Do good works count? (LD 24)


How are we right with God? Last time we said that the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ is imputed to us. Christian believers are saved in the only way possible: by the grace of God, who gave his only Son to sacrifice himself on our behalf.

At the same time, Christianity is associated with good works. The world looks at us and expects that we do good, more than others. Historically, followers of Jesus have done many good deeds, through works of charity, through care for the poor and the sick, through social organisations. But that raises a question: What is the importance of these good works? Do they help us to get saved?

Do good works count?

1. What good works are
2. What good works are not
3. Why good works belong

What good works are

There can be no doubt that God wants us to do good. “Trust in the LORD, and do good,” teaches Psalm 37. And the prophet Isaiah urged: “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Is. 1:17)

We are called to do good works. But what does that mean? Sometimes, Christians seem to think that it simply means obeying the Ten Commandments. God wants us to respect authority, to be faithful to our spouse, come to church regularly, take care of our family, and not to swear or cheat or lie.

That is certainly part of it. But “good works” means more than that. Jesus pointed that out to the eager young man who asked him how he could inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18-30). The man said, sincerely, that he had kept all the commandments. Jesus said: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” You see, good works go beyond basic morality. It is about actively pursuing truth and justice, not because we have to but because we want to. It is about using our time and energy, money and influence in the service of God, to show our love for him and to show care and love to others, especially those who are in need.

We often give money to charity organisations; that is good, but it is really a way to pay others to do good works. More concrete good works include: bringing food to a neighbour who is sick, giving a sandwich to a homeless person, serving in a food kitchen, helping at a hospice, volunteering at charity organisations in town. There are, and always will be, many opportunities for us to use what we have to serve others. Throughout history Christians have stood out in doing these things, and we should.

Good works are not done out of duty or self-interest, but for the sake of God and his Kingdom. Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” If there is no law forcing you to help someone, and you will gain nothing by it, will you still do it because it is the right and loving thing to do?

The New Testament is full of encouragement to engage in such good works. In Acts 9, we have the shining example of Dorcas, a widow who was “full of good works and acts of charity.” The first church in Jerusalem was characterised by this practical care and love for each other. “There was not a needy person among them,” because they generously gave away their riches to help the poor.

Doing good, actively and generously, is the norm for the Christian church. The leaders of the church must lead by example. That is why Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3 that elders should be hospitable and not greedy. In another letter he tells Titus to be “a model of good works” (Tit. 2:7), and concludes: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.” (Tit. 3:14) To give just one more quote, Heb. 13:16 admonishes: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Good works are important. God even said that he will reward them. Jesus encouraged people to give to the needy quietly, without making a show of it. We should not seek the praise and admiration of other people for our charity. But: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mat. 6:4) You may think of the parable Jesus told about the servants who faithfully worked with the money their master had entrusted to them: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Mat. 25:23)

What good works are not

Good deeds are important for Christians. The problem is that some Christians view them in a wrong way. That is why the catechism brings up this topic in LD 24. Some believe that their good works save them, at least put some weight in the scales of God’s justice, along with the blood of Jesus Christ, to tip that scale in their favour. The catechism says, in q&a 62: No. Our good works cannot be our righteousness before God, not even a part of it. Why not? Because our good works are not that good. They are not so good that they can make up for the sin that we have committed.

God did not make us to be pretty decent people. He designed and created us to be perfect. In the Old Testament law, he said: “Be holy as I am holy.” (Lev. 11:2) Jesus did not take anything away from that; when he told us to love even our enemies, he concluded: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat. 5:48) That is the high standard of God for what is right. If we want God to look at our good works as the basis for righteousness, we must realise that the righteousness which can stand before God’s judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God. To escape the condemnation of our sin we would need good works that are not just well-intended, not just quite decent, but absolutely perfect. 

And while our good works are good and important, perfect they are not. It is therefore a terrible mistake to think that they can put any weight on the scale for our salvation. This is why Paul, in Galatians 5, warns Christians not to buy into the error of the Judaizers, of becoming circumcised and making law-keeping their greatest goal in life. If you think that you can be right with God through the law, says Paul, you must keep the whole law. It demands perfection. It demands total devotion to God, and maximal involvement in helping out your fellow man. It requires perfect love to God and others. And you cannot do that. Nobody has been able to do that. Being perfect is not possible for sinners like you and me.

