“He went about doing good:” The Call to Good Works
As short as it, Paul’s letter to Titus contains one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the Christian life.
In Titus 3, he talked about the moral decadence and corruption that characterised the lives of believers prior to their salvation (verses 1-3). Then he described how the love and kindness of God responded to our moral corruption (and the eternal destruction that followed from it) in Christ (verses 4-7).
God saved us out of his own goodness; he justified us by his grace. Paul described this salvation not only in its forensic aspects – justification (verse 7) – but also in its regenerative aspects: the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (verse 5).
Through God’s grace, Paul taught, we have been delivered not just from the guilt of sin but also from its power. And having been thus delivered, our lives must consist in devoting ourselves to good works (verse 8).
We find the same story in Titus 2. God’s gracious response to our moral corruption led to salvation (verse 11). This salvation includes substitutionary atonement (verse 14), which leads to redemption from all lawlessness. Having been thus redeemed, we are to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” (verse 12). Or, said differently, we are to be “zealous for good works” (verse 14).
Paul adds another element in chapter 2: the epiphaneia (the second coming) of Christ, our God and Saviour (verse 13).
At various times, the church has succumbed to the tendency to either emphasise the forensic over the transformative or the transformative over the forensic. In this article, my aim is to focus on the transformative, to emphasise that when God justifies us, he also calls us to live life in a certain way – to be people who are zealous for good works.
In essence, the gospel is not only about what Christ has done for us in the past but also what he is doing in and through us today. That is, we must inquire about our identity as well as our mission; who we are as well as what we are for.
The call to good works
The call to good works began with Christ himself. In the sermon on the mount, he described the members of his kingdom as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-15). What does it mean to be the light of the world? Jesus explained that it involves producing good works that are visible before others (verse 16).
Paul described the mission of the believer in the same manner. In his letter to the Ephesians, he highlighted that the purpose/goal of believers being created in Christ Jesus (equivalent to salvation in verse 8) is to walk in good works (verse 10). In fact, God has designed beforehand the very good works he wants each of us to walk in. Paul’s point in this letter, as it was in his letter to Titus, is that while good works don’t save us, once we are saved, they are constitutive of our very identity (and mission) as Christians. These good works must characterise Christian women (1 Timothy 2:10), Christian widows (1 Timothy 5:10), the man of God (2 Timothy 3:17), and the rich (1 Timothy 6:18).
The author of Hebrews agrees. In a book whose goal is to help Christians persevere in the faith and avoid apostasy, the author identified the importance of stirring up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). This is in addition to regular church attendance and mutual encouragement (verse 25). How do we prevent people sliding away from the faith? We must stir each other to a life of love and good works, said the author of Hebrews.
Peter said the same thing, picking up the language of Jesus. He wants believers to live honourable lives among Gentiles, even if those Gentiles (unbelievers) persecute them. While they may speak evil of us, we must be consistent in doing good deeds so that the evil they speak don’t match up to anything in our lives. By this consistency in good deeds, even unbelievers will be forced to glorify God on the day of visitation.
In fact, for James, a life of good works is the proof that our faith in Christ is genuine. Paul has already said that those who have been saved by Christ have also been regenerated so they can leave ungodliness, live self-controlled lives, and do good works. James brings out the intrinsic connection between justification and transformation by insisting that without these good works, we cannot say we truly have faith – at least not the true faith that justifies.
For James, faith without work is useless. And if “useless” is not strong enough, “dead” most certainly is (James 2:26). All of this makes sense when we remember that for Paul good works is constitutive of Christian identity.
What are good works?
But what exactly are these good works?
In 1 Timothy 5:10, where Paul was talking about Christian widows, they include: bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, and caring for the afflicted. When addressing the rich, he described these good works as being “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).
In the third chapter of Titus, good works involve meeting the urgent needs of others, especially Christian missionaries (Titus 3:14). A chapter before, Paul contrasted good works with lawlessness (2:14). In the same context, he said the grace of God teaches us to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives. Consequently, good works cannot be separated from lawfulness, morality, and godliness. In fact, Paul emphasised the lawfulness part of good works in Romans 13 where he insisted that those who do good don’t need to be afraid of rulers (verse 3).
Peter’s identification bears this out. For him, to do good deeds is the opposite of being an evildoer (1 Peter 2:12). More positively, it is to live honourable lives before pagans, which, of course, includes lawfulness and morality.
For James, good works involve meeting the needs of those who are poorly clothed and those who don’t have daily food; that is, generosity is a key component (James 2:14-17). He also emphasised another aspect in chapter 3: good works are works of wisdom that shun jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, lies.
The author of Hebrews identified these good works intimately with love (Hebrews 10:24). Said simply, good works are (or should be, given 1 Corinthians 13:3) works of love. For the believer, good works are the overflowing of the love of God and for neighbours that come with our new (regenerated) nature in Chirst.
