Martin Luther, 31 December 1525 (age 42), by Lucas Cranach the Elder [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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(4-16-08)* * *
From Chapter Ten of my book, Martin Luther: Catholic Critical Analysis and Praise
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Luther is often greatly misunderstood on this point, with his soteriological doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) often being criticized by those who don’t properly comprehend its fine points, as somehow recommending that good works in the Christian life are worthless and thus, not to be urged. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Generally speaking, when studying statements from Martin Luther, it is always of the utmost importance to:
1) Look at the historical context (if at all possible).
2) Determine the purpose of any given writing.
3) Understand (if able to do so, through various scholarly resources) his overall teaching on the subject at hand.
4) Keep in mind that Luther often utilized extreme sarcasm and hyperbole: sometimes deliberately expressing ideas (in jest) that he didn’t actually believe; toying with adversaries, etc. For example, Table-Talk is “notorious” for this.
5) If a “controversial” citation is given in isolation, with no reference to a primary work where context can be consulted, it should be ignored as (standing by itself) a confusing or even (in the way it is wrongly interpreted) a deceiving “half-truth.”
Accordingly, noted historian Philip Schaff explains:
Luther’s words especially must not be weighed too nicely, else any and every thing can be proved by him, and the most irreconcilable contradictions shown in his writings. We must always judge him according to the moment in which, and that against which, he spoke, and duly remember also his bluntness and his stormy, warlike nature.
(The Life and Labours of St. Augustine, Oxford University: 1854, 94)
We mustn’t unfairly approach those who differ from us theologically. There is more than enough actual error in Luther’s teaching, from a Catholic perspective, without having to make up additional errors and distort and twist his views by cynically selective citations taken out of context (as happens in some Catholic circles, sadly, all too often).
Our duty as Christians is to be truthful about the views of those we disagree with. It’s not optional. Bearing false witness violates one of the Ten Commandments. If we fail to do this, it only reflects badly on us, not the ones whose true opinions we caricature and distort.
Luther’s main point on this particular score was that works do not save us (and this is perfectly harmonious with Catholic teaching). It doesn’t follow, however, that Luther would deny the necessity of works in the Christian life. He urges those, as part of sanctification, which he formally separates from justification (in a way that Catholics do not). So, though he denies the Catholic notion of merit (which, I would contend, he caricatures and doesn’t properly comprehend), he doesn’t deny (not in the slightest) a place for good works.
The opposite impression occurs due to many statements of Luther that seem to decry good works. But Luther is simply emphasizing that works are not sufficient for salvation. Grace and faith are what save. This distinction is made clear, in the following comments of Luther, all from one work:
[T]he soul . . . is justified by faith alone and not any works . . . This faith cannot exist in connection with works . . .
[S]ince faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man.
[F]aith alone justifies and offers us such a treasure of great benefits without works . . . faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves . . .
It is clear, then, that a Christian has all he needs in faith and needs no work to justify him . . .
This obedience, however, is not rendered by works, but by faith alone.
[H]e needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things.
In doing these works, however, we must not think that a man is justified before God by them, for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, cannot endure that erroneous opinion.
(The Freedom of a Christian, 1520, in Three Treatises, 280-282, 284-285, 291, 295)
I’ve taken great pains in my books to stress this, so that I would not be misunderstood in my critiques of Protestant theology, nor mislead my readers at all:
Although classic “Reformational” Protestantism most certainly doesn’t deny the importance of good works in the Christian life, it regards them as manifestations or results of the necessary imputed justification, rather than as necessities in their own right. . . .
Simply put, both sides agree that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation and that we are clearly commanded by God to do good works . . . each side often thinks that the other denies one of these principles. In fact, however, at the level of creeds, catechisms, confessions, and councils, both sides completely concur on these two maxims. The split comes over the precise nature of the relationship of faith and works to each other and to justification and salvation. We must not minimize theological divisions, nor should we exaggerate them. The first approach flows from the duty of honesty; the second from the demands of charity and understanding among Christians in the Body of Christ.
