Nobody debates whether “good” means something beneficial or whether “doing good” is a worthy aim. Everyone wants “good” in the world. But our individual definitions of good, and means of achieving it, differ by a wide mile.
To arrive at a Christian understanding of good, we start with the Bible. We want God to be the source of our notions about good, so we need a biblically grounded picture of what we’re shooting for when we say we want to be people of good faith.
You might be surprised to find that good is a common theme in the Bible. One of our favorite verses is from Hebrews: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (10:24).
But good goes back much, much farther in God’s story. In fact, we find good at the very beginning – when the Creator surveys his handiwork and sees that it is good (see Genesis 1). We see in the biblical account of God’s earliest work in the world a picture of what he means by good: his creation is orderly and right, abundant and generous, beautiful and flourishing with life and relationships.
The New Testament echoes the theme that the people of God are to be agents of good. For example:
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners, “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16).
- Paul returns to the words good and goodness many times in his letters to the early churches. “Let God transform you into a new person…then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2); “God causes everything to work together for the good” (8:28); “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17); “the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23); “let’s not get tired of doing what is good” (6:9); “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10). There are so many more.
- Peter tells persecuted Christians in the early days of the church, “You can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
- And the apostle James, of course, could not be more blunt when he writes, “Faith is dead without good works” (2:26) and “If you are wise and understanding God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13).
What does this brief overview show us? It ought to hit us between the eyes that good is for the benefit of others. Although these verses are from the New Testament, good is a theme as old as the covenant God made with Abraham: blessed to be a blessing (see Genesis 12). Gabe’s work in the last few years has focused a great deal on helping Christians understand our calling and responsibility to be restorers. In and through Christ, we are to be agents of restoration, putting right the effects of a broken, bent, and disordered world.
Living in good faith means helping the world and the people in it to be orderly and right, abundant and generous, beautiful and flourishing with life and relationships – just as God created them to be.
But this brings us to a second point about good according to Scripture: we have no real ability to be or to generate good on our own. “Whatever is good…is a gift coming down to us from God our father” (James 1:17). This means that good works done with wrong motives can still have a positive impact. The effect of hot food on a hungry person doesn’t much depend on our motivation. The road to irrelevance is paved with overthinking.
At the same time, when it comes to maturing in good faith, motivation matters a great deal. If we are trying to “motivate one another to acts of love and good works” for the sake of our own reputation, to make ourselves look good, to generate positive publicity, or to make people like us more, we are getting good wrong. Our good works should cause others to praise the Father, not us. If we are trying to do good works to make ourselves worthy of God’s love, we are getting good wrong. Our good works should be a response of selfless love toward others in thanks for Jesus’ unconditional love for us.
Hear more from Gabe Lyons this Tuesday and Thursday on LIFE TODAY. This is an excerpt from Good Faith by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. Copyright ©2016 by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.