To summarise, to devote ourselves to good works is to devote ourselves to generosity, godliness, dutifulness, wisdom, lawfulness, and morality.
Examples of good works
Jesus Christ is the greatest example of good works. Peter described his whole life in this way: he went about doing good (Acts 10:28). And an important part of that was his healing ministry (Matthew 4:23-25).
He began his ministry in Luke by identifying himself as the Lord who was to come to Israel to “proclaim good news to the poor,” “proclaim liberty to the captives,” “recovering of sight to the blind,” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:16-18). And throughout his ministry, he fed the hungry, healed the sick, accepted the outcast, and delivered those oppressed by Satan.
Dorcas is another example. Luke described her as being “full of good works and charity” (Acts 9:36). When she died, the widows showed the clothes she made for them to Peter, as an example of her charity.
In Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, we also see how the early church catered for each other’s needs through various acts of generosity. In fact, when Paul met the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, the only thing they told him was to remember to help the poor (Galatians 2:10). And in 2 Corinthians 8, we see how the church in Macedonia exemplified generosity by giving to the churches in Judea out of their own poverty.
Peter, James, Paul, and Philip all ministered to the needy through various acts of healing and exorcism.
The motives for good works
In the NT, we find various motives for good works.
The most fundamental is the one Jesus identified: the glory of the Father (Matthew 5:16). Our good works are to redound to the glorifying of God by unbelievers. As Peter said, even those who say evil deeds of us will by our good deeds, which contradict what they say, glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).
Within that larger and primary motive, there are other motives. For example, in Romans 13:3, doing good ensures that we are not in the crosshair of our rulers. We also do good so that the word of God will not be blasphemed among unbelievers (Titus 2:5, KJV). Love is another motive (1 Corinthians 13:3, Hebrews 10:24, 1 John 3:18). When we love God and our neighbours, we manifest good works.
The reality of the gospel is another motive. We are those who have been set free from sin to walk in good works that God has laid down for us (Ephesians 2:8-10). To refuse to walk in good works is to deny the forensic and transformative work that God has done for and in us. This is why Christian ethics, espeically in Paul, has been described as “becoming who you are.” We are to live a life full of good works because that is who God has made us.
Good works and the watching world
There are times when doing good works in the way described here can make the world love and respect us.
However, Jesus, the greatest example of good works, was still crucified by the same people that saw and enjoyed his works.
The faith that produces the good works will still remain distasteful to many (1 Peter 3:13-17; 4:15-16). Even the good works themselves may ruffle some uncomfortable feathers, like the business men who seized Paul and Silas for exorcising the girl who brought them much wealth (Acts 16:16-24). Many who have sought to fight corruption in the private and public sectors can report how much animosity they have generated against themselves.
Some of our good works will sometimes be rejected as evil. Campaigning against abortion or for sex within marriage as the best path towards human flourishing will be seen in many quarters as anti-freedom. In some other quarters, our efforts to dig wells and build schools may be seen as mere proselytising or pandering, with our good motives impugned.
In the end, we cannot make our good works depend on how the intended recipients will receive them or us. Ultimately, we live lawful, moral, generous, godly lives because that’s the person God has made us. We can’t do otherwise; to do so is to deny our identity.
Abounding in good works
After praising the Philippians for being partners with him in the gospel, Paul went on to pray that their “love may abound more and more” (Phillipians 1:9). He did the same for the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:12). And his prayer was indeed answered (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
The call of God is for us to abound in good works. We are not to think of the minimum good we can do or the smallest period in which we are to do them. Instead, we must always abound in good, in quantity, quality, and duration. Said differently, good works must be abundant in our lives.
As Paul admonished the Galatians, we must not grow weary of doing good (Galatians 6:9). Instead, we are to do more than we did yesterday stirring one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
Our goal in life should be that our lives can be described the same way Christ’s was: “he went about doing good.”
Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service
Lord, whose love in humble service
bore the weight of human need,
who upon the cross, forsaken,
worked your mercy’s perfect deed:
we, your servants, bring the worship
not of voice alone, but heart;
consecrating to your purpose
ev’ry gift which you impart.
Still your children wander homeless;
still the hungry cry for bread;
still the captives long for freedom;
still in grief we mourn our dead.
As you, Lord, in deep compassion
healed the sick and freed the soul,
by your Spirit send your power
to our world to make it whole.
As we worship, grant us vision,
till your love’s revealing light
in its height and depth and greatness
dawns upon our quickened sight,
making known the needs and burdens
your compassion bids us bear,
stirring us to ardent service,
your abundant life to share.
Called by worship to your service,
forth in your dear name we go,
to the child, the youth, the aged,
love in living deeds to show;
hope and health, good will and comfort,
counsel, aid and peace we give,
that your servants, Lord, in freedom
may your mercy know and live.