Sin, between Law and Gospel

ImageBy Piotr J. Małysz

A fundamental question motivates these historically grounded reflections on sin: How can we talk about sin today? With a view to illuminating the answer, the following will reflect on certain conceptual dilemmas that came to define sixteenth-century Lutheran reflection on sin, and have punctuated it ever since. Our point of departure will be the Reformation’s radicalization of sin and its conceptual implications. In this light, we shall then consider how sin is disclosed. This will show the overarching dilemma in the relationship between law and gospel. When seen through the lens of sin, this relationship, I shall argue, appears to be more complex than the customary linear sequence in which the comfort of the gospel follows the accusation of the law and the conviction of sin. In fact, precisely this view leads to the loss of sin’s radical character, so crucial to Luther’s protest. The argument advanced here will be that, unless the gospel is related to the disclosure of sin, the Reformation’s insight about sin’s radicalness will be compromised, in the end minimizing not only sin but also grace. In the final section the essay addresses this very process by considering the impact which post-Reformation tensions, related to the nature of sin, exerted on the rise of autonomous human agency and being.

In Search of a Category

Philip Melanchthon’s charge in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) is that “the scholastic teachers . . . trivialize original sin.”[i] This should give us pause. For it is hard to overlook the proliferation, in the late Middle Ages, of confessional manuals notorious for giving detailed instructions to priests on how to tease out admission of guilt from unwilling penitents.[ii] Nevertheless, as early as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), there is a clear sense that there is more to sin. Sin is not just a transgression of the law, or a failure to keep it. Nobody in his right mind, including both Luther and his opponents, was interested in debating whether a crime was sinful. But Luther was vitally interested in debating whether, in addition to crimes, also those “works of man [which] always seem attractive and good . . . are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”[iii] Luther readily admitted that the works he had in mind were “not mortal sins . . . as though they were crimes [crimina].” But he still concluded that the good, attractive, even law-abiding works that humans perform could, in fact, be sins meriting eternal damnation.

Seen from this angle, the Reformation began as a controversy over sin and good works, provoked by Luther’s indictment of good works, regardless of whether they were self-devised or perfectly consonant with the law. This is how Luther’s first opponents saw it, forcing him to clarify that he was not, in fact, against doing good works but against the self-righteousness and self-congratulation—in short, against sinful pride—that naturally attend good works.[iv] Already in the Ninety-five Theses (1517) Luther drew attention to the necessity and importance of doing good works, such as providing for one’s family.[v] This did not prevent Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, from later making the notorious claim that good works were detrimental to salvation. Von Amsdorf’s view is certainly extreme, though not without precedent in Luther’s writings.[vi]

By contrast, today one rarely, if ever, hears Lutheran pastors speak to the good works of their congregants as likewise not immune to the danger of condemnation, perhaps even more in danger of it. After all, nobody wants to own their failures, but everyone wants to claim their successes. Today preaching sin seems to be confined largely to the law’s transgression. This brings us to the Reformation’s fundamental conceptual insight which, I think, ought to inform our consideration of sin today. It will not do simply to equate sins and crimes, sin and lawlessness, hamartiology and morality. But if we are not simply to equate them, how are we to relate them? Here two alternatives present themselves. The first option would be to regard crimes (crimina), as Luther understands them, merely as a subset of sin. Sin is simply a broader category: all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The larger set would then include also good works—those good works that are somehow deficient. With recourse to Kant, for example, we might blame this deficiency on the works being done only in accordance with duty, but not really out of duty.[vii] In that case, the opposite of sin would be virtue, wholehearted obedience to the law, which results not only in apparently or externally good works but in intentionally good works.

