Augustine on the purpose of good deeds

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.

I was thinking something along these lines the other day – one of the problems I have with a particular school of thought that says Christians should be doing good deeds for the sake of bringing order to God’s creation as we look forward to the new creation is that I think we actually do good deeds as a means to a different end – and I think this other view is guilty of a category error where a means becomes and end. I like what Augustine says here. And I think it fits with John 13:35 (and myriad other passages):

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

12 thoughts on “Augustine on the purpose of good deeds”

  1. We’re just called to love. We love because God loved us, not just because we want others to love him. We love even when there’s no chance of it leading to evangelism.

    It might be a happy by-product that by showing the fruit of God’s love to others, they too will want to experience it (as in Titus 2). But for others we’ll just always be the stench of death. But we’re still called to love.

  2. We love even when there’s no chance of it lead­ing to evangelism.

    I think we love because its a fundamental part of evangelism and we hope that it will lead to us having a chance to preach as well. I’m not in the “preach the gospel, when necessary use words” camp – but I think most commands to love are coupled with the effect love has on the people around us.

    And the most loving act is to have people meet God as God, and to know Jesus as saviour. Any loving act that doesn’t at least consider that end isn’t truly loving.

    I’d be interested to see some Bible that backs your position on love as what we do even if there’s no hope of evangelism. Who says there’s ever no hope of evangelism (even those to whom we stink of death should be evangelised)? Isn’t the hope of evangelism the driving force of the Christian life?

  3. Hi, Nathan,

    It’s hard for me to know how to respond to this. It’s not a question of citing a few verses, but trying to provide you with a new way of seeing. If people like Oliver O’Donovan and Tom Wright can’t do that, then I don’t imagine that I’ll be able to. I feel a little like I’m speaking to Wittgenstein’s lion. But here goes, anyway :P

    When you say, “Isn’t the hope of evan ge lism the dri ving force of the Chris t ian life?”, the answer must simply be, “No.” Our hope is the hope of the resurrection and the renewal of all things, the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom for his glory.

    I don’t mean this in a narky way, but I find what you’ve expressed here difficult to justify biblically. The call to evangelize is almost absent from the NT. By noticing this, I’m not saying it’s unimportant. It’s part of the logic of the gospel, that we who have been reconciled should become ambassadors of reconciliation, proclaiming the means by which we have been reconciled. But the bulk of NT teaching is about how to live that reconciled life — how we live with Christ as Lord. This means striving for a life that imitates his — taking up our cross, loving others, showing that his reign is good, not tyrranical, working and praying to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven. The NT reminds us more often to “remember the poor” or to “visit widows and orphans in their distress”.

    And so the more general call of the Christian life is to love — to do good. This is broad. Evangelism alone is inadequate. And evangelism almost never comes alone — that is, it generally comes in the context of a loving relationship. But the reason we love is not in order to evangelize (it is hard to see how we might call this ‘love’). The reason we love is that God has loved us and has poured out his Spirit on us so that we might be lovers, too. Yes, part of loving people — and an important part — will be evangelism. But it is not “the most loving act”, for what is ‘most loving’ will depend on circumstances. And it’s generally not just one act, either: most often it’s one of the many ways in which we love people over time.

    Yes, if I have a friend with whom I’ve not spoken about Jesus, I’ve not loved them thoroughly. The context of our friendship demands it. In other relationships, however, I exhaust my call to love without evangelizing (such as when I love my students by teaching them English, or love the wait-staff by leaving a tip).

    Meanwhile, since you asked for some Bible, the call to love (or broadly ‘do good’) is found across the NT. Jesus sets the bar improbably high when he calls on his followers to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). They were to copy him, for Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). This is also the refrain of Paul’s letters: “[L]et us not grow weary of doing good”; “[A]s we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone” (Gal 6:9, 10; cf. 1 Thess 5:15, 2 Thess 3:13). Those who are wealthy must also be “rich in good works” (1 Tim 6:18). Indeed, all “those who have believed in God [should] be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). This is the apostle’s consistent prayer and exhortation (Col 1:10, Eph 4:1, 1 Thess 4:1). Meanwhile, James famously scoffs at the lifeless ‘faith’ that is not accompanied by good deeds (Jas 2:14-17), and Peter calls on believers to “turn away from evil and do good” (1 Pet 3:10-12). Furthermore, ‘doing good’ is part of worshipping our Saviour (Heb 13:16).

