November 19, 2017

On Good Works

Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By Chaplain Mike

Whenever we have a discussion on faith and good works, it is likely that we will go down many side trails, as happened on Monday in our conversations. Today would be a good time, in my estimation, to clarify some fundamental Biblical teachings and to point you to what I think are brilliant Reformation insights into the subject of good works, what they are and what their relationship is to saving faith.

Often considered Martin Luther’s best book, and the clearest exposition of the Christian life he ever wrote, A Treatise on Good Works (1520) was composed for the following purpose:

For at this time I have wished to show how in all good works we should practice and make use of faith, and let faith be the chief work.

Today, we note several important teachings from the first part of Luther’s treatise.

Faith

Begun as a simple sermon for a congregation in Wittenberg, Luther eventually turned the materials he had gathered on the subject into a book. The subject of good works was not merely a theological matter confined to intra-church discussions in Luther’s day, for the division of church and state we have come to take for granted did not exist. Luther’s teaching on justification by faith alone apart from good works worried not only church leaders, but also those who governed society at large. They feared such teaching would lead to disorderly conduct and community chaos, and thus had a vested interest in the church exhorting its people to good works.

In the first part of the treatise, Luther lays the groundwork by looking at the First Commandment before discussing the specific good works God commands in the others. His main points are:

God alone defines what good works are.
“There are no good works except which God has commanded.” As we will see, this is an important part of Luther’s teaching on good works and a Reformation emphasis which, at least in my experience, has been ignored in discussions of the subject. Luther was as concerned to define what good works are as he was to declare what they could and could not do.

Faith in Christ is the source, and all other good works flow from it naturally.
“For in this work all good works must be done and receive from it the inflow of their goodness” (John 6:28-29). Many commend impressive deeds or religious works which they value in and of themselves, but do not properly emphasize the fundamental call of faith.

ALL works, even the most common, if they spring from faith, are good works.

If you ask further, whether they count it also a good work when they work at their trade, walk, stand, eat, drink, sleep, and do all kinds of works for the nourishment of the body or for the common welfare, and whether they believe that God takes pleasure in them because of such works, you will find that they say, “No”; and they define good works so narrowly that they are made to consist only of praying in church, fasting, and almsgiving. Other works they consider to be in vain, and think that God cares nothing for them. So through their damnable unbelief they curtail and lessen the service of God, Who is served by all things whatsoever that are done, spoken or thought in faith.

Again, we come back to this point, which is at the heart of Luther’s teaching. The Roman church of his day was not merely preaching that one must do good works to be saved, they had also defined and limited good works to extraordinary acts of religious devotion. Luther’s great insight was that obedience to God which springs from faith exhibits itself in the course of our ordinary, daily vocations. We may, but we need not take special vows or practice particular rituals to be people of good works. “Behold, then, why I exalt faith so greatly, draw all works into it, and reject all works which do not flow from it.”

If we are “enlightened and strengthened by grace” we may be sure that even the smallest deed we do is a good work.

…if he finds his heart confident that it pleases God, the work is good, even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw.

Our good works are not accepted in themselves, but because of the faith which produces them.

In this faith all works become equal, and one is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, few or many. For the works are acceptable not for their own sake, but because of the faith which alone is, works and lives in each and every work without distinction, however numerous and various they are, just as all the members of the body live, work and have their name from the head, and without the head no member can live, work and have a name.

Angels Attending Praying Monk

A person of faith does not need anyone to teach him good works, for they come naturally.
In one of Luther’s most winsome illustrations, he points to a man and woman who love each other. As long as they rest in their love, no one needs to teach them to consider the other and do acts which will benefit the other. It is the nature of love itself to care for the beloved. “They make no difference in works: they do the great, the long, the much, as gladly as the small, the short, the little, and vice versa; and that too with joyful, peaceful, confident hearts, and each is a free companion of the other.”

Even so, there is a wonderful freedom in the Christian’s relationship with God. It is a pleasure to do all good things out of a heart of faith and love toward God, content knowing that the relationship is secure in Christ, and not worrying about whether or not God is pleased.

Faith in Christ remains confident even when God allows suffering, and does not imagine that it has to do good works to regain God’s favor.
Some of our good works spring out of the context of suffering, as a desperate means to win back a God whom we fear has become angry and abandoned us. This is not how faith thinks, argues Luther. Though doubts and fears assail, our confidence remains in Christ and not in any good works we do to make God smile on us again.

The First Commandment teaches us that faith is the source of all good works.
“…this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured.” Even if we were to do all the other commandments, if this were not the source, our religion would be idolatry. Our focus, therefore, should not be on our works, but on trusting and loving God alone, and from there all manner of good works will flow.

Faith sustains us even though our works are weak and imperfect and mixed with sin.
“But you say: How can I trust surely that all my works are pleasing to God, when at times I fall, and talk, eat, drink and sleep too much, or otherwise transgress, as I cannot help doing?” Luther answers this by reminding us what our faith is all about—trust in the forgiving grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ. The Lord delights in those who trust in his mercy, the Bible says, and so the very faith that produces good works is also that which trusts we have an Advocate who is ever before the Father to plead his wounds on our behalf for our consistent failures.

