Luther on Faith and Works

Martin Luther is commonly portrayed as one who was strictly concerned with faith as a momentary event involving the transfer of trust, apart from a subsequent lifetime of obedient works. I would like to suggest that this caricature is inaccurate.

Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans” was written in 1522 for inclusion in his German translation of the Bible. The preface summarizes key words in Romans, such as “justification,” “faith,” “sin,” and “law.” It then outlines the meaning of each chapter of the epistle. Describing faith, Luther counters accusations that the Reformation doctrine of justification is indifferent to good works in the Christian life. Although justification is by faith alone, true faith is living and always results in good works.

Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith. When they see that no improvement of life and no good works follow—although they can hear and say much about faith—they fall into the error of saying, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is due to the fact that when they hear the gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, “I believe”; they take this then to be a true faith. But, as it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that he may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.1

Footnotes

1 Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 365-380, at 370-371.

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