Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Look at Justification By Faith Alone and Good Works in Luther’s Theology

An excerpt from: *Did Luther Say: Be A Sinner And Sin Boldly?*

More than a few Catholic authors have accused Luther of teaching a wanton lawlessness of sinning boldly. It is a common charge against him. Some argue, if justification is by faith alone, aren’t Christians free to sin as much they want? People need not concern themselves with how they live their lives; God has forgiven all their sins. It is probably the case that Luther simply invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone in order to justify his immoral life.

Does justification by faith alone provide a license for sin? Luther was acutely aware of this allegation. In a sermon, he summarized the charge leveled against him: “Where the Gospel begins to loose the conscience of its own works, it seems to forbid good works and the keeping of the law. It is the common speech of all the teachers of the law, and of the scribes and doctors, to say: If all our works amount to nothing and if the works done under the law are evil, we will never do good. You forbid good works and throw away God's law; you heretic, you…wish to make bad people free.”

Luther understood that even our best efforts were tainted with sin. If God demands perfection in order for one to be justified before Him, no one would ever be justified. For Luther, justification was actually totally of works, but those works were perfect and performed by the perfect savior, Jesus Christ. These works are acquired by faith, imputed to the sinner. Luther says, “[I]f you desire to believe rightly and to possess Christ truly, then you must reject all works that you intend to place before and in the way of God. They are only stumbling blocks, leading you away from Christ and from God. Before God no works are acceptable but Christ's own works. Let these plead for you before God, and do no other work before him than to believe that Christ is doing his works for you and is placing them before God in your behalf.”

For Luther grace, faith, and the work of Christ are essential ingredients that justify, and that justification is a gift as well as the very faith involved. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.” But isn’t the Roman Catholic charge against Luther valid? If God judges a man by Christ’s perfect works, why should any Christian ever care about leading a righteous life? If grace, faith, and justification are God’s gifts, what is left for us to do? Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Paul answers for Luther in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them.” Faith performs good works, not to keep one justified, but out of heartfelt gratitude to God graciousness. Salvation is unto good works. Note what this means: good works are not unto eventual salvation. We are saved in order to perform good works, not by performing them.

"Faith,” wrote Luther, “is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” Luther scholar Paul Althaus notes: “[Luther] also agrees with James that if no works follow it is certain that true faith in Christ does not live in the heart but a dead, imagined, and self-fabricated faith." The book of James describes a real true faith in Christ: a real saving faith is a living faith. If no works are found in a person, that faith is a dead faith (c.f. James 2:17). James then describes a dead faith: the faith of a demon. A demon has faith that God exists, that Christ rose from the dead- I would dare say a demon knows theology better than you or I. But is the faith of this demon a saving faith? Absolutely not. Luther says, “Accordingly, if good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but dead faith…”

But what are good works then? Luther abhorred the pseudo-works perpetuated by “devout” Roman Catholics. Pilgrimages, idolatry, monkery, self-denials, etc., which were considered “good works” one does for oneself on the road to eventual salvation. These works take one down a completely opposite road. Luther said of these alleged works:

How they mislead people with their good works! They call good works what God has not commanded, as pilgrimages, fasting, building and decorating their churches in honor of the saints, saying mass, paying for vigils, praying with rosaries, much prattling and bawling in churches, turning nun, monk, priest, using special food, raiment or dwelling,-who can enumerate all the horrible abominations and deceptions? This is the pope's government and holiness.”

Luther defines good works as those “works that flow from faith and from the joy of heart that has come to us because we have forgiveness of sins through Christ.” Only what God commands is a good work: “Everybody should consider precious and glorious whatever God commands, even though it were no more than picking a wisp of straw from the ground.” Works aren’t done because we want salvation and fear damnation. Luther says, “…[W]e are not to do them merely because we fear death or hell, or because we love heaven, but because our spirit goes out freely in love of, and delight in, righteousness.” Luther plainly teaches that saving faith is a living faith.

Luther taught a life under the cross, which is a life of discipleship of following after Christ. Our crosses though, do not save. They serve the neighbor. We are called to be neighbor to those around us. Luther says,

We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example of love toward our neighbor, whom we are to serve as Christ serves us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you with all his possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love, and out of these grows hope and patience.”


FM483 said...