The alternative is sharply to distinguish sin and all works, including crimes, as belonging to entirely different categories. Distinction does not, of course, mean separation. To quote Eberhard Jüngel, “the necessity of distinguishing as sharply as possible emerges at the very point at which the things to be distinguished are bound together as tightly as possible.”[viii] But the relation is more complicated than that of larger sets to their subsets. The categorical distinction is, actually, the path taken by Luther and, albeit inconsistently, as we shall see, in the Lutheran Confessions. When one speaks of sin, it is certainly not enough to juxtapose evil deeds and good works—the goodness of good works is not determined ex opere operato, it is not automatic. But neither is it sufficient to place, on one side, evil deeds and only externally good works, and then juxtapose them with works that are truly intentionally law-abiding.[ix] Luther insists we must get at the root of the problem, “the inherited sin (Erbsünde), or the chief sin.”[x] This, for Luther, is unbelief. Although never quite transcending the category of human action and responsibility, unbelief belongs to a different category. Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”[xi] As early as The Babylonian Captivity (1520), we find Luther insisting that “no sin can condemn . . . save unbelief alone.”[xii]

One profound implication of this categorical shift, as Kierkegaard perceptively noted against the pious moralism of his own day, is that “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue.” “In part,” writes Kierkegaard, “this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, [namely,] that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: ‘whatever does not proceed form faith is sin.’ And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all of Christianity.”[xiii] In this respect, Kierkegaard may be seen as a good student of Luther, who likewise draws attention to the same juxtaposition. In his Sermons on the Gospel of John (1537), Luther contrasts sin and faith by noting that

unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed.[xiv]

 

Revealing Sin

Locating sin beyond ethical categories raises some dilemmas, two of which I discuss in what follows. In this section we ask whether a rational case can be made for sin. In the ensuing sections we consider sin’s relation to our humanity. To consider whether a rational case can be made for sin, we must begin with the question of how sin is disclosed. The Lutheran commitment to preaching the law rests on the assumption that sin can be rationally brought to light—even if the Formula of Concord adds the caveat that without the Holy Spirit’s alien, convicting work the chances are rather slim![xv] However, in light of what has been said, it is not unreasonable to ask whether preaching the law can get at sin at all, with or without the Holy Spirit. But then why specifically preach the law? Can a jump be made from the knowledge of oneself as an occasional, or even habitual, law-breaker and impurely-motivated doer of the good to the knowledge of sin? Can a jump be made from an empirically established “tendency of man’s heart and nature,” as Jonathan Edwards would have it, to the knowledge of oneself as a sinner?[xvi] It seems the only way this can be done is by invoking some Anselmian assumption of debt that becomes infinite on account of the offended party: then a single offense, however slight in itself, makes one inescapably into a sinner. But even if we were to follow this route, is it at all commensurate with the insight that sin is, fundamentally, unbelief? In short then, what is it that we do when we preach the law? And in what sense does the illumination of legal failure prepare one for the gospel? Does the gospel play any role beyond being that for which the law prepares the way? These are some questions that, I believe, deserve more reflection than they customarily receive (Article V of the Formula of Concord notwithstanding). The “Lutheran” answers, it seems to me, cannot simply be taken for granted.

[…]

The entire article appeared in Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014), 149-178.  DOWNLOAD

NOTES:

[i] Ap II.7: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 113 (hereafter, BC); Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11th ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 148 (hereafter, BSLK).

[ii] To this end, some of the manuals contained elaborate hierarchies, for example, of sexual sins; see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 91, 141-2. For Luther’s reaction against excessive sexualization of sin, which obscures its true character, see his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45); in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955ff), 1:114 (hereafter, LW); D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. F. K. Knaake et al., 57 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883ff), 42:86 (hereafter, WA).

[iii] LW 31:39; WA 1:353.

[iv] Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (LW 31:372-3; WA 7:70).

[v] Theses 41-46 (LW 31:12; WA 1:235).

[vi] See the editorial footnote appended by the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord to Art. IV of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: BC 574, n. 139.

[vii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor et al., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13.

[viii] Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 218.

[ix] Rejected are also other views which tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, such as Peter Lombard’s teaching that “original sin is merely a reatus (obligation resulting from a debt incurred by someone else) without any corruption of our nature” (FC, Solid Declaration, I.17; BC 534-5; BSLK 850).

[x] Smalc. Art., III.1.1 (BC 310; BSLK 433).

[xi] LW 35:369; WA DB 7:7-8.

[xii] LW 36:60; WA 6:529.

