Luther’s First Good Work
In the opening section of “A Treatise on Good Works,” Martin Luther declares: “The first and highest, the most precious of all good works is faith in Jesus Christ.”1 Luther was not an ethicist as such, but his claim, if true, has wide-ranging implications for anyone in pursuit of the “good life”—that end toward which ethics is aimed. Such a bold idea warrants justification. What could this statement possibly mean? How is faith a work at all—much less a good one? Luther nevertheless stands firm under investigation: his claim is faithful to Holy Scripture in both its diagnosis of fallen humanity and its treatment of that diagnosis through faith in Jesus Christ—the necessary foundation for all good works.
Perhaps the most salient point of Luther’s claim is his definition of faith, one rooted firmly in Pauline theology. Faith, for Luther, is not wishful optimism or irrational presumption upon the divine, but rather, trust that God is completely pleased with one despite one’s sins or merits; faith thus yields a “good conscience towards God.”2 This good conscience finds its substance in the person and work of Jesus Christ, as handed to Luther through the writings of Paul: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In Christ, Luther saw God extending perfect righteousness to sinners that could only be received through faith—a faith convinced of God’s love.3 “If thou see in these that God is so kindly affectioned toward thee that He gives even His Son for thee, then thy heart also must in its turn grow sweet and kindly affectioned toward God, and so thy confidence must grow out of pure goodwill and love—God’s love toward thee and thine toward God. ”4
Beyond Paul, Luther took from the entire biblical witness an austere vision of the postlapsarian human contrition: all humans are born into habitual sin and thus are under God’s judgment. “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:2-3). Because of the Fall, all of humanity is caught up in a Sisyphean ordeal of sorts—perpetually pursuing a form of righteousness they can never obtain alone. Such a framework precludes the possibility of “good” human actions, regardless of motive, or of proximate or final ends, because “they have become corrupt.” This biblical diagnosis was a significant impetus behind Luther’s eventual doctrine of sola fide.
What is the remedy to this virulent situation? How can good be practiced? Luther’s claim seems only as extreme as the gaping rift it attempts to bridge: faith in Christ is “the most precious of all good works” because it provides forgiveness of all sins, justification, righteousness, and right-standing before God. Or rather, Christ provides all those things through faith in him. The one who trusts Christ in this sense is cleansed of the wrongs they have done and filled with what Luther elsewhere called an “alien” righteousness—Christ’s perfect moral record. Faith thereby fixes the Sisyphean ordeal; it removes the insurmountable burden of guilt (and thus, the inability to please God) from our shoulders and replaces it with a “robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). In this one paradoxical “good work,” all other works are considered “good” by God.5
Luther offers this helpful analogy to illustrate faith’s primacy:
Therefore, when some say that good works are forbidden when we preach faith alone, it is as if I said to a sick man: “If you had health, you would have the use of all your limbs; but without health, the works of all your limbs are nothing”; and he wanted to infer that I had forbidden the works of all his limbs; whereas, on the contrary, I meant that he must first have health, which will work all the works of all the members. So faith also must be in all works the master workman and captain, or they are nothing at all.6
If faith is to good works as health is to the body, no one can perform good deeds without Luther’s kind of grandiose faith. Faith, however, imputes goodness to all one’s deeds, just as health imputes vitality and movement to the whole body. Prior to Luther, Aquinas had constructed his own elaborate matrix for human action by observing the means, ends, and circumstances of action. He said that “the good or evil of an action, as of other things, depends on its fullness of being or its lack of that fullness.”7 While Luther’s claim does not necessarily preclude Aquinas’s technical delineation of just and unjust action, it does present a new antecedent to the whole matrix: faith in Jesus Christ comes first, which renders all one’s subsequent actions righteous before God—“not by their own nature, but by the mercy and grace of God because of the faith which trusts on the mercy of God.”8 Any account of human action not grounded on this justifying faith, moreover, is like a sick person attempting to use their limbs without the requisite health to do so.
