Do Lutherans have a problem with good works? The chief article of our faith, justification, teaches that we are saved not by works, but only by God’s grace when we believe that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4) (Augsburg Confession, “Article IV: Justification”).
Why, then, would I do good works? If I am saved by grace, then I don’t need to worry about doing good works. I can do what I want, when I want, regardless of how sinful it is, and, as long as I believe Jesus died for me, I’m okay. Or so the faulty logic goes. Lutherans are sometimes accused of this error, but it’s simply not true. The Augsburg Confession says,
Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). The Fathers teach the same thing. Ambrose says, “It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving forgiveness of sins, without works, through faith alone (Augsburg Confession, “Article VI: New Obedience”).
Christians should do good works simply because it is God’s will. If God has commanded something, then it is good, and it should be done.
Good works are also a natural consequence of faith. We still have a sinful nature, so we are still tempted to sin, and we often give into it. But there is also something new. We should have a gratitude for God’s forgiveness, and there is a new creation, which delights in God’s will. Having been justified for Christ’s sake, do you really want to break every commandment? I think not. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, assures us of our forgiveness, and creates a desire to obey God.
God has given us commandments, and his commandments are good. As we grow in faith, we begin to trust, more and more, that the things God says are good. To trust God includes believing that the commandments he gives are good for us. When faced with temptation, we can acknowledge that our sinful nature pulls us in one direction, but that God’s will is ultimately better for us.
So we put good works in their proper place. They should be done, because they are God’s will, and God’s will is always good. But they do not merit us anything before God. We are received into his favor only through faith in Jesus Christ. This gives us freedom to serve without fear.
The peace of Christ be with you all,
Pastor Dan Antal