Luther on Works for God vs. Works for Our Neighbor

Luther on Works for God vs. Works for Our Neighbor September 12, 2023

“God doesn’t need your good works.  Your neighbor does.”

That’s a great Luther quote.  But a question that arose lately in the Lutheran social media ecosphere is, Did Luther really say that?  Or is it one of those famous Luther quotes, like that one about how it’s better to be ruled by a Wise Turk than a foolish Christian, that he didn’t actually say?
As I point out in my book Spirituality of the Cross (p. 134), which seems to have popularized the saying, this line comes from Gustaf Wingren in his Luther on Vocation (p. 10), who “summarizes Luther.”  But he summarizes what Luther actually did say.
Wingren references Luther’s sermon on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity [1st series], where he says “God does not need your works. . . therefore you should devote the works of faith to the benefit of your neighbor.”

And that was not the only time Luther said as much.  My wife Jackquelyn, who has read through six volumes of Luther’s sermons while on the treadmill–and that’s a lot of miles on the treadmill–pointed me to another.

This is from “A King is Born: A Discourse on the Birth of Christ,” a sermon for Christmas day on the text Luke 2:1-14 (Erl. Ed. 10:133; W. 11:162; St. L. 11:118):

If Christ has now thus become your own, and you have by such faith been cleansed through him and have received your inheritance without any personal merit, but alone through the love of God who gives to you as your own the treasure and work of his Son; it follows that you will do good works by doing to your neighbor as Christ has done to you. Here good works are their own teacher. What are the good works of Christ? Is it not true that they are good because they have been done for your benefit, for God’s sake, who commanded him to do the works in your behalf? In this then Christ was obedient to the Father, in that he loved and served us.

Therefore since you have received enough and become rich, you have no other commandment to serve Christ and render obedience to him, than so to direct your works that they may be of benefit to your neighbor, just as the works of Christ are of benefit and use to you. For the reason Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This is my commandment that ye love one another; even as I have loved you.” John, 13: 34. Here it is seen that he loved us and did every thing for our benefit, in order that we may do the same, not to him, for he needs it not, but to our neighbor; this is his commandment, and this is our obedience. Therefore it is through faith that Christ becomes our own, and his love is the cause that we are his. He loves, we believe, thus both are united into one. Again, our neighbor believes and expects our love, we are therefore to love him also in return and not let him long for it in vain. One is the same as the other; as Christ helps us so we in return help our neighbor, and all have enough.

Then Luther goes on with his literary mastery, underscoring how the works that were commonly done “for God” that were thought to bestow so much “merit” actually don’t benefit either God or the neighbor and so can scarcely be considered “good works” at all (my emphases):

Observe now from this how far those have gone out of the way who have united good works with stone, wood, clothing, eating and drinking. Of what benefit is it to your neighbor if you build a church entirely out of gold!? Of what benefit to him is the frequent ringing of great church bells? Of what benefit to him is the glitter and the ceremonies in the churches, the priests’ gowns, the sanctuary, the silver pictures and vessels? Of what benefit to him are the many candles and much incense? Of what benefit to him is the much chanting and mumbling, the singing of vigils and masses? Do you think that God will permit himself to be paid with the sound of bells, the smoke of candles, the glitter of gold and such fancies? He has commanded none of these, but if you see your neighbor going astray, sinning, or suffering in body or soul, you are to leave every thing else and at once help him in every way in your power and if you can do no more, help him with words of comfort and prayer. Thus has Christ done to you and given you an example for you to follow.

These are the two things in which a Christian is to exercise himself, the one that he draws Christ into himself, and that by faith he makes him his own, appropriates to himself the treasures of Christ and confidently builds upon them; the other that he condescends to his neighbor and lets him share in that which he has received, even as he shares in the treasures of Christ. He who does not exercise himself in these two things will receive no benefit even if he should fast unto death, suffer torture or even give his body to be burned, and were able to do all miracles, as St. Paul teaches, I Cor. 13ff.


Illustration:  “Love Your Neighbor” by Rich Anderson, via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

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