January 27, 2021

Good Works Week V: Good Works = Child’s Play


Now it came to pass that it was time to paint the garage.

Dad worked all week long on it. Using a ladder, he painted the eaves and trim all the way around. He painted the other high spots and worked his way down, starting in the front and then doing the sides. Eventually, he got to the back of the garage, a big wall of wooden clapboards.

Throughout the week his little preschool son played in the yard while his father painted. Dad looked over many times and saw him kicking a ball or playing with his trucks and soldiers in the sandbox underneath the tree. On several occasions they caught each other’s eyes. “Daddy, can I help?” he asked.

“We’ll see,” Dad replied.

As he prepared the paint for the back of the garage, the father paused, looked around and spotted an extra bucket on the garage floor. He poured some paint into it, grabbed a second brush and walked out back. “Hey buddy, you want to help me now?”

“Sure, Dad!”

“OK, go in and have mom put one of her old t-shirts on you. Then come out to the back of the garage and you can paint with me there.”

Soon they were working together, father and son.

Before you knew it, there was paint everywhere! Dad and his boy were talking and laughing. Every once in awhile Dad reached down and gripped the little guy’s hand with his, guiding it as he moved the brush back and forth, back and forth, then helping him smooth out the drips and globs of paint. Dad wiped paint off the child’s nose and cheeks and arms, tried to keep the cinder blocks at the bottom of the wall from getting splattered, and sopped up spills on the drop cloth. When they were done, Dad had a lot of cleaning up and touching up to do.

But it had been worth it. He had spent time working with his little boy. Even though the preschooler didn’t know what he was doing and lacked the coordination to do much more than make a mess, they had painted and laughed and talked together and that was deeply satisfying. As for the child, he’d rarely had so much fun as he did that day, when he made a mess working with his father.

And in the end, the garage got painted.

It had been a good day. Good time together. Good work.


  1. Patricia says

    I wonder if the little boy went in an boasted about what he did to his mother . . .

    How often do we fail to recognize the presence of our Father and His hand that enables and guides our work?

    We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ unto good works which HE prepared in advance for us . . .

    In “Experiencing God” Henry Blackaby observes that God is always at work – all around us and He invites us to join Him in HIS work. Let’s remind one another whose work it really is and give glory and thanks to God for His invitation to join Him in it.

    Great illustration CM.

  2. The traditional view is that God foreknows from all eternity the future. I think open theism is poorly chosen wording. Open futurism seems way more appropriate and its implications, if true, makes each of us more than invited. God has chosen for people to resolve with their free choices to transition several possible courses of actions into one actual course of action. That makes our responsibility way more than that of children.
    So you think I’m on the slippery slope here. Belief in free will does that for many. But you can notice from the talk this week that so does believing in the joint need of faith and works. Michael J. Langford lists nine other slippery slope elements in orthodox Christianity that have traditionally separated people. He calls these beliefs a balance between religious faith and human rationality. They all are… The joint need of faith and works; Belief in free will; Use of the Bible as not always literal; Reason and revelation in harmony; a non-legalist account of redemption; The possibility of salvation outside a narrow path; Toleration; Original sin, but not original guilt; Viewing providence that respects the integrity of the natural order; A minimal number of basic teachings; A range of acceptable lifestyles.

    • Once again, we are dealing with a story that has a couple of specific points. It doesn’t say everything there is to say on its subject.

    • Patricia says

      As we consider the faith-works question have you ever considered asking WHOSE faith and WHOSE work we should be focusing on for our answer?

      We are saved by grace through faith and that [faith] not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast. . . . I am suggesting that it is the faith of Jesus (who was obedient-without sin-unto death) that ensures our salvation. When we place our trust in Jesus, what are we really believing in? Is it not his finished faith work? Looking from this perspective James 2:17 makes sense: faith without the finished work of Jesus is dead faith.

      Our “works” can be alive or dead too. Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” The “good” things we do can indeed be wood hay and straw when they flow from anyplace other than the new heart we have been given IN Christ. Have we really counted the cost of being a disciple of Jesus? Denial of self is a hard choice but there is a blessing to be realized from our obedience here. The pride of performance is a subtle trap that keeps us focused on our “works” rather than the One who is at work in us.

      Ephesians 2:10 reminds us that we are God’s workmanship. Our work is, in reality, the continued work of God through us – therefore, we have nothing to boast about do we? It is not about your work or my work but God at work IN us. This is humbling and amazing at the same time. God has given us everything we need for Life and godliness – Jesus.


      • No, no, no!

        “We are saved by grace through faith and that [faith] not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast. . . . I am suggesting that it is the faith of Jesus (who was obedient-without sin-unto death) that ensures our salvation.”

