Great Stuff — Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?

This posting is another excellent article from Pr. Mark Surburg’s blog.


Should the topic of good works and living the Christian life appear in sermons?  One would think that Augsburg Confession articles IV-VI make the matter clear.  In the Augsburg Confession, the foundational statement of faith by the Lutheran Church, article IV confesses justification by grace through faith apart from works. Article V then confesses how God delivers this faith as it says, “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel.  It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (V.1-3).  And then immediately article VI says, “It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God” (VI.1-2).  Clearly works are not the reason a person is saved. Clearly faith should produce good works and a person must do these things God has commanded.  If there were any questions, one would think that Article IV of the Formula of Concord on Good Works takes care of them.  The Book of Concord has much to say about what the Lutherans teach concerning good works, and since they teach it one would think that the topic is expected to appear in Lutheran sermons.

In spite of this, Lutherans are often quite hesitant to talk about good works and living the Christian life in sermons.  Beyond that, in recent years I have noticed a much stronger position present among some Lutheran pastors. There are those who, if I understand them correctly, say that good works should not be something that is addressed in preaching.  In recent years those who believe good works should be mentioned and those who do not have engaged in animated exchanges on the Internet.

How are we to resolve this issue?  If only someone like the apostle Paul had given instruction to pastors about how they are to deal with good works as they preach and teach in the midst of their congregations.  We are blessed because in fact, he did.  Paul’s letter to Titus deals very directly with this topic and by listening to this letter we can gain great insight how we should handle it as Lutheran pastors.

After the opening salutation in Titus 1:1-4, Paul immediately turns to the reason he is writing: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (1:5).  Paul and Titus have engaged in the initial work of evangelism on the island of Crete.  Paul has left Titus on Crete to organize the fledgling church there. Specifically, he is to appoint “elders” (which here, as it usually does in the New Testament, refers to the individual that today we call “pastor”) in each town.  In verses 1:5-9 Paul then sets forth the qualifications that are expected of candidates for this position and in 1:10-16 he describes how they will need to refute false teaching on Crete.  Interesting for our topic is the way Paul says that, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16).

Paul then goes on to describe what Titus and the pastors he is involved in appointing are to teach the people.  He begins by saying, “But as for you, teach [literally, “speak”] what accords with sound doctrine [literally, “teaching”] (2:1).  The section that begins at 2:1 with its command to “speak” is then framed by 2:15 where Paul writes, “Declare [literally, “speak”] these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”

Within the section 2:1-10, Paul then describes how different groups of Christians are to live as he provides instruction regarding older men (2:2), older woman (2:3), young women (2:4-5), young men (2:6) and slaves (2:9-10).  In this section Paul uses language that the Greco-Roman world would have recognized as being laudable conduct. [endnote 1]  Paul tells Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (2:7).  Not only is Titus (and by extension the pastors he appoints) to preach and teach about living the Christian life and doing good works, but he is to teach by his own conduct.

Paul emphasizes a recurring theme about why Christians are to live in these godly ways. They are to do it because Christian conduct impacts how the Gospel is perceived and received.  Young women need to live the ways taught by Titus so “that the word of God may not be reviled [literally “blasphemed]” (2:5).  Titus is to serve as a model of this conduct “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (2:8).  Slaves are to act in this way “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

In a concentrated form filled with Greco-Roman vocabulary that speaks of appropriate and laudable conduct Paul tells Titus that he and the pastors are to teach the people to live in ways that reflect the Christian faith.  This is important because in that missionary setting it will be seen and evaluated by others. And then Paul proceeds to give the reason why they should do this – it is because of the Gospel.   He introduces 2:11-14 with the word “for” (gar in Greek) as he explicitly introduces the reason and says: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

In the language of apocalyptic eschatology Paul describes how God’s grace has been revealed to all men (2:11).  The grace itself is described in 2:13-14 as the great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself on behalf of us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession.   At the same time this grace trains Christians how to live in the present time [literally, “the now age”] (2:12) as we await the appearing of Christ (2:13). Christians who are Christ’s own possession are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14). Even within this statement that provides the ground for 2:6-10 and its description of Christian conduct, Paul still continues to emphasize that God’s saving action in Christ prompts Christians to live in God pleasing ways. In fact the last statement in 2:11-14 is that Christians are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14).

After drawing the section 2:1-15 to a close with the inclusio at 2:15 (“speak these things”; cf. 2:1 “speak that which is fitting for sound teaching”), Paul then returns to the topic of living the Christian life in 3:1-2.  This time he frames the discussion in terms of general instructions about living as a Christian in society by referring to being submissive to rulers.  The instructions are not aimed at any one groups of people such as in 2:6-10. Instead, they are more general in character (“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” 3:1-2).