The source of this faith is the mercy of God, who gave his Son for me, and gives his Spirit to me through the Word of the Gospel.
“From this same Word and from no other source must faith still come, even in our day and always.”

I will give Luther the last word:

…faith knows no distinction among works, such exaltation and urging of one work above another cannot exist beside faith. For faith desires to be the only service of God, and will grant this name and honor to no other work, except in so far as faith imparts it, as it does when the work is done in faith and by faith.

Comments

  1. I don’t disagree with this article.

    • Glad we found some common ground, Mark. This is the foundation. Please try to remember this when you read things you fear may contradict this message.

    • Mark,

      Amazing how you can turn a positive into a double negative! 🙂

      • I’m guessing Mark’s day job involves a lot of legal paperwork. My professional liability insurance requires me to state things in the double negative (e.g. “no exceptions taken”) all day long.

        I feel a Kumbaya comin’ on… please don’t anyone spoil this moment… let’s savor it for 24 hours…

    • Am i reading this correctly ?? Is the lion laying down with the lamb, did the post-mill’s predict this and the gospel is going forth with undeniable power, bringing Chap Mike and Mark together ?? Does anyone want to buy a duplex, cheap ????

      GregR

      • Don’t get your hopes up Greg. I still believe Galatians 5:19-23 as being truly inspired.

        • Sigh…

        • Quarrels and factions are among that list that Paul mentions as being works of the flesh, I notice.

          • My above comment was meant for Mark. But I guess we all need reminders now and again that although we as Christians may disagree about some theological points, we need to remember that we are all part of the Body of Christ. And remember…even people who you may think are heretical can still be Christians…they just may not have what we consider to be an orthodox belief in some area. I am aware that if a person has so few orthodox beliefs, at some point it may be questioned as to whether or not they are a Christian at all. But I don’t see that among the regular group posting here.

  2. “Our focus, therefore, should not be on our works, but on trusting and loving God alone, and from there all manner of good works will flow.”

    When I read that it was as if something finally began to settle within me. If I focus on Christ’s death and resurrection for me then all of the other will flow from that. What a comfort!

    I have a question. Is that why the sheep on the last day had no idea that they had done good works? They were so clinging to the cross that they were not focusing and obsessing on what good works they were doing?

    • “Is that why the sheep on the last day had no idea that they had done good works? They were so cllinging to the cross that they were not focusing and obsessing on what good works they were doing?”

      If you hadn’t prefaced that with “I have a question,” I would have thought you were being rhetorical. I’d answer an resounding YES to both questions!

    • Robin, I have explained my interpretation of this parable elsewhere. I think it portrays God judging the nations on the last day for how they have they treated the representatives of Christ who have taken the Gospel out into the world. Insofar as they have welcomed them (which is a way of saying they received their message), Christ will welcome them into his presence, and vice versa. I think you make a good point, however. Those who welcome the message are so filled with joy at the salvation it brings them that they are unaware of their own good works. I like that!

  3. It seems to me that “faith” is always a poorly defined word when we get into discussions like this. I certainly don’t like the common paradigm of salvation based on believing the correct set of intellectual propositions. Jesus doesn’t appear to have taught any such thing.

    “A person of faith does not need anyone to teach him good works, for they come naturally.”

    I guess I have to differ with Herr Luther here. I have seen no evidence that persons of faith (whatever that is) perform more good works than persons without faith.

    • Paul, Luther did not teach that view of faith either. “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it” (from Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans).

      And as for quantifying good works, you’ve missed his point. If a person has this faith, everything he or she does that is sourced in that faith is a good work, even, as Luther said, “picking up a straw.” They are not for us to measure.

      Of course, that’s not to say people of faith don’t fail and fall short…that’s another topic, and well-attested too.

      • I appreciate the reply, Chaplin Mike.

        Maybe I’ve been jaded by too many years of church, but I have trouble imagining “living, bold trust” in concrete terms. It sounds to me like a poetic way of saying “emotional investment in an idea” — again, fine if you have it, but I don’t consider the correct emotions to be a requirement for God’s grace. The problem might be that I’m trying to figure out the English word when it’s the Greek one (pistis) we ought to be discussing; then again, the idea surely must be describable in any language.

        ‘If a person has this faith, everything he or she does that is sourced in that faith is a good work, even, as Luther said, “picking up a straw.”’

        That again, I don’t understand. It sounds like Luther is saying if you have “faith” (emotional investment in the correct doctrine of God’s grace?) then the good things you do count, whereas they don’t count for people who don’t have faith. It seems to me, on the other hand, that Jesus cherished people’s compassionate, self-less works regardless of what they thought about religion or doctrine.

        “Of course, that’s not to say people of faith don’t fail and fall short…”

        Historically speaking, people of faith appear to have a worse record than the faithless.

        • “It seems to me, on the other hand, that Jesus cherished people’s compassionate, self-less works regardless of what they thought about religion or doctrine.”

