A year after the posting of his Ninety-five Theses, Martin Luther was called before the German congregation of his Augustinian order to give an accounting of his teachings. In what became known as his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther laid out with precision a series of twenty-eight statements he referred to as “theological paradoxes” to contrast the growing Protestant understanding of the gospel with the reigning Catholic theology of the day. The importance of this presentation is seen in that a number of the early reformers, men such as Martin Bucer, were in attendance and were greatly influenced by Luther’s teaching.
Without seeing Luther’s deeply Biblical underpinnings set against the theological context of the times, these paradoxes can read more like unsatisfying contradictions at points. Nowhere is this more evident than when he treats the subject of good works. For instance, Thesis 6 states this:
The works of God (we speak of those that he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
On the surface, this statement can appear to be saying that the perfect, holy God can take actions which have no merit in them and even have sin in them somehow. Yet this is to miss Luther’s point and the brilliancy that is actually shining through this thesis.
In his previous theses, Luther had dealt with the works man does in his own power, stating that those which appear to be good to man are actually dead with respect to salvation. With this thought, most Catholic theologians would agree. Yet what about the truly good works that accompany faith in God and can even be said to be produced in us by God? Do they not contribute in some way to our salvation?
Notice above in the parentheses Luther is speaking particularly of the works that God does in man. Surely, being Spirit-wrought, they are clear of sin? If so, then would they not earn merit before God? In other words, does not the good that God produces in us make us good enough to stand before him in righteousness?
Luther’s answer to this was to show from Scripture that the good works of a Christian are not sinless and thus not meritorious in any way. In explaining this thesis, he quotes from Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Our good works, even though they originate from God, can never be free from sin. How can this be? Luther explains with this analogy:
If someone cuts with a rusty and rough hatchet, even though the worker is a good craftsman, the hatchet leaves bad, jagged, and ugly gashes. So it is when God works through us.
Luther’s purpose in making this point was the danger he saw in believers moving away from a trust in the cross of Christ toward a faith in what we do for Christ. We can grow independent and stop trusting in what Christ has done for us as we take pride in what we do for him. This is not the gospel! As Gerhard O. Forde says in On Being a Theologian of the Cross, “Deadly sin lurks in the most pious places.”
The influence of Luther’s understanding regarding good works can be seen in how this teaching was echoed and explained more fully over a century later in the Westminster Confession of Faith in its chapter on this subject:
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment (WCF 16:5).
May we live in humility each day before the cross, knowing that even in our good works we need the blood of Christ to cleanse our badness.