Like 2:6-10 and 2:11-14, in 3:3-8 Paul again provides the reason that Christians are to act in manner described in 3:1-2.  The reason (introduced by “for’ [gar in Greek]) is the Gospel, and specifically the Gospel as it has been received in baptism.  Paul says that Christians were once sinful and lost in every way (3:3).  Then he goes on to say, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7).

Just as in 2:11, Paul describes God’s salvation as something that has “appeared” (3:4).  Throughout the letter as Paul has given instructions to Titus about what he and the pastors on Crete are to teach the people he has repeatedly emphasized good works and Christian conduct (2:6-10, 12, 14; 3:1-2).  Yet now he makes clear that we have not been saved on the basis of works that we have done in righteousness (3:5).  Instead, it is on the basis of God’s mercy that he has saved us through baptism – a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (3:5).  In this action he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us richly through Christ our Savior (note the trinitarian shape of 3:4-6)  in order that being justified by God’s grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:6).

A Lutheran could not ask for a clearer expression of the Gospel!  Salvation is not the basis of works (3:5).  It is instead a matter of God’s mercy (3:5) and grace (3:6) as he works through the Holy Spirit in baptism (3:5) to justify us (3:7).  Paul highlights this teaching by adding in 3:8 “The saying is trustworthy” [literally, “The word is faithful”], a statement that refers to 3:4-7 and identifies it as being part of the common teaching of the Church. [endnote 2]  Yet Paul then immediately adds, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8b).  Even as Paul emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel, the corresponding good works that flow from this are never far from view.

Paul then concludes the letter with some final instructions about dealing with false teaching and teachers in 3:9-11.  He gives personal instructions in 3:12-14.  Here in the last verse of the letter before the closing greeting in 3:15 Paul gives one final instruction about what he wants Christians to learn.  He wants them to learn to do good works: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (3:14).

It is significant that within this brief letter that provides instruction for pastors on Crete we have two sections that explicitly ground the life of good works in God’s saving action.  Each time Paul describes the Christian life (2:1-10; 3:1-2) and then provides the theological basis for the life of faith (both passages are introduced by “for,” gar in Greek) as he emphasizes God’s saving action (2:11-14a; 3:3-7).  Finally he provides a summary statement that explicitly states how Christians are to do good works (2:14b; 3:8).  What is more, in the second instance Paul grounds this theological basis in the Christian’s baptism (cf. Rom 6:1-7).

The instruction Paul provides to Titus for the pastors on Crete makes it clear that the Gospel must remain at the center of all that Church preaches, teaches and believes.  Yet it also makes clear that God’s salvation in the Gospel cannot be separated from the life the Gospel produces.  What is more, this Christian life bears witness to the faith and is important for the way the faith is perceived by the world.  Titus repeatedly provides this as a purpose of living the life of faith and good works (2:5, 8, 10).  The Christian life of good works that flows forth from God’s saving action bears witness to God’s saving action (2:10).  This was the message that the apostle Paul wanted pastors on Crete to preach and teach.

The instruction that Paul provides to Titus and the pastors on Crete is the same thing we find him doing in the letters that he writes to Christian congregations.  Like all written communication in the ancient world these were read out loud (cf. Acts 8:27-30; St. Augustine’s report in his Confessionsabout St. Ambrose reading in silence is the first evidence that we have for this practice). Paul’s letters were read to the congregation (Col 4:16) and because of the ancient understanding about epistolary communication they were Paul speaking to the congregation – they were sermons.

Naturally, there is no need to establish that Paul’s letters are filled with the Gospel.  Yet as we consider the instruction he gives to Titus and the guidance this provides to Lutheran preaching it is critical to note that the “preaching” of Paul’s own letters is filled with exhortations to sanctification and good works.

Paul cannot speak to Christians without engaging this topic.  We see it everywhere in his letters: Romans 6:1-23; 8:1-17; 12:1-20; 13:1-14; 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12; 6:1-20; 8:1-13; 10:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; 8:1-15; 9:6-15; Galatians 5:13-26; 6:1-10; Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:17-32; 5:1-33; 6:1-9; Philippians 2:1-18; 4:4-9; Colossians 3:1-25; 4:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12; 5:12-22; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12.  Just as in Paul’s letter to Titus, it is found when Paul writes to the pastor Timothy: 1 Timothy 5:1-16; 6:1-19; 2 Timothy 2:22; 3:1-5

Paul’s letter address specific circumstances and occasions (see 1 Corinthians), and so they are not all the same.  Yet it is evident from Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians that teaching about sanctification and good works is often found in the latter portion of Paul’s letters.  It is not the first thing he talks about.  Instead these letters are filled with the Gospel in the earlier chapters. Yet Paul cannot speak about Christ to these Christians without also then speaking about what Christ and the Gospel mean for the way they live.

