Saturday, May 29, 2010

When Good Works Go Bad

What a mixed bag of good and bad, wisdom and foolishness are the people of God. The Scriptures teach what the Reformers clearly articulated as the doctrine of Total Depravity. I know that no one wants to think of themselves as 'totally depraved.' After all, we are capable of wonderful acts of kindness and generosity. But this doctrine, which is revealed throughout the Scriptures, does not mean that we are as bad as we could be. It means that there is no part of us that has escaped the ravages of sin. That is, the totality of our being has been touched by wickedness, scared by fallenness.

We see the reality of total depravity enacted on a global scale through genocide, tyranny, injustice, greed, and sexual license. We see it in our own communities in crass materialism, addiction, adultery, and violence. In Christian households we see the ravages of total depravity in the disrespect of children for their parents, the lack of serving love between spouses, and the ruin of irresponsible stewardship. In our own hearts there is lust and covetousness and pride. The heart is truly deceitful.

Even our good deeds do not go untouched by sin. Our motives are mixed. We call attention to our acts of generosity or spiritual maturity because we crave the admiration of others. We let slip evidence of our generosity, spiritual discipline, service, or fasting. But not only do we crave admiration we also seek to press our advantage over others. If I have loved more, prayed more, served more, or fasted more than you, then certainly I am more spiritual than you.

Jesus warns against this impulse by calling us to secrecy in our good works and acts of devotion.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:16-18).
We must be careful not to broadcast our good works. Let it be, as it were, a secret even to ourselves. This will certainly rob us of the applause of man but it will gain for us a greater reward from our Father.

In Colossians 2 Paul tells us to not submit to the legalistic standards of others:

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind..." (vv. 16-18).

The implication is that we must not demand that others submit to our own standards of spirituality. If I choose to spend time in the Scriptures every morning at 5:00 then I must strenuously avoid any expectation that you should do the same. If I choose to abstain from drinking a glass of wine then I must not demand the same of you. If I fast on Saturdays as a way of preparation for the Lord's Day then that in no way obligates you to do the same.

There is something in our hearts that always seeks an advantage over others. But this prideful impulse is a cruel mistress for it eventually ruins the very thing it promised to satisfy. In this case, pride ruins the virtue of the virtuous deed. Pride makes good works go bad.

The Scriptures speak quite clearly about the dangers of good works. Our Lord said, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy,

sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:1-4).

I have a practice of not using any of my good works as sermon illustrations. I know my tendency to love the admiration of others so it is vital that I avoid broadcasting my good deed. Of course, in writing about my virtue of not bragging about my virtue I have just preened the feathers of my self-righteousness. Total Depravity indeed!


DJ Trousdale said...

Very clarifying about total depravity and good works. I enjoy reading about your experiences.

As I was reading, something came to mind. I'm curious to know how this squares with Matt 5:16, in which Jesus tells us to "Let your light shine before men so they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven." What do you think?

Todd Pruitt said...


Excellent question.

In Matthew 5:16 Jesus is speaking about those who will be persecuted by the world for their faithfulness to the Him. Christians are to respond to persecution with kindness and love. It is such a radical response that some pagans will end up praising God as a result.

This is very different from broadcasting our good works and boasting in our devotional practices. We are to be very discrete, indeed secretive concerning our acts of devotion, generosity, fasting, etc.