Joel D. Otto
One of the sharpest criticisms of Lutheran theology revolves around the subject of good works. The argument is directed against the teaching that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone. Some object saying, “If salvation by grace is true, then no one will do good works. The incentive to live a godly life is gone.”
Luther was sensitive to this criticism. That’s why he went out of his way to show that he encouraged Christians to do good works. But he was careful to put good works in their proper place. Good works neither earn grace and forgiveness nor are they somehow combined with faith to win heaven. Rather, good works flow from faith. Good works are what Christians who have been saved by grace through faith naturally do. Good works are done not to earn heaven but to thank God for his gift of heaven in a tangible way.
In his preface to his commentary on Romans, Luther stressed this truth about faith producing good works. “O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And 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. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, pp. 370,371).
To be truly Lutheran is to put good works in their proper place. Yes, we’re saved by faith alone in Jesus alone. But faith is never alone. It always produces good works. If there are no good works, faith is non-existent (see James 2:14-26). Faith rests in the promises of God and receives the blessings of God’s love. Then faith responds by loving God and living for Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). Luther stressed this truth in the opening words of explanation to each commandment in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God that we . . .”
Questions to consider:
1. Explain this apparently contradictory statement of Luther: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, p. 344).
Christians are free from having to do anything to have forgiveness, life, and salvation (Galatians 5:1). These are free gifts from God, received through faith (Ephesians 2:8,9). Christians are set free from the demands of the law because Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly in our place (Romans 5:19) and suffered the curse of the law in our place (Galatians 3:13). We are children of God and heirs of eternal life. We can freely approach God our Father. We are no longer slaves to sin, death, and hell (Galatians 4:4-7).
Because Christians are perfectly free, forgiven children of God, we desire to serve God and follow his commands (Titus 2:11-14). We are called to serve God by serving others (Galatians 5:13). In our various callings in life, we love our neighbors as ourselves. We serve one another in love.
To summarize, when it comes to our justification, we are completely free—free from having to do anything to earn God’s favor, free from the curse of the law, free from death and hell. When it comes to our sanctification, our lives of good works, we are to live as the people God has made us. We are slaves of righteousness, bound to do good works, and serve the people in our lives (Ephesians 2:10; Romans 6:15-19).
2. Describe how each of the following passages, in a unique way, demonstrates the place of good works in the life of a Christian: Luke 19:1-10; John 15:1-8; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 2:20,21; Ephesians 2:8-10.
● Luke 19:1-10—Zacchaeus demonstrates the spontaneous response and change of life from a Christian when he has been brought to faith. He wants to make amends. He wants to be generous. He wants to help others.
● John 15:1-8—Only Christians can do good works because only those with faith in Jesus can do works that are good in God’s sight. Christians can only do good works because they are connected to Jesus by faith, a faith worked and sustained through the gospel. Like branches connected to a vine, we are called to bear fruits of faith, good works. They are “good” because we are covered with the forgiveness and righteousness of Christ by faith. These fruits of faith give glory to God and are evidence of our faith.
● Romans 6:1-14—Our sinful nature may be tempted to think that because we’re saved by grace alone we can live any way we want; we have a license to sin. But that would be misusing and cheapening God’s grace. We were baptized into Christ. We were buried and raised with him. We are now to be dead to sin and slaves to righteousness. Because of our baptism, we have a new life.
● Galatians 2:20,21—By faith in Christ, he lives in us. He loves us and gave himself up for us. Therefore, we strive to life for him, even as he lives in us. We live for him not to gain righteousness but to reflect Christ’s love.
● Ephesians 2:8-10—Our salvation is entirely God’s gift of grace. We receive this salvation through faith in Christ. This faith is also a gift of God’s grace. God has saved us for a purpose. We are God’s workmanship, his handiwork, created in Christ to do good works. And God puts opportunities to do good works in front of us every day.
3. Read Matthew 25:31-46. How might someone think Jesus is teaching salvation by works in these verses? How do we know that is not what Jesus is teaching?
It can seem like Jesus is teaching salvation by works because the King highlights all the good things that the sheep, the believers, did for the King. He points out the good things the goats, the unbelievers, failed to do.
This is not teaching salvation by works. The King gives to the sheep the inheritance of heaven. An inheritance is not earned by those receiving it but by someone else. This inheritance has been prepared for them by God. They receive it by faith. The good works that the King highlights are evidence of the faith in the hearts of Christians. Since this is a public judgment, he points to the public evidence. The sheep are even surprised that they were doing anything for the King. They were not doing these good things to earn anything. It is simply what they did as his believers. The unbelievers are condemned and cast out because of their unbelief, as evidenced by their lack of good work done for the King. Jesus is still teaching salvation by grace through faith; fruits of faith always follow as the evidence of faith in the heart.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is the tenth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after July 5.
Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.
Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.
Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us