January 27, 2021

Good Works Week I: Faith Working through Love


For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

– Galatians 5:2, NRSV

For Christ at the last day will not ask how much you have prayed, fasted, pilgrimaged, done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even the very least.

. . . Therefore take heed: our own self-assumed good works lead us to and into ourselves, that we seek only our own benefit and salvation; but God’s commandments drive us to our neighbor, that we may thereby benefit others to their salvation.

– Martin Luther
A Treatise on Good Works

* * *

We will be talking about good works this week on Internet Monk.

As we do, I encourage you, if possible, to read through or at least consult Martin Luther’s A Treatise on Good Works (1520). The link will take you to a Kindle edition which is free on Amazon. You can also download it at CCEL or read it at Project Gutenberg. It is not that I will necessarily be referencing Luther constantly through the week, though it will be our focus today. But Luther’s perspective is formative for most subsequent Protestant teaching on this subject, and it would be good to review what lies at the source of the tradition as we talk. You might also consult an earlier post here on IM, “On Good Works,” which summarizes a few of Luther’s main themes in the treatise.

We should remember, first of all, the contextual nature of Luther’s teaching on faith and good works. For him, this was not only a religious question based on the doctrines and practices of the medieval Roman Catholic church, but also a public question in a society which mingled church and state. Luther was not only accused of being a heretic because of his emphasis on justification by faith, but also a fomenter of societal upheaval. “Good works” was a subject kings and princes cared about for the proper functioning of society, and because the Church played such a key part in ruling society, leaders counted on her to promote morality and order. Luther was being pressed to show that his reforms of Church teaching would provide salutary effects in the real world and not cause havoc.

You will recognize much of what you read in Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, particularly:

  • God defines what good works are in his commandments.
  • Faith is the greatest good work, and is not just one good work among the rest, but rather the source of all other genuine good works.

In the Treatise the reformer also emphasized certain aspects of good works that form the foundation of such distinct Lutheran emphases as the doctrine of vocation.

If you ask further, whether they count it also a good work when they work at their trade, walk, stand, eat, drink, sleep, and do all kinds of works for the nourishment of the body or for the common welfare, and whether they believe that God takes pleasure in them because of such works, you will find that they say, “No”; and they define good works so narrowly that they are made to consist only of praying in church, fasting, and almsgiving. Other works they consider to be in vain, and think that God cares nothing for them. So through their damnable unbelief they curtail and lessen the service of God, Who is served by all things whatsoever that are done, spoken or thought in faith.

It is also important to remember that even though he often spoke disparagingly of them, Luther was not opposed to or distrustful of good works. He did not hesitate to talk in terms of their necessity and stated that his goal was to lead people to “to the true, genuine, thoroughly good, believing works.” In fact, Luther says in his Treatise that teaching faith must inevitably lead to teaching and practicing good works. However, Luther was concerned for the health of Christendom in his day, and in a vivid illustration he remarked on what he felt his priorities must be:

Therefore, when some say that good works are forbidden when we preach faith alone, it is as if I said to a sick man: “If you had health, you would have the use of all your limbs; but without health, the works of all your limbs are nothing”; and he wanted to infer that I had forbidden the works of all his limbs; whereas, on the contrary, I meant that he must first have health, which will work all the works of all the members. So faith also must be in all works the master-workman and captain, or they are nothing at all.

What Luther opposed was a number of false understandings about good works, but always with the intention of helping Christians to follow Christ’s example of self-giving love.

Indeed, in an article in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, Simo Peura argues that Luther was not interested in faith merely as an answer to the question, “How can I find the merciful God?” Instead Pero says, “He was trying to work out a solid answer to the great commandment of Scripture: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27).”

The “whole intent” of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was more than the verdict of declared righteousness. He was concerned about how people could be brought into union with God so that they might receive God’s love and so be enabled to fulfill the Law of Love.

Luther’s entire theological work can be viewed as an attempt to solve the problem of self-serving love. Both his view of salvation and his social-ethical writings concern the same problem. . . .

. . . Luther offers several examples of his intention to deal with the problem of pure love. His effort to build a system of social welfare with the city council of Wittenberg, his emphasis on the Golden Rule as the basis for all interhuman relations, his doctrine of two kingdoms, his critique of usury and the legal system, and his instructions for being a righteous and fair sovereign are all attempts to point out the necessity of loving God from one’s whole heart and the neighbor as oneself. He was convinced that the problem of true love can only be solved through faith in God. For individuals cannot find the love that is commanded of them in themselves; it has to be given to them by God. (Union with Christ, p. 78)

Peuro discusses how the Large Catechism teaches us to understand God’s essential nature as that of pure, self-giving love. Through faith, we receive God’s gifts, but these gifts do not come to us in a way that is separate from God himself. Above all God gives himself to us, and this enables us to love.

