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Martin Luther on Faith and Works From “On Christian Liberty”

Hidden away in the back of Volume 36 of the Harvard Classics, within a group of works by Martin Luther that includes the Ninety Five Theses and the Address to the German Nobility, is his work entitled Concerning Christian Liberty.  It begins on page 336 of the 1910 PF Collier & Son, New York edition with a letter to Pope Leo X.  We’ll pick it up immediately following the letter and cover pages 344-368 in which Luther examines the relationship between faith and works, and attempt to summarize and reduce these 25 pages down into two or three.  We’ve also modernized some of the wording and sentence structures, and added commentary, emphasis and additional Scripture references.

Martin Luther on Faith and Works - from On Christian Liberty

On faith itself, Luther writes

Christian faith has appeared to many an easy thing; nay, not a few even reckon it among the social virtues, as it were; and this they do because they have not made proof of it experimentally, and have never tasted of what efficacy it is.  For it is not possible for any man to write well about it, or to understand well what is rightly written, who has not at some time tasted of its spirit, under the pressure of tribulation; while he who has tasted of it, even to a very small extent, can never write, speak, think, or hear about it sufficiently.  For it is a living fountain, springing up into eternal life, as Christ calls it in John 4.

Luther then begins examining the subject of faith on the principle that man is composed of a twofold nature, body and spirit.  He regards the spiritual nature as the soul, the inward man, or the new man.  The bodily nature can also likewise be identified as the fleshly, outward, old man (2Cor 4:16).  Luther notes “The result of this diversity is that in the Scriptures opposing statements are made concerning the same man, the fact being that in the same man these two men are opposed to one another; the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh” (Gal 5:17).

Luther approaches the subject of the inward man and establishes the means by which a man becomes justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, being justified by faith in Christ alone.

One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ... [from Jn 11:25, 8:36 and Mt 4:4].  It is easy to understand why faith has such great power, and why no good works, nor even all good works put together, can compare with it, since no work can cleave to the Word of God or be in the soul...  It is clear then that to a Christian man his faith suffices for everything, and that he has no need of works for justification.  But if he has no need of works, neither has he need of the law...  This is that Christian liberty, our faith, the effect of which is, not that we should be careless or lead a bad life, but that no one should need the law or works for justification and salvation (1Tim 1:9).

Luther then turns to an office of faith to address those who would claim that the doctrine of justification of faith alone leads to unrighteous living.

This is an office of faith: that it honors with the utmost veneration and the highest reputation Him in whom it believes, inasmuch as it holds Him to be truthful and worthy of belief; for there is no honor like that reputation of truth and righteousness with which we honor Him in whom we believe...  The soul, in firmly believing the promises of God, holds Him to be true and righteous; and it can attribute to God no higher glory than the credit of being so.  The highest worship of God is to ascribe to Him, truth, righteousness, and whatever qualities we must ascribe to one in whom we believe.  In doing this, the soul shows itself prepared to do His whole will.  In doing this, it hallows His name, and gives itself up to be dealt with as it may please God.  Is not such a soul, in this its faith, most obedient to God in all things?  What fulfillment can be fuller than universal obedience?  Now this is not accomplished by works, but by faith alone.

From all this you will again understand why so much importance is attributed to faith, so that it alone can fulfill the law and justify without any works.  From these considerations anyone may clearly see how a Christian man is free from all things; so that he needs no works in order to be justified and saved, but receives these gifts in abundance from faith alone.

Furthermore, Luther also answers the related questions, “If faith does everything, and by itself suffices for justification, why then are good works commanded?  Are we then to take our ease and do no works, being content with faith?”  Luther replies, not so.  He bases his answer in part upon the fact that even though man is lord of all creation that God has placed under his dominion, he is at the same time, subject to his fellow Christians.

To this part belongs the fact I have stated before: that the Christian is the servant of all and subject to all.  For in that part in which he is free he does no works, but in that in which he is a servant he does all works.  Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith, having all that he requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day, even until the future life.  Still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body and have fellowship with men.

Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fasting, watching, labor, and other regular discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do otherwise.  For the inner man, being conformed to God and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessings have been conferred on it, and hence has only this task before it: to serve God with joy and for naught in free love.

