If someone asks you to do a set of tasks, would you prefer that they make you a specific list? Sometimes when we consider the biblical concept of "good works," what we really want is a list of what counts as "good" so we can simply check the boxes. But there's more to "doing good works" than just making a list and checking it twice.
Recognizing what counts as "good work" first requires that we know what "good" is in the first place. Because human beings were made in God's image (Genesis 1:27), anyone can recognize and do good works. That said, as created beings, humans are not the "good" standard nor can we make something good by our own authority. We make mistakes, can be misinformed or misled, and oftentimes deliberately choose to do wrong. Anyone imperfect cannot be the standard of perfection.
The ultimate standard of good is within not ourselves, human authority figures, or the world around us; the standard is set by God. To be the standard of good, one must be perfect, unchanging, and the highest authority—this only describes God. He is the one who sets the standard of what is good, because He is perfect and holy (Psalm 99:9; Psalm 18:30).
So how can we know if something is good? If it aligns with the character of God or comes from His instructions, then it is good (James 1:17). Let's look at some specific ways we can recognize good works.
Another phrase for "right and wrong" is "Moral Law," and God has written the Moral Law on our hearts and conscience (Romans 2:15). That is why we are able to recognize right and wrong or feel guilty when we do something wrong—even if no one tells us or in spite of someone telling us that something wrong is actually OK. God has put that knowledge in our hearts already.
Thanks to God's design, our own conscience can prompt us on what actions to take. That said, it's important to note that our internal Moral Law is not foolproof. We view everything through our own filters, biases, and convictions, which can sometimes be skewed, confused, or wrong in their own right (Colossians 2:8), so we don't want to ONLY trust our consciences.
While our hearts can recognize the Moral Law, it is also important to realize that our hearts can also deceive us, so we cannot solely rely on it to direct us (Jeremiah 17:9). Sometimes we tell ourselves we're doing "good works" when those actions are not actually good (Romans 7:15-20). Sometimes we figure out a way to justify our actions to suit our desire to make something "good" when it is not (Proverbs 14:12).
Scripture tells us that before the apostle Paul became a Christian, he was killing Christians and thought that he was doing a "good work" for God, but really he was persecuting Jesus (Acts 22:3-4, 7; John 16:2-3). Matthew 7:22-23 says that there will be people who do miracles and prophesy in Jesus' name, but He will call them evildoers.
People tend to look at the outward appearance of a person's actions, making it easy to fool others (and maybe even ourselves) that the thing we're doing is "good." But God looks at our hearts, and He knows the truth about our motives (1 Samuel 16:7)—whether good or bad.
For example, have you ever helped someone hoping for a favor or reward in return? You might have felt like you checked the box of a "good deed," but that motive was selfish rather than selfless. Since it helped someone anyway, does it still "count" as good? Nope. Right motives are just as important as right actions.
God has communicated to us through His Word to let us know what actions are good (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Sometimes there's a specific list or instruction, like in Colossians 3, where it tells believers to "put off" impurity, greed, anger, etc. and "put on" compassion, patience, and forgiveness. Other times, God gives us general instructions, like in Ephesians 4:29, which says to not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth but only what builds others up. It doesn't tell us exactly what to say word-for-word, but it does give us a principle about what actions would result in "good."
We can also learn from all the examples of believers in the Bible—what they did right and wrong and what happened as a result of those actions. Jesus is our very best example of how to "do good," so a study of His good works would be really helpful in discerning our own.
If you have believed in Jesus as your Savior, then the Holy Spirit is with you and will help you glorify God with your life—including prompting you to do good works and reminding you of what the Bible says (Ephesians 1:13; John 14:26).
Romans 8:28 says that those who are saved have been called to specific good works that God has prepared for them to do—good works that glorify Him and bring His purpose to fruition in the world. When a believer does good works, they glorify God, earn heavenly rewards, participate in God's kingdom work on earth, serve the body of Christ, and more (1 Corinthians 10:31; Matthew 6:20; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
The Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us so that heart attitudes, motivations, and actions are honoring to God. When Christians do good works, they bear the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit includes things like love, kindness, and goodness. All fruit, including normal fruit from a tree or vine, doesn't just appear all by itself; it needs sun and water. The fruit of the Spirit doesn't just spring up from nothing either; it is from the Holy Spirit. Scripture also calls this "living by the spirit" (Galatians 5:16).
Anyone can outwardly do a "good deed," but only those who have believed in Jesus as their Savior can walk in the Spirit to do good works from a righteous heart and truly bear the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 8:1; Galatians 5:16-24).
What about someone who hasn't believed in Jesus as their Savior? Why are they able to do good works? As we said earlier, the inherent "Moral Law" helps people know right from wrong on a basic level and can drive them to do good things in the world—and that's a very good thing! Perhaps God is actively working to reach their hearts—even if they don't acknowledge Him at this point in their lives (Jeremiah 29:13).
But the Bible describes unbelievers as "dead in sin" (Ephesians 2:1-3) and "walking in the flesh" (Romans 8:5). 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that "The [unbeliever] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." When a follower of Christ does "good" with a righteous heart, it might appear as foolishness to an unbeliever because they can't understand why someone would "do good" selflessly.
While an unbeliever may do "good deeds" on the outside, their motivation for doing them is rarely truly altruistic—rather, their "good" is motivated by a desire for gain, which means that it isn't truly "good". Some believe that their "good works" will earn (or secure) their salvation. However, Isaiah 64:6 tells us that, in terms of salvation, our good works are like filthy rags in God's sight—they will not grant us salvation. Salvation is a gift we are offered by God's grace alone and comes through faith not works.
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." - Ephesians 2:8-9
Since God is the standard of good, if we want to know what works are good, we need to know what He has revealed through His Word and then ask the Holy Spirit for grace to do them (James 4:7-8). This is why it's important for followers of Christ to read the Bible on a regular basis. Through reading God's Word and being attentive to His directions through the Holy Spirit, we can learn to discern our own actions and do the good work God has called us to.
The next time you're tempted to just make a "good works" to-do list, remember that true good works aren't just a checklist. Works that are truly good will align with God's Word and come from a selfless heart that is empowered by the Holy Spirit, who helps us see the truth and gives us the grace to walk in God's way.
To know what counts as "good works," we have to look beyond a simple checklist. First, we must recognize that the standard of what's "good" comes from God alone. When He created us, He wrote His standard of right and wrong on the human heart; He gave believers the Holy Spirit to guide us and purify our motives; and He has shared so much truth about goodness through the Bible. Both right actions and right motives are important when it comes to good works. Anyone can outwardly do a "good deed," but only those who have believed in Jesus as their Savior can walk in the Spirit to do good works from a righteous heart and truly bear the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 8:1; Galatians 5:16-24).
Hanna loves spending time with kids and teens. She enjoys being detectives with them to investigate God's Word to discover truths to answer any questions. She is the co-author of a newly published apologetics curriculum for children and teaches one online for highschoolers-adults. To learn more about her ministry you can visit networkerstec.com. For fun, she likes to play Ultimate Frisbee, read historical fiction, and paint.