  4. Stuart,

    Let me nuance my statement somewhat: The hope of creating opportunities to evangelise is one of the driving forces (if not the predominant driving force) behind the call to live a Christian Life.

    Let me add another: Most passages that call us to act lovingly towards each other are based on similar logic (usually within the same letter, or based on what we know of the philosophy of the letter’s author) to the statement Jesus makes in John 13:35 – most acts of goodness and love are both acts of obedience to the God who has saved us, and acts to be observed by outsiders.

    I agree entirely that the New Testament consistently calls on us to love – where I disagree is that I think most, but not all, of those occasions the call to be loving is not just seeing love as an end. The end goal of loving somebody is not that they temporarily know our love, and thus God’s love vicariously, but that they know it eternally. Anything else is just playing the shortgame. Love, and acts of love, and acts of obedience, are also a means to the greater ends of bringing people into the kingdom by being salt and light.

    But it is not “the most lov­ing act”, for what is ‘most lov­ing’ will depend on cir­cum­stances.

    Yeah, the circumstances are: if they are Christians then meet their physical needs without concern, if they aren’t then which is the greater need, the forgiveness of sins? Or that they get up and walk? The “most loving” act will always be the one that speaks to ones position eternally. To me that’s so obvious it almost doesn’t need to be said – but every time I read O’Donovan or his adherents I feel the need to say it. Yes. We’re called to love. Yes. Teaching your students English is an act of love. Yes. Teaching your students English is inherently valuable and helps bring order to creation. But no, it in and of itself is never the “most loving” act you can perform for those students. Love is not exhausted if that student does not know God. Leaving a person you know bound for hell is not loving. To steal my earlier ship wreck analogy – patching up the broken leg of a shipwreck victim and then jumping in the lifeboat and leaving them on the ship is not loving. You may have dulled a temporary pain, but you’ve left them to drown, better that you put them out of their misery, or even (greater love has no man than this…) that you put them on the boat in your place. We’re on a sinking ship that will one day be refloated – its refloating is of no comfort to those who are going down with it, only to those of us hanging onto a life-ring waiting for it to reemerge.

    I don’t think the call to evangelise is absent from the New Testament – if evangelism is, as I think Wright defines it – the proclamation of the arrived lordship of King Jesus and the message of the kingdom (repent and believe, the kingdom of God is here)…

    We’re called to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), now Paul has just, in the previous verse, described his approach to dealing with non-Christians as predicated on bringing them to salvation, and in 11:1 described his life as imitating Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:33: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” 9:19-23, the “all things to all men” passage is another example Paul puts forward of his own conduct, which he then asks his readers to imitate.

    We, as Christians are to become ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5), so verse 11: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.”

    We’re to live such lives among the pagans to the end that they glorify God (1 Peter 2:12) – we’re not just to love them, and model love to each other, we’re to do it so that they glorify God (how do they do that without our actions turning them to God? How does one glorify God without honouring him as God?).

    Right after Peter talks about the need to be loving to one another (1 Peter 3:8) he says: “15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

    The way we act towards outsiders is meant to produce opportunities to preach the gospel to them (Colossians 4:5-6).

    “5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

    1 Thessalonians 4 links brotherly love (which they are called to do all the more) with how they are to be perceived by outsiders:

    “10 And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

    11 Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you,so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

    Jesus himself, as quoted in the post (from John 13), links acts of love for one another with the perception others have:

    “34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    There are just too many passages that suggest that love is a means to an end and not just an end for me to buy into O’Donovan’s framework, there’s a necessary corrective that needs to happen in the modern evangelical movement because it has been all too focused on truth at the expense of love – but to suggest that all we are called to do is be loving people awaiting the new creation and hoping in it kind of misses the point of passages like the Great Commission, and the Harvest is plentiful/workers are few… to suggest that the call to evangelise is almost absent in the New Testament is to take the opposite extreme to those “preach the gospel, when necessary use words” nutters – we’re to live the gospel, and live obediently (ie love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves” in the hope that in doing so people will know that we are Christ’s disciples. I don’t see how the imperative to evangelise is absent from that. Unless you think evangelism (the act of proclaiming God’s kingdom) is limited to words. In which case it will almost always need to be an opportunity that arises as a result of our living as described – because the message without the lifestyle to back it up isn’t particularly convincing, we’d all be street corner preachers haranguing passers by if that were the case.

