Good works done for wrong reasons are evil

When I was saying goodbye to my friends in Hannover, I invited them for pizza and Bible study. Surprisingly, some came. And so we had an interesting group consisting of two Hindus, one Muslim, two agnostics/atheists, one Buddhist and one Protestant. With the exception of one, they were all non-Christian by any reasonable definition.

We studied the parable of the lost sons. Hearing the doctrine of forgiveness of sins didn’t shock them at all. It made no particular impression on them. It was something they had heard before. (Perhaps it was also the result of my poor gospel presentation.) However, when I mentioned Jesus’ teaching that good works done with bad intentions are evil, they were dumbstruck. How on earth could it be possible that good deeds become evil?

I was glad to see that Jesus’ teachings can still be breathtaking even in our day.

Here are some good deeds: Attending worship service on Sundays. Actively being engaged in church activities, such as choir, band, or youth group. Participating in outreach. Talking to new students. Teaching the Bible. Praying, fasting, and giving offerings. If Jesus told you that all of those things could be heinous, would you believe him? If this isn’t a radical teaching, then there is no such thing. And yet this is clearly taught in the Bible.

I cannot think of any better illustration of this than the older son in the parable of the lost sons. (By the way, Tim Keller’s sermon on this parable is a real eye-opener, and I strongly recommend it: The Prodigal Sons)

Whenever we have studied the parable of the lost sons, I have observed that many lovely, born-again Christians in UBF try to identify themselves with the younger son. In my opinion, many of them do not qualify! Many of these people are “too good” to be the younger son. After becoming part of the Father’s family, most of us did not openly rebel against him. We didn’t squander his wealth, waste his property, sleep with prostitutes, become addicted to drugs, or end up lying on the street in a gutter.

But consider the older son. Doesn’t his profile fit us much better? The older son did none of those dirty things. He was absolutely faithful. He worked hard. He didn’t miss a single church meeting. He even came to early-morning prayer. He wrote long and detailed testimonies. He fed his Father’s sheep. And yet, there is no doubt that he was just as lost as his younger brother.

Look at the messed-up vertical relationship with his Father. He didn’t truly love the Father. The Father’s possessions (the squandered property, the fattened calf) were more important to him than the Father himself. For him, the Father was a means to an end, to help him get what he really wanted. He didn’t care about his Father’s heart. Can you see the pride in his heart when he talks to his Father?

And notice the messed-up horizontal relationship with his younger brother. He wouldn’t even call him his brother. He disdained him. He looked down on him. He rejected him and abhorred him.

Keep in mind the people to whom Jesus was talking. It was the public sinners on the one hand (younger son-types) and the Pharisees and Scribes on the other hand (older brother-types). Jesus’ audience included people across the full spectrum or religiosity. And it was the religious who despised the irreligious and who couldn’t possibly understand the merciful, compassionate heart of the Father.

What I find most striking is this: The older son was not lost despite his goodness. It was not the case that he did not have enough good works to show his father. Rather, it was precisely his good works which alienated him from his father. It was his own righteousness which kept him away from the Father’s heart. It was by his own faithfulness and his own achievements which he tried to become his own savior and lord. It was his own (otherwise admirable) accomplishments which destroyed his relationships with his father and brother.

God is the embodiment of everything that is good. Therefore, anything that alienates us from God is evil. Every turning away from God towards self, every rejection of God as the only Savior and Lord, is pure evil. And if good deeds lead to that, then those good deeds have become evil.

True children of God do not only repent of the wrong things they have done and the good things they have failed to do. They also repent for the good deeds they have done with wrong motives. They repent of every evil, which has kept them away from God.

The consequences and applications of this principle for the church are astounding. We should never just promote a business-oriented or performance-oriented atmosphere, an attitude that “the show must go on.” A ministry should never just be about the number of people who attend the worship service, the number of Bible studies per week, and the number of missionaries that have been sent out. In my opinion, we need to promote and spread the flagrant, radical grace that is in God. The grace of Christ, an overflowing joy in Christ, a deeply-felt love for Christ and the desire to give glory to Christ must be the driving force and motivation behind every good deed of the saints. Any church that fails to endorse this principle has crossed the invisible line that separates the true gospel from mere religion.


  1. Jennifer Espinola

    Hi Henoch. Your article hits home to me in several ways. Although i once clearly saw myself as the “younger” son, my sinful nature has morphed itself into an “older” son where I used my “good” deeds as a bargaining chip to indulge myself in other ways. Though i do take personally responsibility for my sinful attitude, I also am concerned about the influence of the Christian culture we’re in. We are quick to judge one another through the superficial lens of good works. As you mentioned, this reflects not only on our vertical relationship with our Father but also hurts our relationship with our Christian brother and sister. It also gives the wrong impression that we are better off being an older son that a younger son. In that sense, I agree with you that good deeds done with a bad motivation are evil. Somehow, as Christians in a mission-oriented church, we must struggle more against this older son mentality and be careful how we promote outward faithfulness.

