The phrase “good works” or “good work” occurs 28 times in 27 verses in the New Testament. I want to examine each of these instances in order that we might get a biblical understanding of what good works are, what they do, and why they are important.
The first place this phrase is found in the New Testament is Matthew 5:16, so let’s examine that verse in its context.
“16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
The setting of this verse is inside of the Sermon on the Mount. It comes at the end of the description of God’s people being salt and light. Notice that Jesus declares that they “are” salt and light. He did not say they “ought to be,” “should be,” “could be,” or “strive to be.” They already are, positionally, salt and light. Also, notice the article “the” before each declaration. They are not one of several salts or several lights, they are the salt and the light. They are what God is going to use to reach others. There is assurance here that they are going to be used by God. This seems to be the pattern of God in the New Testament. God’s people are told what they are before they are told what they are to do. In other words, they are to become what they already are.
Verse 16 begins with “Let you light so shine.” The word “shine” is the imperative or command. The apparent problem is that they don’t have light. The idea here is that they are to reflect the light that is Jesus Christ. We are much like the moon, that has no light of its own but reflects the light of the sun. The moon does not try to reflect, make an effort to reflect, or strive to reflect, it just does. In fact, it can’t help but do it. The sun shines and the moon has no option but to reflect it. That is also true of those who are in the light, the light being Christ. We are not to strive to reflect his light, but we are to strive to be as near to the light as we can, therefore reflecting more of Him. It is ultimately Christ who makes us effective.
The next thing we notice is that this reflection is connected to what is termed as “good works.”If the reflection is not them but Christ then the “good works” are not them but Christ, as well. Our “good works” are simply the reflection of Jesus Christ. “Good works” are not our deeds but Jesus manifesting himself in and through us. The fruits of the spirit are manifestations of who and what God is.
Also, these “good works” are to be seen by others. The emphasis here is that these “good works” are to be contrasted with the surrounding world’s works. There is to be something different and special about Christian “good works.” The word used here for “works” carries a meaning of attractiveness. What Christ works in us will be attractive to others. Once they are seen, they are designed to bring glory to the Father. In other words, the “good works” are not to reveal their agent but their source. The goal is that people are impressed with the Father who makes His disciples this way rather than by the disciples who behave this way.
There is a tension with this thought. Back in chapter 6, Jesus warns that care should be taken not to do their righteousness before men, so that people would see them. But here is says that these “good works” are to be seen. What is the difference? In one the purpose is good and in other the purpose is bad. One is fleshly and the other is Spiritual. One is us and the other is Christ. One is done by us and the other is done through us. One is our work and the other is the work of God. This clearly shows that the good or bad is not in the external reality of the work but in what this work springs from, flesh or Spirit.
Are there times in which we are more reflective than other times? Yes. But that is not so that you will now try harder but that you will get closer. Our failure in complete obedience should not drive us to despair or to more effort but should drive us to strengthen our fellowship with Him.