          I must disagree. Jesus provides much doctrine, but He expects it to impact actions:
          “He who believes in me”, “Remain in me”, “apart from me you can do nothing”, “who do you say I am?”, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

          You then said, “Historically speaking, people of faith appear to have a worse record than the faithless.”
          I am not sure about the “worse record”, but there certainly have been dark times. But one must ask, what faith did they have and how were they letting it flow out?

          A Barna Research study recently came out and one finding was the compartmentalization of faith in much of the Christian community. Many only let their faith impact certain portions of their lives, and that can lead to the problems you speak of.

          • Thanks for the comment Rick. I think some of the quotes you brought up have more specific contexts (especially the “who do you say I am” one), although I don’t have time to get into it now.

            “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

            This is a great quote. Jesus’ commands, which his disciples were to teach the world, were mainly things like loving one another. Jesus didn’t say “Therefore go…teaching them which doctrines to assent to and which to consider heretical so that they don’t lose God’s grace.”

            Many only let their faith impact certain portions of their lives, and that can lead to the problems you speak of.

            Indeed that is so, but formal doctrine (at least, in Luther’s theology) suggests that this cannot be. If we have faith, this is supposed to make us all around better people.

          • Paul-

            Again, good thoughts.

            “Jesus’ commands, which his disciples were to teach the world, were mainly things like loving one another. Jesus didn’t say “Therefore go…teaching them which doctrines to assent to and which to consider heretical so that they don’t lose God’s grace.”

            But Jesus did say to 1st “Love the Lord your God….”, and He also noted to go out in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is doctrine there, and tied to recognizing who God is.

        • “Jesus cherished people’s compassionate, self-less works regardless of what they thought about religion or doctrine.”

          It seems that way to me too, Paul D. Think of the Good Samaritan story. Think of one of the stories of the woman who wiped his feet with her perfume. Jesus talked about the fact that she had loved greatly. It is possible that she violated a lot of the religious precepts along the way, but she loved greatly. We may find that hard to understand, but my living with a husband who does a lot of things that may be considered non-Christian also tells me often how he adores me. You would be amazed at how much is “forgiven” due to those words. And it also makes me realize how much forgiveness I am in need of. It is possible that people around us doing what appear to be some horrible things are also people that love greatly. It can be a great mystery to me at times.

        • I agree with you Paul D. the problem for me is the idea of 1st Faith – than grace – than goodworks – than heaven is too much of a formula for my anarchist mind. A Lutheren explaining faith & works sounds like a Reformed explaining TULIP to me. I think we need to bring out the pie-charts and graphs 😉

        • Paul, I do think there is something in what you say about people without this faith being capable of doing good works. This I would attribute to the image of God in all people, and Luther would simply argue that, although these works may be called “good” in some senses, they are not adequate for gaining a right standing before God. I have said often that the Samaritans shame us when in comes to loving our neighbors and unfortunately that has been true at many times throughout church history.

        • “Historically speaking, people of faith appear to have a worse record than the faithless.”

          Paul, I have no reason to accept the validity of this statement. To be known as true, at least two things would have to occur.

          First, we would Ned to have a set of criteria for what counts as good works and what does not. This criteria would need to be objective and agreed upon by all parties in the dispute, and, at least for the Christian, would also ned to be identical with God’s critetia, since He is the source, standard and judge.

          Secondly, we would also need to weigh all the actions of all the people of faith in the past compared to all the actions of the faithless (and figure out what to do with those who don’t fit neatly into our two categories). This would imply an exhaustive knowledge of past events, which none can claim.

          Our views of the actions of those in the past will always be seen through the tinted glasses of the spirit of our age.

          Despite the fact that it has become commonplace in some circles to make the statement you made, I think it is clearly invalid.

        • That last statement has no supporting data.

      • Not for sure but I think Luther also said, “When God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed upon by the Spirit of God, desire and acts, not from compulsion, but responsively.”

        Great follow-up post Chaplain Mike.

        • Ken, that’s a great quotation from Luther. “sweetly breathed upon by the Spirit of God”…I like that.

  4. One strong agreement and one strong disagreement:
    The good: “Faith in Christ remains confident even when God allows suffering, and does not imagine that it has to do good works to regain God’s favor.” Boy is this true and boy did I need to hear that. Thanks for the reminder. Any denial of this embraces prosperity doctrine. Nothing like a cross to cure that!
    The bad: “A person of faith does not need anyone to teach him good works, for they come naturally.”
    This is ridiculous. Only one thing comes to me “naturally”: sin. Left to myself, I will act selfishly, and do not have within me the resources to alter this. How does that statement not deny any concept of growing in grace? How does it not imply that following Jesus is not something one goes deeper into but merely something one starts doing passively? Did not Jesus explicitly instruct his disciples to “teach them to do everything I have commanded you” in the great commission? If no “teaching” is necessary, what on earth do I need the church for, once I have been brought to faith? Or even scripture, for that matter? I have my “personal relationship with Jesus” and the spirit will impart specific divine revelation directly to my mind? By that standard I certainly don’t belong to Jesus. Count me out, and send me somebody to teach me obedience to Christ.

    • Luther would not deny that we need to continually hear the Word, Miguel.