  2. Thank you Jennifer for your comment. It was an eye-opener for me to realize that the elder brother was as lost as the younger brother even though in a less obvious way in the parable.
    i realize that i am not nearly as often repenting for my bad motivation while doing good things as i should.

  3. Thanks Henoch. This idea doesn’t seem to go away–even the Puritans preached against good works :)

    Thank God that Jesus does not give up on us, no matter how lost we are. Some of us were younger brothers. Then we met Christ only to be met with a lot of unwanted expectations and ambitions for us. We were then made into elder brothers and ended up just as lost. I need Jesus every day for the rest of my life to save me from being lost.

  4. Ben, i know that Luther kept on preaching against work righteousness till the end of his life. (do you think he went too far?)
    I realized that i too easily lose track and focus. So i must watch out not to not to get trapped in self-righteousness and pride like the elder brother in the parable.
    But in addition, in my opinion, the church carries a responsibility, too. The teachings in the church can either promote (directly and indirectly) work-righteousness or gospel. Depending on what kind of atmosphere the church creates, i do see a danger of elder-brother-types being fostered in the church, for instance, when a pastor only judges others by their outwardly visible fruits, such as the number of bible students they feed, meetings they attend and when he endorses works only…

  5. To this discussion, I highly recommend the book by John Piper, “Future Grace.” No other book in recent memory has better helped me both theologically and practically to move beyond this “older brother syndrome” and “works-righteousness issue” than the simple biblical truth of living each day “by faith in future grace.” Check it out.

  6. James Kim

    Hi Henoch. The painting on your article (by Rembrandt) was on the front cover of the book, “Prodigal Son”, written by Henri Neuwen, a Netherland theologian. He thinks he went through both the elements of the younger son and older son. Then he also realized that he should be the position of the father who welcomed the Prodigal son unconditionally. Henri studied the painting for so many months in the Hermitage museum and found out many interesting details in the paintings. For example, the father’s right hand is strong and muscular and the left hand is soft and very tender. His red cloak seems to embrace his son as if the mother hen embraces her chicks etc. We all went though the younger son’s stage, after many years in UBF we easily become elder sons. But there is another step (reap) to become like a father who can embrace all kinds of people (including my own children) with unconditional love. The basis of the bible is “Be holy as your Father is holy” As God’s children we must strive to grow in the image of our father God.

  7. Ruth Schafer

    Henoch, I am reading Prodigal God by Tim Keller and had to resurrect this post. I am really challenged by this book. I’m also learning much from you: on this blog as well as in our too-short interactions over the summer.
    I am such and older sister (in real life and this parable). I’m not assured of God’s love. I am still at the place where I doubt that God loves me and that is not for lack of knowledge that he does. I experience Gods love for others, like the younger brother in this parable or in the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin but I struggle to experience it for myself. Which is funny, because I am so conditioned to look at myself when I study the bible, to see where I am alright and where I can change. I want so much to look instead at Jesus and walk away from a study feeling hopefully loved in the depths of my darkness instead of guilty that I am not doing enough.
    Also, I am realizing just how much I really distrust God and do not understand grace. I think of God as a taker rather than a reckless giver: a prodigal God. I’m in the process of bargaining with him even if I don’t see it. I am terrified that my life will not go how I want it to and that God will not bless me in the ways that I desire. Now in my Christian life I can say I don’t desire a relationship with God as an end in itself. I love how Keller puts it, “obey God to get God himself ¬â€”in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him.” All I know is that I don’t desire but want to desire that above all else. I see that I am lacking grace for others because I am lacking the experience of grace myself. The people that I chronically lack grace for I would label Pharisees, and I’m more like them than I like to think. But Jesus was gracious to them and to me, the parable was told for them more than anyone else in the audience. I want to know that grace that stands apart from anything I do or do not do so I can have it for others, no matter what they do.
    And ,in all of this, God is answering my prayers that I can experience the Gospel. More and more I am realizing Gods love and grace, especially in my close relationships, with my family and friends in our ministry and outside of it. But I have much to learn and experience.

    • Ruth, thank you for your long and honest comment and apologies for my late reply. the brief encounters we had really encouraged me a lot. And as i told you before, i wished i would have started earlier to read all the great Christian books that are out there (and to tax my brain with theological and philosophical problems).
      We have studied the passage of the prodigal sons sooo many times and i once gave a message on this passage. i remember writing reflection (testimony) on this passage many times. And i ALWAYS tried to force to compare myself with the younger son without realizing that the elder brother was equally lost, the reason why these reflections didn’t truly reflect the evil that is in me. I am absolutely an-older-brother-type. Maybe it’s partially owed to the fact, that i too actually am an older brother to three siblings.
      The verses on the older brother revealed my evil motives of doing good deeds: it sub-consciously had been a means to justify myself, a means to become in some respect my own savior and to actually feel good about myself (because doing bad made me feel bad about myself). And that constantly made be look down on younger brother-type people.
      i thank God for Tim Keller and his clear gospel-presentations for 21st century people. I have much to learn, either.