    Like I said, I get the feeling that O’Donovan and his myriad disciples often fall into a trap of category error here – the ethical framework is good, but the view is a little limited – we’re called to live good lives. Yes. We’re called to love. Yes. But to what end? There are enough passages that suggest that there is a greater end in mind – the underlying theme of mission – that I think some Augustine might be a good corrective to this view.

    Hebrews 13, as you suggest, suggests doing good is part of worshipping our saviour:

    “16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. ”

    But what are we to share with others?

  5. So, in summary, and in response to your comment:

    But the bulk of NT teach­ing is about how to live that rec­on­ciled life — how we live with Christ as Lord.

    Yes. But why? Why focus on how to live? Are our lives pleasing to him? Are our acts of good works pleasing to him? Ultimately? I think the answer is a qualified yet, I think God loves and values righteousness and obedience, but I think also part of our living this way, a major part of it, is as a witness to non-believers (as I tried to demonstrate above).

    This means striv­ing for a life that imi­tates his — tak­ing up our cross, lov­ing oth­ers, show­ing that his reign is good, not tyrran­i­cal, work­ing and pray­ing to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven.

    Yes. But why? And what is his will? Where do we see his will being done ultimately? In acts of righteousness, or in lives submitted to him? Acts of righteousness not born of faith aren’t worth the breath they are performed with…

    The NT reminds us more often to “remem­ber the poor” or to “visit wid­ows and orphans in their distress”.

    Yes. But why?

  6. I’m breaking my two-comment rule, but why do good?
    1. That’s what God made us for.
    2. That’s what God saved us for. (Eph 2:8–10)
    3. Because he first loved us.
    4. Because it pleases him.

    1. So you’re not willing to cede that at least one reason for doing good is for the benefit of the outsider (ie that they may see your good deeds and know that we are Jesus’ disciples)?

  7. Nathan,

    I won’t speak for Stuart, but I am willing to cede that one reason I do good is that I hope people will come to know Jesus, and (which Stuart was explicit about) one of the ways I hope to do good is by talking to people about Jesus. I’m not sure that you are though, that is, the tone (if not the content) of what you say is that evangelism is *the* reason to do good and *the* way to do good.

    I think the difference could be put this way. If I ran some benevolent enterprise and was asked why I was doing it – perhaps with the embedded accusation that i was doing it for the sake of getting ‘converts’. I would be able to say

    ‘sure I hope everyone comes to know Jesus, but that’s not the main reason I’m doing this, I’ve been saved by a God of love and he calls me to love others, and this seemed like a need in the cit, so we are taking action to meet it’

    But I think you would have to say something like, ‘yes this is an attempt to do genuine good on it’s own terms, but the main reason we are doing this is because we want people to know about Jesus’

    The irony is that if we do good without thought to its evangelistic fruit, we will have more opportunities for evangelism than if we do good for the purpose of creating evangelistic opportunities – not that that’s the reason to do good without an eye to the evangelistic opportunities!

    Tim

    1. Hey Tim (and Stuart – who I assume is still going to read despite reaching his two comment limit),

      Before I kick off responding – don’t get me wrong, I think the approach you guys take to ethics has a lot to commend itself, but I think the absence of that reason for doing good (though implicit in the way you live your lives – from what I can tell) in the list Stuart just posted is one of my criticisms of what, for better or worse, I’m going to describe as the O’Donovan movement. Perhaps the “Resurrected Order” might be a better title. Who knows.

      I certainly think the act of evangelism is both a means and an ends – or perhaps that I think all “love” properly configured, points people to God, which means sometimes to love is evangelistic, and other times to evangelise is to love. So not all acts of love are evangelistic, but all acts of evangelism (how ever poorly put forward) are love – so long as they faithfully proclaim Jesus as Lord (I’m hesitant on this point). Evangelism isn’t always the way to do good – but to completely neglect evangelism in your doing of good/loving acts is to not properly (or completely) love the person you’re doing good to.

