“It is more important to guard against good works than against sin” [Trischreden, Wittenberg Edition, Vol. VI., p. 160].
Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ valued works as part of salvation, while Luther said "It is more important to guard against good works than against sin."
Luther Exposing the Myth cites "Trischreden, Wittenberg Edition, Vol. VI., p. 160." There is no such thing as "Trischreden," it's Tischreden. The Tischreden is Luther's Table Talk, a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends, published after his death. The Wittenberg Edition is an early collection of Luther's works. It contains 12 German and 8 Latin volumes. The material was topical, at the request of Luther. This volume contains some of the writings of Luther's opponents as well. LW 54 points out though, "Early editions of the works of Martin Luther did not include the Table Talk. It was with some misgivings that Johann Georg Walch finally decided to incorporate the Table Talk in his edition, which was published in twenty-four volumes in Halle between 1739 and 1753." Therefore, the documentation is questionable. The Wittenberg Edition did not include the Table Talk. We'll see below that there's been a murkiness about this documentation going back quite a long way.
What are the possibilities that the author of Luther Exposing the Myth actually had access to the Wittenberg Edition to extract this quote? Slim, if not nil. The quote was probably taken from this source:
If the reference really is to the Wittenberg Edition vol. VI, so far I've been able to locate the 1561 Latin edition (and some others). There is no such quote on page 160. It may be possible that an earlier edition contains the quote, or it may be that the quote is from the German volume 6 in the same set. I base this on a number of early similar English citations:
This quote in this form with this documentation is also found in Patrick O'Hare's Facts About Luther(1916). O'Hare cites the Wittenberg edition as well. O'Hare states,
"Those pious souls," he says further, "who do good to gain the kingdom of heaven, not only will never succeed, but they must even be reckoned among the impious; and it is more important to guard them against good works than against sin." (Wittenb. VI. 160.)Here's something interesting from a source from 1827:
One more citation from his works will perhaps suffice: “Those pious souls," says this pious divine, “who do good in order to obtain the kingdom of Heaven, will not only never obtain it, but are to be accounted among the reproved; for it is far more necessary to guard against good works, than against sin." (2)The reference (2) points to "Id. tom. vii.54," but interestingly the previous reference (1), to a completely different quote, points to "Opp. Wittemb. tom. vi. fol. 160." But then a source from 1854 states,
Works occasioned him such dread, that he sought to turn from them all whom he called Christians. "Pious souls," says he, "who do good to obtain the kingdom of heaven, will never reach it; I consider them as impious: it is more cogent to fortify oneself against works than against sin." (3) Op. Lutheri: Witt. tom. vi. fol. 160. Moehler, Symbol. vol. i. p. 229 Robertson's Trans.There is also this variation from 1903:
"There is no more dangerous, more pernicious scandal than a good life exteriorly manifested by good works. Pious souls who do good to gain the kingdom of heaven not only will never reach it, but will be counted among the damned." (Works of Luther, vol. vi.)The only similar quote I was able to locate is found in Eyn Sermon von dem newen testament, das ist Von der heyligen Messe (WA 6, 353–378), or Sermon on the Mass, in English found in LW 35 as "A Treatise on the New Testament, That is, The Holy Mass"(1520). LW 35 points out, "By 1524, fourteen editions had appeared in various cities. Because of its fundamental importance this treatise has found a place in all major collections of Luther’s works." It could be an earlier edition of Wittenberg VI has this treatise.
In the later part of this treatise, Luther explains his rejection of the Roman teaching on the mass as a sacrifice and good work. For Luther, the mass expressed God's words of promise to be grasped by faith. Luther says,
It must necessarily follow where faith and the word or promise of God decline or are neglected, that in their place there arise works and a false, presumptuous trust in them. For where there is no promise of God there is no faith. Where there is no faith, there everyone presumptuously undertakes to better himself and make himself well pleasing to God by means of works. Where this happens, false security and presumption arise, as though man were pleasing to God because of his own works. Where it does not happen, the conscience has no rest and knows not what to do in order to become well pleasing to God.
So too, I fear that many have made the mass into a good work, whereby they have thought to do a great service to Almighty God. Now if we have properly understood what has been said above, namely, that the mass is nothing else than a testament and sacrament in which God makes a pledge to us and gives us grace and mercy, I think it is not fitting that we should make a good work or merit out of it. For a testament is not beneficium acceptum, sed datum; it does not take benefit from us, but brings benefit to us. Who has ever heard that he who receives an inheritance has done a good work? He simply takes for himself a benefit. Likewise in the mass we give nothing to Christ, but only receive from him; unless they are willing to call this a good work, that a person sits still and permits himself to be benefited, given food and drink, clothed and healed, helped and redeemed. Just as in baptism, in which there is also a divine testament and sacrament, no one gives God anything or does him a service, but instead takes something, so it is in all other sacraments and in the sermon as well. For if one sacrament cannot be a meritorious good work, then no other can be a work either, since the sacraments are all of one kind, and it is the nature of a sacrament or testament that it is not a work but only an exercise of faith [LW 35:92-93].Luther goes on to discuss the abuse of works in regard to the mass. He concludes the entire treatise by stating (perhaps!) the quote in question:
Therefore let us beware of sins, but much more of laws and good works, giving heed only to the divine promise and to faith. Then all good works will come of themselves. To this may God help us. Amen [LW 35:111].
If this is the context, Luther exhorts his readers to beware of sin, but to guard against negating God's promises by seeking to be justified by works. If one embraces Christ by faith (a saving faith), Luther concludes, " Then all good works will come of themselves." Indeed, in context one should guard against good works as a means of justification. For Luther, good works have their place and value.
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.