Who Benefits From Our Good Works?
February 1, 2015 / No. 3761
Dear Radio Friends,
It is my privilege to be on the air again for the Reformed Witness Hour over the coming four months. My prayer is that the Word that I bring will be of spiritual benefit to you. And I ask you also to remember me in your prayers as I do this work.
Today we are going to begin a four-part series on Psalm 16. This is one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible, written by David from his own experience, and something that we as believers can identify with in many ways. But it is not only a personal confession. It is also prophetic, that is, David writes here of Jesus Christ who is to come. Even though this was written a thousand years before Jesus came, the primary speaker in the psalm is the Savior. That is most clear from the last verses in the psalm that Peter quotes in Acts 2 in reference to the resurrection of Jesus: “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” But this psalm is Messianic throughout. We must remember this as we look at each of the different passages in this psalm.
I want to look with you today at verses 2 and 3, where David says: “O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.”
Before I explain those verses, I want to back up and say some things about verse 1, which is a kind of introduction to this psalm. Here David says, “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.” He prays here for God’s protection, and he expresses his dependence on God. What is important for us to see is that even though things are going very well for David in his life at this time (there is no indication of difficulties in the life of David in this psalm; in fact, he seems to be living in a very prosperous point in his life, for he says in verse 6, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage”) still, he expresses his dependence on God.
How important it is for us to remember this in easy and prosperous days in our life. Even then we depend on God. Maybe things are going well for us in our family and church. Maybe we are prospering financially, we have good health, and everything is going well. Still then we must pray: “Preserve me, O God,” because always sin lies at the door, and in prosperous and easy days the temptations can often be greater for us.
The beginning of verse 2 indicates that David is in a contemplative mood. “O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord.” He is speaking to himself. In his ease he is meditating on the things of God. And one of the questions that comes to his mind is this, Who benefits from the good things that I do? Why is it important for me as a believer to do good works? Perhaps in his prosperity and ease, David had opportunity to assist the poor. Maybe he is tempted to be selfish and he needs to encourage himself to be benevolent. And so this question.
We understand here that the Bible does teach good works. It does not teach that salvation is by good works, but it does teach that God’s people are able to do good works and are, in fact, a people zealous, that is, enthusiastic of good works.
But, what are good works? Good works are the things that we do as believers out of love and gratitude to God and that are in agreement with His Word. God, in the end, is the Judge of whether a work is good or evil. And His judgment falls primarily on the motivation. A good work is not simply an act of giving a bunch of money to a cause or dedicating your life to some particular calling. But a good work is one that is born out of faith and is the response of gratitude to God. A good work is one in which we work not for man’s praise but for the glory of God above all.
And that is what David has in mind when he mentions in verse 2: “My goodness.” He is referring to that which is admirable or good in him. He is not denying here his depravity, but he is saying, There are good virtues and good works in me as a child of God. He is speaking of his life of sanctification. God, by His grace and the power of His Holy Spirit, works this in His people. They bear a resemblance to God in their lives. They show the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit.
But now, what is the purpose of our sanctification? What is the purpose of our good works? That is answered by the psalmist when he says to God: “My goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth.” We could summarize it this way: By our good works, we cannot and do not enrich or add anything to God. And yet, we must do good works for the benefit of our fellow believers. God enables us to do good works so that we can show this goodness to others.
The first thing to see here is that God does not benefit from our good. “My goodness,” the psalmist says, “extendeth not to thee.” He means our good works add nothing to God. They do not enrich Him. They do not make Him happier. God does not need them. And that is because of who God is—as the triune, self-sufficient, self-existent God He is completely happy and He is morally perfect in Himself. He is the unchangeable God and we do not add to or enrich Him by what we do. We do not teach Him, we cannot create Him. God did not create us because He needs us. You see that in the verse, in the two names that David uses in reference to God. First the name Lord in capital letters in the English, which is Jehovah. This refers to Him as the “I AM THAT I AM,” the self-existent and self-sufficient God, who is eternal and immutable. He is faithful to His covenant and Word. How could we add the tiniest bit to the completeness of Jehovah?
The other name that he uses is Lord, not now in all capital letters but the name that means “Adonai,” or Lord, as we would use it. This refers to Him as the absolute sovereign over all things, the master of the universe, the creator, the infinitely exalted and powerful owner of all things. How can a creature of the dust add to God? At the same time, in this name we acknowledge that God is the Lord and sovereign over us, that we are His servants. And so, even though we add nothing to God, still we owe Him everything—complete service.
