Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thoughts on good works

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) once proclaimed “When God crowns our merits (merita), He crowns nothing other than His own gifts (munera)” (ep. 194, 5, 19). There are many things said about good works, some good and many bad. There are many misconceptions about what Lutherans say about good works and what we don't. This is one statement that in briefest form well describes how Lutherans speak -- for Lutherans are, if anything, profoundly Augustinian.

God does not need our good works but our neighbor does.  Good works do not merit grace or earn salvation but are the fruit of God's redeeming and sanctifying work in us.  Good works are not required as a condition of salvation but faith does not exist apart from good works.  Good works are what we have been redeemed to do -- the works of Him who has called us from darkness into His own marvelous light.  Good works are the realm of our cooperation with the Holy Spirit just as salvation involves no cooperation from us whatsoever but is the result of Jesus one, all-sufficient sacrifice alone.

These are but a few of the statements one often finds in a Lutheran discussion of good works.  There are also statements which falsely describe Lutheran teaching.

Good works are not necessary.  Good works can even be harmful to salvation.  Good works involve nothing of our will or efforts but are only God's works alone. Good works do not need to be preached for where faith lives, good works will come spontaneously and without prompting.  Read the Lutheran Confessions for some of the encouragement to good works that it seems Lutherans and their critics often overlook.  Try the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, IV:

First, there is no controversy among our theologians concerning the following points in this article, namely: that it is God's will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works; and that truly good works are not those which every one contrives himself from a good intention, or which are done according to traditions of men, but those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word; also, that truly good works are done, not from our own natural powers, but in this way: when the person by faith is reconciled with God and renewed by the Holy Ghost, or, as Paul says, is created anew in Christ Jesus to good works, Eph. 2:10

8] Nor is there a controversy as to how and why the good works of believers, although in this flesh they are impure and incomplete, are pleasing and acceptable to God, namely, for the sake of the Lord Christ, by faith, because the person is acceptable to God. For the works which pertain to the maintenance of external discipline, which are also done by, and required of, the unbelieving and unconverted, although commendable before the world, and besides rewarded by God in this world with temporal blessings, are nevertheless, because they do not proceed from true faith, in God's sight sins, that is, stained with sin, and are regarded by God as sins and impure on account of the corrupt nature and because the person is not reconciled with God. For a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, Matt. 7:18, as it is also written Rom. 14:23: Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. For the person must first be accepted of God, and that for the sake of Christ alone, if also the works of that person are to please Him. 

9] Therefore, of works that are truly good and well-pleasing to God, which God will reward in this world and in the world to come, faith must be the mother and source; and on this account they are called by St. Paul true fruits of faith, as also of the Spirit. 10] For, as Dr. Luther writes in the Preface to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: Thus faith is a divine work in us, that changes us and regenerates us of God, and puts to death the old Adam, makes us entirely different men in heart, spirit, mind, and all powers, and brings with it [confers] the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, powerful thing that we have in faith, so that it is impossible for it not to do good without ceasing. 11] Nor does it ask whether good works are to be done; but before the question is asked, it has wrought them, and is always engaged in doing them. But he who does not do such works is void of faith, and gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith nor what good works are, yet babbles and prates with many words concerning faith and good works. 12] [Justifying] faith is a living, bold [firm] trust in God's grace, so certain that a man would die a thousand times for it [rather than suffer this trust to be wrested from him]. And this trust and knowledge of divine grace renders joyful, fearless, and cheerful towards God and all creatures, which [joy and cheerfulness] the Holy Ghost works through faith; and on account of this, man becomes ready and cheerful, without coercion, to do good to every one, to serve every one, and to suffer everything for love and praise to God, who has conferred this grace on him, so that it is impossible to separate works from faith, yea, just as impossible as it is for heat and light to be separated from fire. 

and. . .

Therefore the expressions or propositions mentioned [that good works are necessary, and that it is necessary to do good] are unjustly censured and rejected in this Christian and proper sense, as has been done by some. . . since Christians should not be deterred from good works, but should be admonished and urged thereto most diligently, this bare proposition cannot and must not be tolerated, employed, nor defended in the Church [of Christ].

But do not stop there. . .


1 comment:

John J. Flanagan said...

I think the book of James is one of my favorites. I think James is quite clear. Good works will not save you, but he says "show me your faith by your works." And he quotes examples, Abraham, Moses, etc. As a lay person, not a pastor, I have no difficulty understanding this at all. Even a child can understand as well. The people having the most difficulty understanding the "good works" concept are educated Theologians with too much time on their hands to study every sentence of the Bible for ambiguities and doctrinal pathways.