We have seen that in Titus Paul has two sections that explicitly ground the life of good works in God’s saving action.  Paul describes the Christian life (2:1-10; 3:1-2) and then provides the theological basis for the life of faith as he emphasizes God’s saving action (2:11-14a; 3:3-7).  A summary of this approach that emphasizes the free gift of salvation and the life of sanctification and good works that flows from it is found in Eph 2:8-10 where Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  This was the message that Paul told Titus and the pastors on Crete to preach and teach.  It is the message that Paul preached and taught.  And it is the message Lutheran pastors need to preach and teach today.

Endnotes —

[1] See the careful lexical work in Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 128-177.

[2] See discussion in George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 34-349.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works? — 21 Comments

  1. There are two common groups that bring up to me that Lutherans never talk about good works: one is former Lutherans who join non-denominational churches, and the non-dems themselves. Typically, they want a very specific how-to manual of every little thing they are supposed to do with their lives once they become a Christian. I’m grateful that you’ve spelled out on these passages, because I have a number of friends who will be eager to read them. Good works can thus be summed up in one word: vocation.

  2. Professor Marquart posed the question to our systematics class: “Are good works necessary?” Waiting for our reactions- “Yes”, he said. “Good works are necessary… but not for our salvation.”

    I suppose then, the challenge of preaching, is to preach good works in a way that they are not necesary for salvation. Luther could hammer the law better than anyone to show the futillity of trusting in works, but then turn around and give the greatest encouragment, that they might be done as the fruit of faith.

  3. “Good works are necessary… but not for our salvation.”

    And, I would add, when you read Paul’s expositions and exhortations concerning good works, they are always in light of the gospel, but not in place of the gospel.

    Frankly, I think the argument that Lutherans don’t talk about good works is a straw man. The good Lutheran teaching that I’ve heard is always careful to point out that good works follow faith. Jordan Cooper dealt well with this on his “Just and Sinner” podcast concerning Lordship Salvation.

    And that aside for the moment, the solution for an apparent abuse of grace is not to run to works-righteousness. You don’t correct one error by falling into the equally opposite error.

  4. Interestingly, an article in the CTS journal a few months back rightly pointed out that in Walther’s “Law and Gospel”, Walther seems to imply that in preaching the Law should all but exclusively be used in the second use. (mirror) I’m not taking sides on the debate (I’ve done that before!) but it is interesting that in perhaps our greatest Lutheran thome on preaching, the sole focus and use of the Law, according to Walther’s “Law and Gospel” is the second use.

  5. Rev. McCall,

    In line with your Walther point is this little exercise. Read the Formula on the Third Use and note how many times it is talking about the second use and how many times it is talking about the third use. It is clearly the former that dominates the article on the third use.

    Another thought – someone who preaches the second use as Walther suggests, could not possibly be called an antinomian.

  6. I don’t know, J. Dean. While you are correct that Lutherans do regularly point out that good works follow faith, simply pointing that out is not what Paul is instructing here.

    The solution that avoids opposite errors is to preach the whole counsel of God. Even the parts that we’re afraid might make people antinomian. Even the parts we’re afraid might make people legalistic. God hasn’t authorized us to pick and choose which parts of His Word are safe.

  7. Matt Cochran :
    I don’t know, J. Dean. While you are correct that Lutherans do regularly point out that good works follow faith, simply pointing that out is not what Paul is instructing here.
    The solution that avoids opposite errors is to preach the whole counsel of God. Even the parts that we’re afraid might make people antinomian. Even the parts we’re afraid might make people legalistic. God hasn’t authorized us to pick and choose which parts of His Word are safe.

    Oh, I’m not saying that good works shouldn’t be talked about in more than a passing manner. By no means. But keep in mind that I’m an ex-evangelical who’s come from the other side of this, who heard good works ad nauseum, who heard the gospel as nothing other than the “foot in the door” for Christianity, etc. So if I seem a little less than fully gung ho on hitting people over the head with an endless barrage of good works, understand that I’ve been in the “Pelagian-lite” camps and have seen the Gospel pushed to a corner of the church reserved for newcomers.

