Another Look: Luther on Good Works

Note from CM: I was going to save this post for October, when we will focus almost exclusively on the Reformation, this being its 500th anniversary. But right now, as I posted last week, I am reading Inhabiting the Cruciform God, by Michael J. Gorman, a book that reorients the whole idea of justification around our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (union with Christ). There is a school of Lutheran theology, mentioned in the post below, to which I am very attracted, that makes the same connections as Gorman does. So, while I am trying to digest and figure out how to write about what Michael Gorman says, the following will give you a taste of where we’ll be going.

• • •

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. 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.

20 thoughts on “Another Look: Luther on Good Works

  1. well, for me it’s fairly simple,
    if someone is crying, comfort them;
    if someone is hungry, feed them,
    if someone needs your help, don’t turn away . . . . you may be the last person they ask

    I think people are placed ‘in our way’ not to annoy us or inconvenience us or ‘force us to be nice to them’ but simply to help us . . . .
    we think we are ‘helping them’, but how often it is that it works another way: in ‘giving’, we are the ones who ‘receive’, and it may not be until late in life that we become aware of just how true this is


  2. Mule, All my life I’ve struggled against strong passions, and the fear that has followed in their wake. They wreak havoc with one’s life, and the lives of those one cares about. I will remember you in my prayer.


  3. Two children live on the east coast now – one in NC and the other in northern GA. Hurricanes are on our radar (pun intended).

    Gratitude is ***always*** a good thing. May the Lord bless and multiply your giving (financial or other).



  4. My family and friends back in Georgia were spared injury or insult by a truly scary storm. (I was more scared up here in DC than I would have been if I was back there.) I am so filled with gratitude that I feel an obligation to go help somebody else in need. I’m afraid that’s the extent of my theologizing here.


  5. I think I agree with you mostly, Stuart, but also you, Mule, in your post here. For the moment, let’s ignore the “righteous” element of good behavior and the “sin” concept of bad behavior.

    –> “Doing the right thing at any particular juncture makes it easier to do the right thing in the future. So does doing the wrong thing. It makes it easier to do the wrong thing in the future.”

    Yes. Replacing a bad, unhealthy pattern with a good, healthy pattern is what it’s all about. And the more you can make that shift, the better it’ll be for you in the future.

    I don’t see that as “Law”. I see that as good for your well-being.


  6. My experience: the best counselors are the ones who help you recognize the triggers of your undesired behavior pattern and also give you the tools to help you deal with those triggers. I don’t think all the licensed professionals are good at that.


  7. We’ll have to part ways here, I guess.

    A priest told me that good works don’t make you righteous like paying your bills and saving makes you solvent, but more like exercise makes you strong. Doing the right thing at any particular juncture makes it easier to do the right thing in the future. So does doing the wrong thing. It makes it easier to do the wrong thing in the future.

    For me, “Living like Jesus. Loving others. Loving God” too quickly devolves into doing what I please and looking out for those closest to me. That’s where I appreciate the ascetic teaching of the Orthodox Church. For me, the twice-daily prayer rules, the twice-weekly fasts, and the weekly collection for the poor, along with the cycle of fasts and feasts are like training wheels. It makes me attend to what I’m doing.

    Add to that the total prohibition against evaluating myself and my ‘progress’ and it works pretty well. It pinches where it needs to pinch, and it’s loose where it needs to be loose. If that’s law, then I guess I’m a legalist.


  8. You don’t. And you don’t even try.

    Live like Jesus. Love others. Love God.

    That is THE ONLY POINT of the law.

    Not your bad behavior. Except where it limits your good behavior.

    Faith without works is dead. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is dead. And works is not sin management, nor has ever been.


  9. Would suggest that the person is actually a LPC, licensed professional counselor. Not that all of them are good, but they may have a better appreciation of their limitations and not promise you the moon.


  10. “How do I restrain my passions?”

    Sin management rarely works long-term, but I think one key to minimizing a sin pattern is to know what your triggers are for the behavior, then trying to do something healthy when that trigger point is hit.


  11. Amen.

    The message of one of the two speakers at a Christian conference I attended this summer was, “God is not a moral manager.” The message of the other speaker was, “Sin management always fails.” The synergy between the two messages was great.

    It’s all about Jesus.


  12. I can’t accept that the start and end, the be all, of the Christian faith is “sin” and it’s management. That neglects Jesus.


  13. Recently, the lines have fallen out to me in a pleasant place, and the wolf has been beaten back from the door a bit. But I had a disturbing dream….

    In my dream, my wife and I had collected a relief package for the victims of the hurricane in Texas, and we were driving it there in a van. We were waylaid by a group of bandits at a gas station who held us at gunpoint and distributed the goods among themselves. They began stuffing the food into their mouths and pouring the water into their open mouths so greedily that it poured down their fronts and soaked their clothes.. They also uncovered a cache of currency, bullion, and small gems which we had set aside for groups working in the affected zone (in my dream the storm was far worse that it actually was). “Wait!”, I cried. “That’s for the storm victims!” The brigands howled with laughter and fell to quarreling among themselves how to divide the spoils. In the ensuing squabble, my wife was shot in the shoulder. That woke me up.

    “The bandits are your passions, Mule”, I heard an interior voice admonish me. “Your lusts. Unrestrained, they will leave you as broke and as wounded as they did in the dream. The only reason you have anything now is that you are in the position where you don’t know which of your lusts to indulge first.”

    “Help me, Lord.”, I called. “How do I restrain my passions? I may as well stand outside with a net and try to catch the storm.”

    “What does the Church teach you, Mule?”

    “Pray, fast, give alms”

    “Do that, and trust Me. Your wife will help you.”

    Now, I am putting into words a conversation that was essentially wordless, but what place does the ancient Christian practice of ascesis , that is, voluntary and self-chosen restraint of the appetites, play in the Lutheran understanding of good works. This is an emphasis we share with our Roman brethren, but Luther seemed to be of two minds about it. I know I would be quite lost without it.


  14. If we remain in Him and He in us, we will bring forth much fruit; apart from Him, we can do nothing. John 15:5


  15. I grew up a Lutheran. Catechetical class every Sunday afternoon for two years. But today I’m way more Arminian.

    The Protestant tradition must( and perhaps start) look into Luther. I believe him to be realist, existential, and paradoxical. Realistically today people and church are almost ashamed of the very word sin. But we all have a ticking time bomb that inevitably leads to willful acts contrary to God’s will and our own nature in the image of God. Carlyle told his mother his only sermon would be “All you people know what you ought to do; well, go and do it”. His mother replied: “Aye,Tammas; and will you tell them how?” All that matters of the issue between Pelagius and Augustine, or between Erasmus and Luther is there summed up. We need redeeming grace to be lifted up to new level of moral freedom. Nothing else will do. When looking up fideism in wikipedia , you get Luther, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. Do you know that Pascal’s Memorial was called a document of some lines of incoherent and strongly mystical devotion by the Encyclopedia Britannica? Really? These fideists are too close to the Semitic genius of the Bible to endure the strait waistcoat of a strictly systematic theology. And Luther’s successors reached it, alas. Often his most distinctive insights are expressed in the daring synthesis of logical opposites. Law and gospel, justification by faith alone, the believing sinner’s assurance, Gabe and Aufgabe, the calling and the church. You can’t grow up Lutheran and really ever leave it. Today you may call me a synergist, but even I doubt that while at the same time strongly influenced by prevenient grace and inclusivism. Sort of a hybrid. There is strength in that. Still love Luther.


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