Good Works For Poorly Taught Christians (and Lutherans too)

Something saddens me. I’m not sure it always made me sad, but lately I have been more and more bothered by it.

I have heard many stories over the years about how those who attend the “fun churches” often struggle with the subject of good works. Their consciences are bothered by questions of what good works are and whether or not they have done enough of them. Not that they argue they are saved by them, (although it could be that they feel this way), but that they often worry that they simply do not do enough of them and it burdens their consciences.

I could make the rather bold statement that they should attend a Lutheran congregation and get some real teaching on this, but before I do that, let me put forward the Biblical  teaching. We Lutherans are probably not teaching this enough, especially in our preaching, precisely because we do not want to sound like the evangelicals. Nevertheless, good works are an important part of the Christian life. Let me address both questions above in offering a whole, Biblical teaching on good works and, hopefully, offer a little comfort to people who worry about not doing enough of them.

The Biblical definition of a “good work” has three parts to it:

  1. It can be thought, a spoken word, or an action;
  2. It is done in accordance with the Ten Commandments;
  3. It is done to the glory of God, not the doer.

What is noticeable about this definition is actually how elastic it is. Thoughts and spoken words can be good works. Most of us think before we speak or act. This is true of sinful words or actions. It is also true of good works. Remarkably, a lot of ordinary, everyday actions seem to qualify as good works under this definition. How are we able to comprehend all of the things we do everyday that qualify as good works under such a definition?

Here we see part of the problem with the way the popular churches define good works. For them, good works are often limited to the actions themselves. Not all actions are willfully active in nature, however. For instance, the 3rd Commandment stresses the importance of hearing the Word of God. In other words, hearing a sermon is a good work. You don’t get to choose everything you hear, but faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). I have even heard it argued that church time is wasted time that could be spent doing more good works. Unfortunately, disconnection from the Word is not going to lead to more good works in the end. God’s Law shows us what a good work is every bit as much as it shows us what a sin is. A full bodied teaching of the Ten Commandments reveals how it can be said that thoughts, words, and actions can be good works.

But you can see another problem with this definition of good works in contrast to the Biblical definition. For many churches, good works are the “above and beyond” works of our everyday lives. It’s not what a father does everyday for his child that qualifies as a good work. It’s the willingness to engage the stranger, testify to your faith, make a personal witness, that matters most. This is the Parable of the Good Samaritan on steroids. Nowhere in the parable does Jesus really suggest that a good work is “above and beyond” just because it was done for a stranger by a stranger. He’s defining who our neighbors are, and as such, they are everybody. Should we do good works for strangers? Absolutely! Let the reader understand, however. Your relationship to the beneficiary of the good work is not even part of the definition of a good work.

Many Christians are being taught a far more limiting and narrow definition of good works than the Bible actually teaches. No wonder consciences are burdened. This is what I find sad.

This “above and beyond” understanding of good works is the natural consequence of our age’s loss of the doctrine of vocation. Vocation, properly understood, is the arena God places us in to do good works. That many evangelicals will not recognize a parent’s changing of a baby’s diapers as a good work, but will continue to push their hearers to go above and beyond is the explanation of why many come to question if they are doing enough good works and what it says about their faith. Why anyone would subject themselves to such a discomforting message is really beyond me.

In our vocations (husband, wife, son, daughter, worker, boss, citizen, etc.) we have so many opportunities every day to do good works. God’s Word gives not only an elastic definition of a good work, but He also puts us in daily vocations where many, many good works are done every day…even by the same Christians who question whether or not they do enough of them.

This is where my sadness comes from. Many Christians are browbeating themselves over doing enough good works when the Bible has two very clear things to say to them which they are simply not hearing:

  1. Of course you are not doing enough good works! That’s what sin does to all of us. But it’s also why God gave His Son to die for you and to forgive your sins in your Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper.
  2. Still, at the same time, you are doing more good works than you know. If you think this is not true, perhaps you need to tell the devil where to go. God’s not accusing you of that. He already knows you’re not doing enough. He has forgiven you these sins. It’s the devil who wants you to keep thinking you are failing.

In other words, the whole, Biblical teaching of good works for the Christian has one thing in common with the whole, Biblical teaching on sin itself. In Psalm 19:12, David prays, Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Here David admits he sins too often to remember all his sins. What is the standard by which he makes such a judgment? The Ten Commandments themselves, which are too high a standard to ever keep perfectly and, hence, our sin interferes with our ability to do good works.

The standard for defining a good work is the same standard as what defines a sin: The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments teach us that it is impossible to number our sins. They are too many. I would argue the same is true of our good works. It’s impossible to number them. In our daily vocations, we do far more than we even realize. Also, others do far more good works for us than we often realize too. Perhaps one of the problems with misunderstanding good works is the notion that we don’t need others to do them for us too?

Lastly, a word about the third part of the Biblical definition of a “good work.” Good works are done to the glory of God. Sadly, when many Christians talk about their good works it does get to sounding like they are talking more about themselves than they are about Christ. I think there is a validity to the idea that a singular emphasis on one’s own good works always runs the risk of making the works not good anymore because it’s more about the doer than the Lord who works in the doer.

Sadly, this is probably the sticking point for why many Lutheran pastors, myself included, find it hard to preach about good works. I believe, as long as we are working out of the back of The Small Catechism, that we are teaching them correctly in our classes and teaching. In our preaching, however, we have failed. We are afraid of sounding like the evangelicals so we omit them a lot from our teaching. Ultimately, this is inexcusable. The fact is, we have a better teaching. We have the full Biblical monty on good works. We should not apologize for that. We should trumpet it from the skies!

Because last I checked, there are way too many people who call themselves Christians who are letting an incomplete teaching on good works burden their consciences. Christ completes every good work. He covers our sins. His sacrifice was for sinners. Of course, we do not do enough good works! Confess that as sin and receive His forgiveness. It will always be true until we leave this life. Nevertheless, the Gospel of forgiveness teaches us that God does not want us to live our lives with guilty consciences, but rather with good consciences. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).

Perhaps our problem is our fascination with numbers? Today, the average Christian is going to commit more sins than they are able to number. Today, the average Christian is going to do more good works than they are able to number. The actual number of our sins should concern us, as they do David in Psalm 19. The actual number of our good works is something we should celebrate and give thanks and glory to God for. It proves that He works in our lives and in marvelously ordinary ways (the father and the baby). I don’t think we should let numbers of good works burden our consciences. Rather, we should simply confess we do not do enough while rejoicing in doing more than we even know.

In short, probably the best good work is the one you never realized you did. At least that way, the only One who can be glorified is God Himself.

Thanks be to God for any good works that God accomplishes in this life of sin.

Sound like saint-and-sinner stuff! Of course, if you want to learn more about that and hear the comfort of the Gospel, then go to a confessional Lutheran Church!


Pastor T.


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