Faith Works: Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works

Lutherans should celebrate the 500th anniversary of 1520 as a much more significant event than publication of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517.  The Indulgence Controversy and the image of Luther’s hammer has captured everyone’s imagination for a long time.  However, in 1520 the Turning Point in the emerging Reformation took place.  In this year, Dr. Martin Luther published a numbers of significant texts that demonstrated that theologically he had turned a metaphorical corner and was not looking back.  

In a series of short posts, I intend to examine some of these most significant texts over the coming months as a way to recognize this 500th year milestone.  I will begin here with Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works.  Luther had promised Georg Spalatin, Elector Frederick the Wise’s private secretary, to write a sermon to counter the criticism that his theological teachings prohibited good works.  He completed the work in May and it appeared in print in June 1520.

In this work Luther explained in detail his theological conception of the relationship between faith and good works for the first time.  Late medieval scholastic theologians had sought to explain the connection between faith and good deeds.  Two years previously,  Luther had rejected the late medieval scholastic theology in his explanations of the Heidelberg Disputation.  In thesis 25 Luther concluded, “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without, work, believes much in Christ.”  In the explanation of this thesis, he reversed the scholastic focus on repetitive actions to acquire righteousness.  Thereby, he affirmed that faith receives righteousness before the Christian is able to perform good works.*    

In the Treatise on Good Works, Luther presents an exposition of the Ten Commandments based upon his theology of justification by faith alone.  This fits very well with Luther’s understanding of the First Commandment.  First, he writes that true good works are those things that God actually commands in Scripture.  Luther focuses his criticism throughout this text on religious activity promoted as good deeds of satisfaction by the papal theologians.  Then Luther wrote this significant statement:   

The first, highest, and most precious of all good works is faith in Christ, and as it says in John 6 [:28-29], when the Jews asked him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the good work of God?’ Jesus answered, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’  Now when we hear that or even preach it, we pass over it: we think nothing of it and think it easy to do, but actually we ought to pause a long time and think it over properly.  For in this work all good works exist, and from faith these works receive a borrowed goodness.  We must make this absolutely clear, so that men can understand it.”**   

Dr. Luther wrote explanations of each of the Ten Commandments throughout the rest of this treatise.  Here, he emphasizes the idea that obedience to the commandments only flows from faith in Christ and his redemptive action.  He concluded rhetorically in the following manner:    

  “Look here! This is how you must cultivate Christ in yourself, and see how in him God holds before you his mercy and offers it to you without my prior merits of you own.  It is from such a view of his grace that you must draw faith and confidence in the forgiveness of all sins.  Faith, therefore, does not originate in works, neither do works create faith, but faith must spring up and from the blood and wounds and death of Christ.  If you see in these that God is so kindly disposed toward you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart in turn must grow sweet and disposed toward God.”***

*Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, in Luther’s Works, vol.  31, pp. 55-56; Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis 1985), 231-234.

**Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, LW 44:23-24 [Emphasis added]

***Ibid., 38. [Emphasis added]

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On the Violence of Love

“ ‘I have been wounded by love.’ [Song of Songs 2:5 Old Latin] Love urges me to speak about love, and I willingly devote myself to its service.  Indeed, it is sweet and altogether enjoyable to speak about love (dilectione)—a pleasant matter and quite rich, and one that cannot in any way produce tedium in the writer and disgust in the reader.  For that which is seasoned with love is flavorful beyond measure on the palate of the heart.  ‘If a man were to give the entire wealth of his house for his love (dilectione), he would think it nothing.’ [Song of Songs 8:7 Vulg.] ” Richard of St Victor, On the Four Degrees of Violent Love I.1. in On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation, p. 275.

Richard lived and taught at the abbey of St Victor in Paris from about 1150 to 1173.  He followed the tradition of the master teacher, Hugh of St Victor, in this focus on the force of love.  Additionally, he connects to the significant fascination that celibate clergy had with reading and commenting on an ancient Hebrew love poem and a part of Holy Scripture.  Notice the text begins with a quote from that text.  Hugh defined love in the follow manner:

“Love seems to be—and love is—the delight of somebody’s heart toward something on account of something.  It is desire in seeking, and delight in thoroughly enjoying; it runs by means of (per) desire, it rests by means of delight.” Hugh of St Victor, On the Substance of Love II.5 in On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation, p. 144. {emphasis added}

This definition could apply to a loving marriage or even a favorite food.  In his work, Richard compares love to a violent force that compels one to act.  While often associated with the Cistercians, Victorine masters also sought to understand how human love mirrored or explained divine love.  Cistercians transferred the literal understanding of a love poem (the Song of Songs) into a mystical relationship of the soul with God.  Richard, a mystical theologian, explained this power in what certainly seems like the purpose of romance:     

