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Untangling Good Deeds from Legalism

Untangling Good Deeds from Legalism

Part One: Defining Good Deeds

This is a two-part blog discussing legalism and the call to good works by Katie Roberts.

When I was five, I became a functional Pharisee. Here’s how it happened. Back then, the two most important things to me were white bunnies with pink eyes and Brownie merit badges. Some of you may think those pink eyes are creepy, but to me, they were the epitome of beauty. And then there were the merit badges. Brownies is the little girl version of the Girl Scouts. When I joined, I looked with envy at the other girls’ vests, which were adorned with multiple merit badges. I wanted to have them all. The first one I needed to earn was the “good deed badge.”

One day, my mom bought me a white bunny with pink eyes. On the way home from the store, we stopped by my friend Emily’s house. I knew that I would be forced to share my precious bunny and I dreaded the thought of it. Sure enough, the inevitable question came from Emily’s little sister: “Can I hold it?” Everything inside me wanted to shout, “No! You can’t have it! This bunny is mine!” But my inner Veruca Salt was silenced by the need to be polite. I handed over my precious bunny, but my heart was jealous and anxious the entire time. Finally, I got my bunny back and we got in the car to drive home.

“Sweetie,” my mom said as we backed out, “I am so proud of you for sharing you bunny. I’m going to tell your Brownie leader that you should earn your good deed badge.”

All of a sudden, for very wrong reasons, I was glad that I had shared my bunny. I had done a good deed, someone had noticed, and I was rewarded. And that was the moment that I became a functional Pharisee, who did good deeds to be noticed by others. You know…the ones Jesus said look good on the outside, but are full of death on the inside.

Later in life, I came to understand the gospel, which teaches that I can’t earn or merit salvation by doing good deeds, because it is a gift of grace. This showed me how wrong my previous attempts at good deeds had been; in fact, it made me suspicious of good deeds. But Paul is clear in Titus 3:14 that good deeds are an essential part of the Christian life. He writes to Titus, “Our people must learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful.” Clearly, you and I must do good deeds. And I need to get over my suspicion of them, and perhaps you do, too. 

Let me begin by answering the question “What is a truly good deed?” Next time, I’ll deal with the query, “Why do good deeds need to be done?”

A Simplistic Definition of a Good Deed

A good deed is something that you do that is in accordance with what God has revealed to be right.

A deed is something that you do; it is an outward action. In Scripture, deeds can be either good or evil. God is the authoritative source of determining whether a deed is good or evil. He has revealed this to you in Scripture.  For example, in Titus, there are all kinds of examples of good deeds, such as providing for ministers financially or obeying governing authorities or serving your family. There are also examples of evil deeds, like false teaching or chasing after sinful pleasure or hating others. From that evidence a simple definition of a good deed can be made: A good deed is something that you do that is in accordance with what God has revealed to be right.

But there is a problem with that definition. You see, if that’s all it takes for a deed to be good, then my deed of sharing my bunny was a good deed…and you know that it wasn’t. So we’re going to have to delve a little deeper to define a truly good deed.

It’s Not That Simple

Here’s how good and evil deeds work biblically. There are some deeds that are always evil, like murder or gossip. There are all kinds of lists of these in the Bible. But there are some deeds that may be either good or evil, depending on why they are done.

For example, some Pharisees were doing deeds that looked good. They were reading and teaching the Old Testament Scripture, praying and giving money to meet needs. This is exactly what Paul tells Titus to do. However, Jesus exposes the reasons behind their deeds; he says they did it to be noticed by others. (Lk. 23:5) Moreover, he says that because of their wrong motives, their “good” deeds are actually evil! He says to the Pharisees, “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Lk. 23:28) Bottom line: Because of my heart, my bunny sharing deed was an evil deed, not a good deed.

In contrast to this, when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, the disciples thought this was an evil deed. They said that it was a waste and that they money should be given to the poor. But Jesus said, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to me. For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have me. For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (Mt. 26:10-12) Thus, a deed that appeared evil to some people, was commended by Jesus as a good deed.

What’s The Difference?

What distinguishes the deeds of the Pharisees from the deed of Mary?

The very important question this leaves hanging is: “What distinguishes the deeds of the Pharisees from the deed of Mary?” The answer is: Faith. Specifically, faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Pharisees did not place their trust in Jesus to forgive their sins. This was because they didn’t see the need for forgiveness, for they thought they were righteous. If they had faith at all, it was in themselves and their ability to do good deeds. But the truth is that their hearts were evil and they needed forgiveness for seeking to please people in pride. They needed to repent of their “good deeds” and place their faith in Christ.

Mary, since she knew she couldn’t save herself, did place her trust in Jesus to forgive her sins. She understood that he came to die and so she anointed his body for his burial. In fact, Mary seems to have been the only one to understand what Jesus really came to do. Her faith in him made her deed a truly good deed.

An Accurate Definition of a Good Deed

With this helpful differentiation in mind, we can now define a truly good deed: A good deed is something you do by faith that is in line with what God has revealed to be right. You see, prior to salvation, you had to admit you were sinful and needed grace, so that you could put your faith in Jesus. Before that, all your attempts at seemingly good deeds were really motivated by something selfish, probably self-righteousness. The author of Hebrews says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please [God].” (Heb. 11:6)

But once you despaired of your own righteousness, you put your faith in Christ. And that faith is the core thing that distinguishes a seemingly good deed (that is really evil) from a truly good deed. Your faith in Christ is what gives you an entirely new motivation and a new result. But we’ll save those for part 2.

Katie Roberts has taught women's Bible studies for the past twelve years and has led women's ministry at her church in Eugene for the past six. She is passionate about teaching the Bible to women, especially in the light of how all of the Scripture points to Jesus. She finds great joy in seeing the Spirit transform her heart and the hearts of others as he reveals Christ in the gospel. But most of all, she longs for the return of Jesus when she will see his face and be made like him. Katie is currently a student at Western Seminary and will gradate with her MA in Biblical and Theological Studies in April. Katie is a co-founder and co-director of the Verity Fellowship. You can contact her at

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