known for doing many things. It preserved, it cleaned, and it enhanced taste. But figuring out what exactly salt did is not the point—probably all those things are evoked by Jesus’ words. The point is that the salt does all those things precisely because there is something about it that makes it different from the thing onto which it is sprinkled. Salt is useful, Jesus says, exactly because it is salty, and if it loses its saltiness—if it becomes no different from what it is sprinkled on—then it’s of no use at all. The same is true of light; its use comes in the fact that it is not darkness. It is different, and if you take away its “lightness” by hiding it under a basket, it’s no good for anything. Do you see the point here?  We Christians are to be conspicuous in our following of our King Jesus. We are to do good works as a testimony that God has made us into something different from what we once were, and from the unredeemed world around us. As people of the kingdom, we are to be salt and light in a fallen world. That is, we are to be different, and by those good deeds together with our true words, we are to testify to God’s character.

We do good works because they are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us.

Simply put, apples grow on apple trees, oranges grow on orange trees, and good works grow on Christians. It’s just the way the world works. Jesus is as clear about this as he can be:

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16-20)

It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.

James is perhaps evoking this image of a tree bearing fruit when he says that “faith without works is dead.”  (James 2:26)  What he means is that a living faith, one that has the sap of the Spirit’s life running through it, will inevitably bear fruit. It will issue in a life that is marked by good works. Abraham’s faith was that kind of living faith:  It issued in the good fruit of obedience to God, even when God’s command was that he should kill his own son. Rahab’s faith, too, was a living one:  It issued in obedience to God through her protection of the Israelite spies, even when the cost of her obedience could have been her very life (James 2:21-25).

“Every good tree bears good fruit,” Jesus said (Matthew 7:17). If we claim to be Christians, then we are claiming to be “good trees,” and therefore we should be bearing “good fruit.”

We do good works to win a hearing for the gospel.

Sometimes the argument is made that when Christians do good things for other people and then share the gospel with them, they’ve pulled a bad bait-and-switch trick. I suppose that could be the case, especially if the Christian is thinking of his evangelism as a way to put notches in his religious belt. Then neither his good works nor his evangelism would be founded on care for the other person. His good works would be grounded on a desire to get to the evangelism, and the evangelism would be grounded in a desire to make himself look good. Love doesn’t figure in there at all.

But that’s really a terrible way to think about evangelism. Evangelism is the act of telling other people about the plight they are in and how they can be saved from it. It’s an act of deep love and compassion for that person. So the argument that that act of love and compassion can’t legitimately be accompanied by other acts of love and compassion doesn’t hold water. Christians, as we’ve seen, are to love the whole person, and therefore it makes perfect sense to love someone by giving them food and at the same time to love them in a different, eternally consequential way by giving them the gospel. There’s no bait-and-switch there; that’s simply holistic compassion—compassion for the whole person, not just part of him.

Understanding that, we can also see an opposite danger for those who buy the bait-and-switch argument. It’s that they will compassionately meet physical and even emotional needs, but out of fear of falling into a bait-and-switch scenario, they’ll neglect to compassionately meet the other person’s spiritual needs by sharing the gospel with them. In other words, they’ll show compassion to people only at the basest levels—and one could legitimately question whether that is real compassion at all. The reality is that people who make that mistake see evangelism as no more an act of compassion than the person who sees it as a way to put a notch in his belt; it’s just that they see the gospel as something they are trying to sell, and therefore they don’t want to “corrupt” their compassion by moving into the sales pitch.

If we understand evangelism itself, though, as a deep and profound act of love for another person, we will do it more often (because we won’t have the awkward feeling that we’re just giving a sales pitch), and we’ll do it with the right motives, too (love for people, instead of regard for ourselves). In fact, if we are Christians whose love and compassion is aroused not just by physical and emotional needs, but also by spiritual needs, then sharing the gospel will always be in the forefronts of our minds. We will naturally and readily move toward it as we are loving other people.

Does this, by the way, mean that good deeds that aren’t followed by the sharing of the gospel are somehow illegitimate or not worth doing?  Of course not!  They are worth doing! We can give a donation to Toys for Tots, or pick up a piece of litter in the street, or plant a tree when no one’s watching, or buy someone a sandwich when we’re already late to work and not say a word to them. And when we do, we will be doing a good thing, something that is motivated by our status both as a human being and, more particularly, as Christians bearing fruit under the loving rule of Jesus Christ. But when we do those things, we also need to know and admit that we are not restoring creation to its original shalom, we are not “expanding the borders of the kingdom,” and we are not “sharing the gospel without words.”  We are simply doing things that redeemed human beings do. We are living as a human being who has been saved and regenerated by the grace of God. And who knows?  Maybe the next time one of us buys the guy a sandwich, we’ll have time to explain why we’re doing it in the first place.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of Christ Covenant in Matthews, North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter at @RevKevDeYoung.

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