That is the personal confession of every true believer. We do not say, I can do something for God, but we say that God is all, God possesses all, God does everything by His sovereign will and power, and even what I do cannot add to Him. As Paul puts it in Romans 11: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever.” When we look at God and when we see who He is in these names, we say, “My goodness extendeth not to thee.” God does not need us.
Besides this, there is another reason our goodness cannot enrich God, and that is because of who we are—not only creatures and earthly creatures, but also sinners. This is the confession of every true believer: O wretched man that I am. We confess that even our best works are as filthy rags before God. We admit that any good that we have, any virtue in us, any physical or spiritual strength, is only on account of God’s grace and goodness to us. Our goodness does not extend to Him, but His goodness extends to us. We are debtors to Him. God never becomes a debtor to us. We do not place Him under obligation by our good and say, “Lord, I’ve done this, now You owe me.” And the truth that we are talking about here is the truth of grace—the unmerited favor of God—a grace that has no conditions, a grace that is free and sovereign in Christ to the elect. Everything that we have and all that we are is from God. We did not choose Him, but He chose us. We love Him because He first loved us.
This teaching of Scripture is not found only in this verse. It is the truth of the whole of God’s Word. Listen, for example, to the words of Elihu in Job 35:7. Job was starting to think that, because he had been such an upright man, God owed better things to him than he was receiving. And Elihu says to Job: “If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand?” and then he adds: “Thy righteousness may profit the son of man.” In other words, what you do may be a benefit to others, but it adds nothing to God. And that is exactly the point here in Psalm 16. God does not need our good. We cannot give Him anything that He does not already possess or that He did not first give to us.
Listen also to the words of Jesus in Luke 17:10: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” By our good we do not get bonus points with God, we do not merit His attention, we do not distinguish ourselves from others. This confession is a humble confession of complete dependence on the grace of God. My goodness extendeth not to thee.
How important this message is today for the church. Not only does it put to bed the heresy of salvation by good works, but it also addresses a very popular notion today of doing things for the Lord or, what has become known as Christian service. I do not mean to say here that Christians should not be serving the Lord. Every Christian should be serving the Lord. But today, in many circles, the sole purpose of the church seems to be to get people to do things for God, so that a church service is a kind of pep rally to encourage people into full-time ministry either in the local church or in overseas missions. And I do not say this because I am opposed to missions and full-time ministry. I myself am a full-time pastor and I pray often the words of Jesus, The harvest is plenteous and the laborers few; Lord, send forth laborers. But the emphasis of Christian service today is flawed. It is theologically flawed. It is built on the idea that God needs us and that we can be useful to Him only if we are involved in full-time ministry. I want to tell you, God does not need you, God does not need me. We need Him.
I make this point also because, as I have seen it, the call to full-time Christian service is actually very discouraging for Christians who are faithful and busy serving the Lord in their families, in their daytime jobs, as witnesses to their neighbors, by participating in the life of their local church. They are made to think that their work is not important, that they somehow are second-rate Christians.
All of us are called to full-time service. But full-time service does not mean that all of us are called to be missionaries. Serving the Lord is not doing some extraordinary or special work for God. But it is to love Him and to serve Him in everything that we do—whatever that calling is and whatever position we have in life. This is not said to discourage you from serving the Lord. But, if you are involved in full-time service, check your motives. Are you doing good so that you feel good about yourself? Are you doing it for the recognition of others so that you can gain a kind of celebrity status? Or, are you humble enough to say: “God doesn’t need me. And wherever He calls me, I will serve Him faithfully.”
So the psalmist continues in verse 3, My goodness extendeth not to thee, “but to the saints.” God does not benefit from my good, but the saints do. God enables us to do good works, not because He profits from it, but so that we might profit others. By our love for others, we demonstrate our love for God. As David thinks about the purpose of his own good works, this is his conclusion, and it encourages him in the life of good works.
Behind the words of David here we see in his description of God’s people a proper attitude toward fellow believers. He describes them in three ways, three ways that we also should think of each other in the church of Jesus Christ. He says my goodness extends to the “saints.” “Saints” means literally “holy ones.” God’s people are holy ones. They have been separated spiritually from the world and they are living sacrifices to God. This is the way we should think of one another in the church—not thinking of somebody else, “He’s not much of a Christian,” because then you are judging by the outward, but thinking spiritually, “This one, this fellow believer, is separated unto God. He is holy, he is sanctified.” Paul addresses the churches this way: “The saints which are in…” and then the name of the church. This is the way we ought to view one another in the church.
