Our Best Works Stained With Sin? Well, Sort Of…

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!

  • http://imunderwater.tumblr.com Jeremy Taylor

    Amen! David Dickson said, “I have taken my good deeds and my bad deeds and thrown them together in a heap. Then I have fled from both of them to Christ, and in Him I have peace.” This is good because it reminds us not to do our good deeds for justification. Christ has already accomplished justification. Instead, we do good deeds out of obedience to God as an act of worship, a response, for His pleasure and it is also for our good. That's crazy!

    • Stephen Altrogge

      That's a great quote! What is it from?

  • http://sayable.net Lore Ferguson

    This is so timely and so GOOD. Thanks.

  • Rick

    Stephen – there is a 2 part post by Paul Helm (over at Credo mag) that you may find interesting as it relates to this topic. The first one provides the background and the second one is the 'meat' of his ideas. Well worth the read. http://www.credomag.com/2012/01/26/baxters-soup-ahttp://www.credomag.com/2012/01/27/aspirational-t

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Thanks for the link Rick!

  • Elaine Eshleman

    Excellent post, Stephen; great encouragement!

    Gotta love little Ella's servant's heart – what a great picture!

  • http://jon.limedaley.com/ jon daley

    thank you!

    more sovereign grace pastors need to learn and preach this. this “verse” is quoted all the time.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      yes we do!

  • Jen

    Thank you. Very encouraging.

  • lisa

    Good point, Stephen. I think we've been a bit unbalanced in this, probably because we don't want to be misunderstood as saying that we can do good works "unto salvation." But it's true that, once we are saved and adopted as God's children, our good works can be pleasing to him as we walk in them. This idea of Christians' being pleasing — or displeasing — to God is found in scripture, but doesn't seem to be taught about much. I for one would appreciate more biblical teaching on the subject! (hint hint)

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Okay Lisa, I'm getting the hint!!! Maybe if you supplied me with some processed meat products I could make it happen!

      • lisa

        That could be arranged….

  • http://www.crosseyed.blog.in Vivek Jones

    Hi Stephen, I enjoy your posts and so does my wife! It is a huge blessing (accompanied by a lot of laughter at home). I was just wondering whether you mentioned that God rewards (because of His delight) works which come from selfish motives? I know one can't present the clearest arguments in a single post and so I ask this question. You can answer me in private if you think this will distract the main thought of the post.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Hi Vivek,

      I'm glad that you find the blog to be encouraging. I think that all of our good works have some degree of selfish motives mixed in, and I know that God rewards us for those works. I guess if I was doing something purely for selfish reasons God probably wouldn't reward that. Does that make sense?

  • Stephen Altrogge

    Yeah, she's got a little servant's heart. She's so cute.