Faith is important because it alone enables us to receive God’s unselfish love. When God first reveals his pure love and gives himself with all of the gifts of salvation to us, we become partakers of God and of his nature as pure love. Only under the condition of God’s presence and participation do we begin to bring God’s love into existence in our lives. It is actually God himself who extends through our lives his love toward all of those who need his love and want to be saved. We, like all other creatures, are the hands and all of the means of God’s unselfish love.” (Union, p. 95)

Faith is a great gift of God, primarily because it is the essential key which enables us to participate in God’s greatest gift, the gift of love.


  1. I like this, Mike. I wasn’t familiar with that work of Luther’s, but I’m happy to be introduced to it. Thanks.

  2. Love is the greatest gift…in a perfect world.

    For us, sinners (self-lovers)…faith is the most important gift, because that is the gift which will save us, and those others which hear about the love of Christ for us, and come to believe.

    • No, love is the greatest gift, period. This is the consistent and continual testimony of Scripture. Even when our love is weak and imperfectly realized, it towers above all else.

      • For me the testimony of Scripture and the love I’ve personally experienced trumps Lutherans, or any sub-group of Christianity. Thanks for the reassurance, Mike.

      • “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13.13)

        That pretty much affirms that love trumps faith and hope. Love does not eliminate faith and hope but like a good mother, births them, feeds them–and keeps them in line.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >faith is the most important gift, ***because*** that is the gift which will save us

      “because”? Perhaps the saving is not the first and most primal point of the narrative, if that is the case then this “because” doesn’t stand. Maybe that is the root of the disagreement. Scripture seems to be about a great deal more than Salvation – it is the story of a creator making a people within a damaged creation which he loves – salvation is a part of that story, it is not *the* story. With that reading of the narrative Love is the greater arc and impetus, salvation and faith flow out from that.

    • Love is the greatest gift! It is the Love of God which saved us – the work is finished by Christ! It is not the gift of faith which will save us. For if I had faith to move mountains, but had not love, I am nothing. Of course, our love will always be imperfect, but His Love is perfect, and in Him I remain to show love to others.

    • Respectfully, I think your statement here is a bit at odds with scripture. Not only I Cor. 13, but also the broader counsel of scripture, which is given to a world that is definitely still far from perfect.

      Also, a perfect world would have no need for the gift of love; it would already possess and demonstrate it fully.

  3. No.
    For Lutherans, faith is the most important gift.

    For we know in an imperfect, sinful world, that our love is tainted with self.

    But the gift of faith puts the onus where it belongs. On His love… for sinners.

    • Love is greater, because it includes faith, whereas one can have faith without love. Lutheran or not scripture like 1Cor 13 trumps church tradition and teaching.

      You are not going to like this week’s posts very much, Steve. And I’ll give you fair warning that moderation of comments is a strong possibility.

      • Dwillingham says

        Could it be that the greatest gift is in knowing that seeking to define the greatest gift of God causes us to attempt to quantify what cannot be measured by human means and thus diminishes all Gods gifts? The greatest gift is almost always the one that’s fills the greatest need. A new car is a wonderful gift, but not if I’m hungry have nowhere to go and there isn’t any road!

      • Muslims and Hindus and atheists can have love.

        Only those who believe in Christ can have faith. It is only through faith that we, or anyone is saved (apart from works).

        Faith is more important, for Lutherans.

        • Fr. Weejus says

          I thought only those who have faith (from Christ) can believe in Christ. At least that was the Lutheran teaching in my upbringing. The reverse sounds like we believe, and then he gives us faith. Sounds like a work to me. And that gift of faith flows from Christ’s love for us. He demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    • How would faith be any more perfect than love from the same sinful imperfect person? It would be just as tainted with self. Sometimes it’s quite disappointing to find that what we thought was faith in God turned out to be faith in personal abilities or material assets. If I have faith to move mountains but have not love…well there you go.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Love is the greatest gift, no faith. Faith, no love. Whatever. I want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg!?

      • I think Adam’s comment above shows why this is important, Rick.

        In my mind it is like the distinction between a wedding and a marriage. The goal for two people who love is each other is not to have a wedding (i.e. a ceremony that enacts a covenant of mutual trust). That just begins the process of having a marriage (i.e. learning to walk in love and bearing fruit for the benefit of each other and others).

