By: Rev. Bill Sutherland, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Olney, MD
How do people in the community think about your church? Do people know that we exist, and, if so, do they believe that we are an asset or blessing to the community? I’m not suggesting that we as a church need to fulfill every possible expectation that any person might have for why a church exists. We may believe that our most valuable resource is the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but people may require living proof that this message and this relationship have changed our lives before they are willing to give a serious hearing to the message themselves. So, perhaps the question is: Do those outside the church see anything different about our lives that might cause them to be interested in the gospel we believe? Do they perceive that we love our neighbors and give sacrificially of our resources?
Where is the proof that Christianity is true? Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This, of course, does not mean that everyone who sees the good works of Christians will praise God. Some may see them and curse God, and curse the followers of Jesus. Only as the Holy Spirit softens the hearts of unbelievers do they come to faith and repentance. In God’s providence, however, He is often pleased to use the good works of Christians to help unbelievers come to faith in Jesus.
The apostle Peter writes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). The day of visitation is the day when Jesus comes again. Peter, like Jesus, asserts that there is a connection between people seeing the good deeds of Christians and giving glory to God. Interestingly, the apostle Paul tells us that, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). Good works alone without the message of the gospel are not enough to bring someone to faith. But in our cynical and skeptical age in which truth is relativized, people may need to see the faith of Christians in action before they are willing to give a hearing to the message of those Christians. To put it in the words of the apostle James, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead and useless” (James 2:17).
If we want to improve our reputation in the community, we are going to have to show people that we care by our deeds, and not merely by our words. Of course, we need to be careful about our motivation for doing good works. It is to be motivated by love for God and others, and not just a desire to improve our reputation. In that same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). A better way of putting it: if we want to honor God with our witness, we will have to show people that we care by our deeds. Not only are the followers of Jesus called to do good works, but they are to do them for the right reasons. This is an impossible task for us to achieve in our own power. Only the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit can empower us to do good works for the right reasons so that we will be an attractive community to those who do not know Jesus Christ. May God do such a work in us, so that His name will be glorified through His church!