In the history of God’s people there were moments when they realised just how great the gap was between their sin and God’s perfection. Famously, they declare in Is. 64:6: “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” or as other translations have it, like a “filthy rag”. So they don’t come to God asking him to accept their good deeds, but they come to him asking for mercy. “Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever…” This is the proper attitude for Christian believers. Humility about our good works. Realising that, as the catechism says, even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin. So that we don’t claim that God somehow owes us anything. So that we realise that everything he gives us, and especially his salvation and peace, is purely a matter of grace.

And even if… even if we could do perfectly everything God wanted us to do, from now on. Would that count for something? Jesus told a simple story in Luke 17:7-10. Suppose, he said, that you have an employee who does his job properly. Perfect job, very well done. Does that mean that this employee now has earned the right to have dinner with you? — Of course not. Good-quality work was expected of him; it doesn’t earn him a bonus or special treatment. Our relationship to God, our Creator, is like that. He created us to take perfect care of his world, to love him and to love others. Suppose we do that perfectly—do we have the right to get anything more? Do we build up credit that makes up for sins of the past? Of course not. Our proper response, says Jesus, when we have done all we were supposed to do, would still be: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

If you have the slightest thought that God should be happy with you because of your good works, let go of it. If that is what you think, you underestimate the holiness of God and overestimate yourself. Stop putting the focus on yourself, stop trying to earn your own salvation. 

Why good works belong

And yet, good works are important. Your Christian life cannot do without them. They belong to the Christian faith. We may even say, as the catechism does, that God promises to reward our good works in this life and the next. As long as we keep in mind that this reward is not earned. God responds to our good works with blessing, not because he is obliged to do so, but because it pleases him to do so. Even the reward we receive for our good works is a gift of grace.

Why do good works belong to the Christian faith? Why can we even say that someone who fails to do good works, cannot be a true believer?

It is because our faith connects us to Jesus Christ, and makes us one with him. Remember the image from John 15: He is the vine, and we are the branches. When we are grafted into Christ, we are like branches that now receive their sap, all their nutrients, from the stem to which they are attached; and that stem is Jesus. True faith means that we are one with him, so that we become more and more like him; and his Spirit is ours, too. If we have been born again—and that is what true believers are—we live a new life, a new self, that is no longer led by the principles of this wicked world, but by the Spirit of God himself. And the Spirit of God produces in us holy thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, and actions. He makes us ready and willing to live our lives for the Lord.

Good works are to a Christian what fruits are to a fruit tree. If you plant an apple tree, you expect there to be apples. Maybe a lot of nice, big apples; maybe only a few small ones, if the soil is not great or the weather has been bad. But if no apples grow at all, something is wrong; and if they never come, year after year, it probably is not an apple tree after all.

“Each tree is known by its own fruit,” said Jesus. And so a Christian believer is known by his or her good works. If the Holy Spirit is working in your life, good works grow naturally. In some people these good works really stand out; in others, there is only a little progress. But it is impossible that a Christian who belongs to Jesus should not bring forth fruits.

The catechism connects these fruits—our good works—especially to thankfulness. This theme will especially be fleshed out in the last section of the catechism. When we realise what God has done for us, that he saves sinners to whom he owes nothing through the sacrifice of his own Son, out of pure grace, then it is only natural that we say “thank you” from the bottom of our heart—and live out that “thank you” for the rest of our lives. And that is really what good works are about.


Good works are important. When we do good works, selfishly and generously, we reflect the beauty of Jesus Christ and show that we are the children of God the Father, who himself is kind and compassionate. We were made to do good works and saved to do good works; and God rewards them, if not immediately in this life then in the life to come. I encourage you to be faithful and diligent in doing good, so that you shine as a light in this dark world and people may praise God because of what they see us do.

But our good works cannot make us right with God. Our salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, through his perfect sacrifice and his perfect good works. It is his Spirit who now lives in us and motivates us to do good. So let us not be boastful, or anxious about our good works. Instead, let us find joy in our salvation and then gladly imitate Jesus, doing good as a lifelong thank-you to him who has been so good to us, who were lost sinners and are now children of God.


  1. What does the Bible mean by “good works”?
  2. How does God reward us for the good works we do?
  3. Can our good works make us right with God? Why, or why not?
  4. How important are good works in the life of a Christian believer?

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