A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: Good Works

IV. Good Works.

The Principal Question In the Controversy concerning Good Works.

1] Concerning the doctrine of good works two divisions have arisen in some churches:

2] 1. First, some theologians have become divided because of the following expressions, where the one side wrote: Good works are necessary for salvation. It is impossible to be saved without good works. Also: No one has ever been saved without good works. But the other side, on the contrary, wrote: Good works are injurious to salvation.

3] 2. Afterwards a schism arose also between some theologians with respect to the two words necessary and free, since the one side contended that the word necessary should not be employed concerning the new obedience, which, they say, does not flow from necessity and coercion, but from a voluntary spirit. The other side insisted on the word necessary, because, they say, this obedience is not at our option, but regenerate men are obliged to render this obedience.

4] From this disputation concerning the terms a controversy afterwards occurred concerning the subject itself; for the one side contended that among Christians the Law should not be urged at all, but men should be exhorted to good works from the Holy Gospel alone; the other side contradicted this.

The role of good works in the life of the Christian was a topic of much discussion during the life of Luther, and was mostly settled by the thorough treatment of the topics Augsburg Confession and its Apology. However due to the Phillipists and the Leipzig Interim, a controversy about good works being necessary for salvation erupted yet again in the Lutheran church.  Alongside that the antinomians and Epicureans arose saying that good works were actually harmful to salvation.

We can see from this confusion how difficult it is for us to remove good works from the article of Justification while also maintaining the need for good works.  As the formulators note you end up with a variety of different opinions namely “good works are necessary for salvation”, “good works hurt salvation”, “good works maintain and grow faith”, “good works are done out of coercion”. This mass confusion of what good works are good for is the cause of the writing of this article.

Affirmitive Theses.

Pure Doctrine of the Christian Churches concerning This Controversy.

5] For the thorough statement and decision of this controversy our doctrine, faith, and confession is:

6] 1. That good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith, if it is not a dead, but a living faith, as fruits of a good tree.

It must be clearly stated from the outset that good works do follow true living faith. Jesus makes this very clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-20). Following our Lord, Luther taught the same as found in the Solid Declaration:

9] Therefore, of works that are truly good and well-pleasing to God, which God will reward in this world and in the world to come, faith must be the mother and source; and on this account they are called by St. Paul true fruits of faith, as also of the Spirit. 10] For, as Dr. Luther writes in the Preface to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: Thus faith is a divine work in us, that changes us and regenerates us of God, and puts to death the old Adam, makes us entirely different men in heart, spirit, mind, and all powers, and brings with it [confers] the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, powerful thing that we have in faith, so that it is impossible for it not to do good without ceasing. 11] Nor does it ask whether good works are to be done; but before the question is asked, it has wrought them, and is always engaged in doing them. But he who does not do such works is void of faith, and gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith nor what good works are, yet babbles and prates with many words concerning faith and good works. 12] [Justifying] faith is a living, bold [firm] trust in God’s grace, so certain that a man would die a thousand times for it [rather than suffer this trust to be wrested from him]. And this trust and knowledge of divine grace renders joyful, fearless, and cheerful towards God and all creatures, which [joy and cheerfulness] the Holy Ghost works through faith; and on account of this, man becomes ready and cheerful, without coercion, to do good to every one, to serve every one, and to suffer everything for love and praise to God, who has conferred this grace on him, so that it is impossible to separate works from faith, yea, just as impossible as it is for heat and light to be separated from fire.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article IV 9-12

Producing good works is just what faith does.  It cannot help but do them.  It is the natural course of things. The Epitome continues:

7] 2. We believe, teach, and confess also that good works should be entirely excluded, just as well in the question concerning salvation as in the article of justification before God, as the apostle testifies with clear words, when he writes as follows: Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, Rom. 4:6ff And again: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast, Eph. 2:8-9.

That said even though good works do follow faith. However, they do not precede it or have anything to do with Justification.  Thus works are not given any part of our salvation but rather God’s work and grace is given preeminence.

8] 3. We believe, teach, and confess also that all men, but those especially who are born again and renewed by the Holy Ghost, are bound to do good works.

All people must do Good Works as the Law demands perfection from us all.  However only the regenerate are actually able to do them. In fact Christians are predestined to do good works by God (Ephesians 2:10).

9] 4. In this sense the words necessary, shall, and must are employed correctly and in a Christian manner also with respect to the regenerate, and in no way are contrary to the form of sound words and speech.

10] 5. Nevertheless, by the words mentioned, necessitas, necessarium, necessity and necessary, if they be employed concerning the regenerate, not coercion, but only due obedience is to be understood, which the truly believing, so far as they are regenerate, render not from coercion or the driving of the Law, but from a voluntary spirit; because they are no more under the Law, but under grace, Rom. 6:14; 7:6; 8:14.

11] 6. Accordingly, we also believe, teach, and confess that when it is said: The regenerate do good works from a free spirit, this is not to be understood as though it is at the option of the regenerate man to do or to forbear doing good when he wishes, and that he can nevertheless retain faith if he intentionally perseveres in sins.

