As those who have experienced Christ’s saving grace, we’re called to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12). Jesus has made us his own so that we might be zealous for good works (Titus 2:13–14)
But what exactly is a good work? The answer to this question hasn’t been obvious to everyone. According to Jesus, on the day of judgment many who thought they had good works are going to be surprised. They’re going to say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” Jesus’s response will come as a shock, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22–23).
Works can look good (at least externally) but be internally corrupt. It’s vital for us—as those called to good works—that we have a biblical definition for good works. A good work is a work which flows from faith, aligns with God’s law, and is done in sincerity and with the proper motivation.
A Good Work Flows from Faith
Truly good works before God can’t be done apart from faith. Paul says that actions that don’t proceed from faith are sin (Rom. 14:23); “without faith it is impossible to please God,” writes the author to the Hebrews (Heb. 11:6). Good works, therefore, must flow from a believing heart. This doesn’t mean that non-Christians are incapable of moral, upright, and praiseworthy things. But these works aren’t properly good in the biblical sense, because they’re not produced by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The apostle John writes about the link between a regenerated heart of faith and good works: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). He assumes that the love exhibited in Christian community has as its source the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the hearts of men and women. This kind of love is the fulfillment of God’s law (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14), making it truly good before God.
A Good Work Is Done in Obedience to God’s Law
We don’t get to invent good works. God warns the people entering the promised land to observe his law carefully by not adding to it or taking away from it (Deut. 12:32). We take away from God’s law when we minimize its holy requirements. We add to it when we invent new rules that God hasn’t given, often as a way of distracting ourselves from genuine obedience.
Jesus warns the hypocrites, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9). God’s law reveals to us what good works are, and Jesus teaches that this law is ultimately summarized by love for God and love for our neighbors (Matt. 22:36–40).
A Good Work Is Carried Out in Sincerity
A truly good work before God involves our hearts, not just our hands. God desires steadfast love more than insincere sacrifices of worship (Hos. 6:6; Cf. Mt. 9:13). In Isaiah, he warns his people:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? . . . Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
(Isa. 1:11 & 16-17)
Worship is good, but like the Israelites, we can go through the external motions of worship while our hearts remain distant from God (Isa. 29:13). Works that please God unite hand and heart in sincere worship.
A Good Work Needs to Have the Right Motivation
Good works are not done for the approval of others, but for the glory of God. Jesus said, “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” (Matt. 6:2)
In the age of social media, it’s hard not to notify the world about what we had for breakfast! Care must be taken that we don’t trumpet our good works to gain the likes and approval of others. God sees what you do, and he rewards the works done in secret for his glory (Matt. 6:4). “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
God’s Work in Us
If at this point you’re asking yourself, “Have I ever done a good work?” you’re not alone! Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon:
The Christian will tell you that he weeps over his very tears; he feels that there is filth even in the best of desires; that he has to pray to God to forgive his prayers, for there is sin amid his supplications, and that he has to sprinkle even his best offerings with the atoning blood.
When we look at our works—even our best ones—we see their need for Christ’s blood. For the believer on earth, there’s no such thing as a perfectly good work (since sin and selfishness still cling even to our best efforts). But by the grace of the Spirit, God is working in us to perform that which is truly pleasing in his sight (Eph. 2:10). The holy standard of righteousness in God’s law is a reminder to us of the fact that we could never be justified by our imperfect works. Nevertheless, as justified sinners, God is working in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
 From his sermon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility”