Working Lights

How can we be salt and light in our world, so that instead of being “trodden under foot” or “hidden under a bushel” (vv. 13, 15), we can resist evil and do good, and moving unbelievers to glorify God as our Father in heaven?  To answer that question, let’s listen to the wisdom of the English Puritans.

Your Spiritual Light Must Be Seen in Your Works

Christ said, “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matt. 5:15–16a). It would be ridiculous to turn on a lamp and then hide it, when its very purpose is to illuminate the room. 

John Ley (1583–1662) wrote, “God intends that his graces given to his ministers or people, should be used for the good of others and not kept for their own good only.”[1]Keach said, “Though the saints should do nothing through vain glory, be seen of men; yet their good works, and holy walkings should be so done, that others should see them.”[2]

God’s glory becomes visible in the good works of His children. Baxter quoted Tertullian: “We do not talk great things, but live them.”[3]Examine yourself: Is your Christianity mostly talk, or is it the power of God producing good works? As a Christian, are you a great talker, or a great doer? Henry wrote, “Those about us must not only hearour good words, but seeour good works; that they may be convinced that religion is more than a bare name, and that we do not only make a profession of it, but abide under the power of it.”[4]Talk without action is like much wind without rain—barren, unfruitful, and likely to cause more harm than good.

Good works especially means works of practical love. Baxter said, “The dominion of love in the hearts of Christians, appearing in all the course of their lives, doth much glorify God and their religion.”[5]He exclaimed, “O, could we learn of the Lord of love, and Him who calleth himself Love itself, to love our enemies, to bless them that curse us, and to do good to the evil, and pray for them that hurt and persecute us, we should not only prove that we are genuine Christians, the children of our heavenly Father (Matt. 5:44, 45), but should heap coals of fire on our enemies’ heads, and melt them into compassion and some remorse, if not into a holy love.”[6]

Love means not only showing kindness, but acting with justice and fairness. George Swinnock (c. 1627–1673) said, “True godliness payeth its dues to men, as well as its duty to God.... True holiness will provide things honest, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of men.”[7]Swinnock observed that Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with two tablets in his hands; the Christian who enjoys communion with God shows it by his concern for both religion towards God and righteousness towards men.[8]

Swinnock also said that Christians must be “courteous” and not “rugged” with people. He counseled, “He that pleaseth all men in all things (indifferent) is the likeliest to save some (1 Cor. 10:33).... We may gain their love by soft words.... Courtesy, like the loadstone [magnet], will draw even iron to it.”[9]Courtesy goes with meekness: “Courtesy is a good servant, to wait upon meekness as its master,” Swinnock said. He observed, “The purest gold is soonest melted, and they are usually the best blades that will bend well. The lion of Judah for courage, was a lamb for condescension. The saint must learn of his Saviour to be meek and lowly of heart.”[10]Swinnock said, “The greatest conquest is to overcome ourselves, and the vilest bondage to be our own slaves (Prov. 16:32).”[11]

Your Spiritual Light Moves People to Glorify God

Christ said that the purpose of letting our light shine in good works is that that they may “glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16b). Ley said, “All good children seek their fathers’ honour,”[12]and so must we, if we are children of God. Poole said, “You are not in your good actions to aim at yourselves, to be seen of men, as Matthew 6:1, nor merely at doing good to others;... but having a primary and principal respect to the glorifying of your Father; for, ‘Herein is my Father glorified, if ye bear much fruit’ (John 15:8).”[13]

Why do our good works move men to praise God? You might think that good works can only win praise for us, since we do them. However, Christ assumed here that all our good works come from the grace that God planted in us (Matt. 15:13). Poole said that it is hard to understand how our good works result in men giving glory to God, “if they proceed from mere power and liberty of our own wills, not from his special efficacious grace.”[14]As the apostle Paul explained by divine inspiration, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Henry rightly concluded, “Let them see your good works, that they may see the power of God’s grace in you, and may thank him for it, and give him the glory of it, who has given such power unto men.”[15]

Your good works are a crucial complement to the preaching of the word. Baxter said, “The good works or lives of Christians is a great means ordained by Christ for the convincing of sinners, and the glorifying of God in the world. Preaching doeth much, but it is not appointed to do all.”[16]Henry said, “Let them see your good works, that they may be convinced of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion.... The holy, regular, and exemplary conversation of the saints, may do much towards the conversion of sinners.”[17]

Oh what a great responsibility we bear when we take the name of Christian! Baxter reminded us, “The world will judge of the scriptures by your lives, and of religion by your lives, and of Christ himself by your lives!”[18]Who is adequate for these things? Yet we remember that what the world needs to see in us is not perfect people who never did anything wrong, but sinners who have been saved by grace, are being saved by grace, and will be saved by grace. They need to see pilgrims on the road to the Celestial City, who stumble and occasionally get side-tracked on a by-path, but who press forward until we reach the kingdom of heaven. If we persevere in doing good even under persecution, we will overcome evil with good.

More In This Series: 

  1. Salt and Light
  2. Like a Little Salt
  3. Let the Light Shine

[1]Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:15.

[2]Keach, Types and Metaphors, 758.

[3]“Non magna loquimur sed vivimus.” Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:461.

[4]Henry, Commentary, 1631, emphasis original.

[5]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:469.

[6]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:470.

[7]Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in Works, 2:187–88.

[8]Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in Works, 2:189.

[9]Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in Works, 2:209.

[10]Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in Works, 2:211.

[11]Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in Works, 2:213.

[12]Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:16.

[13]Poole, Annotations, 3:22

[14]Poole, Annotations, 3:22

[15]Henry, Commentary, 1631.

[16]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:490.

[17]Henry, Commentary, 1631.

[18]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:490.

Joel Beeke(@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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