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Ethics and Religion Talk: How Can I Earn "Brownie Points" With God?

Are good works able to earn people some brownie points with God?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

"The Hindu Dharma does not envision a deity who keeps a scorecard, dishing out demerits and good conduct medals. Yes, we are encouraged to perform selfless, socially affirming deeds; but there are levels of spiritual maturity that manifest in this area. Towards the bottom would be the deed that might be very admirable, but there is a reward somewhere down the line. Perhaps having your name on a building, for instance. Then there are those who receive no reward other than the warm feeling that good has been done. But even that is slightly tainted. The highest form is when we acknowledge that God is the real doer, and we remove any sense of accomplishment from our thoughts.

An example would be if you  were standing at a crosswalk. You see a person distracted by the phone call they are on start to walk into the street, when a bus is speeding in your direction. You then grab the person’s collar and pull them out of danger. In that moment there is no thought of reward or accomplishment. Only doing what is needed at the moment for the good of someone else. When noble works are that instinctive, spiritual growth is taking place." 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

"Unitarian Universalism is a religion of deeds not creeds, our actions matter. It is not so much what we believe, but how we behave or contribute to making the world a better place. We are motivated to do good works because that is the right thing to do and it makes the world a better place for everyone. We each try to be a good person because that is the right thing to do, not because we may get some brownie points somehow." 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

"With apologies to the Girl Scouts, there is no system of brownie points acknowledged by God. Why should anyone be awarded “extra credit” for doing what he or she should have done in the first place?

Christ is quite explicit in what He says to all His disciples: “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). 

No one in this life is better than he has to be, or does more than he ought to do. Indeed, we all fall far short of anything like that! The Heidelberg Catechism gives this answer to the question, “Can those who are converted to God perfectly keep [His] commandments? No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience, yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (Q. 114). “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9)."

Rev. Salvatore Sapienza, the Senior Pastor at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ in Saugatuck/Douglas, responds:

"There are many Christians who believe that one must earn God’s favor and win God’s love, but God’s love is unconditional, which means it’s not based on conditions or transactions.

You can go and feed fifty homeless people today or you can go and party in Las Vegas. God is not going to love you any more or any less ​than God loves you right now. 

You don’t have to do anything to earn God’s favor or win God’s love, because you already have it! It’s your birthright as a child of God.

Interestingly enough, this type of love seems to infuriate many Christians today, who like the Prodigal Son’s older brother, want their good works to earn them special favor with God.

The late Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans, wrote, “Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.” Bishop Eugene Robinson said, “You can preach a judgmental, vengeful, and angry God and nobody will mind. But start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, and too kind, and then you are in trouble.”"

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

"The short answer to this question is that no, good works do not earn people brownie points with God. However, the work people perform may reflect the God within each person.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, “God’s works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we may understand his or her actions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 62-63). 

When a person performs good works, they do so because God has enlightened the individual with God’s goodness. Likewise, we may know persons better through their work because they reflect God who created them. The “brownie points” are not for God but given by the recipients of the good work."

My response:

Doing mitzvot, behaviors commanded by God, is the ONLY way to earn any sort of credit with God.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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