Luther on Faith and Works

Lutherans are often accused from without of being antinomian, in the pejorative sense, and teaching (formally or at least in practice) that God establishes no moral norms on the Christian believer.  This unfortunate reality is nothing more than the result of poor doctrinal instruction mingled with our uncanny sinful ability to rationalize sin.  Such a bastardized notion of “Christian freedom” may well be evident to some degree in American Lutheranism, but neither Scripture nor Martin Luther will have anything to do with it.

Luther properly understood and wonderfully articulated the distinction and close connection of faith and works.  Perhaps his most famous explanation comes from the opening pages of his work, “Concerning Christian Liberty,” where he writes, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  This pithy maxim holds in proper tension the freedom we have from works as a means of justification and the obligation we have to serve our neighbors by our works.  Luther brings out the practical difficulty of teaching these truths in preaching and teaching when he writes on John 15:

Jesus is saying, “You are in me and remain in my, so make sure you keep my commandments.  For I must give each of you a task as a sign to others that you are my true branches.  That task is to love each other.  I keep this command myself so that I can be an example and model to you.  And I remain in my Father’s love because I keep this command.  Therefore, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Earlier in this book, Christ also says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13.35).

So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily.  Neither faith nor works can be ignored.  For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works.  On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians.  These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

That’s why it’s so difficult to preach.  No matter how I preach, something goes wrong.  Someone always goes off on a tangent.  If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works.  If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works.  The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works.  So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works.  We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 24:249)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, by God’s grace, let us hold fast to our unwavering faith in Christ and let us put our faith into action as we live out our lives each day.  Soli Deo gloria.

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