There are reasons and there are reasons. And, usually, it’s the reasons behind actions that make the difference. When Paul wrote “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8) he was getting at the heart of the matter. Those who are “in the flesh” are those who have only the unchanged human nature with which they were born. Such people (the unsaved) CAN DO nothing—absolutely nothing—of which God approves. He says in Proverbs that “even their plowing (i.e., their everyday work) is sin.”
“What if they do good things to help others—feed the poor, help old ladies across busy streets?’
“I don’t understand that!”
It’s simple. The reason behind the action is vital. If God is not in the picture—if pleasing Him and obeying Him is not one’s ultimate motive (reason)—then a work, no matter how good its social effects may be, does not please God.
Yes. You see, people who live merely on the horizontal plane, as if God didn’t exist, forgetting the vertical dimension, live only for themselves—or, at best, for others. But not for God.
Human works, done in that manner don’t reflect God’s honor—they glorify people. When Jesus spoke of giving a cup of water, He added, “in My Name.” That’s the difference.
“Do you just add His Name to the action, then?”
No. No. A thousand times “No” There’s nothing magical about the use of Christ’s Name—even when it’s used in prayer. We are also to pray in Christ’s Name. But that doesn’t mean tacking on the phrase “In Jesus’ Name” at the end. It means recognizing that in His saving death one has gained access to the Father in prayer. So, doing works in His Name means that, by the Holy Spirit Who enables Him to do God’s will, a believer seeks before all else to honor Him. It is the reason behind the effort that counts.