        I have been holding off on this comment all week.

        The “[faith]” you have inserted does not belong. It totally and incorrectly changes the meaning of the verse.

        What is the gift? The gift is salvation. You can’t be saved by yourself. It is a gift of of God. Given by God’s grace and received through our faith.

        Galatians 3:6
        So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

        In recent years I have been hearing more and more “it is not my faith, but Christ’s faith.” Folks, this is just plain wrong and is a twisting of scripture to make it say something that it does not say.

        Matthew 9:22

        Jesus turned around, and when he saw her he said, “Daughter, be encouraged! Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was healed at that moment.

        Matthew 17:20
        He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

        • P.S. Just reading a later comment…. So if “faith without works is dead” and it is “Christ’s faith”, how does this then make any sense?

        • Patricia says

          Faith always has an object.(My) faith, apart from the finished work of Jesus, is dead. I agree, my faith doesn’t save me – salvation is wholly a work of God – His grace is a free gift given when I choose to place my faith in Christ. Yet I still believe HIS faith IS salvic, God’s plan of redemption from the foundation of the world. And yes, because of what Christ would do to redeem fallen humanity, God credited the faith of the patriarchs as righteousness – a righteousness that not earned by what we do, but imputed solely by God on the basis of what Christ has done. I suspect He is much more generous with His grace than we are too.

        • Final Anonymous says

          Isn’t that the difference between the Lutheran concept of grace and the evangelical one, in a nutshell? God gives us the gift of faith to believe in Him, vs. we use our own faith to believe in the gift of salvation from God?

          • Rick Ro. says

            You mean, like this quote a friend of mine just posted on Facebook?
            “You are converted not because of your own inherent righteousness, but because God converted you.” —R.C. Sproul

            (Which I read and think, “Meh.” That’s like saying God created air to breathe so that you had air to breathe.)

        • Robert F says

          Although faith may include cognitive activity, it is not a cognitive function.

          Think of a newborn infant. A newborn infant exists in utter dependence, and develops trust in those around her (at first they are indistinguishable from the world in its entirety, because they do not stand in relief from it) who meet her survival and emotional needs. Faith/trust in her guardians is not something she chooses, but something that grows in her as a result of her needs and the web of relationship she is born into; in fact, infants are born with a strong, irresistable urge to trust those among whom they find themselves. This urge may be later be undermined or rejected for various reasons, but it always exists in the beginning.

          Faith in God is the same way: we are born into it not by our own choice, and we are always infants when we are born into it, even if we convert as adults, in which case our faith would include a strong cognitive element, but the cognitive element would not be determinative for the existence of faith.

      • Sometimes I worry that “denying self” comes up contradicting “loving others as self”. Not saying it’s so for you, Patricia—just been reading off/on here and think it bears a general mention.

        It is apparent that some people need to love themselves more, while others need to love themselves less. More of us twist love into knots and it needs straightening. We are clearly called to both loves. And over, under, through, between is God-love.

        This makes a difference in how we view what we do. I can be proud of a painting I’ve finished, or the hard work put in at a local shelter, or the witness I offered a neighbor, and still understand that God was over/under/through the whole endeavor. I can be glad of my own self as well as the self of others, with our attendant strengths/gifts, while at the same time recognizing that God made all, and by His breath, all is sustained. It’s relational.

        In my relationship with God, being happy with how I’ve been made and of the true successes in my life, is a small gift back to Him. God made me and wants me to grow in truth and love and to become what S/He had in mind from before my beginnings. He wants that for all that He made. How, really, can I be accurately thankful unless I also recognize my own part, which He made available to me? How can I truly value my neighbor unless I see his strengths and admire them with God? And also the earth, all that is in it.

        God isn’t against us. God is against sin because it destroys what S/He so beautifully made.

    • God has chosen for people to resolve with their free choices to transition several possible courses of actions into one actual course of action.

      I can buy that up to the word “free.” The human will is far to finite to be truly free. At every turn, it’s limitations hamper its ability. I don’t see how God knowing our decisions before hand somehow binds us to them. Just cause you know how the movie ends doesn’t mean you caused it.

  3. Hi Chaplain Mike, your series of posts on good works has made me think a lot about a decision we made as a family last Sunday (the timing is impeccable!) to join an ELCA congregation. We (my family) are Roman Catholic, this topic has brought to life some differences in thinking that I might not be able to digest. I just dont understand the Protestant aversion to good works ( as if it were a bad thing! ) i have always thought like James that you show your faith by works. One of the things i have an issue with is that Luther (like me) has obsessive compulsive disorder, I’m all too familiar with that nagging voice inside my head asking me how I can be 100% sure of things and i see how this led him to see things the way he did (he wanted absolute certainty that he was saved). Everything else about that ELCA church is perfect for me but i just cant get past this..

