The Gospel & Good Works

Below, I share a choice passage from Luther’s preface to his commentary on Galatians.  In this preface, Luther makes a distinction between what he calls “active” & “passive righteousness.”  “Active righteousness” is the Christian’s life of good works before his neighbor.  But the heart of the biblical Gospel as presented by Paul is what Luther identifies as a “passive righteousness” – the Christian’s righteous standing before God, solely because of Christ.  That is, Christ has done everything necessary to secure my justification before our holy & just God.  My works are not part of the equation.  I am purely a receiver of, not a contributor to, my justification – now and in the Last Day.  I am declared “not guilty” because of Christ’s Cross-work on my behalf  – and I am declared positively righteous because of Christ’s Law-work on my behalf.  He has attained eternal life through His perfect obedience to God’s Law.  His righteousness is imputed to me as I receive it by faith alone. And thereby I receive the gift of eternal life, the reward of perfect righteousness.  To put it another way, His Cross delivers me from eternal condemnation, and His righteousness gains me eternal life.  This is a “passive righteousness” because I do nothing for my justification.  Christ has done everything.  Faith is simply an empty hand which receives this gift (which faith itself is the gift of God).

This should be “Reformation  101” – but sadly, even among some in the Reformed camp, this understanding of justification is considered outmoded.  Luther & Calvin were hopelessly shackled to their immediate historical context, exegetically impaired by the prejudices of their age.  More recent exegetes, however, are apparently free from their own biases – and now confidently tell us “What St. Paul REALLY Said,” which no one else in all of church history has ever heard him say.  Luther & Calvin were not that arrogant, as they regularly appealed to the church fathers to justify this view of justification – although always anchored to the ultimate authority of the text of Scripture.  Where the fathers departed from the clarity of Scripture, the Reformers departed from them.

A bugaboo since the Reformation has been the relationship between the Gospel and good works.  In recent controversies, some have almost come full circle back to Rome, suggesting that our works play a part in our “final justification” on the Last Day.  Such an emphasis, it would seem, would be an effective preventative measure against antinomianism – the lawless abuse of grace.  But as Paul says in Galatians 2:21, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”  That is a comprehensive statement, and would preclude any assumed personal righteousness which would avail for my “final justification.”  As Paul makes clear in Philippians 3:9, he wants to be found in Christ (i.e., now and in the Last Day), “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”  That righteousness is imputed to the believing sinner (Rom 4:6).  That righteousness is Christ (1 Cor 1:30).  Christ came into the world to save sinners, not to help sinners help themselves on the Last Day.

I am convinced that the old paths – the Old Perspective on Paul, if you will – are still the safest and most faithful to the apostolic Gospel.  Luther, like Paul, and like every faithful minister of the Word of Christ, encountered this misguided objection that the Gospel of free justification will lead to lawlessness, i.e., “What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?…” (Rom 6:15).  Paul’s answer is an emphatic “Certainly not!” – as he explains how our union with Christ in His death to sin and His resurrection to new life precludes that possibility.  Good works necessarily follow free justification – but are not in any way part of the basis of our justification (initial or final).  That is the deadly error of the Judaizers,  the Roman Catholic Church, and every other legalist of whatever stripe who has destroyed the Gospel by trying to mix our works with the all-sufficient work of Christ.

Here’s the way Luther describes how good works follow from free justification.  And notice the context for these good works – not hidden away in the monastery, or the small-group ministry of the church, but in the wide-open world of our everyday vocations:

When I have Christian righteousness reigning in my heart, I descend from heaven as the rain makes fruitful the earth; that is to say, I do good works, how and wheresoever the occasion arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the brokenhearted, I administer the sacraments. If I am a householder, I govern my house and family well, and in the fear of God. If I am a servant, I do my master’s business faithfully.

To conclude, whoever is assuredly persuaded that Christ alone is his righteousness, does not only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation, but also submits himself through love to the rulers and to their laws, yea, though they be severe, and, if necessity should require, to all manner of burdens, and to all dangers of the present life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases Him.

Good works are the necessary fruit of justifying faith, but are not justifying.  You might say, “I’m down with  OPP” – not “other people’s possessions,” mind you, but the Old Perspective on Paul.  That’s because I’m naughty by nature – and my only hope is the imputed, passive, perfect righteousness of Christ.

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

11 replies on “The Gospel & Good Works”

  1. Thanks, John. This particular quote is from Erasmus Middleton’s translation of Luther’s commentary (of 1535, I believe). This is published as a reprint by Kregel Classics. Middleton abbreviated Luther’s commentary.


  2. BTW, this is an expansion / re-working of a blog I wrote a few years ago. I have since obtained Luther’s Works as translated by Pelikan – masterful translation for its clarity. Here’s how he renders that same section:
    When I have this righteousness within me, I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the saddened, I administer the sacraments. If I am a father, I rule my household and family, I train my children in piety and honesty. If I am a magistrate, I perform the office which I have received by divine command. If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs. In short, whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life—even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases Him.
    Luther’s Works, 26:4 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1963)


  3. I wonder how Pelikan ever managed to convert to EOxy having done work like this. I’ve not read all five of his “History of the Development of Doctrine” series, but he seemed to have been in search of some amorphous “what the whole church has always taught everywhere and for all time” kind of thing. And “alien righteousness,” though Biblical, and Pauline, does not fit neatly within that category.


  4. Indeed, his conversion is puzzling. Perhaps, like for many who swim the Tiber, “the Church” overshadowed “the Christ.”


  5. Yeah, you know me… really clever conclusion and great Luther quote. At the same time, I still believe those naughty by nature and those who have a new nature in Christ are not as far off as you may think. Looking forward to the continual dialogue. Have you read Wright’s pop-summary on Justification?


  6. Good to hear from you, Nathan. Thanks for the feedback. No, I haven’t read Wright’s pop-summary on justification. Where can I find it? I did give a listen to Wright & James White’s recent podcast conversation, and White’s debrief of their conversation on his podcast. Very interesting.


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