Works-Righteousness: Luther’s Response to His Opponents

This blog post is adapted from Luther’s Works, Volume 61: Theological and Polemical Works.

These notations made by Martin Luther regarding the Bible passages used by his opponents to support works-righteousness were gathered by Veit Dietrich during Dietrich and Luther’s stay at the Coburg as the Diet of Augsburg progressed. Although he never completed the book, these fragments offer insight into Luther’s thinking during a critical point in the history of the Reformation.

The objection concerning the people of Nineveh in Jonah [3:10], that God regarded their works.

Answer: This is what all the ungodly do. When reading the Scriptures, they pick out some solitary passage and twist it to their own meaning with utter disregard for the preceding and subsequent context, the causes, or the circumstances. Thus they blind their own eyes and openly make a laughingstock of themselves. See here how this is the case with this passage.

The text clearly indicates that Jonah already preached to them about their sin [Jon. 3:4]. This comes first. At this point, then, before everything [else], they hear the Law and recognize their sin before doing any work. Then the king commands a proclamation of repentance [Jon. 3:8] and adds: “Who knows? Maybe He will turn and pardon so that we will not perish” [Jon. 3:9]. These are words of faith.

At this point repentance and the forgiveness of sins is openly proclaimed even before they do any work. For who can make a proclamation to hope for pardon without first knowing and believing that there is forgiveness of sins? Therefore, you see the fear of God and faith in His grace here before all their works. And from this faith the works of repentance follow. But with faith present, they are already righteous before works. God looks at them as the fruits of true faith, just as the text itself explains it, saying, “Because they turned from their evil way” [Jon. 3:8]. Behold, they changed entirely, they did not merely do works. What more is there to say? The blind sophists do not see the testimony in the text. “And the people of Nineveh believed the Lord” [Jon. 3:5], that is, before any of their works . . .

The final summary is that children and little ones confirm in their catechism that faith alone justifies apart from works.

First. In the Creed they say, “I believe the forgiveness of sins.” But now, what is believed by faith is received as a gift on the basis of a promise. Therefore, it is not acquired by works since the promise comes not on the basis of works but on the basis of grace. It was always given before the Law, as all the examples after Adam’s fall prove. Galatians 3 [:18]: “God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” Therefore, because it is a gift of God, it is not our work or merit. Thus when faith receives the gift, it receives it apart from works and merits.

Second. In the Decalogue they say, “The First Commandment is: ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before Me’” [Exod. 20:2–3]. But now, the First Commandment is a promise that He wants to be [our] God. It requires faith before all the works that are required by the following commandments. Yet according to the First Commandment, it is by faith that we are children of God, when our sins have already been forgiven and we are righteous by faith itself. After that we are forbidden to put such faith in any other gods.

Third. In the Lord’s Prayer they say at the beginning: “Our Father, who art in heaven” [Matt. 6:9]. Therefore, they are already children and righteous before they do any works. The voice of faith speaks before the works, when they say, “Our Father.” Then the works follow: they hallow His name, extend His kingdom, and do His will [Matt. 6:9–10].

Therefore, just as the First Commandment is first and stands alone before and apart from all the others (for it does not receive from the others its placement as first, but the others come after it), so faith is prior and apart from the works and accomplishes the things that belong to faith. That is, it justifies, appeases, and glorifies God. It calms, stills, and gladdens the conscience which has been set free from sins. Then, at last, it works, teaches, and suffers.

Blog adapted from Luther’s Works, Volume 61: Theological and Polemical Works copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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