    • Robin, Luther is *not* holy writ for us – I don’t think you need to worry about the issue you mention. Fwiw, I was raised Lutheran, spent some time in undergrad living in a small RC convent, and very much agree with our take on good and kind actions being a natural thing, proceeding from one’s faith.

      I know people seem fixed on making this subject into a dichotomy, but it has never appeared so to me.

      Hope that’s helpful!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Robin, Luther is *not* holy writ for us – I don’t think you need to worry about the issue you mention.

        You’d never know that from the flak CM’s been taking since he started this series.

        If CALVIN CALVIN CALVIN can be Holy Writ (superseding all those other 66 books), why not LUTHER LUTHER LUTHER?

        • I rather prefer H. P. Lovecraft, but that is just me…

        • Final Anonymous says

          HUG, yup. I think 95% of theology blogs would disappear if they disallowed comments based on Calvin/Luther writings/proteges.

        • Nevertheless… Luther is not understood by (most) Lutherans in the same way that Calvinists seems to understand/interpret/hold to Calvin.

          To begin with, the founding documents of what became Lutheranism were written by a number of people. Luther didn’t have much part in some of the crucial statements at all.

          And Luther is… how to say this? Not only ultra-opinionated, but literally evil at times (as in his “On the Jews and Their Lies”).

          Now, I’m sure there are some folks in the WELS and the more conservative wing of the LCMS who would disagree intensely with what I’ve just said, but they’re in the minority. (Vocal, but in the minority still.)

          • I’d be pretty surprised to find LCMS or WELS people who disagree with that. Some might argue that Luther was the true impetus behind the Augsburg confession, as Melanchthon was very influenced by him at the time and flopped on it later in life, and others might insist that Luther’s Small Catechism is the heart and soul of the confessions, but generally speaking, I think Luther himself would agree with what you just said. He is just such a different guy from Calvin. You might even say they are “of a different spirit.” Luther’s writings outside the confessions are considered eminently fallible, but useful to the extent that they give us the historical context of the confessions and help us better understand the things he refers to in them.

          • Miguel – so long as you understand that to the WELS, I am a complete heathen! And you’re probably on the primrose path to hell in the estimation of most of them – they’re fundies, after all.

            I mean, what other church do you know of that views the Boy Scouts as anti-God because they have nondenominational prayers?!

          • Danielle says

            My impression is similar. Luther created a huge body of writing that gave birth to a robust theology. Lutherans are attached to the distillations of this theology, and to Luther’s story. Luther’s works, however, are not “neat enough” to lend well to viewing them as a hallowed corpus. He was running about trying to put out fires, often firing off both brilliant and brash responses. A lot of his interests are ultimately pastoral and contextual, which is one thing I like about him.

            Calvin, by contrast, was the ultimate systematizer. He attracts people who love systems, and like their theology grand in scope, with all the loose threads tied up.

            A professor at Houghton put the temperamental difference this way: If you offended Luther, he’d fire off a missive in German comparing you to a barnyard animal. If you offended Calvin, you’d get back 1000 pages in Latin.” I suspect that afterward, Luther would go drink beer, and Calvin would suffer from yet another of his terrible headaches.

        • Also… a whole lot of Calvinists tend to quote Luther pretty liberally.

          But what they understand about what he said is very often QUITE different than what most Lutherans see in the passages the Calvinists like to quote (and so on).

          Luther wasn’t a proto-Calvin; he was something quite other, which a lot of people just don’t get.

          Oh well.

          • Yes, he was wholly other, and he was also pastoral, rather than academic in the way Calvin was. One of the major differences being that Luther didn’t try to explain everything, whereas Calvin had to create philosophical structures on which to hang everything. Nothing wrong with either approach, but definitely different.

    • Err, your take.

    • Danielle says


      I would not be too concerned about divergences between your outlook and Luther’s. There are real tensions between the way that Lutheran and Catholic theology handle some issues. However, Lutheranism is not indifferent to good works. Chaplain Mike’s articles this week are a good example of an approach that takes “works” seriously and is consistent with a Lutheran perspective. A lot of the comments in response, positive and negative both, were from other Lutherans. Also, if you joined a church in the ELCA, then you are in a wing of American Lutheranism that is ecumenically-minded.

