Thursday, January 28, 2010

Luther on Good Works:

From his sermon “Of Our Blessed Hope” commenting on Titus2:13 taken from Pieper Vol. III Pg. 40
“Good works are not those which we choose of our selves, but those which God has commanded, those which our vocation calls for. A servant does good works when he fears God, believes in Christ, and obeys his master. First he is justified by faith in Christ, then he walks in faith, leads a godly life, is temperate and well-behaved, serves his neighbor, cleanses the stable, feeds the horse etc. In performing such tasks he does better works than any Carthusian monk. For since he is baptized, believes in Christ, and in assured hope is waiting for eternal life he goes on and obeys his master and knows that what he does in his calling pleases God. Therefore everything that he does in his occupation is a good and precious work.”
Hard not to have good works with that definition, but then with that definition it is almost equally hard to put your faith in the good works. This idea deglamorizes good works. It is easy to think that you somehow earned another rung on your ladder to heaven because you decided to go help people in Haiti instead of taking a cruise to Cozumel. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t take time out to do something for the people in Haiti. What I am saying is that when good works become things like husband and wife loving each other and showing that love for one another, or cooking a meal, or just going into work and doing what your boss asked you to, you probably won’t be inclined to think of it as a good work or anything extraordinary that somehow earns you a divine brownie point. And yet when you see your vocation, be it flipping burgers at McDonalds, as doing the work God asks of you, won’t the Christian also take a bit more pride in their work? Perhaps you learn to even enjoy your job a little better knowing that, in part, anyway you are doing it for God.


Jonathan said...

Whether it's James or Luther, or anyone else trying to present it--any way you try to slice it, there's just not any comfort to be found in the topic of good works. All it does is conjure worry, which tends to lead the sinful self back onto one's self--have I done it, is my faith real? Bottom line, like faith, good works has to be His work, too. So, I'll just trust and let Him work it.

Even so, when I hear the "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" I hope there's not a report card that goes with it, or, if there is, that it's graded on a very steep curve.

Bror Erickson said...

Law is never good. Thing is it is gospel that on account of Christ even the mundane things, maybe even especially the mundane things we do in life are considered good, despite out defects, and the sin we taint them with, because of Christ's forgiveness. Well that cheers me up a bit when I think about it. I know how bad I fail in the good that I try to do. It cheers me to know that even my "good works" are forgiven.

Bror Erickson said...

Law is never good. Thing is it is gospel that on account of Christ even the mundane things, maybe even especially the mundane things we do in life are considered good, despite out defects, and the sin we taint them with, because of Christ's forgiveness. Well that cheers me up a bit when I think about it. I know how bad I fail in the good that I try to do. It cheers me to know that even my "good works" are forgiven.

Larry said...

Exactly right. This his how Luther ferrets out these cockroach pietist good works, the church yard, the glamour works. One cannot just stick in generalities like the term “good works”. It’s like going to ANY church calling itself a church and saying, “do you believe the bible is God’s word” or “The Gospel is what its all about”. All will say, “yes”. Now what do you exactly mean, spells the difference between the true Gospel and another gospel which is no gospel at all and cursed…the same with good works. And so Luther takes it to task.

I recall this once in my days in SB religion when a buddy of mine and his wife was approached by his pastor and his wife to assess, “what do you think your gifts are”, asking my friend’s wife. The is standard pietist BS in the SB church. My friend replied that she is to be a good wife and mother to their child…etc… Well they could hardly get that out before the pastor and his wife started shaking their heads with an expression on their faces as if my friend was doing nothing more than making an irritating atonal squall. It wasn’t what they wanted to here, Luther proved right, when you ask these lying preachers if cleaning pots and pans is a good work they will say, “no”. It’s not evil as if a crime, but it’s not a good (spiritual) work. No glamour or glory looking, just plain ole earthy stuff, the stuff God created and called into being and said, “very good…”

Luther points out well that these deceivers create their own good works by adding to the word of God as if God does not know well what to do. When they do this and via guilt upon the conscience, you must know you are in the faith/elect/etc… by these, this pious list over here, that they really Satanically pull people AWAY from true good works that has the inestimable treasure of God’s Word attached to them as opposed to the glamour of superiority (which is higher the Word or the glamour? An obvious answer!). It happens this way in our day and age not all that different from Luther’s: You are in an evangelical SB, Baptist or reformed derivative church. They spiritually bind your conscience, because one does desire to know “I’m saved/elect”, since the sacraments are out your left with your faith and the secondary works of said faith. The conscience becomes bound ever tighter to Law and works righteousness (though cloaked in “grace”). Then the explicit and/or implied enumerated list of “good works” comes out somewhere, in sermons, SS or just general osmosis due to being in communion/confession with such churches. Pretty soon you are working yourself to death, donating 10%+ gross to build the church, you don’t have time for kids and family, you can’t pay your bills, you are hoping God will bless that tithe, you can’t spend time with your family because you have to be hoofing it door to door doing so called evangelism, you have to make time and save money for that Christian vacation called a two week mission trip to X, 1/3 to ¾ of your week is eat up in church functions, at least two side bible studies (any less is questionable) at some other location, multi-denominational conferences galore. Mean while you can’t spend time with your family, having more children might be a hindrance to some higher calling (usually missions – ala John Piper), you have to cut short time with your aging parents for the same reasons…etc…ad infinitum…ad nausem. Mean while you are NEVER sure if these are or are enough good works (Luther proved right again) or if they come from true saving faith (Luther proved right again), as Luther said they talk a WHOLE bunch about faith and good works but grope around knowing neither! It exhausts me even to recount it in writing.

So now days, when a pietist asks me today if I have any good works or fruit that proves my faith is real I say, “Yes, I cleaned the toilets just last night and changed three crappy diapers”, and nothing deflates the glory of the old Adam and sleighs him deader than Jesse James than such/similar mundane inglorious works!