(A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2003, 28-29, 31)
But these two clashing approaches to justification have a substantial meeting point: both accept the notion of sola gratia, or salvation by grace alone (over against the heresy of Pelagianism, which holds that man can be saved by works or his own self-generated effort). Both also believe that good works are necessary in the Christian life.
Catholics believe that faith and works are more closely tied together, and related to justification itself. Works can follow only by God’s grace, and do not cause salvation, but they must be present, because (per James), “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).
In large part, the Protestant-Catholic dispute is over the distinction between justification (that is, salvation) and sanctification (holiness). Protestants believe that the latter has nothing whatsoever to do with justification (which is imputed to the believer or declared by God), yet that it should follow from it. Catholics think they are closely related. The practical result is arguably the same in either system. Classical Protestantism will not accept a person as “saved” if that person shows no fruit of good works in his life. They will deny that he ever was saved if he habitually engages in serious sin. Both Luther and Calvin taught this. Luther wrote (contrary to much Evangelical talk today):
We must therefore certainly maintain that where there is no faith there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works. Therefore faith and good works should be so closely joined together that the essence of the entire Christian life consists in both.
(in Althaus, 246)
Accordingly, if good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but dead faith.
(Althaus, ibid., 246; also LW, 34, 111; cf. 34, 161)
(The Catholic Verses, Sophia Institute Press, 2004, 64-65)
Accordingly, we observe Luther constantly exhorting Christians to do good works, always wrought from the faith that is a gift from God, in the Holy Spirit; part and parcel of sanctification:
[A] Christian life is but a daily baptism, which, once entered upon, requires us incessantly to fulfill its conditions. Without ceasing we must purge out what is of the old Adam, so that what belongs to the new man may come forth. But what is the old man? Inherited from Adam, he is passionate, hateful, envious, unchaste, miserly, lazy, conceited and, last but not least, unbelieving; thoroughly corrupt, he offers no lodgment to what is good. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, such corruption should daily decrease and we should become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever break away more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy and vainglory. . . .
[W]hen we become Christians, the old man daily grows weaker, until at length he is altogether subdued. This is, in the true sense, to plunge into baptism and daily to arise again. . . .
[E]very day should witness the war against the old man and the growth of the new. For, if we wish to be Christians, we must practice the things that make for Christianity.
(Large Catechism, 1529, sections 237-238, 241 [Baptism chapter], pp. 169, 171)
Secondly, notice how great, good, and holy a work is here assigned children, which is, alas! utterly neglected and disregarded, and no one perceives that God has commanded it, or that it is a holy, divine Word and doctrine. For if it had been regarded as such, every one could have inferred that they must be holy men who live according to these words. Thus there would have been no need of inventing monasticism nor spiritual orders, but every child would have abided by this commandment, and could have directed his conscience to God and said: “If I am to do good and holy works, I know of none better than to render all honor and obedience to my parents, because God has Himself commanded it. For what God commands must be much and far nobler than everything that we may devise ourselves; and since there is no higher or better teacher to be found than God, there can be no better doctrine, indeed, than He gives forth. Now, He teaches fully what we should do if we wish to perform truly good works; and by commanding them, He shows that they please Him. If, then, it is God who commands this, and who knows not how to appoint anything better, I will never improve upon it.”
(Large Catechism, 1529 [Bente-Dau translation], The Fourth Commandment, sections 112-113)
Let us, therefore, learn at last, for God’s sake, that, placing all other things out of sight, our youths look first to this commandment, if they wish to serve God with truly good works, that they do what is pleasing to their fathers and mothers, or to those to whom they may be subject in their stead. For every child that knows and does this has, in the first place, this great consolation in his heart, that he can joyfully say and boast (in spite of and against all who are occupied with works of their own choice): “Behold, this work is well pleasing to my God in heaven, that I know for certain.”
(Ibid., section 115)
If this truth, then, could be impressed upon the poor people, a servant-girl would leap and praise and thank God; and with her tidy work for which she receives support and wages she would acquire such a treasure as all that are esteemed the greatest saints have not obtained. . . . How can you lead a more blessed or holier life as far as your works are concerned? For in the sight of God faith is what really renders a person holy, and alone serves Him, but the works are for the service of man.