      For what it is worth, my husband and I are also recent transplants into the ELCA, out of fundamentalism/evangelicalism by way of the Protestant mainline. One reason we settled here is that during a time of looser affiliation and free-floating, we drew from a lot of different traditions. That makes identifying with one of them in an exclusive or sectarian way a bit difficult. That is to say, I was reluctant to eschew either the catholic tradition or the reforms of the Reformation. This leaves one to wish for a way find middle ground or at least someplace that from one can have fruitful discussions with other traditions. After our most recent move, which forced us to find a new church, we concluded we ought to move into either the Episcopal Church or the ELCA, given this outlook and understanding of the sacraments and liturgy. So, we here we are. I tend to view Lutheranism as a reformed Catholicism, rather than a warring tradition. I don’t think we are outliers.

      I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I too am drawn to Luther’s proclivities and the theological emphases that flowed out of his inner turmoil. I think he was very wise about certain pastoral difficulties. (I suspect that if I became Catholic and locked myself in a dark room reading the rules of the penitential system, I’d become “over scrupulous” in short order, and would need some kind of direction to pull out of that morass.) If there are flaws or blindspots in Luther, they are the kind of flaws which result from trying to solve real problems on the ground, and that tend to direct one always to the cross. More than once I’ve gone through an anxious spell and found Luther’s writing to be a great help. He gets what fear is, in all its stomach-turning, vomiting glory.

      • Thanks! I love that last sentence and am quite familiar with this kind of fear!

        • Robin, I think you might want to keep in mind that Luther was very much a product of his time. And (probably) not just OCD, but deeply superstitious and fearful, hence the promise to become a monk after surviving a lighting strike.

          His mentors in the Augustinian order felt he *really* overdid penances, ruminating on his (supposed) sins, etc., but they weren’t successful in helping him to moderate his behavior.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Have I mentioned how much I appreciate your ability to describe the water I have been swimming in all my life?

  4. David Cornwelld says

    The first work I ever did was at home. My three brothers and I learned to dry the dishes pretty young. I can’t say I always enjoyed it, but on the other hand I did want to please my mom, so tried to do it correctly. Another job I very clearly remember to this day was washing the woodwork in our home. This included the baseboard, window frames, and other trim. About twice a year my mom did her major house cleaning, which meant I did woodwork. She always used Spic and Span. It was in powder form and had to be mixed into a bucket of hot water. It had to be put on, scrubbed, and rinsed off. It was not something I looked forward to, but always enjoyed once I was on my knees doing it.

    Later, when I was fifteen, I went to work on weekends and summers for my dad in the Massey-Ferguson farm supply dealership he owned (along with his brother). Part of my responsibility was such things as answering the phone, and servicing autos that came to buy gas at the gas pumps out in front of the store. It wasn’t long until they were leaving me alone to mind the business, while they made service calls, or demonstrated machinery to a prospect.

    I learned to work from my mom and dad. I wanted to please them, but they weren’t put off by my mistakes. Sometimes my dad would show some irritation, but it never lasted. I never doubted the love of either of them. Not in the least.

    The controversy concerning Christians doing “good works” is beyond me. It’s not that we earn our salvation through the work we do. It’s that if we believe in Jesus we will do the works that he is doing. What else could we do? I suppose we can get saved, be baptized, partake of the Lord’s Supper, go home, sit in our easy chair, and read theology. However, if we love God, we love our neighbor. This love isn’t a passive feeling of sentimentalism. It’s a love that demands expression in who we become and what we do.

    Chaplain Mike’s story goes to the heart of why we do the “works” of the Father. But parables aren’t rational explanations that many of us want. They are better than that.

    • David Cornwell says

      Somehow my name ended up with an extra letter up above. Serious mistake in workmanship!

    • Rick Ro. says

      ->”The controversy concerning Christians doing “good works” is beyond me. It’s not that we earn our salvation through the work we do.”

      Here’s my take on the topic. The reason there’s controversy around “good works” is because of how some leaders (aka pastors, priests, etc.) present it to those in their congregation. Those with a healthy attitude about works might not understand how “good works” can be turned it into a salvation issue by leaders trying to get people to do what THEY want done. Good works, wielded like a club or stick…there’s the controversy.

      • Final Anonymous says

        Good point, Rick.

        Another issue is the idea that we can (or should) judge what constitutes “good words” from person to person. My works, as a middle class able married suburbanite with kids, will likely be quite different from those of a lower socio-economic disabled homeless urbanite. But they also might be quite different from my next door neighbor, with his own past, problems, talents, and individual journey.

        I think that’s where the Holy Spirit is supposed to step in.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Yes, FA. We’ve talked about that sort of thing in my church’s men’s group and the class I facilitate. MY Christian walk and path might be quite different from YOUR walk and path. For me to say, “Hey, YOUR good works need to look like MY good works,” ignores how different we all are (based on, as you say, our “own past, problems, talents…”)

          Too often we tell people (or strongly suggest) they need to get on our path. No. They just need to be walking on a path that’s aimed at Jesus, and that path may be MILES from my path.

