Luther’s emphasis on the biblical Gospel of free forgiveness through faith in Christ, apart from works, was attacked incessantly. The opponents thought Luther’s teaching would kill good works. Luther argued the opposite (just like St. Paul in Romans 6-7). Here’s a section from Luther’s 1520 “Treatise on Good Works.” — Editor
5. In this faith all works become equal, and one work is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, many, or few. For the works are acceptable not for their own sake but because of faith, which is always the same and lives and works in each and every work without distinction, however numerous and varied these works always are, just as all the members of the body live, work, and take their name from the head, and without the head no member can live, work, or have a name.
It further follows from this that a Christian man living in this faith has no need of a teacher of good works, but he does whatever the occasion calls for, and all is well done. As Samuel said to Saul, “You shall become another man when the spirit enters you; do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” [1 Sam. 10:6-7]. So also we read of St. Anna, Samuel’s mother. When she believed the priest Eli, who promised her God’s grace, she went home in joy and peace [1 Sam. 1:17-18], and from that time paced the floor no longer: this means that whatever happened to her was all the same to her. St. Paul also says, “Where the Spirit of Christ is, there all is free” [Rom. 8:2]. For faith does not permit itself to be bound to any work or to refuse any work, but, as the first Psalm says, “it yields its fruit in its season” [Ps. 1:3], that is, in the normal course of events.
6. We may see this in an everyday example. When a husband and wife really love one another, have pleasure in each other, and thoroughly believe in their love, who teaches them how they are to behave one to another, what they are to do or not to do, say or not to say, what they are to think? Confidence alone teaches them all this, and even more than is necessary. For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and the important as gladly as the small and the unimportant, and vice versa. Moreover, he does them all in a glad, peaceful, and confident heart, and is an absolutely willing companion to the woman. But where there is any doubt, he searches within himself for the best thing to do; then a distinction of works arises by which he imagines he may win favor. And yet he goes about it with a heavy heart and great disinclination. He is like a prisoner, more than half in despair, and often makes a fool of himself.
Thus a Christian man who lives in this confidence toward God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done, and does everything gladly and willingly, not that he may gather merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God in doing these things. He simply serves God with no thought of reward, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or is in a state of doubt, worries and starts looking about for ways and means to do enough and to influence God with his many good works. He runs off to St. James, to Rome, to Jerusalem, hither and thither; he prays St. Bridget’s prayer, this prayer and that prayer; he fasts on this day and that day; he makes confession here and makes confession there; he questions this man and that man, and yet finds no peace. He does all this with great effort and with a doubting and unwilling heart, so that the Scriptures rightly call such works in Hebrew aven amal, that is, labor and sorrow. And even then they are not good works and are in vain. Many people have gone quite crazy with them and their anxiety has brought them into all kinds of misery. Of these it is written in Wisdom [of Solomon] 5[:6], “We have wearied ourselves in the wrong way and have followed a hard and bitter road; but God’s way we have not acknowledged and the sun of righteousness has not risen upon us.”
Excerpted from Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, The Christian in Society, ed. James Atkinson and Helmut T. Lehmann, Vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, ©1966), 26-28. Used with permission.
Posted June 21, 2017