Luther Said: Doing Good Is More Dangerous Than SinningDocumentation
"Those pious souls 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." (Wittenberg, VI, 160, quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 122.)
You must be thinking, "What? Could he possibly have written what I thought I just read? 'It is more important to guard them against good works than against sin.'" Well okay, read it again, just to make sure. We'll wait. See? You were right the first time. Luther cautions us against good and upright actions. He says, don't worry about sin -- Jesus will take care of it. But doing good -- that you'd better watch out for. Especially if you think being kind and generous and loving will affect your outcome at the final judgment. In his hubris, he ignores verse after verse of Scripture — New Testament and Old — where we are told that the way we live out our faith will be the criterion upon which we will be judged. As Paul makes eminently clear in Rom. 2: 5-11, "...the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works." And again in 2 Cor. 5:10, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat... so that each one may receive recompense , according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil." Luther was utterly and monumentally wrong -- wrong for the ages.
The web page cites "Wittenberg, VI, 160, quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 122." It's extremely unlikely "Wittenberg, VI" was actually utilized. This refers to the earliest collection of Luther's Works (dating 1539-59). Rather, the work of Roman Catholic author, Father Patrick O'Hare's book, The Facts About Luther serves as the context for this quote. There is indeed irony here, because the web site hosting this web page is opposed to Romanism. In other words, this web site, while vehemently opposed to Romanism doesn't mind using Romanist argumentation when it's suits their purposes.
Father O'Hare states,
It cannot be denied that Luther taught that "good works are useless," that "they are sin," and, in fact, "impossible." In his "Babylonian Captivity" (Chap. de Bapt.) he says, "The way to heaven is narrow; if you wish to pass through it, throw away your good works." "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.) Thus, good works, the practice of piety, and the observance of the Divine commandments, the only way, according to Jesus Christ, which leads to eternal life, are in his estimation troublesome superfluities, of which Christian liberty must rid us. Rather, according to this false teacher, they are invincible obstacles to salvation, if one places the least reliance upon them. "Faith alone," said he, "is necessary for Justification: nothing else is commanded or forbidden." "Believe, and henceforth you are as holy as St. Peter."I've been through enough of these old quotes to know the way things were cited in previous generations often makes what should be easy to locate very difficult. Often the quotes cited are loose translations (maybe not even from the original language the quote was in) and may not actually be to the source cited. O'Hare refers to one Luther's main treatises, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, specifically, the chapter on "Baptism." This was was one of those times in which trying to figure out what O'Hare was specifically referring to wasn't easy to determine. I was helped by another similar citation and reference by this old Romanist source:
Let us give a few other texts from Luther, for they are more conclusive than argument. "How rich is the Christian! Even if he would he could not be disinherited by sin: not to believe in the Son of God is the only sin in this world. Believe, therefore, and you are sure of your salvation." (Luther, "Captivity of Babylon.") "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 Gospel does not ask our works for our justification; on the contrary, it condemns these works." "Murder, theft are not sins so great as to wish to reach heaven through good works, which are the things most prejudicial to salvation." (Sermons inedits publics par Mack.)The similarities of these two English renderings, both appealing to volume vi of the Wittenberg collection of Luther's Works, and both mentioning the Babylon Captivity treatise make it probable that Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church is indeed the source in question.
If the quote in question does come from the Babylonian Captivity treatise, here's how Luther presents the argument. The sacrament of Baptism has a mighty power, and men must have faith in it as divine work of God:
Now, the first thing to be considered about baptism is the divine promise, which says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16]. This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders, and whatever else man has introduced, for on it all our salvation depends. For unless faith is present or is conferred in baptism, baptism will profit us nothing; indeed, it will become a hindrance to us, not only at the moment when it is received, but throughout the rest of our lives. That kind of unbelief accuses God’s promise of being a lie, and this is the greatest of all sins. If we set ourselves to this exercise of faith, we shall at once perceive how difficult it is to believe this promise of God. For our human weakness, conscious of its sins, finds nothing more difficult to believe than that it is saved or will be saved; and yet, unless it does believe this, it cannot be saved, because it does not believe the truth of God that promises salvation. (LW 36:58).Since baptism is a divine promise, it should be used to nourish faith. When a Christian struggles against sin and doubt, he needs to be reminded of his baptism:
Therefore, when we rise from our sins or repent, we are merely returning to the power and the faith of baptism from which we fell, and finding our way back to the promise then made to us, which we deserted when we sinned. For the truth of the promise once made remains steadfast, always ready to receive us back with open arms when we return. And this, if I mistake not, is what they mean when they say, though obscurely, that baptism is the first sacrament and the foundation of all the others, without which none of the others can be received.(LW 36:59)What had happened though, according to Luther, is that the Roman church rather instructed to men to place their hope in penance rather than in their baptism:
But Satan, though he could not quench the power of baptism in little children, nevertheless succeeded in quenching it in all adults, so that now there are scarcely any who call to mind their own baptism, and still fewer who glory in it; so many other ways have been discovered for remitting sins and getting to heaven. The source of these false opinions is that dangerous saying of St. Jerome—either unhappily phrased or wrongly interpreted—in which he terms penance “the second plank after shipwreck,” as if baptism were not penance. Hence, when men have fallen into sin, they despair of the “first plank,” which is the ship, as if it had gone under, and begin to put all their trust and faith in the second plank, which is penance. This has given rise to those endless burdens of vows, religious orders, works, satisfactions, pilgrimages, indulgences, and monastic sects, and from them in turn has arisen that flood of books, questions, opinions, and man-made ordinances which the whole world cannot contain. Thus the church of God is incomparably worse off under this tyranny than the synagogue or any other nation under heaven ever was. (LW 36:57)The quote in question appears after this basic argumentation:
Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would, he could not lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe. For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone. All other sins, so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because he cannot deny himself if you confess him and faithfully cling to him in his promise. But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction, along with all those carefully devised exercises of men: if you rely on them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before. For whatever is done without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit [Eccles. 1:2, 14]. (LW 36:60)Conclusion
When some read citations like this from Luther, they assume Luther was promoting antinomianism. This would be grossly incorrect. The thrust of Luther's thought is to not rely on one's own work for salvation, which is what was popularly going on in Luther's day. After the quote in question, Luther goes on to say:
Beware, therefore, that the external pomp of works and the deceits of man-made ordinances do not deceive you, lest you wrong the divine truth and your faith. If you would be saved, you must begin with the faith of the sacraments, without any works whatever. The works will follow faith, but do not think too lightly of faith, for it is the most excellent and difficult of all works. Through it alone you will be saved, even if you should be compelled to do without any other works. For faith is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches [Eph. 2:8]. The other works he works through us and with our help, but this one alone he works in us and without our help. (LW 36:62).