Another Look: Luther on Good Works

Monhegan House

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

• Galatians 5:2, NRSV

For Christ at the last day will not ask how much you have prayed, fasted, pilgrimaged, done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even the very least.

. . . Therefore take heed: our own self-assumed good works lead us to and into ourselves, that we seek only our own benefit and salvation; but God’s commandments drive us to our neighbor, that we may thereby benefit others to their salvation.

• Martin Luther
A Treatise on Good Works

• • •

In May of 2014, we spent a week talking about good works here on Internet Monk. I was reminded of this as I began preparing for our Wednesday Bible study on James the other day. So today, I thought I’d revisit the first post from that series with you. I think this is a very important article, because there is so much misunderstanding out there, especially in popular evangelical teaching, about “good works.”

Martin Luther gets a lot of credit (or flak) for promoting a particular view of faith and good works, but I’m persuaded that the doctrine as commonly presented is mostly a caricature of what he actually taught. As is usually the case, the students go beyond the teacher, and I think Luther-ans and other Protestants have out-Luthered Luther on this one. The scholastic teachers and preachers who followed the reformer set certain formulae into theological concrete, which people have repeated as though God’s finger itself engraved it there, when in fact the original teaching was much more vibrant, fulsome, and true to life.

So, I want to encourage you, if possible, to read through or at least consult Martin Luther’s A Treatise on Good Works (1520). The link will take you to a Kindle edition which is free on Amazon. You can also download it at CCEL or read it at Project Gutenberg.

Luther’s perspective is formative for most subsequent Protestant teaching on this subject, and it would be good to review what lies at the source of the tradition as we talk. You might also consult an earlier post here on IM, “On Good Works,” which summarizes a few of Luther’s main themes in the treatise.

For now, let us look at a few important matters related to Martin Luther’s perspectives on good works.

We should remember, first of all, the contextual nature of Luther’s teaching on faith and good works. For him, this was not only a religious question based on the doctrines and practices of the medieval Roman Catholic church, but also a public question in a society which mingled church and state. Luther was not only accused of being a heretic because of his emphasis on justification by faith, but also a fomenter of societal upheaval. “Good works” was a subject kings and princes cared about for the proper functioning of society, and because the Church played such a key part in ruling society, leaders counted on her to promote morality and order. Luther was being pressed to show that his reforms of Church teaching would provide salutary effects in the real world and not cause havoc.

You will recognize much of what you read in Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, particularly:

  • God defines what good works are in his commandments.
  • Faith is the greatest good work, and is not just one good work among the rest, but rather the source of all other genuine good works.

In the Treatise the reformer also emphasized certain aspects of good works that form the foundation of such distinct Lutheran emphases as the doctrine of vocation.

The church had defined good works narrowly, limiting them to “religious” acts and exercises separated from the stuff of everyday work and relationships. Luther sought to restore a much more down-to-earth understanding of the deeds God requires and to encourage Christians to practice works of love and mercy in the course of ordinary life.

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.

It is also important to remember that even though he often spoke disparagingly of them, Luther was not opposed to or distrustful of good works. He did not hesitate to talk in terms of their necessity and stated that his goal was to lead people to “to the true, genuine, thoroughly good, believing works.” In fact, Luther says in his Treatise that teaching faith must inevitably lead to teaching and practicing good works. However, Luther was concerned for the health of Christendom in his day, and in a vivid illustration he remarked on what he felt his priorities must be:

Therefore, when some say that good works are forbidden when we preach faith alone, it is as if I said to a sick man: “If you had health, you would have the use of all your limbs; but without health, the works of all your limbs are nothing”; and he wanted to infer that I had forbidden the works of all his limbs; whereas, on the contrary, I meant that he must first have health, which will work all the works of all the members. So faith also must be in all works the master-workman and captain, or they are nothing at all.

What Luther opposed was a number of false understandings about good works, but always with the intention of helping Christians to follow Christ’s example of self-giving love.

Indeed, in a chapter in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, Simo Peura argues that Luther was not interested in faith merely as an answer to the question, “How can I find the merciful God?” Instead Pero says, “He was trying to work out a solid answer to the great commandment of Scripture: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27).”

The “whole intent” of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was more than the verdict of being declared righteousness. He was concerned about how people could be brought into union with God so that they might receive God’s love and so be enabled to fulfill the Law of Love. As sinners, we are turned in upon ourselves — incurvatus in se. It takes becoming united with God — the self-giving One — to turn us from ourselves toward God and our neighbors.

