Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Good Works: Why do we have them?

An acquaintance of mine recently asked this question via Twitter:

"Why do we have works? Is it for outward performance? Or is it inward, an issue of the heart?"

Definitely a valid question. And these are my thoughts.

I believe that the answer is: both. Good works are both inward and outward; they have a single purpose, but are complex in their makeup; good works seek to achieve one goal, and they do so when a couple of different parts, namely that which is visible and that which is invisible, work together. What is visible is the good work itself - cooking for someone, working on someone's house, community service, etc. What is invisible is the heart and goal behind the good work - hypocrisy, authenticity, pride, humility, jealousy, and the list goes on and on. When the visible and invisible line up properly, the God-designed goal of good works is achieved - glorifying God by way of loving people.

The Visible

What is more glorifying to God than accurately representing him to a world that has never seen him? We have eyes that were created to behold the glory, beauty and love of their Creator, but so few eyes have actually rested on them. It makes sense. "...All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). There is no individual who, by virtue of their broken humanness, naturally displays the essence of God to the world - love (1 John 4:8). But thankfully, we have a Messiah who came to restore that which was broken, and believers have not only been fixed by God, we actually have his presence dwelling in us, and his love has been poured into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). So now, even though "no one has seen God at any time", "if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12). There is a very real sense in which when believers love people, God himself is manifested to them through the love of the believer. This is the visible portion of a good work, and it's ultimate end is that people may a) see God, the one whom they were made to see, by way of b) actually seeing, receiving, and resting in the love that is manifested in the lives of believers. This makes God tangible and brings God glory.

The Invisible

But then there is the invisible portion of the good work - our motive. Nothing is done without some kind of motive behind it. Is our motive in doing a good work to be seen by men? If so, we fit Jesus' definition of a hypocrite (Matt. 6:1, 2, 5, 16). Is our goal in serving someone to give ourselves proof of our own salvation (in accordance with Phil. 2:12)?** Then the good work rings hollow, and we make God to be disingenuous (not in a substantive way, but in an apparent way to the unbelieving world). In other words: if our goal in loving people is anything other than actually loving them, we not only display an inauthentic affection that leaves a bitter taste on the tongue of those who taste it, we also misrepresent God. If I treat people as tools to assuage my own insecurities regarding my salvation, in my manipulation I actually portray God as manipulative & disingenuous; a fraud. Instead, genuine care for others is self-authenticating - it will appear genuine by virtue of its genuineness. God does not just appear to care for people; God actually cares. When we actually care, this authenticates God and brings God glory.

(As you can see, it is difficult to talk about the invisible without speaking in terms of what is visible, and it is difficult to talk about those without speaking of what they are accomplishing. I believe that's how it should be. And as difficult as it is to speak of them separately, it is actually impossible to live separately. The inner life and outer life are inseparable.)

What are they for?

Analyzing our own good works should be, I believe, a retrospective exercise. Instead of serving someone to verify for myself whether I am saved or not (which warps the purpose of service and displays a misunderstanding of justification), service and good works should be flowing out of my life as a fruit of my Gospel-rooted love and compassion for people; and then, weeks and months down the line, I will be able to look back and rejoice that truly "it is God who is at work in [me] both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). We are, in fact, made for good works (Eph. 2:10), and we can look forward to walking in those works for the glory of God which, as a byproduct, does bring a deep satisfaction. As we walk in righteousness, people will see a true expression of who God is, which may then result in their glorifying our "Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). 

So what's up with good works? Are they for outward performance or are they an inward issue? I say they are for both. Outward - for the visible glory of God; inward - for the heart-exalting glory of God; in total - for the glory of God.

What do you all think?