The Difference between Works and Good Works (Feb. 8, Mon.)

The word of the day is “by.”  The controversy over faith and works since the Reformation era of the Western Church makes many uncertain about how how faith relates to good works. Today’s reading of James 2:14-26 argues that “good works” are necessary to faith. The apostle writes, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (vs. 18).  In the Orthodox view, the phrase “by my works” suggests an answer to the question of faith’s relationship to good works.  However, a discussion of this phrase shows that faith is not only essential to good works  But it determines the difference between works and good works (vs. 18).

The Source of Good Works

The word translated as “by” in Greek is “ek,” that is, “out of.”  We can easily overlook this two-letter preposition.  It has to do with the state of affairs or condition out of which a result comes (Strong’s #1537).  In Greek, it implies that the condition and its outcome are closely related.  Thus, it can mean “from,” denoting the origin of something.  Or it can mean “by” or the method of doing something. Accordingly, good works are not only necessary to faith. But conversely faith is the source from which good works come. Likewise, good deeds are the method, that is, the means by which faith is exhibited.

This analysis suggests that the difference between “works” and “good works” depends on the origin of the deed and what it exhibits. Consider your gift to a charity.  What is the source of your act? Is it the desire to win the admiration of others?  Is it to need to ease your conscience about the plight of the poor?  Is it because your friend asked you for a contribution and you could not say “no”?  In each case, your “work” does not come from faith nor does it demonstrate faith.  On the other hand, if you give to the poor because of your love of neighbor in trust that God will supply your needs and the needs of others through you (2 Cor. 9:8),  your “good work” shows your faith.

The Test of Works: Motivation

These examples raise the important matter of motivation.  St. Maximos the Confessor stated, “Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done.”  Maximos says that many “good works” from fasting to acts of charity are “by nature good.”  But, he goes on, “If they are done for the sake of self-esteem [vain-glory, self-glorification], they are not good.  (St. Maximos the Confessor, “400 Texts on Love” quoted in OSB “Works in St. Paul’s Writing,” 1602).

God, says Maximos, “searches out our purpose, to see whether we do it for Him or some other motive” (Maximos, “400 Texts on Love,” 36).   In respect to “works,” therefore, faith has the role of motivating, inspiring, and directing what we do for the love of God and neighbor. And this motivation makes a deed a “good work.”

For Reflection

With our discussion in mind, we might say that  “works” done for the purpose of earning one’s justification before God are not “good works” at all. Would you agree or disagree?

About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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  1. Fr Basil, I agree with you. “Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done.”

    I don’t know if you have come across the expression “Whited Sepulchre”? It means a person is inwardly corrupt or wicked but outwardly virtuous or holy.

    Motivation is everything if it is to be called good, it has to be done for the true good of others.

    Faith, what is it? I have been thinking about that, what does it mean, does it depend on my faith in who Christ is, or, Christ’s Faith in His Father which He showed us on His Cross?

    My answer would be Our Lord showed us The Way, we have to look at Him and not trust ourselves in thinking we are justified by what we believe to be faith.

    Sorry if I do not make much sense, I am still thinking about it. God bless you.

    1. Dear Sinnika: thanks for your thoughtful comments. As your comments suggest, “faith” does not earn the grace of salvation as a kind of “super-work.” In the classic sense, faith depends on grace. In His human nature, the Lord Jesus had faith in the Father that was shown in His perfect obedience to the Father’s will. But in His divine nature, the Crucified Christ became the object of faith for salvation. It is good to reflect on the nature and working of faith as you do. Faith, in my mind, is both a gift of God and response of the faithful. God bless. Fr. Basil

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