Luther on the Great Value of Good Works

Some beautiful quotes from Martin Luther on the value of good works:

  1. Outside the article of justification we cannot sufficiently praise and magnify these works which are commanded by God. For who can sufficiently commend and set forth the profit and fruit of only one work which a Christian does through faith and in faith? Indeed, it is more precious than heaven or earth.
  2. We teach that to reconcile God, to make righteous, to blot out sin, is so high and great and glorious a work that alone Christ, the Son of God could do it and that this is indeed such a pure, special, peculiar work of the one true God and His grace that our works are nothing and can do nothing. But that good works should be nothing or be worth only a penny, who ever heard of such a thing, or who could teach such a thing except the lying mouth of the devil? I would not give up one of my sermons, not one of my lectures, not one of my treatises, not one of my Lord’s Prayers, nay, whatever small work I have ever done or am doing, for all the riches of the world (Cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:59–60

Explaining the Mystery of Who Jesus Is and Why It Matters

It no doubt seems strange to us today to talk about a human being as also being God, and yet that is what we celebrate at Christmas time. We must also remember that this might not have seemed strange to the people of Jesus’ time and day. They believed that human beings were gods or became gods or were appearances of the gods (see Acts 14:8–20 for an example).

The problem for the early Christians was that they believed that there was only one God, so Jesus could not be a sort of lesser god that appeared in human form. The early Christians emphatically rejected that possibility at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Its conclusion was that Jesus was “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”

One possibility, then, was that Jesus was the appearance of God in a different role, just as I am a son, a father, and a brother. The problem is that the Bible clearly presented Jesus as interacting with the Father as another person and as sending the Spirit as another person. So, they rejected the idea that there was only one person in God. In the words of the ancient Athanasian Creed, “we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”

With that cleared up, the question became: how are the human and divine united in Jesus? One possibility was that there were two persons in Jesus. The trouble with this is that the Bible clearly teaches that the eternal Son of God became a human being. Jesus is a “He” not a “they.” So, there is one person in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity.

By the end of the 4th century, there was little dispute that Jesus had a divine nature, but what about his human nature? Was it a real human nature? Did it become a sort of mixture of divine and human when Jesus became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary?

The early Christians saw that it was necessary that Jesus be a real human in order to represent us, sympathize with us, and carry out our salvation. They also knew that Jesus had ate, slept, wept, walked, and talked as a real human being. So, they insisted that Jesus had a real and full human nature, body and soul.

At the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, the leaders of the church adopted this explanation of the incarnation as capturing the fullness of the biblical testimony. Jesus was “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Church gradually gained clarity on the truths we confess today that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who became a real human being in order to bring us to eternal salvation.

What is the significance of all this? Charles Hodge says it well in his Systematic Theology:

Although the divine nature is immutable and impassible, and therefore neither the obedience nor the suffering of Christ was the obedience or suffering of the divine nature, yet they were none the less the obedience and suffering of a divine person. The soul of man cannot be wounded or burnt, but when the body is injured it is the man who suffers. In like manner the obedience of Christ was the righteousness of God, and the blood of Christ was the blood of God. It is to this fact that the infinite merit and efficiency of his work are due. This is distinctly asserted in the Scriptures. It is impossible, says the Apostle, that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sin. It was because Christ was possessed of an eternal Spirit that He by the one offering of Himself hath perfected forever them who are sanctified. This is the reason given why the sacrifice of Christ need never be repeated, and why it is infinitely more efficacious than those of the old dispensation. This truth has been graven on the hearts of believers in all ages. Every such believer says from his heart, “Jesus, my God, thy blood alone has power sufficient to atone.”

Martin Luther explains the same point from a slightly different angle:

We Christians must know that if God is not also in the balance and gives the weight, we sink to the bottom with our scale. By this I mean: If it were not to be said, God has died for us, but only a man, we should be lost. But if “God’s death” and “God died” lie in the scale of the balance, then He sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale. But, indeed, He can also rise again or leap out of the scale; yet He could not sit in the scale unless He became a man like us.