[xiii] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82 (emphasis added).

[xiv]LW 24:344; WA 46:42.

[xv] FC, Solid Declaration, V.11 (BC 583; BSLK 955).

[xvi]The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758; London: Johnson and Keith, 1766), 32 [Part I, Chapt. I, Sect. III].

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A Brief Introduction to Temporal Authority

By Piotr Malysz

Two kingdoms?

The label “doctrine of the two kingdoms,” often applied to Luther’s views on temporal authority, is somewhat of a misnomer.  The reformer’s views are far more complex and, in actual fact, entail several distinctions, such as that between spiritual and worldly modes of governing, and that between spiritual and worldly kingdoms.  Luther also distinguishes between the kingdom of God and kingdom of the devil — a distinction that cuts through the former two.  What follows is a brief sketch of Luther’s conception of temporal authority.  It is an exposition rather than a critical examination.  The sketch is excerpted, with some changes, from my article “Nemo iudex in causa sua as the Basis of Law, Justice, and Justification in Luther’s Thought,” published in Harvard Theological Review 100:3 (2007), pp. 363-386.

Spiritual and worldly governments

In his 1526 treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, written in the wake of the peasants’ revolt, Luther reiterates the distinction between the spiritual and worldly governments (understood as modes of governing), which he first introduced in his 1523 writing, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Can Be Obeyed.[1] The spiritual government (das geistliche Regiment) employs no coercive power, “but it has the [preached] word, by means of which men are to become good and righteous, so that with this righteousness they may attain eternal life.”[2] Because this righteousness is one of faith, which is in the heart – first, all who are under the spiritual government are equal, “whether they be outwardly male or female, prince or peasant, monk or layman,” and, second, “they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand.”[3] They live out the Golden Rule in all its loving selflessness.  Consequently, “among Christians there shall and can be no authority; rather all are alike subject to one another.”[4] This harks back to Luther’s dialectical adage from his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[5]

However, as Luther observes regretfully, not all people are “real Christians.”[6] The worldly government (das weltliche Regiment) must, therefore, seek to “bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds,”[7] and to this end it is entrusted by God with the coercive power of the sword, “so that those who do not want to be good and righteous to eternal life may be forced to become good and righteous in the eyes of the world.”[8] This government finds its expression not in spontaneous service but in responsibility exacted through various relationships of social and vocational dependence: one is father, child, master, servant, judge, citizen, or subject, etc.  One’s role in these relationships – much as one might be tempted to manipulate them to one’s own advantage – is clearly understood by reason, since, aside from the variety of positive laws pertaining to them, these offices (Ämter) are all founded on natural law: do to others as you would have them do to you.[9] Note that as it now takes the form of positive laws to preserve the structures of society, the Golden Rule is transformed into a transactional and retributive principle: the worldly government operates on the basis of reward and, more often than not, punishment: it pays back what is due.[10]

In sum, righteousness arises either out of faith, whereby it becomes the foundation of a person’s whole being before God and before the world, or is maintained externally by means of the sword.  Still, regardless of their differences, “God himself is the founder, lord, master, protector, and rewarder of both kinds of righteousness. There is no human ordinance or authority in either, but each is a divine thing entirely.”[11] The spiritual and worldly governments are both established by God.[12]

It is not simply because the worldly government is a mode of God’s activity that Christians are to participate in its operation after all.  The motivation is deeper.  To begin with, the spiritual regiment benefits from the existence of the worldly regiment[13] – external peace maintained by temporal authority enables the church to carry out its divine mandate: to call people from outward righteousness to the righteousness of faith, from temporal life to eternal life.  Christians’ participation in the structures of temporal authority assures, therefore, that the preservation of those structures, self-contained as they are, will not become an end in itself.  Luther’s scathing criticism of heavy taxes levied by compassionless, un-Christian, princes, or their attempts to rule over their subjects’ souls is a case in point.[14] More importantly, the Christian life is social and vocational existence par excellence – for this reason Christians cannot refrain from submitting to, and supporting, temporal authority.  It is the unbeliever who is the arch-individualist.  To appreciate the weight of this distinction, we must invoke Luther’s understanding of sin and with it his doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The human being in the spiritual and worldly kingdoms