Put more directly: any account of human action not grounded on faith in Jesus Christ is tantamount to legalism. Going yet a step further, Paul wrote, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23b). In his time, Luther observed many individuals restlessly practicing “good works” to please God. But much like his own pre-Protestant self, those individuals failed to find confidence before God because they failed to find true faith:
On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or doubts, hunts and worries in what way he may do enough and with many works move God. He runs to St. James of Compostella, to Rome, to Jerusalem, hither and yon, prays St. Bridget’s prayer and the rest, fasts on this day and on that, makes confession here, and makes confession there, questions this man and that, and yet finds no peace. He does all this with great effort, despair and disrelish of heart…. And even then they are not good works, and are all lost.9
Luther here illustrates an example of the Sisyphean ordeal mentioned above—an uphill slog for self-righteousness devoid of the “first” of all good works, faith. But beyond religious practices, it must be noted that all deeds done outside this faith—irrespective of means and ends—are not truly good; the one who acts lacks Christ’s perfect righteousness that is only received by faith. Luther’s depiction of human action outside of the realm of faith is doubtless a dismal one; it nevertheless sheds light on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for the pursuit of the “good life.”
Luther’s argument establishes a dichotomy between a specific form of faith on the one hand and disbelief or “non-faith” on the other. Either all one’s deeds are good—“even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw”10—or all one’s deeds are wicked. No neutral territory. Of course, many Christians—Romans Catholic and Protestant alike—have questioned this point: could this be a false dichotomy? Perhaps faith is not an inward, conscious trust in God, which renders all one’s deeds “good,” but something less instantaneous and more nuanced. On this view, one could express or cultivate faith through actions of virtue (e.g. prayer, tithing) without a “good conscious before God.” Such actions may generate deeper faith over time, and should therefore be considered “good.”11
While a middle ground between faith and non-faith may appear congenial to some, it lacks a robust biblical warrant. In the Old and New Testaments, God’s recurrent command to his people is clear: “believe me.” Abraham “believed the LORD, and he [God] counted it to him [Abraham] as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). At the revelation of Jesus Christ, the NT message remained the same: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). Moreover, for action to be just, it must proceed from faith, not precede or cultivate it. In his “Treatise,” Luther addresses the objection plainly: “Faith, therefore, does not begin with works, neither do they create it, but it must spring up and flow from the blood, wounds and death of Christ.”12 The faith-non-faith dichotomy is thus thoroughly consonant with Holy Scripture’s own testimony.13
A second objection emerges: if all deeds are “good” through faith, is one liberated to shirk all laws and responsibilities without consequence? Or, might one violate even moral absolutes and call their actions good? To mitigate this tension, Luther notes “that there are no good works except those which God has commanded, even as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden.”14 Faith does not extinguish God’s commandments, nor does it give latitude to sin. If one commits an injustice with confidence before God, their deed is still unjust according to God, but “the evil that they do must be quickly forgiven.”15
Luther addresses this issue through a helpful analogy: when two people are in love, their deliberations and actions are motivated by the confidence and comfort they feel in one another’s love. Confidence in this sense “teaches” each how to behave with respect to the relationship. Similarly, Christians are to learn from their confidence in God’s love how to speak, act, and live before God and others. Such a person “does everything cheerfully and freely; not that he may gather many merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God thereby.”16
Luther understood that all of humanity was alienated from God by their sin. No virtuous endeavor, no number of good works could fix that; in fact, alienated from God, all “works lack their head, and all their life and goodness is nothing.”17 The hope of the gospel interrupts this situation, extending God’s love and forgiveness to all who will receive it by faith. Reunited with God by this faith, Christians can enjoy the miraculous privilege of learning to live in confidence before God, not in fear or uncertainty. Thus, Luther casts a vision of ethics that is both faithful to Holy Scripture and refreshingly imaginative—inextricably woven into God’s own life through faith in Jesus Christ, the first and highest, the most precious of all good works.
Cameron is currently a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary and writes from a Reformed perspective. His academic interests include Christian theological ethics and natural law theory; his diurnal interests are essentially coffee, poetry, and his wife Jenny.