          • David Cornwell says

            Everyone’s gifts are different. Some people work better alone, some in other ways. And there may be some who’s work is hidden from view. And when we get older, things will change.

  5. I recently heard Father Robert Barron define the church (ekklesia) as a people call out of the world system and set apart for a holy purpose. I have recently shared the same in a devotion I gave to a group recently. This is so critical to making sense out of the apparent dissonance between faith and works. If we don’t understand that God calls us out of a self-absorbed, greedy, sinful world into a community built on the foundation of God’s love, then faith becomes merely a get-out-of-hell-free card and works become a booster of human effort to get us to heaven.

    I like the imagery of a father teaching his son to paint by actually painting and joining him in that work. I think it is reflective of God present in the church as we join Him in His work. Perhaps the other element is forgiveness for the son when he drips paint or misses a spot. This is a critical element of faith: that the cross make our works acceptable. This give us freedom and confidence to engage in God’s work. There two parts to the old adage: “Faith without works is dead AND works without faith are sin”.

  6. Sean Muldowney says

    This post supersedes all of the “for credit/not for credit/who’s credit anyway?” discussion about works, and draws us back to the joyful opportunity we have to participate with God in caring for creation. If we don’t want to help paint, it’s our loss. We’re still sons and daughters, but it’s no fun pouting in the corner while everyone else is working hard together.

  7. A friend of mine is a Rector in the Church of England. He’s been slowly working for several years building a short flagstone wall around his parsonage. Every Saturday after breakfast he’ll go out and work on the wall until lunch, and his 6-year-old son usually comes out to “help.”

    “He’ll carry a few stones for me, but it inevitably turns into him throwing more rocks than carrying them, or he’ll just play in the dirt. But we have the time of our lives together.”

    When they come in for lunch his son always says something like, “Mommy, mommy, look at the wall I built!” Of course, my friend doesn’t berate his son saying, “You lazy little jerk, you screwed around the whole time! I build that wall!” No! He says, “Son, I love building the wall with you, because I love you!”

    The point?

    Dad paints the garage. Dad builds the wall. We get to be with dad as he paints and builds, and have the time of our lives – maybe even “help” a little bit.

    Dad builds the Kingdom. We get to be with him as he builds, and have the time of our lives – maybe even “help” a little bit. Then he gifts the Kingdom to us. What a wonderful, gracious, loving Father!

    “Fear not little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

  8. Final Anonymous says

    CM, I know this was not your point, but what first struck me when I read this post was memories of a wonderful “good works” church I once knew.

    They were doing great things for the Kingdom of God, from the traditional ladies’ circles to progressive urban missions programs. They gave lots of money and focused on hospitality. They stirred passion in congregants to “Use your gifts! Get involved!”

    But that’s where most people hit obstacles. “Sure, sing in the praise band! But first, audition with the director, and we can’t use you if you’re out of town for work a week every month, and you don’t have a phone? I’m sorry, we need to be able to contact our band members, this is a Very Important Job.”

    “Sure, help with the sound board at youth group! But wait, your parents are divorced, you can only come every other week? Sorry, Bobby’s parents are both members and he’s here every week, it wouldn’t be fair to alternate if he’s willing to do it consistently, this is a Very Important Job.”

    “Be a Stephen Minister! But wait, you don’t have a car? Our meetings are essential, and we can’t take a risk that you wouldn’t be able to find a ride, this is a Very Important Job.”

    Sometimes our role is to be like the father in the story, helping others to do the “good works” they’re led to do, not as worried about the mess or the results, or the complications for ourselves.

  9. I believe it was Hudson Taylor (founder of the China Inland Mission in the nineteenth century) who said toward the end of his life that his prayers had changed over the years.

    Early in his ministry he was praying, “Lord, help me to do my work.”

    Twenty years later he was praying, “Lord, help me to do Thy work.”

    And after twenty more years had gone by, he was praying, “Lord, do Thy work through me.”

  10. Rick Ro. says


    What if you’re a church leader and you want to convey the idea of doing “good works” (for the right reason aka “out of joy”), yet no one in your church seems to be “getting it,” and you have bills to pay and ministries to be run…?

    I guess the idea is…just start painting…

    (Any other thoughts?)

  11. We all aren’t “getting it”, at some level.

    That’s why we need a Savior.

    We are lovers of self, first and foremost.

    Our church leaders ought preach the law…and then announce the absolution into our stuckness.

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