When it comes to our justification–our legal standing before God–our own good works are in no way the grounds of God’s declaration that we are “righteous.” Indeed, that is the very thing that makes the gospel good news. We are saved not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done. We are accepted by God not because of our works, but in spite of them.
But what does God think of our good works after we are saved? Here is where, unfortunately, Christians often receive mixed messages. Somewhere along the way we have begun to believe that our pride is best held in check, and God’s grace is most magnified, when we denigrate all our efforts and all our labors as merely “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Is 64:6) .
But does God really view the Spirit-wrought works of his own children in such a fashion? Is God pleased with only Christ’s work, and always displeased with our own?
Not at all. Time and time again, the Scriptures show that God is pleased with the righteousness deeds of the saints. God was pleased with Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). God was pleased with Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Christ was pleased with Mary’s gift of perfume (Mark 14:6), a deed he called “beautiful.” Christ was pleased with the widows offering: “She put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3).
Indeed, one could say that the entire “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is a catalog of the great deeds of the saints that are held up by the Scriptures as noteworthy. Think of all that was done by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and others. Are all their deeds “filthy rags” in God’s sight?
Of course, we should not be surprised that God is pleased with the good works of his people. As Hebrews 11:1-2 tells us, God is pleased with these works precisely because they were done out of faith. They are good works that are generated from the work of God’s own Spirit in the hearts of the saints (Eph 2:10). Sure, they are not perfect works–they are always tainted by sin to some degree. And yes, we cannot think for a moment that they merit salvation. They do not. But, they are the works of God’s own sons and daughters and he delights in them.
This larger biblical context can provide the proper framework for understanding the intent of passages like Is 64:6. The “filthy rags” in this passage is not a reference to the Spirit-wrought works of the regenerate, but the outward religious grandstanding of the wicked (see Isaiah 58). This understanding allows John Piper to say the following:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151-152).
In a similar fashion, the Westminster Confession offers a wonderfully balanced perspective on how God views the good works of his own people:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
This recognition that God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride, but rather a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us who are laboring in ministry. Truth be told, ministry can be difficult. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our father in heaven actually delights in these labors. It is like salve on our blisters, and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his five-year old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope–that God might be pleased with our labors–that Jesus lays out as a motive for us in our ministries. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
Tim Reichmuth says
Great post, the post-salvation value of works is indeed theologically valuable as well as practically necessary.
This is also exactly the part that works which He has set out for us (Eph. 2:10) play in the ongoing debate regarding sanctification. Specifically, since God has foreordained these works, not only are they righteous deeds but do indeed bring us more into the image of Christ.
Tim, What do you think of this? I wouldn’t say our good works “bring us more into the image of Christ,” but that they are simply fruits of our participation in the new creation (note the heavenly/eschatological context of Eph 2:4-10 which also appears at the end of ch.) I believe Calvin would say our sanctification is growth in union with Christ (which is by grace through faith) and this union manifests Christ’s resurrection life in us by godliness (Rom 6).
Russ Fox says
Thank you Dr. Kruger for this “word.” Just to add a point that came to mind as I read your post which is the Apostle Paul’s words in Eph.2:10 that “good works” are apparently programmed into the “new” creation we become “in Christ.” As I’m sure your well aware, in the past scholars have discussed the nature of justification, whether it is a positional act or does it include a behavioral component. As Hebrews 8 tells us (quoting from Jeremiah) God puts His law into our hearts and minds which indicates to me a insertion of neurons that pre-dispose the believer to “walk” in harmony with God’s righteousness. This righteosness will inevitably result in “good works”; after all you really can’t “love your neighbor” without doing “good” to them and for them. Anyway, thank you for your post. Over the 40 plus years that I’ve been trying to teach the saints about the Christian life (haltingly at best), sooner or later this subject comes up (especially when you have some from a different faith tradition).
Yes, Paul would not have aimed to be pleasing to the Lord in his ministry if it were not possible (2 Cor 5:9; 1 Th 2:4). And so he instructed all future servants of the word to do the same (2 Tim 2:4). While he was unworthy of the ministry just as he was unworthy of salvation (2 Cor 4:1; 1 Cor 15:9-10; Eph 3:8), it was grace that gave him the heart to be pleasing to the Lord and by God’s grace through him that he bore fruit (1 Cor 3:7; 2 Cor 3:5-6).