“Do you not think that the heart appears to be pierced when that fiery sting of love (amoris) penetrates one’s mind to the core of his being and transfixes his feelings, so much so that he is completely incapable of containing or concealing the boiling of his desire?  He is ablaze  with desire; he seethes with feeling.  He boils and pants, groaning deeply and drawing long, deep breaths.” Richard, Four Degrees in On Love, pp.276-77 

It really seems to me that Richard understood what it meant to be ‘in love’ with someone.  When we read the medieval theologians, we should always move from the literal to the allegorical.  Richard wants his reader to understand that he or she could feel within the soul a divine love that sweetens the affections and controls the body in the same way a lover bends his own will for his beloved. 

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Medieval Passover

“This holy festival, Pascha, is called a Passover because just as the Hebrew people were freed through the blood of the slaughtered lamb, from the angel, passing through Egypt for striking, so the faithful people are defended  through the blood of Christ the true lamb from the devil.  And just as the people, liberated from the the yoke of Pharaoh, passed over into Promised Land, so the Christian people will pass over from the yoke of the devil, liberated through Christ into the homeland of paradise.”   Honorius Augustodunensis, “De paschali die.” Patrologia Latina 172:930A [My translation]

In the early twelfth century, Honorius Augustodunensis wrote a collection of the sermons that survives in numerous manuscripts in the German-speaking lands of medieval Europe.  In this sermon for Easter, he explains how the Hebrew Passover foreshadowed the redemption of Christ’s blood for believers.  During the twelfth century, monastic preachers began to focus more intently on Christ’s redemption of sinful humanity.  For example read this excerpt from one of Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the Song of Songs: 

“How sweet it is to see as man the Creator of humanity.  While he carefully protected nature from sin, he forcefully drove death from that nature also.  In taking a body he stooped to me, in avoiding sin he took counsel with himself, in accepting death he satisfied the Father.  A dear friend, a wise counselor, a strong helper.” Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 20. II. 3 trans. Kilian Walsh, On the Song of Songs I (Kalamazoo 1971), p. 149.

How did the Creator of humanity do this? Both Honorius and Bernard answer this question in more than one sermon. He does this through his suffering a tortuous death upon a the Cross and overcoming death through the Resurrection. As only the bloody death of the lamb could protect the Hebrews from the Angel of Death, so only the bloody death of the incarnate God could overcome death. Following the section above Bernard wrote Christ’s act of redemption:

“He is the one who conquered all things, even death, and tricked the serpent, the seducer of the world, with a holy deception. He was more prudent than the one, more powerful than the other. He took to himself as true body but only the likeness of sin, giving a sweet consolation to weak men in the one and the other hiding a trap to deceive the devil. To reconcile us to the Father he bravely suffered death and conquered it, pour out his blood as the price of our redemption.” (Ibid.)

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Happy Virginity

“O happy virginity, which humility adorns; o happy humility, which virginity honors.  Humility adorns virginity, so that it might not have pride.  Virginity honors humility, so that it may not be despised.  Therefore, virginity is humble, so that it may not be exalted.” Innocent III, Sermo XXVII. In solemnitate Assumptionis Gloriosissimae Semper Virginis Mariae, PL 217:578 [My translation]

Pope Innocent III comments on the Angel Gabriel’s proclamation to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her response: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38).   He is following the devotion expressed to Mary during the twelfth century.  The Virgin conceives and later births the God-man.  However, the Lord also blessed her with the grace of multiple virtues.  Here, the Virgin expresses her great humility and Innocent explains how well the two fit together in her body and soul. Read how Bernard of Clairvaux described her about 60 years earlier than Innocent III:

“How gracious is the union of virginity and humility! A soul in whom humility embellishes virginity and virginity ennobles humility finds no little favor with God.  Imagine then how much more worthy of reverence must she have been whose humility was raised by motherhood and whose virginity consecrated by her childbearing.  You are told that she is a virgin.  You are told that she is humble.  If you are not able to imitate the virginity of this humble maid, then imitate the humility of the virgin maid.  Virginity is a praiseworthy virtue, but humility is by far the most necessary.” Bernard of Clairvaux, Homily I.5 in Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. Marie-Bernard Said (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1993), 9. [Emphasis added]

However, remember that the Blessed Virgin did not earn or merit any worthiness of her own.  The Lord chose her graciously and she responded in great humility.  As Bernard discussed in another homily, God wanted to become a human being to redeem sinners.  In order to accomplish this feat, God needed a virgin woman.  Read as Bernard’s explanation:

“The only childbearing becoming to a virgin is to give birth to God alone.  So it was that the Maker of mankind, in order to become a man, born of human flesh, had to choose one person out of all the living, or rather, he had to create someone whom he knew would be worthy to be his mother, someone in whom he was sure he could delight.  That was why he wanted her to be a virgin, someone unstained from whom he himself could be born stainless, for he was to wipe away all our stains.” Homily II.1. in Ibid., p. 15.       

