The gospel frequently reminds us that we cannot earn our salvation or gain God’s approval through good deeds. Instead, we are saved by grace through faith in the work of Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And while many christians embrace this teaching when it comes to salvation, we struggle to continue living in full dependence of Christ’s righteousness after becoming believers. On some level, even if it is subconscious, we often do good deeds in an effort to earn God’s approval.
Here is where the myth of the good deeds bank begins: If doing good works earns me God’s approval, then each good deed is like a deposit in the bank. The more deposits I make, the more God will approve of me. If I make lots of deposits, then God won’t mind too much if I make the occasional withdrawal. If I sin, even if it’s bad and intentional, God won’t mind as long as my good deeds bank stays above zero.
Will Anderson explained the how the myth can affect leaders in his article, 5 Loopholes We Use to Excuse Sin:
“A mentor once shared that his greatest moments of temptation come on the heels of success. As a gifted pastor and communicator, he recognizes in the aftermath of a great sermon, with the affirmation of his people ringing in his ears, he sometimes feels entitled to reward himself in sinful ways.”
This is a particularly dangerous belief amongst leaders, and it has caused serious problems for both individuals and organizations. In this article, we’ll take a look at how the myth of the good deeds bank has hurt people at both the personal and corporate level, and of course, we’ll discuss a path forward.
The Myth of the Good Deeds Bank for Leaders
Tell me if this sounds familiar: “We all thought [insert name of a christian leader] was a great leader who loved God, so how could he have been living in so much sin?”
Believers are called to live to a higher standard, to produce fruit, to be lights in the world, and be servant leaders. And yet, you don’t have to work very hard to find stories of pastors or counselors or camp leaders who have engaged in egregious behavior.
Recent examples include Ravi Zaccharias, Pete Newman of Kanakuk Kamps, and Carl Lentz from Hillsong NYC.
The full list of examples is not short. Scandals and abuse have thrown the church into turmoil for hundreds of years.
How does this keep happening? There are many possible reasons, and each could have their own book: people are sinful, spiritual temptation is real, a lack of accountability, pride leads to the fall, and, I believe, the myth of the good deeds bank.
I first got the idea about the myth of the good deeds bank from Russell Moore’s newsletter. In the article, What a Gospel Quartet Taught Me About Sin, he shared his conversation with a member of a traveling worship band. The musician quit traveling with the group because things got too wild. He had to get away from the rampant drugs, alcohol, and sex.
This behavior surprised Moore. You might expect those things in a traveling heavy metal group, but not a gospel quartet! The former band member provided several explanations, including this:
“They believed they were doing ministry. And, over time, they started to believe that they were kind of owed some moral slack because of all they were doing for the kingdom. They weren’t consciously making these reasoned arguments, he said, counting the balance of souls saved at concerts over against cheating on spouses in the green rooms. If asked, anyone there would have been able to argue that only grace counts us righteous before God. But at the more unconscious level, he said, they started to see their “ministry” as a kind of system of indulgences balancing out their sins.”
And there it is – the myth of the good deeds bank. Because they did so many good works, they figured they could enjoy some sinful behavior. God wouldn’t mind – they ran the calculations and their bank was full!
Similarly, one of the abuse victims in the Ravi Zaccharias scandal said that Ravi, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God.” In other words, because Ravi believed he had done so much good work over the years, his full bank entitled him to some extensive sinful spending.
And while you may not struggle with justifying the “big sins,” it can also be tempting to justify the more “day-to-day sins” like mocking, pride, and arrogance against the good deeds bank.
As you can see, believing this is a dangerous myth for leaders. It leads to pride, creates an inflated view of one’s own righteousness, and it removes our dependance on God. This is fertile ground for all kinds of evil.
The Myth of the Good Deeds Bank for Organizations
This belief can negatively impact organizations as well. It works a little differently, but starts when the people in a church or religious organization start to believe that the ministry they do is too important.
If a member (or members) in the organization commit great sins, it can be tempting to ignore or disguise the sinful behavior because they must protect the work of the ministry.
David French described the situation well in his article, How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity:
“They’re perpetually-existing legal entities who confront each and every scandal with a single prime directive: This ministry must endure. It is too important to fail. It cannot die. In this construct, the truth is a threat. If people knew what really happened, then they might not support the ministry, or listen to its teaching. Its good work would cease. And so it seeks silence.”
