We Believe, Teach, and Confess – Part 11 | What Do The Lutheran Confessions Say About Good Works?
It is well known that the Reformation started with a change in the understanding of God. Martin Luther discovered the merciful God who accepts human beings without regard for merit and worthiness. Justification by grace, biblically speaking, means just this: the promise of the right to life without proof of performance, unconditional acceptance, showing love. Martin Luther had been tormented by scruples because of his repeated defeats in the fight against evil in himself; these doubts were suddenly overcome when he discovered that God justifies the sinner “by grace and faith alone.” His frightened question, “How can I get a merciful God?,” was thereby answered.
It would be wrong to interpret this as a time-bound expression of a bad conscience. It is the human question par excellence. Where is there mercy in this world? A merciless God is more of a Moloch than a father. Such a God threatens infernal punishment and spreads fear and terror. No consolation can be had from such a god. Denying God is also no solution. Atheism is just as “dismal” as a cynical religion. With the father of Jesus Christ, things are different. This God offers shelter, refuge, protection from meaninglessness.
The Reformation understood itself as a freedom movement. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” writes the Apostle Paul (Galatians 5:1). That lent dynamic to the movement. It dared to rise up against foreign domination and appeal to the gospel as the sole standard. Accordingly, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther defied the Pope, emperor and the concentrated power of the church. He had already developed the theme in detail in “On the Freedom of a Christian, 1520.” “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” This is his first sentence. Anyone who has God as lord cannot serve other lords (Matthew 6:24). Serving God frees us from serving humans. All pressures fall away as soon as people entrust themselves in faith to God’s grace. However, this freedom could be thoroughly misunderstood as arbitrariness. So Luther adds: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all and subject to all.” That is his second sentence. The two belong together. Freedom destroys itself if it is not in a position to take on obligations. Above all, however, love is betrayed. It is essentially “serving the neighbour.” Without Diakonia, faith also becomes false as there is no “Christian” faith that does not take action in love (Galatians 5:6). That is the true test of faith.
Martin Luther aroused the anger of the papal church because he denied its role as mediator in the salvation process. Faith alone suffices for justification. The church is witness to the gospel and thereby fulfils an essential task. But salvation comes exclusively from Jesus Christ. Humans do not need to work for their salvation anymore or strive to perform meritorious works. Instead, they are invited to accept it in confidence. Luther was able to appeal to Paul, who had stated “[…] no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Luther had personally experienced what that meant. It took a load off his mind when he realized that his sin did not disqualify him from the kingdom of God. He could again go through life with his head held high. God’s mercy had freed him from the pressure to perform acts of religious merit. That pressure was not only strong in the medieval church. It is also present today, not least in non-Christian religions. Anyone who does not bow to the regulations is regarded as a “non-believer”’ and is treated with hostility.
This makes it clear that God’s mercy towards human beings is not situated in a vacuum. It places individuals in fellowship with others. Hence the second clause of Luther’s treatise on freedom has to follow the first one. There is no contradiction. We can learn that from Jesus Christ. The one who was free and felt exclusively responsible to his Father in heaven “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). He was not forced to do this, it was voluntary. In his own words, he “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). That is why: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44). Only the one who can serve is really free. “Freedom from” must correspond to “freedom to.” Only then will it receive the seal of quality. Mere independence can be just as despotic as pure arbitrariness. It needs to be bound to what is good.
It is thus a tragic misunderstanding when people think that a Protestant does not need to do good works. While Catholics have to score well, Protestants can fold their hands in their laps. This is a popular misunderstanding one still comes across now and then. Anyone arguing like that has not read the confession the Lutherans published in Augsburg in 1530 that has retained its validity to this day. The Sixth Article reads, “Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.” (Article 6: Of New Obedience – Augsburg Confession).
The Lutheran tradition distinguishes between works of love and works of the law. Jesus himself demonstrated time and again that it is the practice of love that counts, not formally fulfilling the commandments. Love does not boast of its good works; it does them without thinking of its own advantage.
Because love is service, Christians can subordinate themselves. They know that every community needs rules and depends on its members respecting them. For that reason there are ordinances, offices and authorities. The New Testament recognizes the state as a good institution of God and calls for obedience towards it (Romans 13:1f., 1 Peter 2:17). Every church is committed to its governmental constitution. Social peace is not possible without a basic social consensus. The church itself needs administrative and leadership structures. A Christian is not an anarchist. However, the required obedience is restricted by the higher principle that: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). So a Christian can go into opposition. That will always be the case if the laws are not just.
Pastor Henry Niebuhr, Fairland, JHB