A Brief Introduction to Faith & Works

By John D Koch, Jr

When approaching the topic “faith and works,” one is wise to heed the words of Gerhard Forde, who in his essay on the question, “Is forgiveness enough?” writes, “Speak for yourself! And beware! The answer will be something of a confession.”[1] As if that weren’t enough, as Carter Lindberg has remarked, this is extremely well travelled ground:

Indeed, the author of Ecclesiastes might have had our topic in mind when he wrote: ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh’(12:12). Yet, the preacher also addressed our topic in the next verse where he concluded that our whole duty is to ‘fear God, and keep his commandments.’ How simple our duty is! Yet, the question of how to ‘‘fear God and keep his commandments’’ has fueled perennial theological controversy, social conflict, and personal anxiety.”[2]

Nevertheless, in regards to this question, there is something to say, to confess even, because the relationship between faith and works is neither, as some have argued, primarily a question of sequence—a theological chicken and egg—nor is it one of clean separation under then headings of “justification,” and “sanctification” (as tempting as that may be). Rather, the nature of this relationship has more to do with questions of life and death, because a living faith “works.”

Gerharde Forde explains:

’Faith without words is dead,’ we are reminded. Quite true. But then what follows is usually some long and dreary description of works and what we should be about, as though the way to revive a dead faith were by putting up a good-works front. If the faith is dead, it is the faith that must be revived; no amount of works will do it.[3]

In other words, faith and works are related organically: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Lk. 6:43); and the key to this relationship is not to focus on the fruit, but on the “root of Jesse”(Rm. 15:12).

Far from a mere academic exercise, it was in an attempt to clarify none other than just this distinction that lead Luther and subsequent reformers to the rediscovery of the doctrine of Justification sola fide, because at the heart of a proper understanding of this relationship between faith and work lies the question, “how can I know I’ve done enough,” the impetus for Luther’s famous quest for a gracious God. In their book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings,” Jenson and Gritsch explain that, “In the original Lutheran movement, the language of ‘justification’ was the locus of an epochal radicalization of the problematic character of human life,”[4] a problem radicalized by the pastoral (ie. existential) failure of the medieval penitential system’s ability to assuage fearful and guilty consciences.  In other words, the theology of the Reformation was, rightly understood, pastoral theology. It was on account of being forced back to the scriptures in search of the Gospel that Luther rediscovered the “God who justifies the ungodly,”(Rm. 4:5), whose righteousness was appropriated by faith.

So far, so good; we have outlined a narrative that many in the Reformation tradition would rightly affirm.  However, this is where the difficulties arise, because it is at just this point, when one (rightly) affirms the precedence of faith to works, that we are tempted to view the entire enterprise from the perspective of the Law. When viewed in this way, faith and works constitute a logical or temporal succession within the ordo salutus—the order of salvation. Here is where the problem lies. According to Forde, when this move was made (at least in Lutheran Orthodoxy) to reduce faith and love to subsequent events:

The way was open to the temporalization and indeed psychologization of the ordo…” A “dead” orthodoxy could be vitalized only in the same way an “arid” scholasticism could be appropriated: turn it into a “way” with a certain series of “steps” in the religious “progress” of the individual “subject.”[5]

In this way, and to varying degrees, “works” returned to their place as the standard by which one knew one had faith, and thus even Luther’s own reversal of the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of fides caritate formata (faith formed by love) to caritas fide formata (love formed by faith), was marshaled in defense of this new system. It really does not matter whether you preach works as necessary before or after faith, because different means all point to the same end: good works.

When the relationship between faith and works is seen as subsequent, then, particularly in the throes of Anfechtung, it is impossible not to look to one’s own works as proof or assurance that one does, in fact, have faith. The prayer, “Lord, I believe, Help thou my unbelief,”(Mk. 9:24) becomes, “Lord, I work, help thou my unbelief.” When reduced to a temporal description, “Justification is a kind of obligatory religious preliminary,” writes Forde, “that is rendered largely ineffective while we talk about getting on with the truly ‘serious’ business of becoming ‘sanctified’ according to some moral scheme or other.”[6] For Protestants committed to the reformation solas, this way of separating justification and sanctification—faith and works—often exacerbates the very problem Luther was intending to avoid: the inability to have any assurance of faith. This is a tragic reversal of the “whole point of the Reformation [which was] that the gospel promise is unconditional; ‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed form all conditionality of fulfillment.”[7]

Instead of resting in the unconditional promise of the Gospel extra nos, now, it seems, the question is not “have I done enough?” but “do I really have faith? Do I really believe?”  Correspondingly, the argument that faith is a gift of God and such faith naturally performs good works seems impossibly cruel. “’God will be gracious, ‘we say, ‘if only you believe,’ thinking to follow the Reformation. Instead, [we] thereby usually proclaim a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of pure grace.”[8] And so, still stuck with the “problematic character of human life,” we’ve returned to the initial problem which prompted Luther’s quest for a Gracious God: how do we understand the relationship between faith and works?