It should be noted that in his Heidelberg Disputation Luther concluded that all good works of men, even believers, are mortal sins if not performed out of a proper fear of God(Thesis 7).As Gerhard Forde commented:

“The point here is that when we have no fear of the Lord and we instead presume tocome before the Lord bustling with self-confidence in our own accomplishments, enjoying ourselves in our works, as Luther puts it, our works are deadly sins even if we think they are done with the help of grace. For then our works stand between us and God: they usurp the honor belonging only to God. Thisis a transgression of the first commandment. The self sets itself as an idol. Piety is no protection..”

Frank Marron

Anonymous said...

Note what this means: good works are not unto eventual salvation. We are saved in order to perform good works, not by performing them.

Amen! We are most surely not saved by our works, but, as Christ has conquered sin and death, I can too conquer sin and death. Our justification is the foundation of our good works. I was not brought into a saving relationship with God through my good works; Christ did this through his blood and I received it through repentance and faith. By the way, this correlation between the Lutheran and Catholic views is what all those nefarious Lutherans in Europe have been promoting. Of course, there are still differences (irreconcilable even), but let's not get carried away with how radically wrong the Catholics have it (just as Catholics shouldn't make unfounded statements that Protestants can just keep on sinning because it has nothing to do with their salvation).

FM483 said...

Kevin, your statement “We are most surely not saved by our works, but, as Christ has conquered sin and death, I can too conquer sin and death” highlights a major Reformation point. The Scriptures say that by grace through faith you have been clothed with the Righteousness of Christ and in Baptism been transferred from the domain of Darkness to the kingdom of Christ – you have already conquered sin and death through Jesus. Although you will fight spiritual battles between your flesh In Adam and New Creation In Christ the remainder of this temporal life, from God’s perspective you already are perfect. This is the wonderful assurance of the Gospel which has been obscured frpm many believers through false teachings and deceptions based upon human reason instead of the Word of God.

Frank Marron

Anonymous said...


Once again, we simply disagree, but I do appreciate your comments as they remind me of my opposition's position. This may sound harsh, but it is also a reminder of the validity of the mutual anathemas, i.e., you are a heretic (as am I in your judgment).

FM483 said...


If I was corresponding with a Mormon, I would expect him to disagree with my Christocentric mindset. I would expect a Mormon to appeal to his church’s doctrines and viewpoints rather than rely on Holy Scripture. I would expect a Mormon to appeal to “The Book of Mormon”, “Doctrine and Covenants”, and “The Pearl of Great Price” rather than the Holy Scriptures. I would expect a Mormon to be totally confused over the fact that Jesus Christ said the entire bible is not about “rules for right living” but rather about Himself. I would expect a Mormon not to be aware of his sinfulness from God’s perspective and instead to have a superficial understanding of sin, death, and redemption. I would expect that in order to communicate effectively I would have to define theological terms and be patient in communicating biblical truths. However, it is disappointing when Christians seem to behave similarly, appealing to extrabiblical sources as the foundation for their belief system(e.g. Oxford Commentary), appearing unwilling or unable to use the Word of God itself as the basis for truth, being content to agree to disagree with name calling anathemas.

Frank Marron

Bible Discernment said...

The Bible is under attack from all sides. Satan knows it tells the truth about him, the victory that Jesus had at the cross, and what will happen in the future. As such, Satan has and still is making every attempt to destroy the Word of God. What better way to do this, than to change the meaning of the Bible over time with different bible versions; each version as it comes along claiming it is the truth and the most accurate of all the versions up until that point.
The line must be drawn where we say, "If the King James Bible was good enough for 400 years, then it is still good enough for me." For by it men and women have been saved and the knowledge of God imparted unto them. When new bible versions come along, they always take something away that is never replaced, only to be lost forever. If you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then stand up for it. Take a stand and speak out against these new bible versions. An objection often raised against the "King James Only Crowd" is that people learn something from the other (modern) versions, too, and that some even get saved: but I dare say that this occurs in spite of these errant versions, not because of them!
The Authorized Version of 1611, or, in other words, the King James Bible, stands alone in its uniqueness, integrity, and fidelity to the truthfulness of God’s Word. Among reasons why this writer holds this conviction is because of the great harm done not only to the Word of God, but the detriment wrought in the local church in its public worship, and, of course, because of the confusion created in countless group and individual Bible studies. After all, it could be said: How do you think your professor would think or feel if all of his students used different textbooks in his class?! In our case, God is our Great Professor! He alone is the one true God, who has walked among us upon this earth and left us the living and enduring legacy of His Word and His Spirit. Until He comes, Amen.