A Jew, a Muslim, an Agnostic, and Pizza

Published on October 14, 2009 by CT in Blog, Theology


A Jew, a Muslim, and Agnostic, and Pizza

I had dinner with a Jew, a Muslim, and an Agnostic last night.  Three sons of Abraham, and one who wasn’t sure, all sharing Italian food.  Good times.

The conversation focused on the different faith’s beliefs about God, Jesus, and salvation.  And it was a really great discussion—I even got to try out the Kingdom Circles approach.  Each guy articulated his beliefs well, and there was respectful listening and solid questions from all parties.

My Muslim friend talked about his pursuit of the Way, following the Five Pillars of Islam and relying on the mercy of Allah at the end.  My Jewish friend talked about the Mosaic Law and the Talmudic traditions and the growth that happens along the way of remaining God’s people.  When my Agnostic friend stated his belief that all religions were helpful because they all promoted adherence to a moral code, I had the opportunity to talk about the breathtaking uniqueness of following Jesus:  we enter the Kingdom by what He did for us rather than what we do for Him.

At this point, my Agnostic friend posed a very difficult question:  why do Christians do good things then?  Was it not to follow the teachings of the Bible and Jesus?  Was it not to enter into heaven?

I knew the reasons Christians don’t do good things, but I struggled a little more with the reasons we do them.  For the reasons we don’t:  we don’t do good works to earn God’s favor (works-based salvation); we don’t do them to pay God back for what He did for us (debtor’s ethic); we don’t do them to atone for our sins or to be justified.  But as I tried to articulate the reason we do good deeds, all I could come up with was that we do them because we love Jesus, and Jesus said if we love Him, we will obey His commandments.

I think that is right, but it’s also not complete.  There are broader reasons we are to be doers of the Word (Jas 1:22):

To follow the Greatest Commandment(s) (Mt 22:37-9)
To bear fruit and glorify God (Jn 15:8)
To complete our faith (Jas 2:22)
To secure our reward (1 Cor 3:14)
To obey God (Num 16:28)
To fulfill God’s plan for our lives (Eph 2:10)
To provoke praise to God from others (Mt 5:16)
To show our works are carried out in God (Jn 3:21)
To store up treasure and take hold of true life (1 Tim 6:18-19)

How would you have answered?

  • Em

    We do good things because we are overwhelmed with thankfulness to God. We know that He created and loves all people and that it brings Him joy when we show love for them too.

    Our thankfulness makes us love Him more and we can’t truly love Him without showing love for others. Mathew 25:34-40 demontrates this well.

    • CT

      Amen. Thanks for your thoughts, Em.

      You know, I’ve been wrestling a bit through the first part of what you said. I read a book called Future Grace by John Piper where he talks about the temptation gratitude to God can pose to our ability to receive grace. He describes this temptation as a inclination towards the debtor’s ethic. I found an excerpt from this; if you’re up for it, I’d love your thoughts on it. I think the first couple of pages kinda make the point. It’s something I’ve never heard or considered before, so it’s an interesting idea to wrestle with.


      Thanks again for checking in…

      • Em

        Hi Chris,

        I just read those first two pages and I see how it’s possible to twist thankfulness into indebtedness, but our thankfulness is coming from the awareness that we undeservedly no longer have any debt. As long as we maintain this awareness we are filled with love which overflows into doing good. As soon as we detect our motivation becoming obligation rather than love then we know we have slipped into the debtor’s ethic and need to remind ourselves that we no longer have any debt; this brings us back to love.

        We know from the story Jesus tells in Luke 7:40-43 that the sinful woman was not pouring perfume on his feet to buy her forgiveness or out of obligation, but out of an overflow of love. I think that as long as we stay connected with him, it will be the same for us. At the end of Piper’s second page it seems that he’s saying that gratitude itself is not wrong, but that he is warning against “distorted gratitude” and that is a fair warning.

        • CT

          Well said, Em. Thank you for sharing…

  • http://www.abbyblogs.com Abby

    I think you’re right on…we do good things because we love Jesus.

  • http://www.zacparsons.com Zac

    I think that your agnostic friend might be on to something. Are the reasons that Christians do good things really that different from why other religions (Muslim, Jew, Hindu, etc.)? I think that the verses you quote at the end of this article are ones that most religions traditions would agree with. The agnostic may just believe that those deeds are good in and of themselves, and if God is glorified (or any of the other proposed reasons are accurate), then it is a bonus.