Faith is nothing other than the certainty of salvation, the confidence in God’s merciful disposition towards us, and works done in faith make the work good. Bayer explains, “Luther directs his attention against those theologians who demand good work but who are weak in matters connected with the question about the certainty of salvation. According to Luther, the best works do me no good if I do not know how I am doing in my relationship with God. Without faith the best work is dead.” [9] In other words, only work done in the faith and security of God’s promised mercy towards us is a good work. Period.

The seeming ambiguity of this position is profoundly unsettling, because it removes any ability we have to measure our “progress” in the Christian life, takes the ruler of introspection out of our hands and forces our eyes on the Cross. We can neither look to works as meriting our standing before God, nor can we rest in a false distinction between justification and sanctification, as if that helps. Now, we must face the fact that it is only on account of God that we are counted righteous, and that all of our best works are but “filthy rags,” to use one of Luther’s favorite images from Isaiah. According to Bayer, this is the passive righteousness of faith without works, “which can only be suffered . . . happens when all thinking that one can justify oneself, in a metaphysical sense, as well as when all acting, in a moral sense, together with the desire to unite the two efforts, are radically destroyed.”[10]

Here, we are at a turning point, because faith, even when placed as the fount of good works, is not primarily a power to do good works, but the living condition of new life. Luther explains:

“Faith is a godly work in us which changes us and brings us alive anew from God. John 1:13, and kills the old Adam; it makes of us a completely different human being in our heart, courage, senses, and all powers, and brings the Holy Spirit along as well. Oh, it is a living, creating, active, powerful thing, this business about faith, so that it is impossible that it does not do good deeds incessantly. It dos not ask whether there are good works to be done, instead, even before one asks, it has accomplished them and is always doing them.”(LW 35:370)[11]

And so we have reached the confession, which Forde predicted. Appropriately, it comes at the end of this essay on the relationship between “faith and works,” because we confess that Christ alone “is the end of the law of righteousness, for everyone who believes.” And this is no mere intellectual assent to the proposition of what happened 2000 years ago; this is the confession that holds onto the (seemingly morbid) promise that by faith we have died! With the Apostle Paul, we confess that we “have been Crucified with Christ and it is no longer [we] who live” (Gal. 2:20), and by faith—daily, hourly, minutely—we are dying and rising to new life. In faith, we live as people who affirm in the words of the Anglican prayer book, “there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,” and are confident that He has.  When we approach this question, we are tempted, as always to look to ourselves as the measure of all things; however, we can confess Christ and his righteousness as the object of our faith, remain confident that such a faith “works,” and “go in peace, to love and serve the lord.” Thanks be to God.


[1] Forde, Gerhard O “Is Forgiveness Enough, Reflections on an Odd Question,” Word & World (St.Pauls; Luther Seminary, 1996) 302

[2] Lindberg, Carter. “Do Lutheran’s Shout Justification but Whisper Sanctification,” Lutheran Quarterly v. XIII (1999)

[3] Forde, Gerhard O. et al. Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988) 78

[4] Gritsch, Eric W., Jenson, Robert. W Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 38. For a further explanation, cf. the entirety of chapter 2:“A Christological Answer to a Radical Question,” 36-44.

[5] Forde, Gerhard “Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?” A More Radical Gospel, Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism. Mark C. Mattes and Stephen D Paulson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 132-133.

[6] Forde, Gerhard O. “The Lutheran View of Sanctificaiton. “The Preached God Mark C. Mattes and Stephen d. Paulson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 228

[7] Jenson and Gritsch. . . 37

[8] Jenson and Gritsch. . . 37

[9] Bayer, Oswald Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretaiton trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 284

[10] Ibid. 43

[11] Bornkamm, Luthers Vorreden zur Bibel, 182 quoted from. Bayer, Oswald Martin Luther’s Theology, 287

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A Brief Introduction to Confession and Absolution

Justification by Faith in Action

By John T. Pless

Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured[1]. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.

