The following article will appear in the June-July issue of my congregation's newsletter, The Hope Lutheran:
We Lutherans are good about talking about how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But what about our good works? Do we Lutherans talk at all about how to live our life and how to do good works? Let’s see.
In 1520 Martin Luther wrote a book called The Freedom of the Christian. He made two statements that, at first glance, seem to contradict each other. Luther said,
· “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and
· “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 344)
What exactly did Luther mean? Since the Bible shaped Luther and his teaching, he was saying only what God says in His written Word. Even the Bible seems to give us some “dueling verses.” On the one hand, we read St. Paul when he says, “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Then, on the other hand, we read St. James, who says, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Well, which is it? Are we justified by faith alone, or are we justified by our works and our faith? Are we free lords, or dutiful servants? The answer is a good, firm, solid Lutheran “Yes!” Let me explain.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, St. Paul shows us how faith and works are really like to sides of the same coin—that coin being life with God. In part 1 of this well known passage Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). God saved us purely and solely by His grace revealed in the perfect life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. As St. Paul said earlier in Ephesians 2, we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Now, a corpse cannot give itself CPR, can it? Of course not! But God saved us—made us alive—by His grace, that is, by His goodness in Christ Jesus, His Son. And we receive that gift of new life and forgiveness by faith alone. In other words, we may not see visible proof of our new spiritual life, given by God Himself, but we can trust Him that we have it. As St. Paul says elsewhere, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
After extolling God’s grace that saves us, St. Paul goes on to part 2 of this well known passage. Here he talks about living in good works: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Now that we are alive in Christ Jesus, we live to do good works, and we do good works as we live all of life. Now that Christ’s blood covers and cloaks our sin, God sees everything we do as “good”—everything from getting up in the morning to going to work or school to helping a friend in need. Now that God makes us completely pure and holy in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus, we are free to do good works.
The catch, however, is that we do not need to do our good works for God. He doesn’t want or need them for Himself. Instead, we get to do our good works for our neighbor. Gustaf Wingren, a 20th century Swedish Lutheran theologian, said it this way: “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does” (Luther on Vocation, p. 10).
You see, God already gives us everything by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. He does not need us to “give Him” our good works. Instead, God wants us to give our good works to our neighbor. Bishop Wingren explained the difference well. First, he explained what faith is all about:
Faith receives a gift which is not to be “used” toward something else; it is simply a gift, a promise of participation in Christ’s eternal kingdom. Faith is joy at a gift which man received without becoming as good as he hoped (the gospel is for sinners). When he also receives God’s commandment, he heeds it, not that he may thereby become a better person—that would still be bondage to the law—but simply because God commands it. Such “single” obedience is the work of the Holy Spirit (Luther on Vocation, p. 200).
Simply stated, faith only receives the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as a free gift. The good news is this: we don’t need to do anything—anything!—to acquire or keep God’s gift of spiritual life.
Bishop Wingren then explained good works. Again, we don’t need to do our good works “for God” or “for Jesus.” Instead, we get to do them for our neighbor. Here’s what Wingren said:
The man of faith knows that in God he has enough for eternity. Therefore he can desist from great, systematic efforts toward being holy. He can attend to that which needs righting in relation to other people’s need, in the context of his life. It is of no moment to him whether or not his actions look spiritual. He does not act in order to strengthen his religious life, but rather for the sake of his neighbor. (Luther on Vocation, p. 201-202)
So, when we think about our faith and our good works—yes, Lutherans teach both!—we remember that they belong together like two sides of the same coin. First, God makes us pure, perfect, and completely holy in the blood of Jesus Christ. In our Baptism, God washed us clean for all eternity. When we hear the Gospel proclaimed in sermons, Bible classes or Holy Absolution, God keeps us pure and perfect in His forgiveness. And as often as we eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, Jesus Himself strengthens us on His own perfect life. So, in Christ each of us really is “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This new, pure, perfect, holy life that God freely gives us shows itself as we serve our neighbor. And our neighbor can be as close as our spouse, our child, or our parent, or as unknown as the child who benefits from our donation to the United Way. Good works are not necessarily “fancy works” or “works that get praised” at church or in society. Good works serve the need of our neighbor. Our good works can include feeding a homeless person, or they can simply involve clearing the table after dinner or changing a dirty diaper. Going to work in the morning and doing our job to the best of our ability is just as much a good work as giving to a charity. You see, God delights in all shapes and sizes of good works. But He does not create us for good works so that we can stroke our own egos. Instead, He “reprograms us,” if you will, to do good works for our neighbor’s benefit.
So, we can rejoice in our faith in Christ Jesus and in our good works. They go together like two sides of the same coin—the “coin” of new life with God in Christ Jesus. The hymn says it so well,
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supplyThe proof that faith is living. (LSB 555:9)