Citizens of the United States have just concluded another observance of Independence Day, a commemoration of our independence from England and an opportunity to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. But what does it mean to have freedom as a Christian? Martin Luther’s Christian Freedom shows us that we find real freedom only in the Gospel and at the cross of Christ, not in the things of this world. Luther connects the struggle to make God-pleasing choices in this life with the continued study of Scripture and with God’s gracious gift of salvation in Christ.
The following excerpt from Christian Freedom: Faith Working through Love explores the relationship of the outward man, good works, and faith.
[Second Part: The Outer Man Subject to the Holy Spirit]
Let this be said concerning the inward man, concerning his liberty, and concerning the chief righteousness of faith, which has need of neither laws nor good works. They are even harmful to it, if anyone presumes to be justified by them.
Now let us turn to the second part, to the outward man. For here we shall give an answer to all those who take offense at the Word of faith. At what has been said, they say, “If faith does everything and is enough for righteousness on its own, then why are good works commanded? We therefore shall remain idle and do no works, being content with faith.” I reply: Not so, godless men, not so. That would really be the case, to be sure, if we were thoroughly and completely inward and spiritual. That will not happen until the last day of the resurrection of the dead. As long as we live in the flesh, we are doing nothing but beginning and making progress in that which shall be completed in the life to come. On account of that, the apostle in Romans 8[:23] calls what we have in this life the firstfruits of the Spirit. For we shall have the tithes and the fullness of the Spirit in the future. To this part relates what has been stated above, that the Christian is the servant of all and subject to all. For in that part in which he is free, he does no works. But in that part in which he is a servant, he does all works. Let us see in what sense this is so.
As I have said, a person inwardly is justified abundantly enough through faith, according to the spirit. He has whatever he ought to have, except that it is necessary that this very faith and wealth increase from day to day until the life to come. Although this is true, nevertheless he remains in this mortal life upon the earth, in which it is necessary that he rule his own body and have dealings with people. Here works finally begin. Here one must not remain idle. Here one must certainly take care of one’s body, by fasts, vigils, labors, and other regular disciplines. One must be exercised and subjected to the Spirit, so that the outward man may obey and be conformed to the inward man and faith, not rebel against it or impede it, as is its nature if the outward man is not restrained. For the inward man is conformed to God and created in the image of God through faith, and rejoices and delights on account of Christ, in whom such great blessings have been conferred upon him. Hence he has only this task before him, that he serve God with joy and freely in unfettered love.
While he is doing this, behold, he comes upon a contrary will in his own flesh, which is striving to serve the world and to seek that which is its own. The spirit of faith cannot and will not bear this contrary will. It undertakes with cheerful zeal to restrain and repress it, as Paul says in Romans 7[:22–23], “I delight in the Law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin,” and elsewhere, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be rejected” [1 Corinthians 9:27], and in Galatians 5[:24], “Those who are Christ’s have crucified their flesh with its desires.”
But it is necessary that these works not be done with the idea that through them anyone can be justified before God—for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, will not bear this false notion. These works should be done only with the idea that the body may be brought into subjection and purified from its evil desires, so that one may have in view only the purging away of desires. For when the soul has been cleansed through faith and made to love God, it wants all things to be cleansed in the same way, especially its own body, so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. Thus it comes about that a man, because his own body requires it, cannot remain idle. He is compelled by it to do many good works, that he may bring it into subjection. Yet neither are these works the reason he is justified before God. With unfettered love, he does them in obedience to God, attending to nothing other than the divine good pleasure, which he desires to obey most dutifully in all things.
On this principle, each may easily instruct himself in what measure or discretion, as they call it, he ought to discipline his own body. For he will only fast, keep vigil, and labor, as much as he sees to be enough for the suppression of the lustfulness and desire of the body. But those who presume to be justified by works are looking not to the mortification of desires. They look only to the works themselves. They think that, if only they do as many and as great of works as possible, all is well with them, and they are made righteous, sometimes even injuring the brain and destroying nature, or at least rendering it useless. This is enormous folly and ignorance of Christian life and faith, to want to be justified and saved without faith through works.
[Four Examples of Good and Valid Works]
Now in order that the things that we have said may be more easily grasped, let us demonstrate them with illustrations. The works of a Christian, who is justified and saved through his faith out of the pure and free mercy of God, ought to be regarded in no other way than would have been the works of Adam and Eve in paradise and of all their children if they had not sinned. Of them it is said in Genesis 2[:15], “God placed the man whom He had formed in paradise, that he might work and take care of it.” But Adam had been created by God righteous and upright and without sin so that he did not have need of being justified and becoming upright through his work and caretaking. But that he might not be idle, the Lord gave him the business of keeping and cultivating paradise. These would indeed have been the freest of works, done for the sake of nothing but the divine good pleasure, not for the obtaining of righteousness. He already had that to the full, which would also have been innate in us all.
It is the same with the works of the individual who believes. Through his faith, he has been newly placed in paradise. Being created anew, he does not need works in order that he may become or remain righteous, but that he may not be idle and that he may exercise and preserve his own body. These works are for him works of the freest sort. They are done only with a view to the divine good pleasure, except that we are not yet fully created anew in perfect faith and love. These ought to be increased, though not through works, but through themselves.
Another [illustration]: A sacred bishop, when he consecrates a church, confirms children, or performs any other duty of his office, is not consecrated as bishop by these works themselves. On the contrary, unless he had been previously consecrated as bishop, not one of those works would avail anything and they would be foolish and childish and ridiculous. Thus a Christian, having been consecrated by his faith, does good works. But he does not become more sacred or Christian through these works, since this is [the effect] of faith alone. On the contrary, unless he previously believed and was a Christian, all his works would not help at all and would really be godless and damnable sins.
And so these two sayings are true: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works.” Thus it is always necessary that the substance itself or the person be good prior to any good works, and that good works follow and come forth from a good person. As even Christ says, “A bad tree does not make good fruits; a good tree does not make bad fruits” [Matthew 7:18]. Now it is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on the fruits. On the contrary, the trees bear the fruits, and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary that trees exist prior to their fruits, and as the fruits do not make the trees either good or bad—on the contrary, the same sorts of trees make the same sorts of fruits—so it is necessary that the person itself of the man be good or bad first before he does a good or bad work. His works do not make him bad or good, but he himself makes his works either bad or good.
It is possible to see similar cases in all handicrafts. A bad or good house does not make a bad or good builder. But a bad or good builder makes a bad or good house. And in general, no work makes the workman like the work itself is, but the workman makes the work like he himself is. It is the same way with human works: as the individual himself is of a certain kind, whether a person in faith or in unbelief, so also his work is of the same kind, good if done in faith, bad if in unbelief. But the converse is not true, that the work of a certain kind is that which the individual becomes in faith or in unbelief. Since works do not make a person faithful, so neither do they make him righteous. But since faith makes a person faithful and righteous, so also it makes his works good. Since works therefore justify no one, and it is necessary that a person be righteous before he does good, it is most evident that it is faith alone which, by the pure mercy of God through Christ in His Word, worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person. A Christian needs no work, no Law, for salvation. For through faith he is free from all Law, and in pure liberty does all things freely, whatever he does, seeking nothing either of profit or of salvation, but only the good pleasure of God. For by the grace of God he is already enriched and saved through his faith.
Footnotes have been omitted.
From Christian Freedom: Faith Working Through Love, pages 63–68 © 2011 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To order Christian Freedom, please contact CPH at 800-325-3040 or visit www.cph.org.