A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Good Works

This is part 21 of 29 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XX: Of Good Works.

1] Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works. 2] For their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and others of like import, bear witness that they have taught to good purpose concerning all estates and duties of life, as to what estates of life and what works in every calling be pleasing to God. 3] Concerning these things preachers heretofore taught but little, and urged only childish and needless works, as particular holy-days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such like. 4] Since our adversaries have been admonished of these things, they are now unlearning them, and do not preach these unprofitable works as heretofore. 5] Besides, they begin to mention faith, of which there was heretofore marvelous silence. 6] They teach that we are justified not by works only, but they conjoin faith and works, and say that we are justified by faith and works. 7] This doctrine is more tolerable than the former one, and can afford more consolation than their old doctrine.

The Reformers were accused by the Roman Catholics of not teaching good works.  Essentially, that they were Epicurean and Antinomian (against the law). The Reformers pushed back, pointing out that the Roman Catholics preach works that are not even commanded by Scripture.  Even worse they did not preach about faith or justification. Their preaching had improved slightly with the advent of the Reformation but they still mixed works and faith as we discussed before.

Though we have gone over much of what follows it is important to do so again.  One can never hear this enough. We are justified by Christ. Works follow faith and do not precede it.

8] Forasmuch, therefore, as the doctrine concerning faith, which ought to be the chief one in the Church, has lain so long unknown, as all must needs grant that there was the deepest silence in their sermons concerning the righteousness of faith, while only the doctrine of works was treated in the churches, our teachers have instructed the churches concerning faith as follows:—

9] First, that our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification, but that we obtain this only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone has been set forth the Mediator and Propitiation, 1 Tim. 2:5, in order that the Father may be reconciled through Him. 10] Whoever, therefore, trusts that by works he merits grace, despises the merit and grace of Christ, and seeks a way to God without Christ, by human strength, although Christ has said of Himself: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John 14:6.

11] This doctrine concerning faith is everywhere treated by Paul, Eph. 2:8: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of your selves; it is the gift of God, not of works, etc.

12] And lest any one should craftily say that a new interpretation of Paul has been devised by us, this entire matter is supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. For 13] Augustine, in many volumes, defends grace and the righteousness of faith, over against the merits of works. 14] And Ambrose, in his De Vocatione Gentium, and elsewhere, teaches to like effect. For in his De Vocatione Gentium he says as follows: Redemption by the blood of Christ would become of little value, neither would the preeminence of man’s works be superseded by the mercy of God, if justification, which is wrought through grace, were due to the merits going before, so as to be, not the free gift of a donor, but the reward due to the laborer.

15] But, although this doctrine is despised by the inexperienced, nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because consciences cannot be set at rest through any works, but only by faith, when they take the sure ground that for Christ’s sake they have a reconciled God. As Paul teaches Rom. 5:1: 16]Being justified by faith, we have peace with God. 17] This whole doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience, neither can it be understood apart from that conflict. Therefore 18] inexperienced and profane men judge ill concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness is nothing but civil and philosophical righteousness.

19] Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. 20] Some persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into monasteries hoping there to merit grace by a monastic life. 21] Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. 22] Hence there was very great need to treat of, and renew, this doctrine of faith in Christ, to the end that anxious consciences should not be without consolation but that they might know that grace and forgiveness of sins and justification are apprehended by faith in Christ.

23] Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

24] Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not 25] without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, 26] and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.

First recall the definition of faith.  Faith is a trust in the promises of God, not just a head knowledge about God.  The Reformers discuss at length what faith and justification are as that is only way one can truly understand the place of good works.  Though they went through a brief form of this discussion in New Obedience (VI), they want a more exhaustive argument here to fight against the opinion that they do not preach works.

Christ is the sole mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:1-7).  Those who preach salvation by works make Christ’s sacrifice for naught and despise our Lord and Savior (Galatians 5:1-15).  Instead Christ is our only salvation.  We are never saved by works. This salvation is a free gift.