    • I agree with you but disagree also. Without trying to be too “cliche”, I would say that in the case of a person of the sort of faith that Luther is speaking of, the doing of good works becomes more and more “supernaturally natural”. Yes, teaching is necessary in my opinion as well, and by it the Spirit will not only impart revelation but will effectually work continuing renewal into my heart which leads to the doing of works which are good. Will the teaching of someone about obedience to Christ, simply put as teaching, cause such effect in me? I don’t think so. When I am exposed to teaching about obedience exclusively, my “natural” reaction is resistance and not a heartfelt response of the sort CM or Luther is talking about.

      • Perhaps I did not make this distinction clear enough. I think what Luther is saying is that a person with faith does not need to be taught TO DO good works. Wanting to please the One we love and sharing his love with others is a natural result of faith. He is not saying people of faith don’t need to be taught HOW to do good works for their neighbors. We all need instruction in this regard.

        • good distinction, thanks

        • Bingo. Nailed it. I love that distinction. I think this is a good understanding of Calvin’s third use of the law, even if it wasn’t what he meant by it. I’m just a little sore on the subject because our pastor believes the law of God has nothing to do with the life of the believer whatsoever. He preaches, and I quote, “Don’t ask me how to live the Christian life. I have nothing to say!” In a sermon.

    • Miguel

      Lutheran theology (much of it from Luther, but also from Melanchthon and others) definitely does not follow a “divine revelation directly to my mind” belief system. To Luther and Lutherans, Scriptures are seen as the very voice of God speaking to us, and apart from His Word, God seldom or never speaks to believers. By focusing on Christ on the Cross for our sin, reading and hearing God’s Word preached and taught, and through the other means of grace – the sacraments, we are given by God what we need to be conformed to Christ. God saves us and conforms us – from beginning to end our salvation is dependent on Him. We continually need to hear the Word preached and taught. Likewise our good works, which we are commanded to do and no one will be saved without (although our own good works contribute to no ones salvation), come completely from Christ. We can do nothing pleasing to God apart from Christ, and even our desire to serve our neighbor comes from Him. In a class on the Formula of Concord, I heard a pastor say succinctly “no one is saved without good works, good works save no one.” The thief on the Cross? He testified to Christ.

  5. Bonhoeffer in his book, Ethics, states the a very similar position. Essentially stating that only because of the fall, do we look at our works before God and world as either right or wrong. Previous to the fall this concept was foreign to us.

  6. Can I go zooming off on a tangent, and just comment on your illustration “Angels attending a praying monk”?

    I am assuming that this is an example of the Roman church attaching undue importance to the narrowly defined and limited range of good works, and moreover that clericalism was the superior state? 😉

    Except that this is an image of St. Thomas Aquinas and, though I have no Latin and less Greek, I’m pretty sure this is more or less a conflation of a couple of events in his vita ; the two angels attending him are (if you click on the image so that it embiggens) the ones girding him with the cincture of chastity (as in the anecdote where his brothers, in order to discourage him from becoming a Dominican friar, locked him in a room and brought a courtesan to, um, persuade him away from his resolution, as it were); the angel with the two crowns I don’t off the top of my head know about (but I’m sure someone more informed will tell me); he is worshipping the Eucharistic elements (the Bread and the chalice of the Most Precious Blood) which probably refers to his eucharistic hymns such as “Pange Lingua” (the last verses usually sung at Benediction as “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum”) which were written at the request of Pope Urban IV on the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi; and finally, the crucifix itself relates to the tale that he was praying in the chapel of the Dominican priory in Naples when Christ spoke to him from the cross, saying “Thomas, thou hast written well of me, what wilt thou?” and he replied “Naught but thyself, Lord”.

    So maybe not your run-of-the-mill monk there?

    😉

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I am assuming that this is an example of the Roman church attaching undue importance to the narrowly defined and limited range of good works, and moreover that clericalism was the superior state?

      Not to be confused with the condescending attitude American Evangelicals often have towards those poor unwashed who are not Full-Time Christian Workers (the Superior State — Pastor, Missionary, P&W Singer, Pastor, Missionary, P&W Singer, Pastor, Missionary, P&W Singer…)

      Except that this is an image of St. Thomas Aquinas and, though I have no Latin and less Greek, I’m pretty sure this is more or less a conflation of a couple of events in his vita

      All events crunched and composited into a single picture as if they were happening simultaneously, a common trope of medieval art.

      • Being an idolatrous necromantic Papist, I immediately recognised this image as something out of the ordinary 🙂

        Now, as I said, I have no Latin, but the text beneath seems to start off “Splendor ecclesie Thomas” which to me sounds like “O splendour of the church, Thomas” and the beginning of a prayer invoking said saint, which would fit with the imagery and the surrounding pictures of other Dominican saints (at least, I’m presuming they’re all Dominicans) in the little circles: you can easily recognise St. Peter Martyr by the cleaver through his head.

        Again off on a tangent, from way back in 2005, this post about ‘the all-purpose guide to drawing and identifying Dominican saints’ is very funny:

        http://cnytr.blogspot.com/2005/04/dominican-iconography.html

        Anyway, the point I was trying to make (there was some kind of a point in there somewhere, I’ nearly sure of it) is that this wasn’t just a common-or-garden image of what the ideal monastic would be like (I’d love to think every religious was as devout and learned as St. Thomas but, eh, no?) but rather a specific icon of the Greatest Mind of the 13th Century.