(Ibid., sections 145-147)
If we would ever suffer ourselves to be persuaded that such works are pleasing to God and have so rich a reward, we would be established in altogether abundant possessions and have what our heart desires.
(Ibid., section 152)
Here we have again the Word of God whereby He would encourage and urge us to true noble and sublime works, as gentleness, patience, and, in short, love and kindness to our enemies, . . . This we ought to practise and inculcate, and we would have our hands full doing good works.
(Ibid., The Fifth Commandment, sections 195-196)
Let me now say in conclusion that this commandment demands not only that every one live chastely in thought, word, and deed in his condition, that is, especially in the estate of matrimony, but also that every one love and esteem the spouse given him by God. For where conjugal chastity is to be maintained, man and wife must by all means live together in love and harmony, that one may cherish the other from the heart and with entire fidelity. For that is one of the principal points which enkindle love and desire of chastity, so that, where this is found, chastity will follow as a matter of course without any command. Therefore also St. Paul so diligently exhorts husband and wife to love and honor one another. Here you have again a precious, yea, many and great good works, of which you can joyfully boast, . . .
(Ibid., The Sixth Commandment, sections 219-221)
Whoever now seeks and desires good works will find here more than enough such as are heartily acceptable and pleasing to God, and in addition are favored and crowned with excellent blessings, that we are to be richly compensated for all that we do for our neighbor’s good and from friendship; . . .
(Ibid., The Seventh Commandment, section 252)
There are comprehended therefore in this commandment quite a multitude of good works which please God most highly, and bring abundant good and blessing, . . .
(Ibid., The Eighth Commandment, section 290)
[H]ow richly He will reward, bless, and do all good to those who hold them in high esteem, and gladly do and live according to them. Thus He demands that all our works proceed from a heart which fears and regards God alone, and from such fear avoids everything that is contrary to His will, lest it should move Him to wrath; and, on the other hand, also trusts in Him alone and from love to Him does all He wishes, because he speaks to us as friendly as a father, and offers us all grace and every good.
(Ibid., Conclusion of the Ten Commandments, section 323)
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
This article (as I have said) I cannot relate better than to Sanctification, that through the same the Holy Ghost, with His office, is declared and depicted, namely, that He makes holy.
(Ibid., The Apostles’ Creed, Article III, sections 34-35)
But the Spirit of God alone is called Holy Ghost, that is, He who has sanctified and still sanctifies us. For as the Father is called Creator, the Son Redeemer, so the Holy Ghost, from His work, must be called Sanctifier, or One that makes holy. But how is such sanctifying done? Answer: Just as the Son obtains dominion, whereby He wins us, through His birth, death, resurrection, etc., so also the Holy Ghost effects our sanctification by the following parts, namely, by the communion of saints or the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting; that is, He first leads us into His holy congregation, and places us in the bosom of the Church, whereby He preaches to us and brings us to Christ.
(Ibid., sections 36-37)
Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.
We further believe that in this Christian Church we have forgiveness of sin, which is wrought through the holy Sacraments and Absolution, moreover, through all manner of consolatory promises of the entire Gospel. Therefore, whatever is to be preached concerning the Sacraments belongs here, and, in short, the whole Gospel and all the offices of Christianity, which also must be preached and taught without ceasing. For although the grace of God is secured through Christ, and sanctification is wrought by the Holy Ghost through the Word of God in the unity of the Christian Church, yet on account of our flesh which we bear about with us we are never without sin.
(Ibid., sections 53-54)
But outside of this Christian Church, where the Gospel is not, there is no forgiveness, as also there can be no holiness [sanctification]. Therefore all who seek and wish to merit holiness [sanctification], not through the Gospel and forgiveness of sin, but by their works, have expelled and severed themselves [from this Church].
Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, . . .
(Ibid., sections 56-57)
What does such baptizing with water signify?
It signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
(Small Catechism, 1529, 17)
Good works follow such faith, renewal, and forgiveness. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. 3] Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1, 31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well. 4] We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true.