St. Ambrose also agrees with this.  If we do any work to achieve our justification it is no longer gift.  Terrified consciences are not freed by the preaching of the Law but by the preaching of the Gospel.  People who are imprisoned by their terrified consciences try to make up works to assuage their guilt, such as fleeing to monasteries or seeking aestheticism.  Since our hearts naturally seek the opinio legis (the opinion of the Law) we must constantly preach the Gospel, that Christ has fulfilled the Law and no works remain to be done for justification.

Faith again is not just a head knowledge about God (James 2:14-26). Rather faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins (John 14:1-14, 1 Peter 5:1-11, Romans 10:13). Thus we must know God and trust in Him.  However, the heathen and devils do not trust God (Romans 3:11-12, Romans 8:1-11).  So faith is confidence in God. After all, one can have all the knowledge in the world but without faith it is useless.

27] Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. 28] It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. 29] And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. 30] For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing. 31] For man’s powers without the Holy Ghost are full of ungodly affections, and are too weak to do works which are good in God’s sight. 32] Besides, they are in the power of the devil who impels men to divers sins, 33] to ungodly opinions, to open crimes. This we may see in the philosophers, who, although they endeavored to live an honest life could not succeed, 34] but were defiled with many open crimes. Such is the feebleness of man when he is without faith and without the Holy Ghost, and governs himself only by human strength.

35] Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. 36] For without faith human nature can in no wise do the works of the First or of the Second Commandment. 37] Without faith it does not call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. 38] And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. 39] Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing; 40] and the Church sings:

Lacking Thy divine favor,

There is nothing found in man,

Naught in him is harmless.

Good works are necessary.  They are a necessary byproduct of faith (Ephesians 2:10).  They do not proceed faith though.  Faith is the origin of a good will through which true good works can be done.  Those who try to do good works apart from Christ will fail. Without faith, we cannot even begin to fulfill the First Table of the Law, much less the Second (John 15:1-17, 1 Corinthians 2:6-14, Matthew 16:24-28). We by nature, apart from Christ, seek our own pleasure and gain (Genesis 6:1-8). We are depraved apart from Christ. So from faith in Christ, all our good works flow, not the other way around.

The hymn quoted is from the Sequence Hymn for Pentecost (see Matthew Carver’s forthcoming collection of Lutheran Sequences for more).  Veni, Sancte Spiritus:

VENI, Sancte Spiritus,

et emitte caelitus

lucis tuae radium.

COME, Holy Ghost,

send down those beams,

which sweetly flow in silent streams

from Thy bright throne above.

Veni, pater pauperum,

veni, dator munerum

veni, lumen cordium.

O come, Thou Father of the poor;

O come, Thou source of all our store,

come, fill our hearts with love.

Consolator optime,

dulcis hospes animae,

dulce refrigerium.

O Thou, of comforters the best,

O Thou, the soul’s delightful guest,

the pilgrim’s sweet relief.

In labore requies,

in aestu temperies

in fletu solatium.

Rest art Thou in our toil, most sweet

refreshment in the noonday heat;

and solace in our grief.

O lux beatissima,

reple cordis intima

tuorum fidelium.

O blessed Light of life Thou art;

fill with Thy light the inmost heart

of those who hope in Thee.

Sine tuo numine,

nihil est in homine,

nihil est innoxium.

Without Thy Godhead nothing can,

have any price or worth in man,

nothing can harmless be.

Lava quod est sordidum,

riga quod est aridum,

sana quod est saucium.

Lord, wash our sinful stains away,

refresh from heaven our barren clay,

our wounds and bruises heal.

Flecte quod est rigidum,

fove quod est frigidum,

rege quod est devium.

To Thy sweet yoke our stiff necks bow,

warm with Thy fire our hearts of snow,

our wandering feet recall.

Da tuis fidelibus,

in te confidentibus,

sacrum septenarium.

Grant to Thy faithful, dearest Lord,

whose only hope is Thy sure word,

the sevenfold gifts of grace.