Second, the psalmist calls them the “excellent of the earth.” The word “excellent” means “outstanding, worthy of admiration, extremely good.” David thinks of God’s people this way. He does not think of them as a mixed bunch of sinners. He does not think only of some of them that they are good. But he sees God’s work in them. He views all the believers as a wonderful creation of God. The most admirable thing to him is that God has worked salvation in the heart of fellow believers. They have been saved by death. These are the ones for whom God sent His Son. These are precious to Him, the excellent of the earth.
And so he says of them, in them is all my delight. He derives his joy from and finds his happiness in other believers. He finds their company refreshing. In verse 6, when he says, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places,” he is talking about his place in the church. He delights in the company of other believers. He is not an individualistic Christian.
Obviously there is a calling implied for us here—not just to be with fellow believers in worship or in friendship or fellowship—but to have the proper attitudes towards them, to think of them as God thinks of them, to see them as God sees them in Jesus Christ. And thinking of the ones he is talking about, David is not thinking in the abstract. He has in mind men like Joab and others who were a burden to him. And yet David says, “These are the excellent of the earth, in whom is all my delight.” It is only when we have proper thoughts of others that we can be of any profit to them. A person with wrong attitudes withdraws himself from the fellowship of believers. He does not contribute to them. If you think little of others, you will do little for them. If you think nothing of somebody else, you will do nothing for him. Is that not true? The more highly we esteem someone, the more we think of him, the more we will do for him. That is the subject of David here. “My goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints, to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.” They benefit, he is saying, from his good works.
Let us fill that out a little bit here. What are some good works? We could think of things like worship and prayer, generosity, obedience to God’s commandments, and the work of raising our family in homes. When we do these things they are not profitable to God, but He calls us to do them for the benefit of others. When we go to worship, that is not, first of all, for our own personal benefit, but it is something that we do in the fellowship of the saints to encourage and to administer to the needs of others. When we are generous to the support of the poor, when we take a meal and make a visit to the sick, when we send a card, when we call someone, when we come to Bible Study, when we fellowship with other believers after a church service, who benefits? Does God? Do we add to Him? No. And it is not just for me, it is not primarily for me, but for the benefit of others, the saints, the excellent of the earth. That is beautiful. God calls us to honor and glorify Him. And this is the way we do it: by serving other members of the body.
So, the sum of the text is this: You and I cannot enrich God. We can love Him, but we do not benefit Him. But we can help the saints who are here on the earth with us. And so we should think of them as God thinks of them. We should seek to be with them. We should find our delight in them, not primarily for ourselves and our benefit, but so that our goodness, which God has worked in us by His grace and Spirit, may extend to them. This is what it is to be a member, an active member, in the church. This is how we serve and love God as believers.
This is what Paul is talking about when in Galatians 6:10 he says, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Yes, we should be good to all men: love the neighbor as yourself. But there is a special delight that we should take in serving the fellow members of the body of Christ with our loving deeds.
I want to close by calling attention to the fact that these are Messianic words, that these are the words of Jesus Christ. Here we see the beauty and grace of God in the cross, and in this text itself. This should motivate us in our good works also.
The primary speaker here in the text is not David. It is not the believer. But it is Jesus Christ as He comes into the world, as He goes to the cross, as He obeys God’s will for Him. This is what He says of His goodness, His good works. Even though He was perfectly obedient, He did not add anything to God’s glory. He did not come into this world because God needed Him to. But He came for us. He came for the members of His body. All that He did, His perfect obedience, His suffering, His sacrifice, His death, His burial, His resurrection, He did for His people. And even today, as He rules in heaven, He rules over all things and makes intercession for believers. So, He says to God, “My goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints, to the excellent in the earth, in whom is all my delight.” This is how He thinks of the people for whom He came to die.
And this shows us the heart of God. It shows us the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That should motivate us, too, to say, “My goodness extends to the saints, to the excellent of the earth, in whom is all my delight.” We can add nothing to God. We cannot enrich Him. Yet, He gives us, by His grace, the ability to do good works so that we can serve one another in the body of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the work of Thy grace that makes us a people zealous of good works. And we pray that we may be faithful in using what Thou hast given to us even though it cannot add to Thee, using it for the benefit of fellow believers in the body of Jesus Christ in the earth. We pray this for Jesus’ sake, Amen.