To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[2]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, “guilty.” The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic! Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[3]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. So in rite of individual confession and absolution we pray: “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all my sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most….”(LSB, 292). The sin is named not in an effort to “get it off my chest” but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another go at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[4]

The focus in confession and absolution is not on the confession per se, but on the absolution. Disconnected from the absolution, confession turns into just another effort to save ourselves. Then the old Adam begins to reckon that he is right with God because his confession was so completely sincere or deeply heartfelt. Or that he has been so pious and courageous to make individual confession a part of his regular spiritual discipline. In the medieval church, the requirement of no less than an annual trip to the confessional booth and the enumeration of specific sins had transformed confession into a spiritual torture chamber rather than an occasion for broken bones to be made glad in the Word from the Lord: “I forgive you all your sins.” It is at this point that Luther filters the old practice of private confession through the sieve of the Gospel so that it could be reclaimed for the sake of terrified consciences. Thus Luther develops five major points in his “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” included in the Large Catechism:

  • Confession should be voluntary and free of papal tyranny.
  • The practice of confession ought to be free of the unreasonable and tortuous demand that the penitent be able to enumerate his sins.
  • People should be taught how to use confession evangelically for the comfort of terrified consciences.
  • Christian liberty ought not be used as an excuse for setting private confession aside.
  • Private confession stands with other forms of confession in the church (fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer where we confess to God and the neighbor).[5]

These pastoral themes are reflected in Luther’s short order of confession included in the Small Catechism.[6] The insertion of a short order of confession between Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar was intended by Luther to catechize people in the evangelical use of confession and absolution. “Luther’s discussion of confession, along with the shape of his liturgical rite, shows how he redefines its essence and practice so that it ceases to be a burden and instead becomes an instrument by which the Gospel is conveyed personally to an individual”[7]

In this new version of an ancient rite, the pastor is not there as an ecclesiastical detective to flush out hidden transgressions or an inspector who must assure that standards of quality control are indiscriminately applied to penitential acts. Neither is the pastor a therapist trafficking in slogans of affirmation, a ministry of presence (whatever that frightening term might mean!), or a coach to get you enabled for a sanctified life. No, the pastor is here as the ear and the voice of the Good Shepherd. His words of forgiveness are not his own, but the Lord who has sent him (see John 20:21-23).

The ear of the pastor becomes the grave that forever conceals the corpse of sin. It is buried there never to be disinterred. In fact the pastor’s ordination vow puts him under orders never to divulge the sins confessed to him. Never means never. Pastors learn to practice God’s own forgetfulness of sins (see Psalm 103:9-14). Sins confessed to the pastor are sealed away in silence.

But the pastor’s lips are not sealed. He has a verdict to announce on the basis of the death of the Righteous One for the unrighteous. Your sin is not loaded on your own shoulders. It is carried by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it to Calvary. There it was answered for in His own blood.  His verdict is the absolution: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” That is justification in faith in action. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).


Appendix: Theses on the Seal of Confession

  1. The pastor hears confession by virtue of his office as Christ’s servant. Thus the pastor is both the ear and mouth of Christ for the penitent. It is Christ who hears the sins that are confessed to the pastor and it is Christ who absolves sinners through the word spoken by the pastor (Luke 10:16, Small Catechism V)
  2. Ordination places the pastor under orders to forgive and retain sins (John 20:19-23). This is the work of the office. He is not set in office as a servant of the state but of the church. In this office, the pastor must render unto God, the things that belong to God (Matthew 22:15-21). That is the pastor is obligated to render faithfulness to God in the stewardship of the means of grace.
  3. In the ordination vow, the candidate solemnly promises to perform the duties of the office in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. The candidate explicitly promises “never to divulge the sins confessed to you” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 166) Men should make this vow only after careful and prayerful study of the Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord. This vow is made coram Deo with the knowledge that such vows are promises made to God Himself (see Numbers 30:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).
  4. This vow obligates the pastor to complete and utter secrecy in respect to the sins that are confessed to him for God Himself removes these sins from the penitent and remembers them no more (see Psalm 103:8-12). “For the sake of timid consciences and to preserve the integrity of confessional conversations, the pastor promises in his ordination vows ‘never to divulge the sins confessed to him’”. (LSB-A, 39).
  5. For a pastor to reveal sins that have been confessed to him contradicts the forgiveness bestowed by Christ. This renders the pastor a hireling who is no longer capable of the trust of Christ’s Church and, therefore, must be removed from office (Ezekiel 34:1-11). When a shepherd exhumes that which Christ has buried in the forgiveness of sins, he exposes the sheep entrusted to his care to a variety of dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to unbelief and despair. A pastor who is unable to keep the promises of the ordination is not above reproach (I Timothy 3:2) and is untrustworthy (Proverbs 11:13).
  6. The silence that the pastor must keep may inflict upon the pastor severe pangs of conscience and possible legal action. Nevertheless, the pastor is not authorized to break the silence imposed upon him by the office. He may not forsake his sheep when threatened (John 10:11-13). This is a cross that it laid upon the pastoral office. If civil authorities seek to force the pastor to speak of sins that have been confessed to him, he must resist rendering unto Caesar that which belongs to God alone (Matthew 22:15-21).
  7. In his teaching and preaching, the pastor will need to catechize his people regarding the seal of the confession so that they have the confidence to confess their sins and receive absolution without the fear of betrayal.
  8. The confessional seal does not mean that the pastor has no legal or moral obligation to report or give testimony to immoral or illegal activity that may be reported to him or discovered by him in contexts outside of confession. A distinction is made between what is confessed to the pastor by a penitent and what is revealed to the pastor by one seeking protection from abuse or harm.