12] 7. Yet this is not to be understood otherwise than as the Lord Christ and His apostles themselves declare, namely, regarding the liberated spirit, that it does not do this from fear of punishment, like a servant, but from love of righteousness, like children, Rom. 8:15.

13] 8. Although this voluntariness [liberty of spirit] in the elect children of God is not perfect, but burdened with great weakness, as St. Paul complains concerning himself, Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17;

14] 9. Nevertheless, for the sake of the Lord Christ, the Lord does not impute this weakness to His elect, as it is written: There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, Rom. 8:1.

The term necessary here should be read not as a being coercive but rather what a person or object naturally does as part of who it is (i.e. an ontological fact).  Just as an apple tree cannot help but produce apples and cannot produce any other fruit, just as an object that is released under the influence of gravity falls, so it is with faith and works.  Faith necessarily, not under coercion but naturally, produces good works.  This is true as with faith we are no longer under the Law, which would be the coercive power of God to do good works, but rather under grace.

Faith fights against our fallen man and does good works.  Our fallen man resists and sins or corrupts the good works we wish to do.  This is a continual battle as demonstrated by St. Paul’s discussion in Romans 7. We must maintain though that if a person consciously perseveres in sin, he is no long simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) but rather he has fallen from the faith, his faith is dead, and the Holy Spirit has left him (Galatians 5:16-26).

That said, one can always repent and return to the faith.  God is never as far off as we perceive Him to be, but is always ready with His grace. Also we should not fear when we fall into sin that we have lost faith, as God understands our weakness and sustains us through the battle (1 John 2:1-14).

The danger of loss of salvation does not come from the battle or even from the sin but rather the giving in and giving up against sin.  Namely you can know if you have lost your salvation if you no longer care that you are sinning or about repentance.  If you fear the loss of your salvation you have not lost it yet.

This is a difficult thing, the battle rages in us all.  Some Christians who show the most public good works are engaged in this battle most fiercely.  Our salvation rests not on our works but on Christ alone.  He is the source and power of all good works and our salvation. So whether we have great and many works or few and small works, it is not our works or lack thereof that save or damn, but it is faith in Christ that makes the difference.

15] 10. We believe, teach, and confess also that not works maintain faith and salvation in us, but the Spirit of God alone, through faith, of whose presence and indwelling good works are evidences.

To that end it is not good works that sustain or maintain faith but rather Christ and His Word alone.  The Word and the Sacraments are given to us to maintain our faith.  Faith grows from the Gospel and the gifts of God.  It is wrong to say or claim that by doing good works you are bettering yourself as a Christian in your faith.  That is self serving, which is actually a sin.  Rather you are serving your neighbor.  Your good works flow from the faith fed by God every day when you study Scripture, when you go to church for the Divine Service, and from other Christians.  It is a passive reception of the gifts of God, which then changes to an active giving of good works in your vocation.

Negative Theses.
False Contrary Doctrine.

16] 1. Accordingly, we reject and condemn the following modes of speaking: when it is taught and written that good works are necessary to salvation; also, that no one ever has been saved without good works; also, that it is impossible to be saved without good works.

We reject any statements that apply or even seem to connect Justification and good works. They are never to be confused. This distinction must be kept, Justification first, works second.

17] 2. We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.

18] For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits.

We also reject the idea that good works can somehow be harmful to salvation.  People must be encouraged in the use and exercise of good works, as Scripture itself does (Matthew 5:13-16, Hebrews 13). Else they will be deluded into either thinking works are harmful or that if you do enough works you can sin more. We will talk more about this in Article VI on the Third Use of the Law.

19] 3. We also reject and condemn the dogma that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost are not lost by wilful sin, but that the saints and elect retain the Holy Ghost even though they fall into adultery and other sins and persist therein.

Finally we must reiterate that those are in gross sin (manifest sin) no longer have the Holy Spirit and are apostate.  Even the saints and elect of old can fall into gross sin (as with David and St. Peter) and lose their faith completely.  That said God can always bring them back.  We reject the idea of once saved always saved.  We will talk more about election in Article XI on Election.

1 O God, my faithful God,
True fountain ever flowing,
Without whom nothing is,
All perfect gifts bestowing:
Give me a healthy frame,
And may I have within
A conscience free from blame,
A soul unstained by sin.

2 Grant me the strength to do
With ready heart and willing
Whatever You command,
My calling here fulfilling;
That I do what I should
While trusting You to bless
The outcome for my good,
For You must give success.

3 Keep me from saying words
That later need recalling;
Guard me lest idle speech
May from my lips be falling;
But when within my place
I must and ought to speak,
Then to my words give grace
Lest I offend the weak.

4 Lord, let me win my foes
With kindly words and actions,
And let me find good friends
For counsel and correction.
Help me, as You have taught,
To love both great and small
And by Your Spirit’s might
To live in peace with all.

5 Let me depart this life
Confiding in my Savior;
By grace receive my soul
That it may live forever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting place
Within a Christian grave;
And let it sleep in peace.

6 And on that final day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch out Your mighty hand,
My deathly slumber breaking.
Then let me hear Your voice,
Redeem this earthly frame,
And bid me to rejoice
With those who love Your name.

(LSB 696)

1 thought on “A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: Good Works

  1. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
    Hebrews 10:24 ESV

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