One of the sharpest criticisms of Lutheran theology revolves around the subject of good works. The argument is directed against the teaching that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone. Some object saying, “If salvation by grace is true, then no one will do good works. The incentive to live a godly life is gone.”
Luther was sensitive to this criticism. That’s why he went out of his way to show that he encouraged Christians to do good works. But he was careful to put good works in their proper place. Good works neither earn grace and forgiveness nor are they somehow combined with faith to win heaven. Rather, good works flow from faith. Good works are what Christians who have been saved by grace through faith naturally do. Good works are done not to earn heaven but to thank God for his gift of heaven in a tangible way.
In his preface to his commentary on Romans, Luther stressed this truth about faith producing good works. “O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, pp. 370,371).
To be truly Lutheran is to put good works in their proper place. Yes, we’re saved by faith alone in Jesus alone. But faith is never alone. It always produces good works. If there are no good works, faith is non-existent (see James 2:14-26). Faith rests in the promises of God and receives the blessings of God’s love. Then faith responds by loving God and living for Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). Luther stressed this truth in the opening words of explanation to each commandment in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God that we . . .”
This is the tenth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation.
Author: Joel Otto
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017