Da virtutis meritum,

da salutis exitum,

da perenne gaudium,

Amen, Alleluia.

Grant us in life Thy grace that we,

in peace may die and ever be,

in joy before Thy face.

Amen. Alleluia.

The Confutation disagrees with this article.  The Confutation says that good works do merit the remission of sins and goes on to give many quotes from Scripture regarding this as with their discussion of New Obedience.  Melancthon responds thusly:

78] In the Twentieth Article they distinctly lay down these words, namely, that they reject and condemn our statement that men do not merit the remission of sins by good works. [Mark this well!] They clearly declare that they reject and condemn this article. What is to be said on a subject so manifest? 79] Here the framers of the Confutation openly show by what spirit they are led. For what in the Church is more certain than that the remission of sins occurs freely for Christ’s sake, that Christ, and not our works, is the propitiation for sins, as Peter says, Acts 10:43: To Him give all the prophets witness that through His name, whosoever believeth on Him, shall receive remission of sins? [This strong testimony of all the holy prophets may duly be called a decree of the catholic Christian Church. For even a single prophet is very highly esteemed by God and a treasure worth the whole world.] To this Church of the prophets we would rather assent than to these abandoned writers of the Confutation, who so impudently blaspheme Christ. 80] For although there were writers who held that after the remission of sins men are just before God, not by faith, but by works themselves, yet they did not hold this, namely, that the remission of sins itself occurs on account of our works, and not freely for Christ’s sake.

81] Therefore the blasphemy of ascribing Christ’s honor to our works is not to be endured. These theologians are now entirely without shame if they dare to bring such an opinion into the Church. Nor do we doubt that His Most Excellent Imperial Majesty and very many of the princes would not have allowed this passage to remain in the Confutation if they had been admonished of it. 82] Here we could cite infinite testimonies from Scripture and from the Fathers [that this article is certainly divine and true, and this is the sacred and divine truth. For there is hardly a syllable, hardly a leaf in the Bible, in the principal books of the Holy Scriptures, where this is not clearly stated.] But also above we have said enough on this subject. And there is no need of more testimonies for one who knows why Christ has been given to us, who knows that Christ is the propitiation for our sins. [God-fearing, pious hearts that know well why Christ has been given, who for all the possessions and kingdoms of the world would not be without Christ as our only Treasure, our only Mediator and Redeemer, must here be shocked and terrified that God’s holy Word and Truth should be so openly despised and condemned by poor men.] Isaiah says, 53:6: The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all. The adversaries, on the other hand, [accuse Isaiah and the entire Bible of lying and] teach that God lays our iniquities not on Christ, but on our [beggarly] works. Neither are we disposed to mention here the sort of works [rosaries, pilgrimages, and the like] which they teach. 83] We see that a horrible decree has been prepared against us, which would terrify us still more if we were contending concerning doubtful or trifling subjects. Now, since our consciences understand that by the adversaries the manifest truth is condemned, whose defense is necessary for the Church and increases the glory of Christ, we easily despise the terrors of the world, and with a strong spirit will bear whatever is to be suffered for the glory of Christ and the advantage of the Church. 84] Who would not rejoice to die in the confession of such articles as that we obtain the remission of sins by faith freely for Christ’s sake, that we do not merit the remission of sins by our works? 85] [Experience shows — and the monks themselves must admit it — that] The consciences of the pious will have no sufficiently sure consolation against the terrors of sin and of death, and against the devil soliciting to despair [and who in a moment blows away all our works like dust], if they do not know that they ought to be confident that they have the remission of sins freely for Christ’s sake. This faith sustains and quickens hearts in that most violent conflict with despair [in the great agony of death, in the great anguish, when no creature can help, yea, when we must depart from this entire visible creation into another state and world, and must die].

