The Bible teaches us that Christians are to do good works, even though we cannot do good works to earn salvation. But do you need to be a Christian to do good works? Can’t you do good without being a Christian? The answer is not straightforward.
Non-Christians do right things
If you look at the life of any non-Christian, you will find he does many things that are right. E.g. speaking the truth, raising children lovingly, helping others, and giving money to charity. There are even non-Christians who can serve as examples to Christians through all the good things they do.
The Bible recognises that unbelievers can do good things. In Isaiah 44:28 God says about the Persian king Cyrus: “he shall fulfill all My purpose”, in bringing Israel back to its country. That is obviously a good thing. But God also says about this king: “you do not know Me” (Isaiah 45:5).
Another example is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus makes his hearers squirm by telling a story where the unbeliever is the good guy. The priest and the Levite abandon a wounded traveler, but the Samaritan, who does not belong to God’s people, helps him.
Now this is not something that really happened, it is just a story that Jesus told. But through telling the story Jesus shows that this is something that could happen. And we probably all know examples when Christians failed and unbelievers did the right thing. So the first thing that needs to be said it: yes, non-Christians definitely can do right things – even to the extent that it makes Christian ashamed.
A right thing is not a good work
But now we need to take the next step. The Bible also says that when God looks down from heaven on the children of man, He says “there is none who does good, not even one”. This is written in Psalm 14:3, and repeated in Romans 3:12. So how is it possible that people can do the right things without God, but that He still says that they don’t do good?
This is where we have to bring in the intentions we have. Non-Christians can do the right things, even with the right intentions towards other people. But God is looking for another good intention before He considers something a good work: whether we do it to honour him. In Hebrews 11:6 we read: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.”
This sounds pretty extreme, but you should be able to understand it when you compare it to this: a young man curses his parents, cuts off contact with them, and emigrates to another country. After a few years, the parents hear that their son has become very successful. He has become a wealthy and respected businessman. Are they now pleased with their son? No. They are still hurt, sad, and disappointed that their son does not want to have anything to do with his parents.
In the same way, all the right things that people do have no value for God if they do not love and honour him. Intentions are important. A right thing to do only becomes a good work in the sight of God if it is done to honour him.
You need the Holy Spirit for good works
If you don’t love God, you can’t do good things with the intention that God wants. But if you love God, you can often still fail to do good works. You need to be renewed through the power of the Holy Spirit to do good works. It does not start with your effort, but with your personality being changed.
When the Holy Spirit lives in you, this is what happens: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). When this becomes your personality, good works will flow from it. People will see the power of God at work in you, in a way that is never possible for someone who does not believe in God, does not trust in Jesus, and does not have the Holy Spirit in his heart.