I am starting to become less and less convinced that Christians, at least in America, actually struggle with things like I am about to highlight in this post. It seems as if a folkism has overtaken American Evangelicalism in a way that pragmatism and utilitarianism rues the day, and principle and doctrinal concerns no longer, for some reason are important—I am somewhat rabbit trailing from where I want to take this post. I hit on this because I think that what this post is going to talk about might be down on the pole of significance for many of us; in fact I think that American Evangelicalism, in general, has so imbibed our feel good pop culture that the concept of ‘good works’ and right standing before God really have no functional meaning for people’s daily lives and spirituality. We are so busy with everyday concerns, trying to make ends meet, watching TV, and entertaining ourselves to death; that serious reflection about doctrinal concerns—like the relation between good works and saved by faith alone—really have no place of import in our lives.
Nevertheless, for those who might be the exception to my sketch above, this post might mean something to you. As you might have already picked up, I want to bring up the issue of ‘good works’ in the Christian’s life. And in particular, I want to get more insight into what Martin Luther, the Reformer thought, who is primarily known for emphasizing sola fide, ‘faith alone’. Maybe though, maybe I am wrong about what I was getting at in my first paragraph above; maybe in fact good works for Christians are alive and well, maybe good works (whatever those are) are what provides salvation, psychologically, for so many of us. Maybe when we do good things we feel good before God (coram Deo), and maybe when we do bad things we feel guilty before God; so maybe that’s why we try to comfort ourselves by the good that we do, and brushing the bad under the good in a way that makes us feel ‘justified’ before God (and of course we attribute the good to the power of God in our lives, and thus we even feel more justified when we see our good works; in fact we start to look at our good works as the basis for our assurance of salvation). According to John Webster, Martin Luther would totally disagree with you—if you think your good works are a sign of your salvation or something—here is how Webster describes Luther’s view here:
[…] Luther’s doctrine of justification b grace through faith severs the bond between acceptance and self-realization which he found in scholastic anthropology; in effect, his moral ontology calls into question the notion that self-conscious, self-actualizing selfhood is anthropologically primary. Indeed, in a crucial phrase he notes how, in good works as traditionally understood (i.e. as ‘religious’ works), ‘the self has been set up as an idol’. He acutely sees that religious works, and the understanding of the human person through which their significance is expounded, have become an exercise in self-preservation; good works are in league with human egotism, and their consequence is accordingly the deepening of human depravity and not release from it. For such works have become ‘merely acts of appeasement and self-righteous attempts at self-salvation. Luther recognised the depth of the corruption of the self which attempts to turn all goods to itself’. The target of Luther’s critique is thus the prudential calculation of benefits which might accrue to the agent on the basis of certain kinds of moral performance; acts undertaken in anticipation of rewards are ipso facto disqualified as good works, because within them lurks the sinful, self-realizing ego. If the Christian is related to his or her good works ‘self-centeredly’, the result is that chronic inflammation of the self which is the curse of sin. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 163.]
This seems like a dilemma! If good works aren’t the sign of my salvation; if good works can’t provide me with assurance of salvation, then what or who can? If good works which are done by natural Pelagian impulse only serve to really further my own self-deception about how sinful I am—as T. F. Torrance would say ‘all the way down’—then I am of all men most to be pitied.
Of course the answer is ‘faith’, the faith of Christ at work in us by the Spirit. This is the ground of assurance, it is the faith of and the faith in Christ that resolves the dilemma. Good works, the ones we have been recreated in, in Christ (Eph. 2:10); are a result of the overflow of relationship that we already have with Christ. We don’t look to our good works as if those are our ‘Yes’ before God, He already said ‘No’ to them at the cross; instead, with the Apostle Paul we look to Christ where ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory’ (II Cor. 1:20).
What Luther’s emphasis can provide is a way out of a moralistic Christian spirituality that can only produce introspective navel gazing Christians who ultimately are driven by angst, instead of the power of God, which is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ; the one that we are not ashamed of (Romans 1:16).