        (I’m partial to the Dominicans, but this year I seem to be being pursued by the Carmelites, and naturally I’m running away as fast as I can in the opposite direction because Carmelite spirituality! hard! have to make a real effort! whereas the Dominican charism boils down to reading lots of books and I have that down pat seven ways from Sunday).

        😉

    • “Embiggens”? Irish?

  7. question 1: could good works come only from the Love of God – without Faith???
    I have just read Anne Rice’s book ‘ Called out of Darkness’ (great book!). in there she writes how see felt God’s Love & loved him before she accepted Jesus in Faith. I find myself agreeing with your post, but also wanting to add all the ways can God work in our lives (too many to count).
    I think ‘faith’ is word that noone can explain – unless they can also explain how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. usually this fight is more about what faith is than what causes Good works. can you Love God & serve him before you have faith?
    question 2: Is this now a Lutheren site? 🙂

    • No, this is not a Lutheran site, but I have expressed my debt to Luther himself on many occasions and will continue to reference him when appropriate.

      BTW, all you have to do to see that we are not representing any of the conservative Lutheran denominations is to read my posts on creationism! or women! or …!

      • We all know this isn’t a Lutheran site…It’s Catholic! ;o)

        Great post, as always, CM.

        • Shhhh! Lee, you can’t let the cat out of the bag just yet – we still have to lure a lot more unsuspecting victims in!

          🙂

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.
            PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED.
            (WE’RE GONNA GETCHA!)
            — The Order of St Borg

  8. David Cornwell says:

    I’ll confess that I’ve never really studied Luther. The tradition that I’m from gave him due respect of course, but unless you specifically signed up for the right classes or seminars in seminary you simply never learned much.

    The attention you give Luther here is refreshing and stimulating. This statement centers it for me gives peace with the sanctity of the ordinary:

    “ALL works, even the most common, if they spring from faith, are good works”.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with you David. I also am a seminary grad but with almost all dutch or scottish calvinistic emphasis. I am also being so refreshed and stimulated by the discussion of Luther’s teaching. Please, CM and other writers, continue as you are doing. I would not want this site to be all about lutheranism but hope you keep giving its teaching continual discussion.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “ALL works, even the most common, if they spring from faith, are good works”.

      Which also reflects the “little way” of St Therese of Lisieux, that of finding God and Holiness in everyday routine.

      And possibly a quote from St Thomas Aquinas on quality in any work or task is pleasing to God and shoddy/slapdash work/task is a sin (help, Martha!)

      • As well as the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva.

        I try not to get too wrapped up in the faith vs. works debate. The way I see it, they work together. I am justified if I have faith in Christ, but to truly have “faith” in Christ don’t I need to try to follow his teachings? Wouldn’t that be a reflection of my true belief in Christ? If I do nothing, if I never attempt to love my neighbor to the best of my ability, what can be said of my faith?

        The teachings of Luther, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Josemaria on this subject as it pertains to vocation and the living of ordinary life are extraordinary. They provide each and every one of us a pathway to finding Christ regardless of our profession, socioeconomic status, etc. I think it’s a beautiful and timely message. That said, I can’t help but feel like the way we interact with others and the way we live Christ’s message towards others is important as well. After all, it’s what Christ told us to do…

        • David Cornwell says:

          …” the way we interact with others and the way we live Christ’s message towards others is important as well. After all, it’s what Christ told us to do”…

          For sure, because without that everything we do is pretty empty. Sometimes it isn’t easy either. I’ve always had to resist an impulse to snap back when provoked.

      • And “The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence, too.

      • God help you, you must be really stuck if you’re asking me for help.

        Sorry, all that comes to mind immediately is something stuck in my head from Milton: “They also serve, who only stand and wait” and also George Herbert: “Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, makes that and th’action fine” from his poem of 1633 “The Elixir”:

        Teach me, my God and King,
        In all things thee to see,
        And what I do in any thing,
        To do it as for thee:

        Not rudely, as a beast,
        To runne into an action;
        But still to make thee prepossest,
        And give it his perfection.

        A man that looks on glasse,
        On it may stay his eye;
        Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
        And then the heav’n espie.

        All may of thee partake:
        Nothing can be so mean,
        Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
        Will not grow bright and clean.

        A servant with this clause
        Makes drudgerie divine:
        Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
        Makes that and th’ action fine.

        This is the famous stone
        That turneth all to gold:
        For that which God doth touch and own
        Cannot for lesse be told.

      • HUG, you may be thinking of Dorothy Sayers: “The only Christian work is good work, well done.”

  9. Luther comes quite close to some of the statements of the Orthodox. For instance, on of our confessions says:

    “But we regard works not as witnesses certifying our calling, but as being fruits in themselves, through which faith becomes efficacious, and as in themselves meriting, through the Divine promises {cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10} that each of the Faithful may receive what is done through his own body, whether it be good or bad.”

    That is, works do not earn our salvation, but they certainly make our faith effective and because of what God has promised in Scripture they help to change us more and more into the image of Christ and unite us with God.

