Luther, ‘in favor of good works’?

Actually, it is quite impossible that Luther would ever have preached a sermon with such a title. Good works? That belongs to the Catholic vocabulary! Was it not Luther who came into the greatest despair precisely because of these good works? Was it not his action against a theology of performance that made even a positive word about good works impossible? Someone who does not know the content of this sermon, and only looks at the title, could imagine that it is a misunderstanding to attribute this sermon to Luther.

But such a misunderstanding leaves the impression that Luther was an enemy of good works. Of course, this would suit many people better and so it was already understood by some at that time. That a person does not become a child of God and receive eternal life on the basis of his good works was twisted into the message that good works are dangerous for the acquisition of eternal life. This meant that it was better not to do them in order not to endanger eternal salvation. In addition, there was the criticism from the Roman side that Luther made it very easy for people with his message of grace. No matter how bad, how sinful and harmful a person was, grace and forgiveness were always there. All in all, that was reason enough for Luther to make clear what the relationship between grace and works are. Hence in 1520, this sermon on this very subject was written.

Of course for Luther, good works are self-evident and necessary. But only if one considers that, as he says, faith is the 'first and highest, aller edlist gut werck'. One gets into trouble when one does not know the right consequence. Frustration, restlessness and fear arise when good works are used to bring us into the right relationship of faith with God, because everyone knows how defective and sinful our works are. We will never make it that way!

But when you start with faith, the faith that Jesus Christ has paid your debt to God and brings you back into a relationship of a child to the Father, then peace comes into your heart and you do good works not as an achievement but as acts of gratitude, not out of fear but out of joy. This is also the reason that good works are a matter of course for Luther, because the believer wants to do what God asks of them. To love God above all things and to love one's neighbor as oneself becomes a joyful challenge. And because it starts with faith, there is no need to despair when this love sometimes does not work out.

Grace makes doing good works easy, not frivolous. Good works can also not be good outside of faith, because one does not do them out of love for God or neighbor, but out of self-love, because one wants to do something good for oneself. God cannot be served with a compulsory obedience. It should proceed from the heart as it also is found in the heart.

And with this background in mind, Luther comes to the interpretation of the Decalogue. These Ten Commandments can sound so unevangelical, with their thou shalt or thou shalt not. But Luther comes to these commandments from a completely different angle. Not as a compulsory listing, not as a means of coercion, but as a guidelines for a concretization of Jesus' word about the highest commandment.

The first part of the Decalogue is about love for God and the second part is about love for others. So the most important thing is one’s relationship to God. And so the commandments bring us back to faith because the commandments also show us our guilt. Luther points out that the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' is not fully fulfilled if we do not murder anyone. Murder also happens with words or with silence. Luther goes into depth and confronts all people with the message that sin is in all of us and therefore we all need grace all the time. So this sermon becomes a workbook in which faith and good works, sin and grace, go together in an exciting and dynamic way but the works always give priority to grace. No wonder, then, that when Luther was working on this work, he wrote in a letter: 'If it progresses in this way, I think it will be my very best book.'


Herman Selderhuis is professor of church history at the Theological University of Apeldoorn in the Netherlands and president of the Reformation Research Consortium (REFORC), a unique and international association of universities, research institutions, companies, societies and individuals focusing on Early Modern Christianity.