Martin Luther on Good Works
By: Gregory S. Neal
For Martin Luther, the place of good works in the everyday life of a Christian was to be found within the context of righteousness, justification, and grace. Essentially, works were not to be viewed, in any way, shape, or form, as the means to justification and grace. The only way one can achieve righteousness, according to Luther, is through faith. Indeed, the pursuit of good works as the means to salvation could be as detrimental to grace as ignorance of sin. Good works, however, are not totally discounted in value by Martin Luther. Quite the contrary, they have a positive and important role to play in both the revelation of an individual's sinful nature, and in the proper Christian response to God's grace. Be this as it may, the Biblical passage: "He who through faith is righteous shall live," which Luther seems to have understood as the keynote of his teachings, can be taken as the vantage point from which his understanding of good works can be judged. They are, without a doubt, divorced from all baring on the act of justification; for, 'by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."
Luther believed that any understanding of "good works," or "works of the law," needed to be held in the most fundamental and widest sense possible: specifically, that which is in clear opposition to the grace of Jesus Christ is a "work of the law." In other words: "Whatever is not grace is law." (p. 95). These works were not limited to just the precepts of the decalogue -- the ten commandments -- but also included the civil and ceremonial laws of Judaism. In short, the whole law of Moses is identified with the "works of the law." These are the "good works" which cannot save but, instead, serve only to condemn because it is impossible for anyone to fulfill them completely, and by them become righteous.
Luther identifies different forms of righteousness within the law, the two most important being ceremonial righteousness -- or that righteousness extending from the traditions of human beings--and the righteousness of the law. He also distinguishes between these forms of righteousness and the righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, which he proceeds to call passive righteousness in contradistinction to the righteousness of the law, which he calls active. The nature of passive righteousness is one in which the Christian is only the receiver of righteousness, not the doer, and the only actor is God (p. 88). This contrasts with the nature of active righteousness, which demands the action from the Christian.
This active/passive righteousness paradigm provides a context in which one of the basic functions of the law, and "good works," can be understood. Basically, the law was established to provide a mirror in which any individual could look and come to know that he/she is a sinner. In the face of active righteousness, a sinner is driven to an understanding of the need for passive righteousness, which is 'grace, mercy, and the forgiveness of sins' (p. 89-90). The fulfillment of active righteousness is beyond reach for human beings because "all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God." Justification must, therefore, be on the grounds of faith, not works; the righteousness of faith, which brings grace, is:
Since the law serves as a mirror, in which sinners discover their need for grace, its teaching becomes a necessity. However, it is not to be taught as the way to justification for, as Luther discovered, 'faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves . . . I (p.8). Indeed, only one thing is truly needed 'for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom . . . . the gospel of Christ. . . .' (p.8) And this gospel can only be accepted through faith; it is not through works that the good news is received, because the gospel assumes that action cannot achieve the same results faith. It is here that Luther moves toward a distinction between the "inner" and the "outer man."
. . . the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which we do not perform but receive, which we do not have but accept, when God the Father grants it to us through Jesus Christ (p. 90).
The 'inner man'--the human being's heart or spirit--is only motivated and justified by faith, and never by works. The 'outer man", on the other hand, is that part of the human in which works can, indeed, be manifest. These works, however, have no bearing on salvation. Their nature as good or bad is entirely linked to the nature of the inner 'man' as either just or un-just. Since the character of the 'inner man' is based, not on works, but on faith, the 'inner man' requires "neither laws nor good works but, on the contrary, is injured by them if he believes that he is justified by them.' (p.16) In other words, while no outer work can justify the 'inner man,' no outer work can make the 'inner man' un-just. Quite the contrary, it is the nature of the "inner man' which determines the nature of the outer work.
If the inner nature is that which determines the nature of any and all outer works, then the place of good works in the life of a Christian who has been justified through faith in Jesus Christ should become plain. While "we do nothing and work nothing in order to obtain this righteousness. . . " (p. 93), we, nevertheless, exhibit the outward manifestations of the inward justification. It is as if a force is unleashed within the Christian who has taken hold of passive righteousness, a force which elicits good works through, and because of, the very inner nature of the one justified.
Again, it is not the doing of good works which justifies. The good works come forth in response to the grace of God enacted in a Christian life. It is through these works that the proper Christian response to justification can be seen--in true love for one's neighbor, this action not being motivated by self-gain but through the example of Christ. It is this expression of the outward nature, the 'outer man," which must be mastered and directed in daily intercourse with the rest of human society. This is done through the joyful acceptance by the inner nature of the grace of Christ in which 'it is his [the Christian's] one occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in love that is not constrained' (p. 17).
Truly, if faith is there, he [the one justified] cannot hold back; he proves himself, breaks out into good works, confesses and teaches this gospel before the people, and stakes his life on it (p. 41).
The total lack of a role for good works in Luther's concept of justification cannot be stressed enough in this, or any paper. It was a central theme in his entire message, and it served as the keynote from which much criticism flowed downhill, toward him. While, indeed, good works do not justify sinners, they do serve two important purposes: the law provides a mirror in which the individual may see her or his need of grace; and, the works of the law serve as an outward expression of the true act of justification. These acts are not mandatory for salvation, but, as Luther put it, 'good works follow and proceed from the good person. . . " (p. 17). They are, in other words, expected by the very nature of the inward change.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. (ed). The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper Torchbooks,1968.
Steinmetz, David C. Luther in Context. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
© 1989 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved
*This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.