I wonder if Cain was the first person to ever ask this question. He and his brother worked hard to support themselves. Abel was a shepherd. Cain was a farmer. When it came time to worship God, both brothers brought an offering. The Lord was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice, but he didn’t look with favor on Cain’s. That made Cain angry. The way he saw it, he had done everything God required of him, and yet God rejected him and his sacrifice. Why?
Maybe you don’t have much sympathy for Cain because you know what happened next. He showed his true colors when he killed his brother and then claimed to have no knowledge of the crime. We can understand why God rejected a cold-blooded murderer like Cain, but what about someone else, someone you know, someone like Mike?
Mike lives next door. He doesn’t care for organized religion, but he might be the nicest guy you know. He picks up your mail for you when you are gone. He is constantly bringing you fresh vegetables from his garden. He loves his wife and dotes on his grandchildren, and he would literally give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. But when God observes Mike’s many acts of kindness, he doesn’t smile. He doesn’t accept any of those works as good. Why not?
Empowered by Christ
Perhaps the best way to approach that question is by asking another question: What makes a work good in the first place? Jesus gave his disciples a partial answer in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. He told them: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
You don’t need a degree in horticulture to grasp the meaning of the metaphor. A branch that is connected to the vine will thrive. It will remain green and healthy, and it will bear fruit. But the moment that branch is severed from the vine, it begins to wither and becomes useless. By itself, that severed branch can’t produce anything.
The Lord wants his followers to understand that the same principle applies on a spiritual level. As long as Christians are connected to the Vine, their lives of faith will be filled with fruits of faith—good works. But without that connection, the good works come to a screeching halt. Or to echo the letter to the Hebrews, without faith in Jesus it is impossible to please God (11:6).
Motivated by thankful love
At this point someone might object: “You want me to believe that a believer and an unbeliever can donate the same amount of money to the same charitable cause, and God will only be pleased with the gift given by the believer. That just doesn’t make sense.” It is true that, on the surface, the actions of believers and unbelievers sometimes appear to be identical. The difference, and another key to understanding what makes a work good in the eyes of God, is the motivation.
There is really only one motivation that makes a work truly good: gratitude. We love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). He forgives every sin, fault, and flaw, including those that cling to our imperfect works. We serve God and God’s people because Jesus came into this world to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). As sinful creatures, we will never be able to match the selfless service of Christ—but we don’t have to. We do good because we want to express our thanks for the great things our Savior has done for us.
Guided by God’s Word
But how do we do that? “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:9). How can you be confident that the good works you do will be acceptable to God? By using the same Word of God as your guide. You can start with the divine guidance set down and summarized in the Ten Commandments, but don’t stop there.
The Bible is filled with accounts of believers who put their faith into practice in meaningful, tangible ways. The early Christians met together in members’ homes for worship and fellowship, and they pooled their resources to help people in need (Acts 2:42-47). Philip ran up to a complete stranger’s chariot and baptized him before the day was over (Acts 8:26-40). Barnabas lived up to the meaning of his name (“son of encouragement”) by befriending Paul, a former persecutor of the church, and introducing him to the Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:25,26).
These examples are meant to be an encouragement, but they aren’t a mandatory template. You don’t have to do foreign mission work to perform a good work. What you do does not need to be expensive or impressive either. In fact, most of the works that God calls good are small things. If you are a student, make faithful use of your gifts. If you are a parent, be a good role model for your children. If you are an employee, treat your coworkers with respect. Strive to honor God in everything you do, and God will be pleased.
Accepted by grace
The Lord looks with favor on the good works of Christians not because believers are better than other people but because by faith they are God’s children. Think of it this way. A young girl decides to make her mom a special gift for Mother’s Day. It is supposed to be a picture of the two of them holding hands, but their heads are disproportionately larger than their bodies and there is as much coloring outside the lines as inside. This portrait will never hang in a museum, and yet the mother’s heart wells up with joy as soon as she sees it. She loves the picture. She forgives all its imperfections because of her relationship with the artist.
That is the kind of relationship you enjoy with your heavenly Father. He loves you. By grace he saved you. He created faith in your heart and makes you want to honor him with your life. Because you share that special, spiritual bond, when God sees the flawed, far-from-perfect works you hold out to him, he looks at them, approves, and says, “Now that is good! I see no flaw because of my Son, Jesus.”
Author: Steven Pagels
Volume 108, Number 5
Issue: May 2021