The question of the purpose of good deeds goes back before the Reformation. There was a strong belief that unless you did good deeds you couldn’t go to heaven. That is a polite way of saying that one had to earn his or her salvation. The purpose of the good deeds was to warrant grace. God was seen as a angry deity just waiting to get the poor sinner in judgment so he could send them to hell. So angry was God, that he put them in torment (purgatory) as soon as they died. And they stayed there for thousands of years unless someone “earned” their release through prayer or money.
Martin Luther, he of the 95 Theses, was so afraid of God that he would spend as much as six hours a day in confession and then worry afterwards that he might have left some minor sin out. Entering a monastery or convent was suppose to offer a life of good deed opportunities as well as a shield from the temptations of life. God, you see, was keeping score. You needed more good deeds than sins and no one was able to do that many good deeds. Martin knew something was wrong when the church authorized the purchase of forgiveness with money. A new way of earning salvation was offered.
Later, during the Reformation, Jacob Arminius began a movement strong on working for salvation. He believed that God was a loving God and wouldn’t consign people to hell just regardless of their conduct. He said that election to eternal life is conditional upon good works in this life. He was banished for this belief but it caught on. People were sure that the more good deeds they did the more stars they would have in their crown. The ticket to heaven was lots and lots of good deeds and as few bad ones as possible.
Many modern day Christians were once of the persuasion that they had to work out their own salvation with good deeds. They weren’t too sure what role grace played in their salvation because James said that faith without works is dead. That seemed to nullify grace. After all, Jesus said we were to do good deeds before men. We were to let our light shine so the world would see. Trying to earn heaven was a tough task. Many just gave up, realizing it was impossible to do more good than evil. I recall a person who had business cards made up and when he did a good deed he would give the person he helped a card. It said, “You have been helped by a member of the church of Christ”. This tells me that the big argument was whether the individual got the credit or the church got the credit, which means they missed the last part of the statement Jesus made about good deeds.
Good deeds have nothing to do with me or you. Yes, they are requested by Jesus. Of course we are to let our light shine and so forth. But the deeds and the light are not for my glory. They don’t increase my status with God. They don’t earn my salvation. In fact, my salvation comes first and the good deeds follow as a result of the salvation. Good deeds are for the glory of God. The light is to reflect God. All I do and all I say are to bring glory to God who saved me in his great love by his awesome grace.