Good Works Before Men, Righteousness Before God

Jonathan Edwards says in his book Religious Affections that the chief of all signs of true and saving grace is Christian practice. He makes his argument on numerous texts, beginning with “by their fruits you will know them” (Mat. 7:16).  He goes on to say that Jesus gives others the right to judge us on our Christian practice based on Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light shine before others that they see your good works . . .”).  What I find fascinating about this is what Jesus sandwiched between the two statements about good works and bearing fruit.

Half of Matthew 6 is focused on “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”  The three big areas of this practice is giving, prayer, and fasting–some of the foundational practices of biblical spirituality.  He tells them not to do them before other people but before the Father who sees and rewards in secret.

It seems on the surface that Jesus could be taken as contradicting himself here.  In Matthew 5, good works are do be done before men.  In Matthew 7, the fruit of our Christian lives ought be seen and verifiable by others.  But in Matthew 6, Jesus is warning his followers to not let their practices be seen before men to be seen by them.

How would you respond to someone who is confused over this matter? How do you let your light shine before others in such a way that the good works seen by men at the same time do not violate the commands to practice righteousness before men and lose your reward from the Father in heaven?  If by the fruit of our Christian practice people will be able to judge we genuine professors, how do we do that without a kind of practice before others that judges us as hypocrites (as seen in Matt. 6)?

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4 Comments on “Good Works Before Men, Righteousness Before God”

  1. Cece Says:

    I don’t know how I would respond to someone about this but personally, I don’t worry about it. I believe God will make our fruit visible to others as He sees fit. At His good pleasure. Trust in Him!

  2. Archangel Says:


    I think the issue is not so much of an “actions” issue but a heart issue. I don’t think it is wrong in and of itself to do righteous things in front of other people.

    The challenge, and the heart issue, is our motivation for doing righteous things. Do we do them out of a righteous disposition and a true desire to please God above all else? Or do we do righteous things in front of other people only to gain their praise for “how religious/spiritual we are?”

    I think the interpretation of Matthew 6:1 hinges on the phrase “in order to be seen by them.” Similarly, the interpretation of Matthew 5:16 hinges on “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

    Here, again, is the heart issue: Do we do our righteous acts so that He increases and we decrease? If not, that shows we have a heart problem.

    I would encourage everyone to “let their light shine” and encourage them all the more to make sure they are doing righteous works for the right reasons–not to gain the applause of man.

    No wonder the Puritans said that even our most righteous acts were “shot-through with sin.” After all, who doesn’t like a pat on the back?

    May God guard our hearts and our motivation as we seek to rightly serve Him as we “let our lights shine before others” so that He gets the glory.

    Blessings to you.

  3. Larry Says:

    I think the key distinction is found in Mat 6:1 where it says “to be seen by them.”

    So it is our motivation that is the key issue here. We’re not called to do good works only in secret where nobody will ever know about them. Rather they are not to be done for the purpose of being seen by men.

    Our good works should always be motivated by God and not by men. Wanting men to accept us and praise us is an improper motivation for good works…wanting God to be glorified is a proper motivation….and all whether in secret or public.

  4. Erin Says:

    If we are giving, praying, and fasting in private so only our Father in heaven can see us. Then for sure change in our lives will happen and it will show in our fruit and then others will see. It is like athletics, we do not know how much practice, and sacrifice it is done behind close doors. We only see the fruit of their hard work. And we say, “How do they do that…”
    It has been said that only 20% of the people who go to church give, then I say, only 20% of the people who go to church are growing in Christ.

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