Continuing in the series of posts from Martin Luther as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I share some highlights from Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian. This treatise was dedicated to Pope Leo X, and was Luther’s final attempt to be reconcile to Rome.
One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ… Let us consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and where that Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing, since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing. On the other hand, there is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of his Word.
The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. So [the soul] is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith. Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to strengthen faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus, who suffered and rose for him. No other work makes a Christian.
To those who ask, “If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded?” Although a man is abundantly and sufficiently justified by faith inwardly, in his spirit, and so has all that he needs… yet he remains in this mortal life on earth. In this life he must control his own body and have dealings with men. Here the works begin, here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do if it is not held in check. Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. Nevertheless the works themselves to not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.
The following statements are therefore true: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.