Luther’s entire theological work can be viewed as an attempt to solve the problem of self-serving love. Both his view of salvation and his social-ethical writings concern the same problem. . . .

. . . Luther offers several examples of his intention to deal with the problem of pure love. His effort to build a system of social welfare with the city council of Wittenberg, his emphasis on the Golden Rule as the basis for all interhuman relations, his doctrine of two kingdoms, his critique of usury and the legal system, and his instructions for being a righteous and fair sovereign are all attempts to point out the necessity of loving God from one’s whole heart and the neighbor as oneself. He was convinced that the problem of true love can only be solved through faith in God. For individuals cannot find the love that is commanded of them in themselves; it has to be given to them by God. (Union with Christ, p. 78)

Peuro discusses how the Large Catechism teaches us to understand God’s essential nature as that of pure, self-giving love. Through faith, we receive God’s gifts, but these gifts do not come to us in a way that is separate from God himself. Above all God gives himself to us. Since God is love, in union with him we too are enabled to love.

Faith is important because it alone enables us to receive God’s unselfish love. When God first reveals his pure love and gives himself with all of the gifts of salvation to us, we become partakers of God and of his nature as pure love. Only under the condition of God’s presence and participation do we begin to bring God’s love into existence in our lives. It is actually God himself who extends through our lives his love toward all of those who need his love and want to be saved. We, like all other creatures, are the hands and all of the means of God’s unselfish love.” (Union, p. 95)

Faith is a great gift of God, because it is the essential key which enables us to participate in God’s greatest gift, the gift of love, which fulfills his commandments and brings his life to the world.

4 thoughts on “Another Look: Luther on Good Works

  1. I don’t see that the thoughts expressed in Union with Christ have made any ripples in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is where I would expect those ripples to appear, if anywhere here. Maybe in Europe, I don’t know. In any case, it is important to understand Luther’s background and culture and the specific problems he was dealing with. For the most part we aren’t dealing with those same problems, and posts like today may possibly help us move on as we come up on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Roman Church adjusted its understanding of justification nearly that long ago in response to Luther, maybe the Protestant Church could as well, these many years later.

    Issues like paid indulgences and salvation by ritual and repressive authoritarian teaching and violent enforcement of spiritual matters are not part of my life, thanks in great part to Luther and the movement he kicked out the jams on. Hats off! I can relate to God as best I understand, I can go to church wherever I please, or not go at all. Hats off again! Much as some try to impose their understanding and control over us all, we enjoy great freedom from tyranny now in the church. Thanks, Martin, hats off and waving!


  2. This is a subject which needs frequent revisiting. It is easy to be turned aside to other things.


  3. I cannot ascend on the ladder of my works, or any of my actions, including devotional and ascetic ones, to God: can’t get there from here. Fortunate for me that I don’t need to, because God has always been present here in the world where I live, and he has made himself specially present to me and to all humanity in this world through his incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ: Jesus (life, death, resurrection) is the ultimate sign and embodiment of God’s presence in and to my world, this world, the living, suffering and dying world, and of his love for it and us.

    When I reach out to my neighbor, and to my enemy, in love and concern, I’m offering the fittest response, and worship, to God that is possible, because it reflects his own self-giving love for me and for the world, as expressed in Jesus Christ; it also honors the image of Jesus Christ that is present in the world, and that is specially concentrated in every human being. There is no unchanging rule book or guideline regulating this reaching out to neighbor and enemy, to world; each age, each person, has their own particular need and situation. I’m likely to get it wrong, even with the best intentions, which I don’t always have.

    Fortunately for me, my mistaken and bad works cannot remove me from God’s presence and love, they can’t take me down a ladder away from him, because he is fully present in this world with me, and he has no intention of leaving; in fact, this is his home where he will live forever. I can relax, and learn to do my best out of love, not out of fear of missing something.


  4. ” the students go beyond the teacher, and I think Luther-ans and other Protestants have out-Luthered Luther on this one. The scholastic teachers and preachers who followed the reformer set certain formulae into theological concrete, which people have repeated as though God’s finger itself engraved it there, when in fact the original teaching was much more vibrant, fulsome, and true to life.”

    I have often said that the Lutheran church should be more accurately described as the Melancthonian church. 😉


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