Treatise on Good Works (May 1520)
By: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
“Good works certainly follow from true faith, when it is not a dead, but a living faith, as certainly and without doubt as fruit from a good tree” (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, IV.1). There may be nothing more difficult for pastors to believe than this. We stand in the pulpit week after week, preach the gospel, then often have no clue what our parishioners are doing in the intervening six days. Are they living faithfully as Christians? Do they take to heart the things we’ve said? Do they believe this gospel, or is it just another interesting idea, some ancient myth, some old-fashioned view handed down by their parents? The temptation for us comes in trying to evaluate whether or not this Word has taken root in their hearts and minds. We begin to look for tangible evidence. Maybe it’s their church attendance or their participation in bible study or their offerings. Maybe it’s the apparent success of their marriages or the piety of their children. But we want to see something that shows us our labor is not in vain, our preaching of the gospel is believed, and the Word has made some difference in the lives of those we serve. We want to see those good works that are supposed to follow from a “living faith.”
For Luther, as for the Lutheran tradition that comes after him, there is always a tension between the doctrine of justification by faith and the good works of the faithful. Justification is by faith in Christ alone—more precisely, by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake (Augsburg Confession IV). Yet, as the confessions also say, “good works are necessary” (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, IV.4)—not necessary for salvation, but still necessary because God commands them. Yet what is the relationship between this faith that justifies us and the good works that we must—yes, must—do? The image of fruit growing from a good tree, as Christ described it in John 15, reflects that relationship well: good works flow from faith in Christ. They are not the reason for justification, but they are the natural consequence of them. What this doesn’t mean, however, is that we can easily and readily discern what counts as good fruits. This, of course, was the problem in Luther’s day. Any number of good works were appointed for the faithful—fasting, distinction of meats, pilgrimages, almsgiving, praying to saints, indulgences. That’s not to say these were all bad, or that there wasn’t some benefit in each of them. But they ran the risk of being the sort of arbitrary, “self-chosen works” the Formula of Concord would later condemn (Epitome, VI.3). Instead, for Luther and Lutherans, the moral law enshrined in the Decalogue became the clearest, most concise, and least arbitrary way to urge good works upon the believer, and for Christians to shape and mold their lives in accordance with God’s will. That moral law was to serve as the standard for Christian life and conduct, though Luther would take it one step farther: obedience to the Ten Commandments in fact begins with the exercise of faith.
Luther first set out to address this thorny relationship between faith and good works in his May 1520 “Treatise on Good Works.” In a way that anticipates his November 1520 “Freedom of a Christian,” Luther wanted to preempt the objection that the believer’s confidence in forgiveness, baptism, absolution, etc., would decrease the motivation for good works. In “Freedom of a Christian,” he laid out his dual principle regarding this tension: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” But he takes a very different tack in his May treatise on good works. Rather than juxtaposing faith and works, he instead conflates them together: faith is a work, indeed the “first, highest, and most precious of all good works” (AE 44:23), and it is a work that arises from the First Commandment. Much as he would later argue in the Large Catechism, idolatry for Luther is to fear, love, or trust anything more than the one, true God. Faith in Christ and his promises, then, becomes the principal good work of the Christian. Luther does not mean that Christians believe on their own apart from the Holy Spirit—that would not become a source of controversy until several years later. What Luther means is that all good works arise from faith. Indeed, he will say that even many of those “self-chosen” abuses in his day—“the founding and decorating of churches, altars, and monastic houses, the gathering of bells, jewels, garments, trinkets and treasures, running to Rome and to the saints”—can still be truly good works, “not because of their virtue,” but only if they arise from faith (AE 44:32)! It is in this sense that faith is obedience to the First Commandment, and thus the first of all good works and the source of all other good works.
Luther then goes on to address each of the remaining Ten Commandments and relates them back to faith. In each of the commandments, he sees concrete examples of how faith plays itself out in the life of the Christian. For Luther, it isn’t sufficient to affirm justification by faith, but for that justifying faith to have no corresponding impact upon the works of a believer. On the contrary, Luther expects good fruits to follow faith, and for those who have been justified by faith, good works arise from their faith as a response to what the law commands. Surprisingly, one sees no rigid distinction between law and gospel, let alone contrast or opposition. The Ten Commandments represent God’s moral law and are the basis for the good works that justified Christians do. Moreover, Luther doesn’t dismiss the lack of works on the part of the faithful with some reference to Christians as both justified and sinners--simul iustus et peccator—but confidently assumes that those who are justified by faith will rightly obey God’s commands and do good works. Yet this obedience, this active righteousness, arises not from the threats of the law, the self-chosen works of the people, or even the dictates of the church: it arises from faith in the gospel, a faith which naturally gives birth to the good works of Christians in conformity with God’s will.
At least, that’s what Luther assumed. But what about us? Are we that confident? After all, Luther didn’t live in a culture like ours. In his day, God’s moral law governed all society in some measure. No one doubted what God commanded. There was pressure at all levels of society—civil, ecclesiastical, and domestic—to live according to that law. They may have misunderstood how works related to salvation, but no one openly denied the need for good works or questioned their basis (though that would bubble to the surface as the Reformation continued to spread). We don’t inhabit such a world. In fact, much of what we preach is openly and maliciously opposed by the culture around us. It may be one thing to question how faith relates to good works, but it is another thing altogether to deny any natural or universal basis for morality, as we hear so often. Given a context like this, how can we (as Luther seems to suggest) confidently preach the gospel of justification by faith and assume that Christians will naturally bear fruit in accordance with their faith in Christ? Was Luther simply being naïve? Can we afford to be that naïve, when so much of what Scripture teaches about morality is unknown, disregarded, or downright opposed? Can we pretend that the moral dissolution of our culture won’t have some influence upon Christians who live in it? Or must we accept that the only thing we can do is preach the Word, then trust that that same Spirit who creates faith in the hearts of sinners (when and where he so wills, as Augsburg Confession V says), will likewise bring forth fruit in accordance with the faith he has created? Do we need proof of that fruit? Or can we be content to preach that Word through which the Spirit works faith and produces fruit, then trust that he will? The only power we have to change people is the preaching of God’s Word. Indeed, the only power we’ve ever had to change people is the preaching of God’s Word.
Leave a Reply.