How Do I Know If My Good Deeds Are Worthless?
How do I know if my good deeds are vain — or if they are eternally relevant? Just because we act in ways that look sacrificial to the world does not mean those works are virtuous. It’s an essential point made by Jesus when he contrasts the Pharisee and the tax collector. There he introduces us to a very moral teacher, a man who is not an extortioner, not unjust, not a scandalous sinner, not an adulterer. No. In fact, he fasted twice a week and tithed off everything he got (as we are told in Luke 18:11–12). And it was all vain. All of it. And yet, said Jesus, our own righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). So there’s a sacrifice worth noting here, even if it’s proven vain in the end.
How do we escape the Pharisee’s vain sacrifice? It’s the question Pastor John took up in one of his early sermons, way back in 1980, specifically answering the question: How do we do good works so that God gets the glory? Here’s the answer from rookie pastor, John Piper, 42 years ago, just a couple weeks into his new pastorate.
It’s possible to be a kind of do-gooder, a kind of philanthropist, a benefactor, who (for one reason or another) uses his or her money to alleviate suffering, and not even believe in God, let alone do it all for his glory. And that creates a kind of problem. Can’t just be merely good deeds then, can it, that gives God glory?
When Jesus said, “You are the light of the world,” he didn’t just mean the bodily motions through which you go in doing good deeds. He meant you — your attitude, your motive, the spirit that you exude in those good deeds. That’s what it means to let your light shine. There is a way to do good deeds that will bring glory to God, and doing it that way, in that spirit, will be the shining of the light that Jesus is talking about, which is why I entitled this sermon, “How to Do Good So God Gets the Glory,” not just “Doing Good So God Gets the Glory.”
Don’t content yourself that you have done many good deeds in your life. It might be a pile of rubbish in God’s sight. There is such a thing as works and Phariseeism. So we must ask the next question, which comes from 1 Peter 4:10–11, how shall we do good deeds? How shall we serve so that not we, but God, gets the glory?
In the Strength He Provides
Probably no other book in the New Testament, besides the book of James, reflects a greater acquaintance with the teachings of Jesus than 1 Peter.
For example, in 1 Peter 2:12, you have a very loose quotation of the very text we’ve been looking at, Matthew 5:16. It says there, “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles so that when they speak against you as evil-doers, they might see your good deeds and give glory to God on the day of visitation.” It’s the same idea exactly as Jesus’s teaching because Peter, of course, was a very close apostle.
But in 1 Peter 4:10–11, we have probably the clearest word in the Bible about how it is we must do good deeds if God is to get glory,
As each has received a gift, employ it for one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace. Whoever speaks, let him speak as one who utters oracles of God. Whoever renders service, let him render it as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies in order that in everything God might be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
“For God to get glory in our lives, the good we do must be done in dependence upon the strength which he gives.”
There is no clearer answer in the Bible to the question, how we shall serve or do good deeds so that God gets glory. And the answer, very simply, is that, for God to get glory in our lives, the good we do must be done in dependence upon the strength which he gives and not our own. Not mere good deeds, but good deeds done in a spirit of humble reliance and joyful dependence on the provision of God.
The Proud Servant
I want you to picture two people this afternoon. These two people are trying to decide whether to come to F.A.C.T. tomorrow night (Fun All Cleaning Together). Going to clean up the church.
Now, one of these fellas is a younger man and he’s strong and virile, works a lot around the church. He’s pondering, “Shall I go or not to help? Oh, I suppose I’ll go. Might be worth a few brownie points with the leadership. They might serve snacks. Besides, I know how to do all that stuff really well. I can give a few pointers and that’s always fun.” And so he comes and he grumbles about the tools that are there, and he criticizes the way things have been planned, and he talks on and on about his experience. He gets a lot done, does a lot more than lots of other people, gets a lot of corners spick and span. A lot of employers would go after that man because many employers are only interested in productivity and efficiency.
“Every piece of resolve that we can muster to do good is a gift of God.”
God looks on that man’s heart and his assessment of his contribution is this, “I got no glory from that effort because it was not done in reliance upon me. It was not done in a spirit of humble trust and joyful acceptance of life and gift from me.”
The Humble Servant
Then there’s another person. Now, this person’s a little bit older. He’s worked a lot in the church too, but he’s been ill for a while now. The knees are real stiff and give a lot of pain. Arthritis, I suppose. And he wants to come. He would love to come. He’s always enjoyed working at the church, and he never made any big to-do about inconvenience or sacrifice or any of that stuff. He was just there putting in the hours.
He says, “O Lord, I would just love to be there. Maybe I could just encourage some of the down-hearted. Maybe I could just keep the coffee warm, but it would be sure great to be there with your people in your house.” He makes a special effort and praise. “Just this once, let me wake up in the morning with no pain in these knees, and I’ll go,” and low and behold, he wakes up with no pain.
He gets on the phone to Flossy, “I’m coming down there. I’m going to do whatever you need done.” And so he’s there, and he works, and he doesn’t get so much done because his knees start to ache a little bit, but he’s there with bells on. He exudes a kind of joy and gratitude for life, and everybody’s attention through him is appointed to God from whom he has acknowledged receiving this help. His whole bearing and his whole demeanor exude that God is getting the credit for his being there, and God is getting the credit for every little swipe of the rag or push of the broom. That’s what it means to let your light shine (and not just to be there), right?
What Have You Not Received?
But here’s the hook. Every single one of us is in that category, not just the guy with bad knees. Every single one of us, all the strength we have is from God. All the fibers of our brain and our intelligence are a gift from God. Every piece of resolve that we can muster to do good is a gift of God. “What do you have that you did not receive,” Paul said to the Corinthians, “If you received it as a gift, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Why do you get haughty and arrogant and braggy? We are all crippled apart from the grace of God — and worse than crippled, apart from his sustenance. We would degenerate into nothing or into devils without his grace.
Oh, how differently we would serve and do good if this truth would hit us with all its force: how utterly dependent we are on God for life and breath and everything. We would not boast in our achievements. We would not criticize the speck in our brother’s eye. We would not grumble about inconveniences, and we would not be presumptuous as if existence itself could be taken for granted. It cannot. A person who truly owns up to the fact that he exists by the word of God, and that all his strength and moral resolve comes from God, is going to be a humble and lowly and grateful and joyful person in all the good deeds that he does. And in serving that way, God, and not himself, will get glory.