There’s a phrase that gets thrown around in Reformed circles that, I think, has its origins in the Puritans. The phrase goes something like this:
Even my best works for God are stained with sin.
In context, I understand the phrase. It means that even our best good deeds do not make us acceptable to God. All of our efforts of righteousness will not get us any closer to God. In an effort to avoid legalism and trust only in Christ, we remind ourselves that our best works are stained with sin.
But, I think we need to be careful about applying that phrase to ourselves as Christians, because I think it can communicate something unbiblical. When the Bible talks about our works as Christians, the emphasis is on the fact that our works are pleasing to God.
Ephesians 2:10 says:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
When we serve the Lord, we are doing works that he prepared beforehand for us. When God sees us walking in obedience, it pleases him and delights him. God doesn’t look on my good works and say, “Those good works stink! They are stained with sin!” I am joined to Christ, and because I am joined to Christ, my works are pleasing to God. God is my Father, I am his child. God delights in me as his child, and my works as pleasing to him.
My little girl Ella, loves to help me. When I’m about to leave, she brings my shoes over to me and says with a big smile, “Here you go dada!” When she does that I don’t say, “You were motivated by your own selfishness when you brought this over to me!” I delight in her little work for me, even though it was imperfect and slow and not actually that helpful. God delights in my works because I’m his son.
Matthew 10:42 says:
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.
All of my works for God, down to sharing a cup of water with a brother in Christ, will be rewarded by God. Are my works done with completely pure motives? No, of course not. But God still rewards me for those works! Isn’t that incredible? He honors my work for him by rewarding me. That’s crazy!