    But, we do disagree on one subject. We do believe that non-Christians can do good works:

    “But this is taught most plainly by Paul also, in Romans 1:19, [actually Rom 2:14] and elsewhere expressly, saying in so many words, ‘The Gentiles which have no law do by nature the things of the law.’ From which it is also apparent that the good which a man may do cannot truly be sin. For it is impossible for that what is good to be evil. Although, being done by nature only and tending to form the natural character of the doer but not the spiritual, it does not itself contribute to salvation without faith. Nor does it lead to condemnation, for it is not possible that good, as such, can be the cause of evil.”

    Here we would say that the claim that all our good works are so contaminated with evil that none of them is acceptable without faith is an over-psychologized definition of good works (even though the word psychology did not exist at the time of Martin Luther). We would differ with Luther on the interpretation of Romans 2. Non-Christians can do works that are good and when they “by nature” do that which is right and praise-worthy, they actually give witness to the truth of God’s decrees, even though, sadly, this does not get them one step closer to being saved.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Here we would say that the claim that all our good works are so contaminated with evil that none of them is acceptable without faith is an over-psychologized definition of good works…

      Don’t know about “psychologized”, but it’s definitely drifting in the direction of Worm Theology, guilt manipulation, and Can-You-Top-This games of My Faith Is Greater and Purer and More Godly Than Yours (TM).

  10. Well written, CM. I appreciated the emphasis on faith sanctifying everything we do and also the noting of what specific types of “works” Luther was arguing against. Caricatures or unfair sound-byte summaries that tend to occur on both sides of the issue aren’t helpful but when one gets down to the actual context of what people said and did (like you presented), usually there seems like so much more room for agreement than disagreement.

  11. You need to know what Lutheran mean by faith for this to make sense. If faith is our choice and decision, then it is just another good work. But for Lutheran, faith is Gods gift given through hearing the gospel. And its never intellectual assent to propositions but relying and trusting in Gods promises for everything. It’s believing Jesus was telling the truth when he said it is finished on the cross, that as baptized believers we are saved, that he hears our prayers and will comfort us. Grace was earned by Christ on the cross, that is he object of saving faith. I don’t trust in my decision to believe to merit grace. I trust in Christ promises.

  12. I think when Luther says there are no good works without faith, he means no work performed without faith pleases God. Of course pagans can help their neighvors and follow the law outwardly, sometimes, but without faith, those works gain him nothing beyond this world and do not please God.

    • I agree. It’s been a while since the last time I read Luther’s treaty on good works, but it seems odd to state that all works done in faith are “good”. This sounds like the holiness movement’s emphasis on good intentions, rather than reformation theology. If this is what Luther meant, then he was in agreement with Anglicans like Jeremy Taylor John Wesley more than I first thought. Stating that works not done in faith are sin is different than stating that all works done in faith are good. I know that any good work I perform will be tainted with my selfishness and imperfection, but that is different than doing evil in faith so that good may result. A perfect example would be violence perpetrated against abortion doctors in the name of human sanctity: all the faith in the world will not make such acts anything less than sin.

      • I am not making myself clear here. It is not that every single thing a person does in faith is by nature good. It is that every kind of act, no matter how ordinary or mundane, is a good work when done in faith. Thus, Paul can urge us even to eat and drink to the glory of God. Does that make more sense?

    • It is the “do not please God” with which the Orthodox have a problem. We would argue that when any person does what is good and right, it pleases God. But, it simply does not earn them salvation. God is always pleased with what is good, honorable, just, etc. The argument that what is good and right does not please God unless it is done by a Christian and in faith, we do not see as a Scriptural or theologically appropriate definition.

      • Is it over-simplifying of me to say that this is the old formulation that the natural virtues (justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude) are not sufficient for salvation but the three theological ones (faith, hope, love) are and that they can only come to us by divine revelation and grace?

  13. A person of faith does not need anyone to teach him good works, for they come naturally.
    In one of Luther’s most winsome illustrations, he points to a man and woman who love each other. As long as they rest in their love, no one needs to teach them to consider the other and do acts which will benefit the other. It is the nature of love itself to care for the beloved. “They make no difference in works: they do the great, the long, the much, as gladly as the small, the short, the little, and vice versa; and that too with joyful, peaceful, confident hearts, and each is a free companion of the other.”

    I wonder if Luther wrote this before or after being married? 🙂 Or maybe after being newly married. Marriage takes work. One of the most important books I have ever read, (though not for 20 years), is “Love is a decision.” If you want your relationship with your spouse, to work well, you need to be prepared to put some effort into it. I don’t want to apply this directly to our relationship with God, because eventually all analogies break down, but it seems to me that coasting only works if you are going downhill.

  14. First of all, let me thank you Chaplain Mike for keeping this site alive. I’ve been lurking for awhile but really want to start engaging the dialogue a little more.

    My question on this topic of “works” is in how we address good works of non-believers and whether or not God “accepts” them. Forgive me if this has already been addressed.

    Instead of using the legal framework metaphor, how does it look relationally? Obviously God must like kindness more than brutality, etc. even when practiced by someone who doesn’t self-identify as a “believer.” Or what about a mean-spirited self-identifying “believer”?

