Thursday afternoon, Chelsea pulled apart her bedroom and packed all her belongings that she didn’t need into boxes.
Friday evening, she gave a motivational speech at her youth group urging all her peers to do the same.
Saturday morning, she transported boxes of things around the church yard, setting up the garage sale. Then she supervised the selling of the items, the profits of which were to go towards a mission trip. Then she stayed behind and helped pack up.
Some people admired Chelsea’s tireless hard work. Others thought she was trying to earn God’s favor through good works.
Let’s dig into what the Bible has to say.
I’ve picked out two verses that talk about good works. The first refers to them as “righteous acts”, the second talks about “doing good”.
Isaiah chapter 64 says:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Filthy rags. This verse says all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Think of a rag that’s been used to brush away cobwebs, or a dirty diaper, or (put nicely) used feminine hygiene products. That’s the literal translation of the original Hebrew text; menstrual garments. The point of this verse is that “our” good works are offensive to God. They are nothing that we should dream of offering to Him.
Galatians chapter 6 says:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Now we come across a verse that pushes us to continue doing good works and that says we will reap a harvest because of them. This means that we will receive good things in return for good works.
What’s the difference?
These two verses seem to express radically different ideas. On the surface, they even seem to contradict each other.
SIDENOTE: Whenever you come across apparent contradictions in the Bible, I encourage you to study it in detail. There will probably be an exciting lesson to learn when you discover how the pieces actually fit together in beautiful harmony.
Here, the answer to the puzzle is found in looking at the context of the two verses. The author of the first verse was talking about the depravity of mankind – apart from God. The author of the second verse was talking to an audience who had placed their trust in Jesus and were made right before God. As you can see, trusting in Jesus makes a world of a difference.
In God’s eyes, the worth Chelsea’s good works does not depend on the nature of the works themselves. It depends on whether she has trusted in Jesus or not.
If Chelsea has not trusted in Jesus, then her good works are like filthy rags to God – worthless. But, if she had trusted in Him, then He will reward her for her good works. The worth of your works hinges entirely onto one question: Have you trusted in Jesus?
Let’s hear from you
- There are two common traps: (1) to value our own good works above all else, and (2) to neglect to do good works at all. Which trap are you more likely to fall into?
- If a friend asked you about it, how would you explain to them the role of good works in the lives of Christians?
- How would you explain to them how God sees the good works of people who reject Him?
Resources for deeper digging:
Psst! For more on:
- How good works relate to salvation: have a look at this article.
- The most valuable thing (it’s not good works): see this post from earlier this year.
- More verses on good works: the Bible has plenty of others that affirm the truths in both of the verses we looked at above. Some suggestions of where to start looking are Ephesians 2:8-10, Ezekiel 33:13 and Ephesians 6:7-8. I encourage you to read the chapters surrounding these verses for context.
- Why our righteous acts are considered filthy rags: here’s an article that does a thorough job at answering this question.