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John Locke on the Study of History

“With Geography, Chronology ought to go hand in hand.  I mean that general part of it, so that he may have in his Mind a view of the whole current of time, and the several considerable Epochs that are made use of in History.  Without these two, History, which is the great Mistress of Prudence and Civil Knowledge; and ought to be the proper Study of a Gentleman, or Man of Business in the World; without Geography and Chronology, I say, History will be very ill retained, and very little useful; but only a jumble of Matters of Fact, confusedly heaped together without Order or Instruction.”  John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education § 182 in The Educational Writings of John Locke, ed. James L. Axtell  (Cambridge 1968), p. 292. 

John Locke knew the importance of studying history.  He thought that the study of history makes one wiser.  However, he also pointed out that one must study geography and the chronological order of events.  Notice also that Locke states the study of history was essential for being a ‘gentleman’ or doing business in the world. Locke also explained how the reading of history should be appropriate to the age of the student.  Notice one level of reading and learning builds toward the next level of cognitive ability.  Locke wrote:     

“As nothing teaches, so nothing delights more than History.  The first of these recommends it to the Study of Grown Men, the latter makes me think it fittest for a young Lad, who as soon as he is instructed in Chronology, and acquainted with the several Epochs in use in this part of the World, and can reduce them to the Julian Period, should then have some Latin History put into his Hand.  The choice should be directed by the easiness of the Stile; for where-ever he begins, Chronology will keep it from Confusion; and the pleasantness of the Subject inviting him to read, the Language will insensibly be got, without that terrible vexation and uneasiness, which Children suffer, where they are put into Books beyond their Capacity, such as are the Roman Orators and Poets, only to learn the Roman Language.” John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education § 184, in The Educational Writings of John Locke, ed. James L. Axtell  (Cambridge 1968), p. 293.  [Italics in original] 


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An Ardent Lover

When that which is loved is at hand, love thrives; when absent it languishes.  This is simply that weariness of impatient desire by which the mind of the ardent lover is necessarily afflicted when the loved one is absent; wholly absorbed in expectation, she reckons even any haste to be slow.  And therefore she asks for an assortment of the fruits of good works made fragrant by faith in which she may rest while the bridegroom tarries.” Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 51.II.3, On the Song of Songs III, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1979), p. 42. [Emphasis added]

Here Bernard commented on Songs of Songs 2:5, “Prop me up with flowers, encompass me with apples, because I languish with love.”  Here we see again how medieval preachers and theologians used romantic rhetoric to explain the soul’s relationship to the divine.  Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also may cause great emotional suffering.

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Who Can Keep Silent?

“Who can contemplate Eternity being born, Power itself failing, Bread going hungry, the Spring itself growing thirsty, without becoming speechless?  But who can contemplate the beginning of our salvation, the day of human healing, without bursting forth in a voice of exultation and praise, the sound of one keeping festival?* God has been made a man; who knows how to speak about that?  Our Jesus, our Savior, our joy, comes among us; who can keep silent?  Therefore, let us rejoice in God, our salvation.* If the angels see God’s face* in jubilation, we ought at least to see God’s back* not without jubilation? ” Aelred of Rievaulx, ‘Sermon 30: For the Nativity of the Lord’ in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Liturgical Sermons, The Second Clairvaux Collection, trans. Marie Anne Mayeski (Collegeville, MN 2016), pp. 3-4 [Italics in original, but Bold print added]

Aelred of Rievaulx exemplifies the twelfth-century Cistercians’ emphasis on the Incarnation and passion of Christ in this Christmas sermon.  How could God become a human being?  Why did he do so?  Aelred hints at this when he states that believers should see God’s back in jubilation.  Cistercian theologians understood Moses’ seeing God’s back as a type of the incarnate Christ.  Aelred then describes how Moses encountering God in the burning bush foreshadowed the Word becoming flesh.  As a bush contained thorns so Christ in flesh bore the thorns of sin in his body:

“Will I now dare to say that that flesh in which was the Word that is God, God who is the consuming fire–dare I say that that flesh was the bush? Without a doubt, it is the bush, a bush that had thorns that were not his own but our thorns.  Because it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured; he was wounded for our offenses and worn out for our sins.* Let us remember his passion, let us see in what manner Pilate crowned him with thorns and said, Behold the man.*  True man, true flesh, true bush, carrying our thorns.  But why on the head? O Lord my God, it is not enough that you may be seen to bear my thorns unless you also bear them on your head!  Lord my God, crowned with my thorns!” Ibid. 5.      