The central issue underlying Luther’s Reformation breakthrough concerns no less than the identity of the human being – as such, and thus also before God.  Am I simply the sum of my works, as Aristotle would have it?[15] Even more pointedly, do I create myself through my works?  Or do I receive my being – am I justified – from the outside and only as such perform works?[16] For Luther identity can either be received by one, or else the person may, and indeed must, attempt to construct his own identity.  In the former case, what one is, as a creature, is determined by the love of God, who provides for all the needs of body and soul.[17] In the latter case, believing himself to be a free and autonomous shaper of his destiny, the person embarks on a pursuit of sources of security which could underwrite his being and provide him with a bargaining position before God.[18] He defines himself through his actions and commitments.  But, according to Luther, a human being can never be the locus of his own identity.  To believe otherwise means, first, to overlook God’s providential care of his creation, which includes the worldly government.  No work is simply one’s own.  Second, this posture is idolatrous, in that it seeks to influence God through his own gifts, which one has deceitfully ascribed to oneself alone.  Worse still, a blind search for sources of security[19] turns humans into slaves of their own self-justificatory activity, for to refrain from it would be tantamount to allowing one’s being to disintegrate.  Luther describes this enslaving pursuit of self-justification as being turned in on oneself (homo incurvatus in se ipsum) – sin.[20]

Instead of trusting in God, sinners trust in themselves.  Consequently, instead of loving the neighbor, they love themselves.  They are inexorably compelled to direct their works not to the neighbor, but ultimately to themselves.  What this means in practice is that the sinner’s works, however good they may appear, are ultimately only a modality of self-interest: works that appear good to fellow humans and would by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as crimes may, in fact, be mortal sins if they are used to serve one’s selfish goals and God’s agency is not explicitly, humbly and prayerfully recognized in them.[21] Regardless of the appearance, the reality is that, if left to themselves, sinners either abuse their socio-vocational roles or, constrained by the law, discharge their duties disgruntledly, selfishly and without much regard for others.  Small wonder then that “[w]here temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own.”[22] For the reformer, the sinner is the arch-individualist, and that in spite of all his activism.

Works, Luther insists, are by definition social: they are not self-serving but neighbor-serving.  Therefore, it is the Christian, not the self-justifying sinner, who, by allowing God through faith to define his spiritual and worldly identity, is alone free to work for others’ sake – free to love.  Defined by God and open to the neighbor, the Christian exists simultaneously before God (coram deo) and only as such also in the world (coram mundo).  Standing “before God in the Spirit,”[23] with his sins forgiven and his good works forgotten, the “Christian is a person to himself; he believes for himself and for no one else.”[24] All that matters in this kingdom of the Spirit (das geistliche Reich) is the cross of Christ and its re-creative impact upon the justified sinner, who, in turn, boasts only in Christ.  But complementary to this sphere is the kingdom of the world (das weltliche Reich), which is the realm where the Christian serves others, for here he is “not a person to himself, but on behalf of others”[25] – precisely because coram deo he already has God on his behalf.  It is, therefore, on account of their freedom to participate disinterestedly in the kingdom of the world, in the larger human – and not only Christian – community, that believers cannot refrain from involvement with worldly government (note, however, that in principle there is no strict correlation between the kingdom of the world and its actual, temporal, mode of government).  If the Christian were to withdraw from the world and refrain from exercising temporal offices, “he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love; he would also be setting a bad example to others who in like manner would not submit to authority, even though they were not Christians. In this way the gospel would be brought into disrepute, as though it taught insurrection and produced self-willed people unwilling to benefit or serve others, when in fact it makes a Christian the servant of all.”[26] Hence Luther’s admonition that Christians pay taxes and assist the sword by whatever means they can “with body, goods, honor, and soul.”  Though they themselves have no need of temporal authority, its continuance is both beneficial and essential for one’s fellow human beings.[27]

To summarize, Christians’ participation in the socio-vocational structure of society is motivated not only by temporal authority’s divine sanction but, first and foremost, by the law of Christian love.  Freed from debilitating self-justification by the justifying act of God, Christians alone can afford to be selfless and are truly able to love.