(Smalcald Articles, 1537, Part III, Article XIII: How Man is Justified Before God, and His Good Works, sections 2-4)
[O]ur churches are now, through God’s grace, so enlightened and equipped with the pure Word and right use of the Sacraments, with knowledge of the various callings and of right works, . . .
(Ibid., Preface, section 10)
Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12, 13], It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace . . . 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.
(Preface to Romans; Althaus, 235; cf. LW, Vol. XXXV, 370 ff.)
Man, on the other hand, sees Christendom contending with the Gospel and faith against the world and the devil. This involves warfare and unrest, and armies are arrayed; mountains and mountain peaks are pertinent subjects there, and wisdom and virtue come into play. But before God gentle and calm tranquillity prevails. He dwells in a cheerful and clear conscience. Inwardly, that is where God dwells. As Psalm 76:2 testifies, His abode has been established in peace. Therefore God moves and rides in His Christians as in a comfortable, covered wagon, and they travel together from this life into life eternal. For the wagon is not stationary, which means that the Christians increase daily in spiritual stature, always possessing the peace of a good conscience.
(Commentary on Psalm 68 [verses 17, 19]; 1521; LW, Vol. XIII, 20)
True faith is not idle. We can, therefore, ascertain and recognize those who have true faith from the effect or from what follows.
(Althaus, 246; WA, Vol. 39-I, 114; cf. LW, Vol. XXXIV, 183)
When no work is there then faith has been completely lost.
(Ibid., 246; WA, Vol. 39-II, 248)
For that faith which lacks fruit is not an efficacious but a feigned faith.
(Ibid., 246; WA, Vol. 39-I, 106, 114; cf. LW, Vol. XXXIV, 176, 183)
Works are a certain sign, like a seal on a letter, which makes me certain that my faith is genuine.
(Ibid., 247; WA, Vol. X-III, 225)
Works assure us and bear witness before men and the brethren and even before our own selves that we truly believe and that we are sons of God in hope and heirs of eternal life.
(Ibid., 247; WA, Vol. 39-I, 292; cf. 293)
[W]e are commanded to make our calling certain by good works (II Pet. 1:10).
(Ibid., 247; WA, Vol. 39-II, 248)
Our renewal [novitas] is thus necessary but neither for our salvation nor for our justification.
(Ibid., 249; WA, Vol. 39-I, 225; cf. 241)
[Though] works are necessary to salvation, they do not work salvation, for faith alone gives life.
(Ibid., 250; WA, Vol. 39-I, 96; cf. 104; cf. LW, Vol. XXXIV, 165, 172)
Whoever has had faith at some time but now has no love, no longer has that faith; rather, he has lost the faith even though he has performed miracles through faith. Such a faith is then either not a true and genuine faith or it was never present.
(Ibid., 435; WA, Vol. XXXIV-I, 168)
Where is the fruit that shows you really believe? . . .
Christ has not died so that you could remain such a sinner; rather, he died so that sin might be put to death and destroyed and that you might now begin to love God and your neighbor. Faith takes sins away and puts them to death so that you should live not in them but in righteousness. Therefore demonstrate by your works and by your fruits that you have faith . . . [Whoever believes] will say it with his deeds – or forget about having the reputation of being a believer . . . Love follows true faith . . . One should do everything that is good so that faith does not become an empty husk but may be true and genuine.
(Ibid., 448-449; Sermon on 1 John 4:16 ff., 1545; WA, Vol. 49, 783)
I must also bring that glory [which comes from works of love] with me or God will not treat me in a friendly way.
(Ibid., 453; WA, Vol. XXXVI, 446)
Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
Large Catechism, 1529, translated by John Nicholas Lenker, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1935.
Large Catechism, 1529, from Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church: German-Latin-English, translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. The entire Book of Concord (including also Luther’s Small Catechism and Smalcald Articles) is available online.
Luther’s Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.
Smalcald Articles, 1537, from Triglot Concordia (see two entries above)
Small Catechism, 1529, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1943.
Three Treatises [from 1520], Philadelphia: Fortress Press, revised edition, 1970 (derived from Luther’s Works [LW] ).
Weimar Ausgabe (WA) edition of Luther’s writings (Werke) in German, 1883.
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