[1] See Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 1-9.

[2] On this point see the discussion of Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, trans. Carl Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 163-173. Elert traces the subjective understanding of guilt to F. Schleiermacher.

[3] On this point see Gerhard Forde, The Captivation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 21.

[4] Gerhard Forde, “Absolution: Systematic Considerations” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 153.

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 476-480.

[6] The Book of Concord, 360-362.

[7] Charles Arand, That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 169.

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For Further Reading

Girgensohn, Herbert. Teaching Luther’s Catechism – Volume 2, trans. John W. Doberstein. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

Krispin, Gerald. “Philip Jacob Spener and the Demise of the Practice of Holy Absolution in the Lutheran Church” Logia (Reformation 1999), 9-18

Kuhlman, Brent. “Holy Absolution: Rejoicing in the Gift” Lutheran Forum (Fall, 1997), 29-33

Peters, Albrecht. Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen-Band 5. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994

Pless, John T. Confession: God Gives Truth. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006

Pless, John T. “Your Pastor is Not Your Therapist: Private Confession-The Ministry of Repentance and Faith” Logia (Eastertide 2001), 21-26

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Luther on Private Confession” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009, pp. 211-230

Rittgers, Ronald K. The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004


John T. Pless is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

Faith and Works: Defining a Relationship

the_good_samaritan_after_delacroix

By Bryce P Wandrey

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. …Love does no wrong to a neighbour” (Romans 13:8, 10).

In his commentary on 1 Peter 1:17, Martin Luther wrote: “Now when I have given God […] honor, then whatever life I live, I live for my neighbor, to serve and help him. The greatest work that comes from faith is this, that I confess Christ with my mouth and, if it has to be, bear testimony with my blood and risk my life. Yet God does not need the work; but I should do it to prove and confess my faith, in order that others, too, may be brought to faith. Then other works will follow. They must all tend to serve my neighbor. All this God must bring about in us” (LW 30).

The relationship between faith and works – or between faith and love – is one that Christian theology has contended with from its inception. Various answers have been proposed, some contrary to another. The questions are essentially: Which comes first, faith or works? Must I do something to prepare myself in order to have faith? Must I do something after believing in order to be saved? Is it faith alone or faith and works? And if it is faith and works, how do those two things work together in the Christian life? What is more important: God’s love for us or our love of God and neighbor? Is it proper to oppose these propositions? Continue reading “Faith and Works: Defining a Relationship”

Luther: Contrition

“Whether our contrition is genuine or not is a question which cannot be left to our own discretion, but must be left to the judgment of God. Therefore, no one can say without presumption that he is truly contrite.

“…If a man were required to say that he was truly contrite, he would be driven to presumption and to the impossible task of knowing all sin and evil in his heart. And since all the saints still have sin and evil within them, it is impossible for anyone to have such contrition as will be adequate in God’s judgment… …If no one will be found justified, how will anyone be found contrite, since contrition is the beginning of justification?

“… God’s promise in the sacrament is sure; our contrition is never sure. For this reason God would have us build not on our uncertain contrition, but on his certain promise, so that we may be able to persevere in every time of trouble” (“Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, LW 32, 55).

Luther: Faith and Baptism

“That is also the meaning of Christ’s saying in the last chapter of Mark [16:16], “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” He puts faith before baptism for where there is no faith, baptism does no good. As he himself afterwards says, “He who does not believe will be condemned,” even though he is baptized, for it is not baptism, but faith in baptism, that saves. For this reason, we read in Acts 8[:36f.] that St. Philip would not baptize the eunuch until he had asked him whether he believed. And we can see every day that wherever in the whole world baptism is administered, the question is put to the child, or the sponsors in his stead, whether he believes, and on the basis of this faith and confession, the sacrament of baptism is administered” (”Defense and Explanation of All the Articles” (1521), LW 32, pg 14).

Luther: God’s Signs and Seals

In his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, Luther writes, “When one deals with words and promises, one needs faith even between men here on earth. No business or community could last very long if no one were prepared to trust another’s word or signature. Now, as we can plainly see, God deals with us in no other way than by his holy word and sacraments, which are like signs or seals of his words. The very first thing necessary, then, is faith in these words and signs, for when God speaks and gives signs, man must firmly and wholeheartedly believe that what he says and signifies is true, so that we do not consider him a liar or juggler, but trust him to be faithful and true. This faith pleases God above all things and does him the highest honor because it believes him to be true and a righteous God. Therefore, he in turn considers this faith as godliness, good and sufficient unto salvation” (LW 32, pg 15).