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.”