Concord #20: Good Works (part 1)

"Concord" is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers' knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them "with one heart" to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.

Good Works (part 1)

Back in the sixth article of the Augsburg Confession, we learned that there is a new kind obedience that follows faith. It’s not an obedience of the Law, where you must decide to do good or not, but the obedience of faith, which is to say that it is fruit of faith and the working of the Holy Spirit. This faith is bound to bring forth good works. In the twentieth article of the Augsburg Confession, the topic of good works is taken up again. This is a longer article, so we’ll take a couple of weeks to work through it.

Our confession of good works begins, “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works” (Augsburg Confession XX.1). It is a persistent false accusation against preachers of grace that their preaching forbids good works. Those who make such an accusation feel that the good news of the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ is too easy, too cheap. They think that the Gospel without conditions implies license to sin. If you can just be forgiven of your sin—any sin! —then what’s to stop you from doing whatever you want?

The solution for them is to reintroduce the Law. Not in the same pre-conversion, accusatory sense, but in a kinder, gentler, friendlier sense. A Law interpreted through the Gospel.

But this presents two problems. First, since the Law demands a perfection we cannot achieve, it becomes necessary to remove the Law’s teeth to make it doable. It becomes Law lite. Second, it encourages the natural human disposition to invent works and imagine a righteousness that can be gained by doing them. This is how medieval monasticism came about, which is a life of works over and above the works that God commands in His Word.

The Ten Commandments teach us what a good work is. The Apostolic admonitions simply set those works within your vocations—in the church, family, and government. We may not invent works that God has not commanded, and think that we have become righteous by doing them.

“For [the Lutheran teachers’] 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. 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” (Augsburg Confession XX.2-3).

The writings of the Lutheran Church and its teachers bear witness to the fact that we do teach about good works. The Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther are the prime example. Each begins with the Ten Commandments. The Small Catechism concludes with the Table of Duties, which shows how those works are carried out in vocation. These are not invented from human imagination, but are taken directly from the Scriptures.

However, the teaching of the Law is only the beginning of good works. If good works were only a matter of the Law, then no one would be able to do one. In the coming weeks, our study will lead us to that which is necessary to make our works good—faith.

You can read the Book of Concord at http://www.bookofconcord.org

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.

Created: June 6th, 2017