[1] A more comprehensive introduction to what has come to be known as Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and the two governments can be found, e.g., in Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 43-82; John R. Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 34:4 (1981), 321-337; W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984), 36-61; Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 151-159, 314-324.

[2] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[3] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88 (emphasis added).

[4] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:117.

[5] LW 31:344.

[6] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88.

[7] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[8] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[9] “This also agrees with the natural law that Christ teaches in Matthew 7, ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:110-111); “For nature teaches—as does love—that I should do as I would be done by” (“Temporal Authority,” LW 45:127).

[10] “The emperor or prince … should not tolerate useless people, who neither feed nor defend, but only consume, are lazy, and live in idleness, and drive them out of the land” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:128); “the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is … a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous” (“An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” [1525], LW 46:70).

[11] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:100.  Cf. “the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments” (96).

[12] Antti Raunio notes correctly, contra Althaus, that Luther’s concept of the law involves no dualism, as if there were two Golden Rules, one self-interestedly and coercively reciprocal, applicable to unbelievers, and the other, motivated by love, pertaining to Christians.  Both the spiritual and worldly governments proceed from God’s love and seek nothing but a loving response.  What Raunio seems to overlook, however, is that the Golden Rule, when translated into the worldly government’s legal system, inevitably becomes transactional and prohibitive in character.  With no dualism involved, this transformation shows only that ultimately love cannot be legislated, as evidenced by Christians, who “do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand” (see n. 13).  I shall speak to this in more detail below.  See Antti Raunio, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology,” Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 96-124.

[13] “the temporal power is but a very small matter in the sight of God, and too slightly regarded by him for us to resist, disobey, or become quarrelsome on its account, no matter whether the state does right or wrong. But on the other hand the spiritual power is an exceedingly great blessing and much too precious in his sight for the very least of Christian men to suffer silently when it deviates one hairsbreadth from its proper function” (“Treatise on Good Works” [1520], LW 44:93).

[14] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:104, 105.

[15] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1103b.

[16] As a Christian, “[a] doer does not get this name on the basis of works that have been performed; he gets it on the basis of works that are to be performed.  For Christians do not become righteous by doing righteous works; but once they have been justified by faith in Christ, they do righteous works.  In civil life the situation is different; here one becomes a doer on the basis of deeds, just as one becomes a lutenist by often playing the lute, as Aristotle says.  But in theology one does not become a doer on the basis of works of the Law; first there must be the doer, and then the deeds follow” (“Lectures on Galatians” [1535], LW 26:256).

[17] Cf. Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [II.2], The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 345.

[18] “human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything”; “Scripture … represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive” (“De Servo Arbitrio” [1525], LW 33:121, 130).

[19] Cf. Martin Luther, “Large Catechism” I.2.

[20] Cf. “Lectures on Romans” (1515-16), LW 25:291, 313, 345.

[21] “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518), [esp. Theses 3, 5, 7], LW 31:43ff.

[22] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[23] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:104.

[24] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.

[25] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.  In this particular context, Luther is speaking of the princes.

[26] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:94.

[27] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:95.

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

Theological Fragments: Distinctive Righteousness

“In developing this contrast between passive righteousness — which expresses itself in faith — and active righteousness — which expresses itself in performing the deeds of God’s plan for human life — Luther was bringing to light a fundamental distinction that had escaped articulation by most theologians since the time of the apostles. This distinction recognizes and rests upon Christ’s observation that human life consists of two kinds of relationship, one with the author and creator of life, the other with all other creatures (Matt. 22:37-39). …Luther’s theology found its orientation in this distinction between the identity that God as creator gives to his creatures and the performance or activities with which that identity expresses itself within the relationships God has fashioned for human life.”

–Robert Kolb, “Luther on the Two Kinds of Righteousness,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections, 42, 43.

Faith and Works: Defining a Relationship

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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”