But in doing this he comes into collision with that contrary will in his own flesh, which is striving to serve the world and to seek its own gratification.  These works, however, must be done without any notion that by them a man can be justified before God.

In Luther’s theology (and ours), a man must be justified before he can do any good work, at least any good work of eternal value.   Therefore, it is faith alone by God’s grace and mercy alone, by means of His Word that can sufficiently save a person.  Thus it is always necessary that the substance or person should be good before any good works can be done.  Luther held to the sayings, “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works” and “Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works” (see Mt 7:18).

Luther then clarifies for the antinomianists that grace does not relieve the Christian from his or her moral and ethical obligations.

We do not then reject good works; nay, we embrace them and teach them in the highest degree.  It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of this impious addition to them and the perverse notion of seeking justification by them.

Thus Christians are commanded to obey God and do good works (Eph 2:10), but not as a means of earning salvation.

After establishing the theological basis of his subject, Luther now begins his transition to the practical:

Yet a Christian has need of none of these things [works] for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object - that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbor.  Thus the Apostle commands us to work with our own hands so that we may have to give to those that need.  He might have said, that we may support ourselves; but he tells us to give to those that need.  It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he may be enabled to labor, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another's burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.

Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for naught, himself abundantly satisfied in the fullness and riches of his own faith.

By this statement, I don’t believe that Luther was attempting to elevate the practical over the theological.  We’ve already noted their interrelationship.  A person can’t consistently carry out the practical actions that please God without knowing the theological basis.  At the same time, having a good theological basis (which includes knowing what pleases God) is of no value unless the person puts it into practice.  Perhaps Luther is referring to living out what we know as being the evidence of the true Christian life (see Jn 13:34-35).

Luther continues by quoting Paul’s words to the Philippians, Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Php 2:1-4).

Luther notes that the Apostle is clearly saying that that all our works should be directed to the advantage of others.  He then continues with Paul’s offering of Christ as the prime example, In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Php 2:5-8)

Luther interpreted Paul’s message to mean that Christ, being full of the form of God and abounding in all good things from the very beginning, had no need of works or sufferings to be just and saved.  Yet in His human state, He did not raise Himself above us even though He had every right to do so.   Instead, to be identified with us, He worked, suffered and died for our sakes.  He took the form of a servant so that He might serve us, and so that all His acts would become examples for us to follow.  Luther explains,

Thus a Christian, like Christ his Head, being full and in abundance through his faith, ought to be content with this form of God, obtained by faith; except that he ought to increase this faith till it be perfected.  For this faith is his life, justification, and salvation, preserving his person itself and making it pleasing to God, and bestowing on him all that Christ has, as I have said above and as Paul affirms: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).  Though he is thus free from all works, yet he ought to empty himself of this liberty, take on him the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in fashion as a man, serve, help, and in every way act towards his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has acted and is acting towards him.

Luther further declares that we should do this freely.  God has, by His pure and free mercy, endowed us with all the riches of justification and salvation in Christ so that we are no longer in want of anything.  Because He has overwhelmed us with His inestimable riches despite our unmerited status, we should freely, cheerfully and voluntarily do all that we know to be pleasing and acceptable in His sight.  Just as Christ gave Himself to us, we should give of ourselves to our neighbors.  The purpose of this service is not to place others under obligations, since the Father has distributed all things to us abundantly and freely.  Therefore, out of faith and love for our Lord, we should willing serve one another without regard for human gratitude, praise or rewards.

Luther concludes with:

You see then that, if we recognize those great and precious gifts which have been given to us, love is quickly diffused in our hearts through the Spirit, and by love we are made free, joyful, all-powerful, active workers, victors over all our tribulations, servants to our neighbor, and nevertheless lords of all things.  But, for those who do not recognize the good things given to them through Christ, Christ has been born in vain.  Such persons walk by works, and will never attain the taste and feeling of these great things.  Therefore just as our neighbor is in want and has need of our abundance, so we too in the sight of God were in want and had need of His mercy.  And as our heavenly Father has freely helped us in Christ, so ought we freely to help our neighbor by our body and works, and each of us should become to other a sort of Christ, so that we may be mutually Christ to one another, and that the same Christ may be in all of us; that is, that we may be truly Christians.

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