Kevin DeYoung has helpfully answered this question before. You can watch his answer below:
If you don’t want to watch that, you can look over these verses:
- Colossians 1:10: Bearing fruit in good works and increasing in your knowledge of God are pleasing to God.
- Romans 12:1: Presenting your body as a living sacrifice pleases God.
- Romans 14:18: Looking out for your weaker brother pleases God.
- 1 Thessalonians 2:4: Truthfully teaching the word pleases God.
- 1 Timothy 2:1–3: Praying for government and those in authority pleases God.
- 1 Timothy 5:4: Supporting needy family members pleases God.
- Hebrews 13:16: Sharing with others pleases God.
- 1 John 3:22: Keeping the commandments pleases God.
Over and over again, the Bible tells us to do certain things because they please God. Just as we grieve the Spirit when we sin, we can please the Father when we obey.
Some of us want to revert to Isaiah’s language of righteous deeds being as filthy rags (cf. Is 64:6). We want to suggest that we can do nothing to please God. But Isaiah is clearly talking about those within the covenant community who were performing empty ritual whilst their hearts were far from God. These were not sincere believers but unbelievers who thought they could buy favour with God through their performance. In mind were those who indulged unrepentant sin yet considered themselves righteous simply because they trotted along to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice. They were concerned with outward duty rather than inner matters of the heart.
It is worth comparing Isaiah 64:6 with the words of Deuteronomy 28:45-48:
45 “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (emphasis added)
One can say the right words, read the right books, do the right duties and yet still have a heart that is far from God. There is no value in outward piety when we have no love for the Lord.
Wasn’t that the point of the parable of the prodigal son? There were two sons; one wished his father dead by asking for his share of the inheritance only to go and squander it in wild living, the other remained at home dutifully. Both, however, wanted the father’s goods without caring one jot for him. One sought to get what he wanted by leaving altogether, the other through dutiful obedience. Neither truly loved the father. The profligate one penitently returned to the father and was subsequently forgiven and restored to the family home. The dutiful brother remained outside, angry that his inheritance was being wasted. Outward piety is not the same as sincere obedience borne out of love.
It is true that we cannot earn our righteousness by performing good deeds. Nor is our obedience meritorious in respect to salvation. Neither is the performance of perfunctory ritual in any way pleasing to God.
However, in Christ, we have been made perfectly righteous. As those who have been made right by Jesus, our genuine, heartfelt, sincere deeds of obedience are made holy and righteous by our faith-union with him. Just as we have been sanctified through faith in Christ, so our righteous deeds are sanctified through faith in Christ too. They don’t earn our salvation but they do, when offered sincerely in faith, genuinely please God.
When my son obeys me I am pleased. Though I love him regardless of what he does for me and, on the days where he decides he will not tidy his toys there isn’t any chance I will kick him out of the house, I am nonetheless pleased when he obeys. In the same way, our heavenly Father is pleased when we obey him. His love isn’t dependent on our obedience and there is no chance of him relinquishing our salvation in Christ because we didn’t obey him enough today. But that doesn’t change the fact that God is actually and genuinely pleased when we obey him.
Not only does the Bible tells us it is so, it expects us to be motivated to obey for this very reason. It is possible to actually and really please God.