*Psalm 41:3

*Psalm 94:1

*Matthew 18:20

*Exodus 33:23

*Isaiah 53:4-5

*John 19:5

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Anselm on the Incarnation

In the late eleventh century, a famous theologian wrote a book called: Cur deus homo (usually translated as Why God Became a Man).  Born in Aosta in modern northern Italy in 1033, Anselm left his home in the late 1050s and settled in Normandy at the monastery of Bec in 1059.  This meant that Duke William II of Normandy (King William I of England from 1066-86) became Anselm’s noble benefactor.  Anselm served as prior and then abbot of Bec for many years before becoming archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He spent much of his archbishopric in exile since both King William Rufus II (d.1100) and King Henry I (d.1135) were often at odds with archbishop’s reform program.*

Anselm wrote a number of works of great significance for philosophy, theology, and devotional practice.  However, his most well-known work among modern scholars and theology students is Cur deus homo.  Following the Platonic tradition, Anselm wrote this work as a dialogue between a teacher (Anselm) and his student (a fellow monk named Boso).  Anselm wrote this book to answer the objections of unbelievers (mostly Jews) to the incarnation and death of Christ.  However, the theological schools connected to cathedrals in northern France also engendered debate regarding the purpose of the incarnation.  In the early part of the dialogue, Boso described the Jewish objections in the following manner:

“The unbelievers…charge that we do God injury and insult when we assert that he descended into the womb of a woman, that he was born of a woman, that he grew, nourished by milk and human foods, and–not to speak of many other things that seem inappropriate for God–that he bore weariness, hunger, thirst, blows, and a cross and death between the thieves.”**

To the Jews it seemed irrational and certainly against the nature of God to do such things.  Therefore, Anselm wanted to explain why it was fitting, rational, and right for God to become a human being.  Most significantly, the incarnation became the means of God’s reconciliation with sinful humanity.  In the Fall, human beings violated God’s honor through disobedience and suffered the just penalty of God’s anger.  Justice demanded satisfaction of this debt, but God is merciful.  This reconciliation could only take place if a man made satisfaction for the disobedience.  However, only God could make such an offering because the offering must be greater than everything except God.  Therefore, a God-man must necessarily perform it to redeem humanity as Anselm explained to Boso:

If then, as is certain, that the celestial city must be completed from among men, and this cannot happen unless the aforesaid satisfaction is made, while no one save God can make it and no one save man ought to make it, it is necessary for a God-Man to make it.***

*On Anselm see R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge 1990).

**Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man i. iii., in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (Philadelphia 1956), p. 104.

***Anselm, Why God Became Man ii. vii., Scholastic Miscellany, p. 151; Cf. Southern, Saint Anselm, pp. 205-207.

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Philosophy as Obedience to the Divine

“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength, I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?” Plato, Apology [of Socrates] in The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues (New York: Dover, 1992), pp. 30-31. [Emphasis added] 

In this work, Plato set forth his version of Socrates’ statement of defense in response to the charges against him by the Athenian government.  These charges included impiety against the gods of Athens and corruption of the Athenian youth.  In his defense Socrates argued that the god at Delphi had commissioned him to lead the people of Athens into self-examination and inquiry.  This drew many of the elite young men (like Plato) of Athens to him as their teacher.  Socrates explained that the purpose of his teaching was the pursuit of virtue.  And if this teaching violated the laws of Athens, then he was guilty.  However, a higher law, inspired by the divine, compelled him to continue teaching.  Socrates proclaimed:

“For this is the command to God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.  For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.  I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private.  This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed.  But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.” Ibid., p. 31. [Emphasis added]


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Fighting for the Luxury and Wealth of Others

 “‘Those savage beasts,’ said he, ‘in Italy, have their particular dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light; and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from  place to place with their wives and children.’  He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchres and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend.  They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and wealth of other men.” Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden, revised by Arthur H. Clough. reprint of 1864 edition (New York: Modern Library), 999.  [Emphasis added]

Here we read Plutarch’s description of Tiberius Gracchus’ speech concerning the suffering of the common Roman soldier for the interests of the Roman nobles.  Tiberius Gracchus represented the populist politician (populares) of the late 2nd century BC.  He recognized how the wars of the Repubic had led to corruption and great oppression of the average Roman citizen.  It seems that it’s always been a Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight.

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