In other words, if the ministry is doing a lot of great and important work, they can ignore the negative work. Instead of pushing to make the ministry more holy, they enable abusive people or cover-up corrupt behavior to keep the ministry going.
Mark Driscoll built a massive megachurch with multiple campuses. Thousands of people attended in-person services and hundreds of thousands watched online. Early allegations that Driscoll exhibited abusive behavior or used demeaning language were largely ignored. After all, Driscoll was clearly “anointed.”
And then in 2014, the truth finally came to bare. Driscoll was charged for abusive behavior by 21 former pastors of his church. Mars Hill fell apart, and many people had their faith shattered.
If his abusive behavior had been dealt with when it was first noticed, then maybe things could have changed through accountability. Instead, the organizations that supported Driscoll ignored the behavior, thinking his good work was far greater than the sin he continually demonstrated.
But there is no good deed bank for churches. There is no good deed bank for ministries or non-profits. There is no balancing of the scales. Good works do not entitle you to keep on sinning.
People frequently leave the church. There are many reasons for this, but the ongoing barrage of scandals and sin that occurs amongst christian leaders is one of the most heartbreaking. People should look to their leaders and see sources of light, but all too often they have seen darkness.
In his article, Losing Our Religion, Russell Moore diagnosed the problem with great clarity:
“We are losing a generation—not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not a rebranding, but a repentance—meaning, as the Bible does, a turnaround.”
Where do we go from here?
It is vital that spiritual leaders help “bust” this myth. When we allow ourselves to believe that good deeds earn us favor with God and excuse our sin, we become like puffed up pharisees.
This myth breeds abuse, sexual sin, and darkness. In order to overcome this myth, we must return to the basic truths of the gospel.
As Russell Moore said, the secularist behavior of christian leaders demands repentance. Jesus frequently calls his followers to “repent and believe the good news.”
In order to repent, however, you must recognize that you have done something wrong. You might have even hurt others. If you are too busy building up your own self-righteousness, then this is a nearly impossible task. Which is why we must also…
Believe the Good News
Jesus loves you. He knows your sin, he knows everything you’ve ever done wrong, but he still loves you. The good news of the gospel is that, despite your incredible sin, Jesus died so that you might live. He took on your sin and gave you his righteousness.
If you truly believe the good news, if you recognize that your value comes from his righteousness and not your own, it should become much easier to repent. It should become much easier to admit your faults. You don’t have to cover up your sins because Jesus has done that for you.
Love your neighbor as yourself
Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10 to illustrate what it means to love your neighbor. In the story, a man is robbed and beaten and left on the side of the road. Both a Priest and a Levite pass this man on the side of the road and do nothing to help him.
The parable doesn’t explain why the Priest and Levite passed him. Perhaps they had some “good work” to do and they couldn’t be distracted. Maybe they didn’t want to become “unclean” because of the impact it would have on their ministry. Perhaps they were simply afraid.
In the end, it was the Samaritan who “took pity” on the victim and provided help. Being a good neighbor is not about protecting important people or keeping up the appearances of an organization. Instead, it is about showing compassion and helping victims or people in need.
Remember that sanctification is also by grace, through faith
I used to believe that justification came from Jesus, but after I was saved, it was my job to become more like Christ.
Paul calls the Galatians “foolish” for believing this in Galatians 3:3,
“Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?”
God makes us righteous through faith, but He also sanctifies us through faith. We are entirely dependent on him for our salvation, and we continue to be dependent on him to do the good deeds He has prepared for us.
When you recognize your dependence on Him, it becomes a lot harder to build your own self-righteous good deeds bank.
Keep everything in the light
Deep down, we all know that the good deeds bank is really just a myth: our good behavior does not excuse sinful behavior.
In most of these stories, the leaders and organizations who fell to sin or enabled sin did so because they tried to keep the sin hidden. Instead of bringing their actions into the light where they could be dealt with, they kept them hidden in darkness where they festered and became deadly.
But nothing can stay hidden forever. As Jesus says in Luke 8:16-17,
“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”
The truth will come out, so stop trying to hide it! Bring things into the light, and the sooner you do so, the better.
In the end, solving this issue is about loving God and loving people more than you love your own sense of righteousness. It is about loving light and caring for the least and the lost.
We like to think we are big and important, but the christian model of leadership is not about being big and important. Rather, it is about serving others. If you find yourself forgetting that, then return to the gospel and remind yourself of the foundational truths of our faith.