86] Therefore the cause is one which is worthy that for its sake we should refuse no danger. Whosoever you are that has assented to our Confession, “do not yield to the wicked, but, on the contrary, go forward the more boldly,” when the adversaries endeavor, by means of terrors and tortures and punishments, to drive away from you that consolation which has been tendered to the entire Church in this article of ours [but with all cheerfulness rely confidently and gladly on God and the Lord Jesus, and joyfully confess this manifest truth in opposition to the tyranny, wrath, threatening, and terrors of all the world, yea, in opposition to the daily murders and persecution, of tyrants. For who would suffer to have taken from him this great, yea, everlasting consolation on which the entire salvation of the whole Christian Church depends? Anyone who picks up the Bible and reads it earnestly will soon observe that this doctrine has its foundation everywhere in the Bible]. 87] Testimonies of Scripture will not be wanting to one seeking them, which will establish his mind. For Paul at the top of his voice, as the saying is, cries out, Rom. 3:24f., and 4:16, that sins are freely remitted for Christ’s sake. It is of faith, he says, that it might be by grace, to the end the promise might be sure. That is, if the promise would depend upon our works, it would not be sure. If remission of sins would be given on account of our works, when would we know that we had obtained it, when would a terrified conscience find a work which it would consider sufficient to appease God’s wrath? 88] But we spoke of the entire matter above. Thence let the reader derive testimonies. For the unworthy treatment of the subject has forced from us the present, not discussion, but complaint that on this topic they have distinctly recorded themselves as disapproving of this article of ours, that we obtain remission of sins not on account of our works, but by faith and freely on account of Christ.

89] The adversaries also add testimonies to their own condemnation, and it is worth while to recite several of them. They quote from 2 Pet. 1:10: Give diligence to make your calling sure, etc. Now you see, reader, that our adversaries have not wasted labor in learning logic, but have the art of inferring from the Scriptures whatever pleases them [whether it is in harmony with the Scriptures or out of harmony; whether it is correctly or incorrectly concluded. For they conclude thus:] “Make your calling sure by good works.” Therefore works merit the remission of sins. A very agreeable mode of reasoning, if one would argue thus concerning a person sentenced to capital punishment, whose punishment has been remitted: “The magistrate commands that hereafter you abstain from that which belongs to another. Therefore you have merited the remission of the penalty, because you are now abstaining from what belongs to another.” 90] Thus to argue is to make a cause out of that which is not a cause. For Peter speaks of works following the remission of sins, and teaches why they should be done, namely, that the calling may be sure, i.e., lest they may fall from their calling if they sin again. Do good works that you may persevere in your calling, that you [do not fall away again, grow cold and] may not lose the gifts of your calling, which were given you before, and not on account of works that follow, and which now are retained by faith; for faith does not remain in those who lose the Holy Ghost, who reject repentance, just as we have said above (253:1) that faith exists in repentance.

91] They add other testimonies cohering no better. Lastly they say that this opinion was condemned a thousand years before, in the time of Augustine. This also is quite false. For the Church of Christ always held that the remission of sins is obtained freely. Yea, the Pelagians were condemned, who contended that grace is given on account of our works. 92] Besides, we have above shown sufficiently that we hold that good works ought necessarily to follow faith. For we do not make void the Law, says Paul, Rom. 3:31; yea, we establish the Law, because when by faith we have received the Holy Ghost, the fulfilling of the Law necessarily follows, by which love, patience, chastity, and other fruits of the Spirit gradually grow.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XX

We can see here the main issue of the entire Reformation.  This is the unbridgeable gap between us and the Roman Catholics.  We cannot compromise on this article.

1 Renew me, O eternal Light,
And let my heart and soul be bright,
Illumined with the light of grace
That issues from Your holy face.

2 Remove the pow’r of sin from me
And cleanse all my impurity
That I may have the strength and will
Temptations of the flesh to still.

3 Create in me a new heart, Lord,
That gladly I obey Your Word.
Let what You will be my desire,
And with new life my soul inspire.

4 Grant that I only You may love
And seek those things which are above
Till I behold You face to face,
O Light eternal, through Your grace.

(LSB 704)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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