    To me it seems like God would delight in the act of kindness, but that single act of kindness is not sustainable without a heart transformation in the life of the person acting. So would that be an acceptable rendering of the situation? Not that the act of kindness is regarded by God as a filthy menstral rag in itself, but that in our prsent condition, good works can become self-serving and done to keep up a benevolent appearance. God would rather be in relationship and show a sustainable kindness that flows from a renewed heart.

    Kind of like the fig tree with leaves that had no fruit. An act of kindness from a dying heart promises something unsustainable.

    To me this makes more sense (and paints a better picture of God) than imagining Him as a mere judge deeming which acts are and aren’t “acceptable.”

    What do you think? Did that make sense?

    • Derek, I’m not sure the idea of unbelievers and their ability/non-ability to practice good works is a major focus of what I’m reading in Luther right now. He’s more concerned to say that ordinary people who live out of faith in Christ are doing good works by the common acts and in the common relationships of their lives and don’t need to practice extraordinary religious deeds for them to be called “good works.”

  15. Dana Ames says:

    Thank you for your clarification, Chaplain Mike. Well written. I especially like Luther’s definition of faith as deep trust.

    This kind of post and comments always brings to my mind what N.T. Wright has written and mentions from time to time in his talks: The questions of the Reformation (and subsequent generations of Christians) were not necessarily Paul’s questions/the questions of other 1st century Jews. I have always believed that in order to understand scripture, one has to be able to hear it with ears of the people to whom it was first addressed, and understand the meaning *they* would have taken from it, before we try to apply it to where we are today.

    You’ve said that you’ve read Wright. He has demonstrated that the notion of “saving faith”, of “attaining a right standing before God”, “gaining God’s favor”, and related, simply weren’t on their radar, so to speak. SInce they already had a right standing with God by virtue of their being Jewish, the questions were, “What will it take, from our side, for God to bring us out of the exile of domination by pagans and give us back our land and rulership over it (and possibly the rest of the world, too)? How will God do that? When will we know that it has happened? Who will be the person God will anoint to lead us in this victory? Will all this be the beginning of the age to come – when God himself will be king?” “Salvation” was about immediate deliverance, and ultimate healing, including all of creation. That’s why the the earliest (Jewish) Christians and those of the subsequent couple of centuries saw the meaning of the Christ Event as Christus Victor – God has delivered us from death. CV answered all those other questions, on the basis of the Resurrection and the Meaning they derived from it as the Holy Spirit helped them figure it out. The first Christians didn’t simply scrap Judaism and start up again from scratch.

    This is the main reason that this discussion is tiresome for me. So much time has been spent arguing over Reformation questions, but we have not really understood the questions scripture is actually addressing, for many reasons, not all of them from bad intentions. I love Luther’s dedication to God, and he was clearly brilliant. I’m not satisfied with the overall interpretation of scripture that comes from imposing his answers (and Calvin’s too, for that matter) on first century questions.

    Dana

    • Dana, I hear you, but you know, the more I read Luther, the more compatibility I see between the two perspectives. Wright himself seems much more inclined to say it is both/and rather than either/or, if his book on justification is any indication. Particularly as I am coming to appreciate that Luther was not so much railing against “good works” of morality or character but rather good works of religious obligation and status, it is beginning to sound more and more akin to what New Perspective folks call the “boundary markers” that kept Jews “in” and Gentiles “out” in the world of 2nd Temple Judaism. I may be new enough at assimilating this and trying to put it into clear language that it is not coming across right now, but I’m seeing more and more similarities. It’s one of the reasons I’m eager to explore more of Luther at this time.

      • Dana Ames says:

        CM,
        I’m not familiar with any other the NPP writers; all I know is the thing they all have in common is taking seriously the context of 2nd temple Judaism. It’s good that there is some compatibility with Luther. My concern is that theology that emphasizes “how one gets in” pays little attention to the meaning of the Resurrection as the defeat of death and what that entails, and the Incarnation’s only meaning is that Jesus was sinless and therefore could be “the perfect sacrifice”. The Jewish thought out of which Christianity arose had a much more cosmic dimension, in that when God acted it would be something that affected everything. Even the best and “kindest’ Western thought around all these things didn’t paint a big enough picture for me… I don’t know if I’m expressing myself very well. I should let Fr Ernesto speak for Orthodoxy; he’s much better at it than I, who would probably hit the comments with a huge Convertitis Atittude if I attempted much more. (Also see http://www.fatherstephen.wordpress.com for more on the Orthodox interpretation.) If you haven’t already, do read Wright’s Christian Origins series. All the rest of his work is simply elaboration of different aspects of what he sets out in those books.

        Calebite,
        I don’t think Wright is about splitting off relational from transcendent; the way he sees things is very holistic. My comment is about ultimately about the meaning of the whole Christ Event: incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit. The CE points to things that go beyond “balance”. We certainly can’t ignore those Reformation questions; they’re part of our history and we have to deal with them. But I’m saying they’re not a problem if your starting point is Christus Victor, as expressed, for example, in Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”, or Iranaeus’ “Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching.” What is expressed in those works is what the early Christians came to see as the Meaning and Ramifications of the CE, and what is still held in the Eastern Church. And the Eastern Church had no Reformation; it wasn’t needed. Surely there have been problems in the Eastern Church in history, but dogma as the expression of “what it all means” has not been the problem.

