A Jagged Contention: Faith and Works

“I cannot change all that I have consistently taught about this until now, namely, that “through faith” (as St. Peter says) we receive a different, new, clean heart and that, for the sake of Christ our mediator, God will and does regard us as completely righteous and holy. Although sin in the flesh is still not completely gone or dead, God will nevertheless not count it or consider it.

“Good works follow such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sin, and whatever in these works is still sinful or imperfect should not even be counted as sin or imperfection, precisely for the sake of this same Christ. Instead, the human creature should be called and should be completely righteous and holy—according to both the person and his or her works—by the pure grace and mercy that have been poured and spread over us in Christ. Therefore we cannot boast about the great merit of our works, where they are viewed apart from grace and mercy. Rather, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” [I Cor. 1:31, 2 Cor. 10:17]. That is, if one has a gracious God, then everything is good. Furthermore, we also say that if good works do not follow, then faith is false and not true.”

The Smalcald Articles: Part III: Article 13– How a Person Is Justified and Concerning Good Works


Question:

It is clear from scripture and the confessions that good works most certainly follow upon faith. How does one judge good works in the life of the Christian? Can one always see the good works which follow their faith? How does one distinguish between the good works of the unbeliever and the good works of faith?

Share your thoughts in the comments below

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4 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: Faith and Works

  1. People sin in their own will and way. That’s just true. The only good works are born of faith, because they are born of the Holy Spirit’s work in us, God’s will and way. If we could in any way judge the difference, we wouldn’t need to be saved from the corruption of body, mind, and spirit. I don’t think anyone could claim to be a fair judge of good works. Even Luther is not suggesting that. He just says there are some.

    As for judging being forbidden, that seems to be the case for whether one is saved or not – with the exception of oneself; or whether someone is a sinner (duh). We’re supposed to judge whether a deed is sin, based not on opinion but the Word of the Lord, which is clear enough about it when it matters (for example 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). We are also commanded to make a judgment, based on submission to the discipline of the Word, whether someone listens to God when he speaks about such things (that one is from Jesus in Matthew 18:15-18).

    Am I missing something?

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  2. We are called to judge sin, among those in the Church (1 Corinthians 5) and the Keys are given to judge that which we do know, sin. At no time are we to attempt to judge that which we do not know, good. the good we do is done by God through us such that we are not always aware. We know, by faith, that God intends our life for the good of others (Eph 2:10). I think we can be assured that He works well through us, even if it is the witness of our lives. Consider the inspiration drawn from a deathbed confession.

    “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23)

    Such a testimony to saving faith is a gift given to us by God through this criminal and sinner. His faith saved him but his confession testifies to the Gospel, a good work done for us.

    As to believers and unbelievers, all works of the Law are, outwardly identical. The works of Christians are manifestations of the living word that abides in us (1 Peter 1:23). The Word always has power, in our vocations and the charitable actions of our lives. As such, it calls out to the lost and points to Christ. The good works of unbelievers point to the goodness of the ones doing the work and results in many rejecting the total corruption of original sin and, in the estimation of human reason, the need and ability of man to work toward God. This is the gospel of works that has corrupted the Church and which tempts to world away from Christ to a human religion.

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  3. John 6:

    Q: What must we do to be doing the works of God?
    A: Believe on Him whom the Father has sent.

    There are good works which the Christian ought to do which are different from those of the unbeliever, but primarily it is faith that makes our works good. If all of our good works are like filthy menstral rags, as Isaiah says, then we must even be forgiven of our best works. Christians should love and minister to the poor, something that unbelievers may or may not do, but the difference is that Christians do so out of faith, rather than in an effort to justify ourselves or puff ourselves up for our good service.

    The Bible tells us that Christians naturally produce good works following faith, but this is always governed by very clear statements like “if we confess our sins, God is faithful and justice to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” If we were ever tempted to become fruit-checkers, trying to determine whether or not our fruit proved our election, we could always return to God’s promises for any areas where we fall short. I may not have all of the spiritual fruit listed in Galatians 5, or the Book of First John, but for every instance where I fall short, I know that I am forgiven if I simply confess my sins to God.

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