Brigitte said...

I have one even better than that, you might like to use.

When I first joined LCMS, there was a vicar in the congregation who explained it to me this way: you even sit on the toilet for Jesus.

Does not sound nice, but he is taking to concept to its extreme end.

Frank Sonnek said...

great stuff. there is NO difference between the visible good works of a pagan or christian.

this is because the ONLY difference is the invisible thing called faith. the difference is in the doer not in the deed.

that said, God LOVES it when pagans do true good works: practice self-discipline/restraint and do actions of love for neighbor that make his life better.

the blessings of the 1st article and 4th petition of the small catechism are what we receive from this.

good works are necessary for no religious reason at ALL. they are necessary because life would be impossible without the good works of pagan and christian old adams driven by the law to serve.

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Larry said...


That's a good one! I'll have to remember that one.

Frank (and others),

Were I first saw or had to reassess this was waaaay before Luther when I first converted over to the Christian faith from my atheism/agnosticism. I was debating this atheist about why we do any good. I was giving it my best reformed/baptist answer. The atheist faced me up with that answer and said, "But why don't you just do it because it needs to be done." His implication is that only atheist do altruistic works because, well, they don't believe in anything after death. That's of course not true because in doing so they are bragging that their works are the "only altruistic works" as opposed to all others, but it does make a point about earthly good works.

Frank, I think I'm starting to make more connections on this. Coming from evangelical/baptist/reform-ism the struggle is sometimes you might hear a Lutheran doctrine with an old evangelical ear. That is you are "hearing it" but your old grid is creeping in there. E.g. when you hear something like we need to discipline the flesh, etc... You hear that sometimes with the old grid sneaking back up and not the clear two kingdoms break. And so to your ear you are hearing, "so after all when it's said and done it's about works", which sounds like Calvin/baptist theology because they blur that line. And in that realm that's where the real Gospel is lost and the other gospel gets preached. It's like using the same language but its inverted and thus though the same language a completely opposite message.


Brigitte said...

"But why don't you just do it because it needs to be done." His implication is that only atheist do altruistic works because,

writes Larry,

This works and is true on one level and a good question.

On the other hand, problem is that the atheist is not any better than we and we know what we are like.

He will twist what is good to suit himself and make up his own good works to his own liking and achieving and be just as hypocritical about it.

For example, the Dr. Patrick, whom I mention repeatably, who's been to Africa many times, says "Medicins sans frontiers" (In Canada we say it in French; you might say: Dr.'s without borders", is just a brothel.

What he is saying, a bunch of young, educated atheists out there fornicating with each other feeling smug. (He likes to shock with that.)

Why does that organization get prizes, when Christians have been doing this work forever?...

Without the standard of the law and its actual club of real punishment, we are not good enough to just do what needs to be done, too often, anyways. Things will get done that suit me. Hence the law and the fear of God is needed to actually do the right thing. Atheism is not an option, therefore.

That's a flip side of the same coin, not negating anything else we've said about good works.

Jonathan said...

Brigitte called it "That's a flip side of the same coin, not negating anything else we've said about good works."

I see her point, whether it's the grandios things like doctors without borders, or even the little mundane things like daily living, even the atheists and pagans do all those things.

I feel like Steve that no matter how you slice it, the danger is it turns you back on yourself.

I mean, am I really supposed to take comfort, as Luther suggests, in the mundane things AS good works? I mess up even there.

Faith and works go together. Got it. But, I'm not going to get stressed out about it because in the end, if it counts it's got to be his good work, and his forgiveness when I muddle through the rest of them.

Larry said...


As I read and re-read that Luther sermon that Frank posted that clear line in the sand between earthly righteousness versus heavenly righteousness is it. I like you don’t do mundane works without sin, no one does. That’s not Luther’s point in comparing them with the flashy works or great big works. Rather he’s pointing out that the old man operates purely in the realm of earthly righteousness but likes to carry them before God in the heavenly righteousness. When he does this his default setting is to bring up only those he supposes is the best/spiritual or most shiny good works. That high flying spirit needs an antidote and to say show him that mundane works are good works per the word of God in the earthly realm slays his high flying spirit.

Another thing, you mention “I sin in mundane works”, sure we all do. Never forget that mundane in their operation of killing the old man, forcing service to neighbor and self, is like rubbing sand in your shoe or in a clam shell…a complete irritation to the old man to have to serve so mundanely another person without reward.

Thus, no works, earthly great or mundane go before God only Christ for us. Yet it is the mundane works that do force and have a killing effect on the old adam because the old adam hates these but loves the shiniest and most grand of works. In mundane works we grip and moan, sin all of it. Yet the danger in grand works is we LIKE doing them and don’t see that sinfulness within us, we “puff up”, as Luther said and thus separate ourselves from God (Grace). There is a kind of odd paradox in feeling your sinfulness, though it causes us to despair that is good paradoxically, because then we are brought low. There’s a kind of paradoxical good in BEING a REAL sinner, so we will flee and stay with Christ alone, and a paradoxical evil in faking sins or thinking “I’m improving” (pietism, false sanctification, etc…). The former “feels” bad and reason sees it as bad but is actually good, the later feels good and reason agrees with it but it is actually evil.

In short one is better off sinning boldly, being a REAL sinner and knowing so then fleeing to Christ and the cross, than to die on peccadillos and being a fake sinner and thus avoiding Christ and the cross. We always naturally want to be the other thief, “Jesus get us off of these crosses if you are the son of God”. In our pietistic lingo that would be, “Jesus give me that infused grace (Rome) or grace conversion/regeneration that gives me the power to obey the law in a third use way (Baptist/Reformed/Methodist) so we can get off of these crosses.”