    Can Christians really say that they would not do good just for its own sake? If the broader reasons that you list were not true, then would you still do good?

    Maybe goodness is self-rewarding. I’m not sure.

    Great thoughts though! I’m happy that I found this site.

  • Lamont

    The agnostic really reveals the attitude of unbelief and the stumbling block/foolishness the bible talks about. Mans knowing of the debt to God, and his need to “earn” his way, pay his debt.
    Grace is so foreign to man in his unregenerate state. The agnostic tips his hand at knowing his position before God by suggesting X-tians “are doing the same thing.” (they don’t understand the gospel)
    Any good deed that the unbeliever does is due to the X-tian Gods grace. Were it not for the restraint of the Holy Spirit this world would be in “utter chaos!”
    The unbeliever merely reveals the “Imago Dei” and the law written in their hearts. Their books do not teach this, nor can they account for this universal “knowing.”
    The good they do is sin to God, because they glorify an idol w/it in rebellion to their Creator.
    I like what you said here that: “Maybe goodness is self rewarding?.
    I say yes.
    I can shine an apple on my shirt look at the next guy and say…. “I’m not that bad!” and walk off justified!” I could live the illusion that “all is well,”
    yet, I think the fact that I point out the good deed to myself, shows the problem. Like the guy that say’s: I wonder if I have a drinking problem?”
    It’s self evident (Rom 1) non-drinkers don’t question that!
    I read a good quote yesterday I think it’s fitting (sounds like a Spurgeonism).
    “The question isn’t: “am I good enough to be a X-tian!”
    “The question is: “am I good enough not to be one!”


    Preach the gospel w/words and deeds!

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMaroney @JasonMaroney

    it is out of love, gratitude and obedience that we should do good works but in some ways it out of common sense. We are given salvation, made righteous, we have a taste of goodness and holiness and we compare it to the life we have been leading and we see what we could become were that holiness to work it's way out into our actions. The Holy Spirit gives us the desire to be good people and have actions that are pleasing to God and it grieves at our sin and makes us uncomfortable with our old self and draws us to become more like Jesus. We are no longer slaves to sin, we are slaves to righteousness, i.e. our new king has a plan and desire for us and it is for us to bear fruit

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/melmollner melmollner

    I think the 'good works' the Bible says we were created for and ultimately the fruit of the Holy Spirit actively working in us is that the works will be a natural outpouring of who we are. They won't be contrived solutions to ease our guilt or propel us forward to some greater calling we think is ours to take. The world's way about everything is to strategically position yourself to dominate and control- even when it comes to charity.

    We can't help but look different to the world, because in Christ we are. Jesus came to serve not be served- even dying our death. When the Holy Spirit flows through us- we won't even know any different- it's not something we can formulate for ourselves- it is God who gives and takes away our callings and all we can do is come with nothing to offer to gain everything that is not ours.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jackdutch Jeff Patterson

    Thanks for sharing the "Kingdom Circles" link; very intriguing. Been struggling for years with how we Evangelicals (and my fellow pastors) pit Jesus against everybody and treat other philosophies as essentially trivia games at how . Very little "equipping the saints" to know truth, move past fear-tactics to genuinely understand people, and learn to love them — into the Kingdom through charitable, wise, loving & Gospel-driven sharing our lives and His words.

    A friend asked me the same question you wrestled with — so, why do Christians do anything good?

    My answer was a bit lengthy but the gist is that we cannot think of ourselves as a single self. I've been joined to the Father and the Son and the Spirit, who are all about the "Other" all the time. So, why would God do anything good, then? Isn't He perfect? Because "good" speaks of its value or relationships to others — and God does incomprehensible God within the Godhead, and to us His creation. We follow His pattern, share in His nature and give ourselves away.

    That we've made it acceptable to "go to church" on Sundays and then do really nothing else but consume religious goods and services the rest of our lives and call ourselves Christians is fairly ridiculous. James wouldn't have anything to do with that nonsense, and neither would Paul (read Titus), and especially Jesus who purchased a community of His chosen people who exist for the good of the world and the glory of God.

  • http://www.stickworldcomics.com/ Luke

    I'd say it's a response to God, for starters.

    I'd also say perhaps that's approaching the definition of a good deed – something you're doing not for its benefit, but just because it's right?

    Not, of course, that there isn't any motivation based on avoiding punishment or attaining reward, or that those are in and of themselves bad things, necessarily. But without a foundation deeper than that it's tough for salvation to be more than math; just an equation.
    My recent post how bout it, future?