The point is that Christ’s humanity enables Him to take our place and suffer in our place and His divinity gives Him the power and merit to overcome what our sin deserved.

When properly understood, the implications of Jesus’ incarnation are wonderful beyond compare. It calls us to understand that God wants to connect with us. It also warns us that our sin and separation from God is no small problem, since it required the God-man to solve it. But it also assures us that since the God-man is the solution to our problem, then the solution is complete. We have a full and complete restoration and salvation that we merely need to receive by faith.

Pinecone Podcast: Reformation Day & Justification by Faith Alone

I’ve started doing a podcast with two great people, Art Stump and Lacie Shingleton. In this week’s episode, we talk about Reformation Day and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In this podcast, we discuss what justification by faith alone means, how Luther re-discovered it, why it is so important, and how this fits with Christians doing good works. Listen to it by clicking here.

Reformation Day: Why Works Won’t Work

The central protest of the Protestant Church is that justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

When it comes to our standing before God, works won’t work.

Why? Because the law says that we’re guilty. When the law speaks, we become aware of our sin and are held guilty before the law (Rom. 3:19 & 20).

Martin Luther, whom God raised up to begin a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago this month, saw this very clearly.

Martin Luther believed that he could be justified by his works. He tried very hard to be declared righteous on the basis of what he did.

He also saw that he had sin, so he would spend two hours confessing his sins, walk away, and realize he had committed more sins that he had forgotten. This led him to adopt very strict practices and even to inflict pain on himself as a way of paying for his sin.

The more he worked, the more he saw the futility of it.

He realized that no one would be justified by the law because all have sinned, and all stand condemned and guilty before God.

Now, most people don’t take that approach. Most people aren’t trying that hard to do what’s right. Most people get around the weight of their sin by bringing the law down to their level.

We can do this in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we think we’re OK with God because we’re not that bad, perhaps go to church, and don’t do anything society considers really bad.

Sometimes, people avoid the law by focusing on a few moral issues. However, usually that morality does not touch our heart. It’s external things that we can easily avoid and look down on others for. “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with boys who do” (see Mt. 23:23).

Sometimes, we can make religious knowledge or awareness the basis of our standing before God. I know these doctrines, so I’m OK. Those who don’t are not in the club.

Sometimes, even grace can become a sort of club. I’m better than others because I get grace!

Wherever we tend to view ourselves highly and look down on contempt on others is a place where we are tending to rely on as our righteousness before God.

But none of these will work. They’re actually a distraction from the real issue.

They won’t work because God’s holiness demands that we obey His law, all His law, to be declared righteous.

And we haven’t. We’ve all sinned. So, we’re in trouble.

We all stand guilty and condemned before a holy God.

So, where does that lead us? To Luther’s glorious insight. We stand guilty and condemned before God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift because of what Jesus has done.

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

That’s justification by grace alone through faith alone. This is what the Reformation is all about. This is what the Bible is all about.

We all stand guilty before God, but God accepts us a free gift to be received by faith alone because of what Jesus has done.

That’s a rallying point. Think about it. Meditate on it. Live it. Let it transform you. Let it transform your churches. Let it soften your heart.

Works won’t work, but the Gospel will.

Every Christian Should Memorize This Chapter

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Isaiah 53. I think it is probably a favorite for most Christians. This is the passage where we read: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Vv. 5 & 6).

I have enjoyed reading what some famous Christians have said about this passage. I hope that you will find them edifying as well:

“This in many respects may be regarded as the most important in all the writings of the Old Testament, and which is better adapted than any other to lead us to a right understanding of the whole. The partial obscurity which usually accompanies the representations of the prophets seem here to have entirely vanished.” — E.W. Hengestenberg

“Though some things need explanation, this alone is enough, which is so plain, that even our enemies, in spite of their disinclination, are compelled to understand it.” — Augustine
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