        Wright says that in Romans 11 Paul is explaining that God will not reject any Jew who will come into the “remnant” that is the True People of God, which is not defined by the ethnic boundary markers that are the “works (of the Law)”, but has arisen out of the Jewish people through the Messiah. Do read his Christian Origins series.

        I’ll bow out now.

        Dana

        • Dana, I check out Father Stephen’s blog from time to time and I love his writing and his obvious love for God. I also very much appreciate the Christus Victor understanding of what God did through Jesus on the cross for us.

    • Although isn’t Paul’s point in Romans 11 that they didn’t ‘already have a right standing with God by virture of their being Jewish’? So, wouldn’t that point these early believers back to the question of ‘attaining a right standing before God?’ Yes, we need to put ourselves in first century shoes as we look at these scriptures, but does than mean that the meaning ‘they would have taken from it’ is necessarily the full meaning that God intended?

      The question you raise has more to do with God’s role in relationship to creation, rather than faith/works. Wright and others desire to emphasize the relational nature of God over the transcendent nature of God, perhaps because Reformational theology tended to emphasize the transcendent (reigning) nature of God over the relational. But, as the blog post below points out far better than I, we need a balance of both to understand the issues – just like we understand light by saying it’s both a particle and a wave. We can’t ignore questions of saving faith and right standing with God just because the earliest Christians may not have asked those questions.

      http://www.toddjana.com/2009/12/03/no-metaphor-is-an-island/#

  16. “Our good works are not accepted in themselves, but because of the faith which produces them”

    Did the Wise Men perform good works for Jesus? Where did their works come from? Faith? could these works have led the Wise Men to Faith?
    what about the woman at the well? did the good work of giving Jesus a drink lead to Faith?
    Jesus did accept the water – even if she had no faith – yet.

    could good works led to Faith? just being argumentative here 🙂

  17. Good works will naturally follow faith. And no one can point to them and say “that is a Christian good work”.

    Sure unbelievers can do good works. We thank God for that!

    For the Christian, the law demands good works, but faith inspires them.

    Our focus ought not be on what we should, ought, or must be doing…but rather on what Christ has done, is doing, and will yet do.

    A reminder to the believer that he or she is now free, free from the law and free FOR the neighbor, i a good thing. But specific instructions are just a manifestation of the law and to return to that way of life is…well…read the Galatian letter.

    Thanks.

    • Steve, I hear you, and I am struggling to know how to specifically nail this down from a Lutheran perspective. What then do we do with all the instructions and exhortations in the NT to believers? I don’t see these as law, but as encouragements to what the Augsburg Confession calls “the new obedience.” How does that differ from law and what does that look like in Lutheran teaching and preaching?

  18. Try as I might to see it Luther’s way, it is difficult for me to do so. It seems to me that throughout the gospels Jesus puts far more weight on right actions and right “doing” than on right thinking which Luther appears to emphasize as most important. Right thinking alone is the domain of the Pharisee. Jesus seems far more generous with his estimation of the actions of those who “do” for others and thereby “do” for Him than is his appreciation of those who assume that having faith alone is all that is required. And “doing” for him does not require a previous ascent to belief.

    Luther appears to diminish the joyous truths of the “both/and” paradox of faith & works in favor of faith over works, or faith ante-works. By doing so he seems to argue that those who will populate the kingdom only need to think right and perhaps only consider actions that will evidence that faith.
    But Jesus seems to honor actions as the evidence of faith instead. All, regardless of intellectual capability, can choose to evidence faith by actions. Those of us who may take false pride in being able to intellectually understand and process the theology of faith have much more cause to be concerned that our standard of accountability for our lives on earth is quite high. Each day I am accountable for the humbling challenge that is set before me: that I am called to evidence my faith with concrete works that reflect a gracious gift of faith.

    Tom
    .

    • Well said, Tom!

    • Tom, I don’t think you could be further from the truth about Luther. Remember what he is trying to do in this treatise. He is defending the gospel of justification by faith to societal leaders who are afraid this doctrine will lead to moral and community chaos, because people will not be kept in line any longer by the Church. Luther’s point is that justification by faith produces people of good works; genuine good works that change the way a person lives every day, and not the mere religious good works by which the Church has sought to control them.

    • Luther focuses on the promiscuous gospel proclamation being delivered to sinners (in word and tied to the sacraments) and trusts Gods promise that He will deliver the fruits in the believer as he has promised.

      Lutherans have a healthy concern about focusing on the fruits if it is not saturated with weekly receiving the gospel (i.e. Christ crucified for sinners, even for believers) message (not law light) in the preached word, tied to communion, and corporate confession/absolution. Believers need this message as much as non-believers. Every week.

    • I would challenge you to read the Book of Concord and its many sections on works. You will not find a more concise clear description of works/fruits anywhere. His position is clear. Read it first hand.