    Rev. Fisk has a very good video about this, as he’s dealing with evangelical Pastor David Platt, a pastor with good intentions, but who is essentially gutting grace in the process. This is what I came out of, where it was always necessary to “do more, try harder,” and it comes DANGEROUSLY close to works-righteousness, even if Platt doesn’t intend it to be taken as such:

    Good works as taught by Paul are frequently done in light of the Gospel (“Because of what Christ has done, this is how you are to be and what you are to do”), and it’s important to note that, in books like Romans, Paul devotes the majority of his writing to gospel exposition. Yes, there are good works taught, but as important as they are, they’re almost always like a footnote to the gospel exposition-a crucial footnote, to be sure, and not optional, but subservient to the gospel in the end.

  8. @Pastor Tim Rossow #5
    There are crass antinomians, and then there are subtle antinomians. “Confessional” Lutherans are infected with the latter sort.

    Walther’s Law and Gospel is not the end-all-be-all of theological works concerning the topic. In it Walther chiefly focuses on Law in its second use. But that he does so does not delimit speaking to Law in all of its uses.

    Interestingly enough, some “Confessional” Lutherans contrast Walther’s Law and Gospel with the teaching of his disciple and protege Francis Pieper. These folks suggest that Walther had more in common with Erlangen theology than Pieper, who followed the approach of Orthodox Lutheranism, itself infected with the aberrations of Melanchthon.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Some “Confessional” Lutherans are the new liberals. High church, but low moral theology. In summary, they reject the Third Use of the Law, considering it only to be the Second Use for believers, or perhaps subsumed in the First Use (followers of Gerhard Forde).

  9. Robert,

    I am glad you put “confessional” in quotes because there is no such thing as liberal confessional.

    Also, you talk as though someone could uphold the second use of the law and be a liberal or antinomian. I know that is not what you mean because to uphold the second use is to uphold the third use because there is only one law.

  10. @Pastor Tim Rossow #9

    Thanks, Tim. I put “Confessional” in quotes, specifically because as posers, they claim to be “Confessional,” as in following in the train of Walther and Pieper, when in reality they proffer post-Enlightenment, neo-Kantian, continental (aka German) liberal theology.

    There is a short distance between consequentialism/positivism/moral relativism, posing as Lutheran “vocation,” and metaphysical nihilism. Be forewarned!

  11. @Robert #12

    Yeah, I note that he was a theologian in the American Lutheran Church, which was one of the predecessors of the ELCA.

    Even Dr. Kilcrease says that Forde didn’t properly understand the atonement or justification. That’s pretty serious!

  12. @Pastor Ted Crandall #16

    I am sure by now you have a good feel for the community that posts on ALPB. It is where you will find pretty much all the left-of-center LCMS people. BJS tends to right-of-center, knowledgeable and people who have a passion for learning the Srciptures and Confessions. We may be more blunt, but we do not speak in a duplicitous, passive-aggresive mode. And then there is LutherQuest, which I think has devolved…. I am grateful that you and certain others post there. I cannot, for I know I would go ballistic on a few people there, and get myself banned. (you should see how I occasionally swear out loud when I read something really horrid)

    And the LC-MS convention/elections must be coming up. I have noticed a few threads over there really complaining about us here. Must be political season… 🙂 Keep steadfast, Pastor, many lay people appreciate your shepherding skills.

  13. @Jason #17

    Thank you, Jason. Please pray for me. I have to keep reminding myself that no one can make me lose my cool without my permission — but some people make it really, really easy for me to scream, “You whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones!”


  14. Jason,

    You are right about the electioneering. The goal of that crowd is to whitewash Matt Harrison with BJS. If they can make him out to be a BJS’er then he loses votes and they get closer to winning because despite of confession and the tone of Scriptures, the average LCMS’er bristles at the blunt way that Jesus, Paul, the prophets, John the Baptist, and others speak the truth.

    They will never understand that we do not care about politics but only about the truth. That will always hurt the confessional cause and help them but that does not matter. What matters of course is taking a stand for the truth.

  15. For the liberals everything is political because politics is all they have. Then they try to project that onto us.

  16. Fr. Tim –

    I know you do not, as I do not, worry about Fr. Harrison – he is a big boy in stature, in theology, and moustache! 🙂

    Fr. Crandall – I understand your frustration at times, believe me, but I think you were spot on for all of us when you said:

    “I have to keep reminding myself that no one can make me lose my cool without my permission . . .”

    Very true. Thanks for saying so. The Good Ship Missouri is as Chesterton described the Church in Orthodoxy – The Romance of Faith

    Reeling, but erect . . . there are an infinite number of angles at which men fall, only one at which one stands.

    Although I fail as often as the next brother (I am still failing every attempt at “walking on water”); I am certain Christ is guiding matters. Despite what my eyes see, I am a Hebrews 11:1 kinda guy.

    Pax – jb

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