      I don’t want to suggest an overly individualistic approach to evangelism either – but I think good for goodness sake, rather than good for God’s sake, is another means/end confusion that seems to come with the Moral Order territory. If you have five minutes next to a stranger on a train, in an ideal world, do you try to meet an immediate need or an eternal need (ie do you offer short term conversation or give them $5 to buy a coffee as a random act of goodness) or do you, in your conversation, try to be a cog in the machine that might bring them to God?

      I think the dif­fer­ence could be put this way. If I ran some benev­o­lent enter­prise and was asked why I was doing it — per­haps with the embed­ded accu­sa­tion that i was doing it for the sake of get­ting ‘con­verts’. I would be able to say

      ‘sure I hope every­one comes to know Jesus, but that’s not the main rea­son I’m doing this, I’ve been saved by a God of love and he calls me to love oth­ers, and this seemed like a need in the city, so we are tak­ing action to meet it’

      Even seeking the welfare of the city comes with an evangelistic agenda (see the excellent book of that title by my college principal).

      ‘sure I hope every­one comes to know Jesus, but that’s not the main rea­son I’m doing this, I’ve been saved by a God of love and he calls me to love oth­ers, and this seemed like a need in the cit, so we are tak­ing action to meet it’

      Yeah, I can see how that would be a consistent line with your position – and its not hugely different to what I think I would say. I’d just leave out the “main reason” bit.

      ‘yes this is an attempt to do gen­uine good on it’s own terms, but the main rea­son we are doing this is because we want peo­ple to know about Jesus’

      I think I’d say: “Jesus compels his followers to protect the poor and downtrodden, he modelled that by dying in our place, the least we can do for those Jesus loves is love them as he did, serve them as he asks us to, we see this as a real and present need for our neighbours, and we hope that through our actions people might be interested in discovering him.”

      The irony is that if we do good with­out thought to its evan­ge­lis­tic fruit, we will have more oppor­tu­ni­ties for evan­ge­lism than if we do good for the pur­pose of cre­at­ing evan­ge­lis­tic oppor­tu­ni­ties

      I don’t think that’s entirely true. Sure. There is an element of paralysis by analysis. But if you just get on with doing good acts and loving people because you want to be in a position to evangelise (if you’re always on the lookout for opportunities to evangelise as you go about the business of living as a Christian (actually, this creates a false distinction, the business of living as a Christian involves doing good and looking for opportunities) you’re a step ahead of just doing good for the sake of doing good. Because the ultimate good is as Augustine defines it.

  8. ‘Cede’ is the wrong verb, but I’m happy to state it :) It’s there in my first comment (with the reference to Titus 2).

    It’s not a reason on the level with the others, however, because it’s not determinative of whether or not to do a good action. That is, if there’s no visible chance of evangelism, I can still do the good (e.g. help in a soup kitchen, help someone with a buggy at the train station).

    Having said this, the intentional thrust of our lives is doing good that will give us opportunities, in time, both to show and tell about Jesus. Evangelism is a vital part of how we love people.

    In some pastoral settings (e.g. some country churches I know), people do an excellent job of loving, but don’t do evangelism. So the emphasis there would fall on learning how to speak about Jesus in the midst of their loving relationships.

    In the context of your post, though, the weight needs to fall on the necessity to love. The training I received as a new Christian was how to be a loveless mouthpiece.

  9. P.S. Evangelistic opportunity is also not determinative of whether an action was good or not. That is, some things we do because we hope that they’ll lead to evangelistic opportunities. But if that doesn’t happen, the actions were still good — they’re not rendered a waste of time because they didn’t lead to evangelism.

    (For example, we are helping out at a soup kitchen, and we hope that over time we’ll develop relationships outside that context where we get to love people — other volunteers, clients — in many ways, where they become our friends, and where we get to speak to them about Jesus. But if that never eventuates, the soup kitchen itself was a good thing to do, and pleasing to God.)

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