A Reformation 500 reflection upon the purity of the Gospel in the face of overt aggression from Christians and the Church

A reflection for Reformation 500. Below, Luther responds to the confused, explaining that true faith is not “virtue” in the Roman Catholic sense – that many contemporary Protestants take it. It is neither identical to good works nor the mere cause of them. It is not love, or grace, or a good work found noble to God. More, faith is not to be confounded with repentance, or fidelity or good intentions. These are all important things but must be distinguished or the grace of God will be brought into disrepute by the ambition of man, always clawing for some righteousness of his own.

Is there any way to be saved by grace alone? Many still refuse it. They reach out with grace and say that our good works that save us were inspired by grace and so they too save us by grace alone, and so make a mockery of grace. A grace which is, at last, the merit of good works. The very word “good” is simply a synonym for “merit”, value, earning, obligation, just as evil, bad, sin and death are demerits and deleterious to the perfections of God. So when they say we are saved by good works but good works without merit, the trickery in their hearts is seen for what it is, a bloody yearning​ for self-congratulation​.

Can we be saved by grace and still be required to live a life of forgiveness and love? Of course. Good works are not an option but an obligation; a duty. A duty left unfulfilled in every human actor. An obligation that when we have performed to the very best of our ability leaves us saying, “I am only a sinner saved by grace, and all of my good works are like filthy rags. And yet I strive to please my God even in my weakness and failing, because he gave himself for me.”

For every day, we Christians sin in thought, word and deed. You Christian, who think yourself righteous by works, you sin every day in thought, word and deed, and yet you think Christ has only done this work: he has covered your sins with his blood and made your meager attempts at good works acceptable “as if” they were sinless. And so the atonement itself becomes a kind of a lie intended to resurrect your justification by your own good works. Adam was under a test of good works, and now you are too, but with the helpful blood of Christ covering only your inadequacies. It is a con, a trick, divine sleight of hand. The crucixion itself has in their minds, been performed for the sake of sanctifying​ mere human effort.

But the sinful nature is ever vigilant to confound the cause with the effect. There has been no age of the church in which some man hasn’t been ready to stand up and proclaim their shred of righteousness before a holy God. It is that very shred that will condemn them on the last day. That tiny piece that says, “this little righteousness was mine, my contribution to the divine glory, the cross work of Christ, and the gospel of grace and good works”.

It is at last, the same as if they had reserved the entire work of salvation to themselves alone.

We answer with the Apostle Paul, “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16


From “On Christian Liberty” Martin Luther

“Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing, and not a few have given it a place among the virtues.

They do this because they have not experienced it and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith.

It is impossible to write well about it or to understand what has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a man when trials oppress him. But he who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it. It is a living “spring of water welling up to eternal life,” as Christ calls it in John 4:14.

As for me, although I have no wealth of faith to boast of and know how scant my supply is, I nevertheless hope that I have attained to a little faith, even though I have been assailed by great and various temptations; and I hope that I can discuss it, if not more elegantly, certainly more to the point, than those literalists and subtle disputants have previously done, who have not even understood what they have written.

To make the way smoother for the unlearned — for only them do I serve — I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.

Faith redeems, corrects, and preserves our consciences so that we know that righteousness does not consist in works, although works neither can nor ought to be wanting; just as we cannot be without food and drink and all the works of this mortal body, yet our righteousness is not in them, but in faith; and yet those works of the body are not to be despised or neglected on that account.

In this world we are bound by the needs of our bodily life, but we are not righteous because of them. “My kingship is not of this world” [John 18:36], says Christ. He does not, however, say, “My kingship is not here, that is, in this world.” And Paul says, “Though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war” [II Cor. 10:3], and in Gal. 2[:20], “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”

Thus what we do, live, and are in works and ceremonies, we do because of the necessities of this life and of the effort to rule our body.

Nevertheless we are righteous, not in these, but in the faith of the Son of God.”


2 thoughts on “A Reformation 500 reflection upon the purity of the Gospel in the face of overt aggression from Christians and the Church

  1. We will never grasp what “righteousness through faith” is all about if we don’t hit it head-on in the principle of the birth in Christ, as in Jn. 4 and 1 Jn., notably 3:9, 5:2-3, 12. It is the faith of Mary in her pure conception and birth of The Son of God.

    And does it need to be stated again that this conception and birth is not, nor ever can be, achieved through even the most well-intentioned and devoted human study or endeavor? Mary’s faith that gives birth to the righteousness of God is what Jesus refers to in Jn. 6:29, Mt. 11:27 (Lk. 10:22).

    Righteous work is not something we offer in gratitude, not a pledge of redoubled resolve to try harder to be good. God’s Righteousness is the very substance of the authentic birth in Christ. If one does not show forth God’s Righteousness in one’s own person (1 Jn. 4:2), there is no authentic conception and birth in Christ no matter how hard one tries.

    The faith of Mary is first of all a matter of RECOGNITION!! Recognition of and surrender to the Most HIgh One. it is the ‘Sh’ma’ the “Hear and Obey” at the head of the Law in Deut. 6:4 (Mk. 12:29, Mt. 22:37, Lk. 10:27). That recognition and surrender is what placed Mary in the embrace of Love in which the Son is conceived and born.


  2. Thank you Neiswonger for taking the stand to discuss this subject which draws the line for what it means to be a true Christian. Living by faith in Christ to save the soul and forsaking ones own righteousness before God is what it means to be Christian. By resting on Christ for his justification for sin, the sinner finds that he is given hope. For the sinner it is all joy, not a difficult thing to live by. For faith is a gift from God just as his justification of mankind by his mercy. We must not work at making ourselves acceptable to God for he has made himself our heavenly Father. He knows we suffer because of our sinful nature. He gives us this hope: that we will bear fruit and we will eat of it. We know that all good works will be the work of God in us or by others.
    Boasting about good works or practicing some sort of religious piety to continue in this faith makes the gift void. Saint Paul admonished the church for living this way. (Gallatians1:3 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?…..)
    We must learn to rest on Christ and trust Him. This is difficult but through him it is not. He makes our burdens easy and light. Through this type of faith we suffer persecution from others, especially within the church. There is a spiritual war being fought where many seek to puff up themselves and others in order to prove themselves worthy of their pride. It takes many forms but it is always seeking to undermine this faith.


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