        • Rick Ro. says

          Thanks for pointing me to Adam’s comment, CM. And I appreciate and understand your point about wedding vis a vis marriage. Good analogy.

          I guess I see God’s gifts as some glorious, mysterious mix of faith and love (and plenty of others thrown in) which makes the question “which is the greatest” more esoteric than useful, thus my chicken or egg comment.

          As I think about it, though, the question “why were we created” comes to mind. Were we created to be loved? Were we created to “have faith”? Probably more the former than the latter. So maybe love is the greatest. But I’m not sure the pecking order is that important.

          • Robert F says

            The “pecking order” form of the discussion was superimposed by one strident voice. It wouldn’t, otherwise, naturally or automatically have assumed that form.

            But I think that, since God is love, and not faith or hope, that love must be the most fundamental and foundational of any gift, or quality.

  4. How does ‘love’ manifest itself in the life of the believer?

    • I think Luther’s quote at the top of the page summarizes it well.

    • Jazziscoolithink says

      Thankfully, Steve does not speak for nor represent all Lutherans–much less Christians.

    • I hope you’re not insinuating that love does not manifest itself in the lives of believers.

      Perhaps not perfect love, but love certainly.

      There’s a huge difference between saying “there will be no sin in believers’ lives” and “there will be works of love manifesting in believers lives.” Luther, and every reasonable Christian I think, agrees with this second point.

  5. I’m a lutheran (LCMS, which means, apparently, that I am one of the True Lutherans), and I sort of disagree with the premise that either faith or love is the “greatest” gift. That’s like trying to decide if winning the power ball or wining the mega-millions is better luck. However, Paul is pretty clear in 1 Cor. that love trumps faith and everything else. And this tells us something very, very important. These gifts are not for our own consumption and benefit. The reason love is the greatest is that it is God’s power reflected outward upon others. This is how we reflect God.

  6. Good works. That is how love is manifested.

    Well, if that’s the case, we are all sorely lacking.

    Now what?

    “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Romans 4

    You guys talk a good game but do precious little of the works demanded of you. And even when you do them, you are like the cow who gives a good bucket of milk, and then kicks it over. Because your motives are shot…because you have works on the brain.

    • We could throw Bible verses back and forth at each other for a long time, but I think that would be a waste of time.

      Fact is, we’re going to have “works on the brain” all week, Steve. If it bugs you too much, you might want to sit this week out.

      • You mean, just waste time on the computer…like everyone else here is doing?

        I know the vast majority of folks here advocating good works here, just talk about them. Does anyone here really do as Jesus told us to do? Visit the prisoners in the jails? The folks in nursing homes? Give their extra income to the poor? Invite their enemies to dinner? Divest themselves of all they have (except their computers)?

        No…you are right, Mike.

        For the most part, I only do what doesn’t cut into my time or my stash too much.

        That’s because I’m not nearly as loving or nearly as good a Christian as so many here are.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Look out, Steve! You’re rant against self-righteousness might just be drifting toward self-righteousness…

          • Robert F says

            It wouldn’t be the first self-righteous rant against self-righteousness that we’ve ever been treated to in these threads.

        • Steve, I don’t recall anyone here claiming to be anything special. Why do you turn an honest discussion into a personal attack that puts words into people’s mouths? There are ways of advocating for a position without dismissing others.

          I knew this would be a difficult topic for you to process, which is why I tried to give you fair warning. I have no interest in causing you inner turmoil. Not all our posts are for everyone.

        • RobertRx says

          Steve – My brother and I help to care for our aging parents and I can only say that it was the simple teachings of Christ that led us down this path. We are far from perfect and I don’t even know the exact reasons we do these things. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and even after much prayer asking to find some other method of dealing with this problem (It is difficult and we don’t always do it with a smile on our face), I can’t think of any better way to spend my time. It is a strange thing at times as this is almost considered to be foolish behavior by the standards of this world. I definitely see many others doing similar things and they too just consider it a part of life, and love, and Christ.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Looking forward to it, CM. Today in the class I lead/facilitate, I was speaking about God’s grace and the freedom we have in Christ’s sacrifice and the contentment we should have resting assured in our salvation (making the point “don’t let anyone tell you what you NEED to do now that you’re a Christian”). A woman asked, “But we do need some evidence, don’t we, of a changed heart?” We then discussed the delicate balance, perhaps even the “tension,” of faith vs. works.

        I hope you’ll be sharing some stuff I’ll be able to pass along to the class!

  7. Robert F says

    God’s love creates and saves us, and it creates and saves us so that we may be incorporated into the life of the Triune God, which is a life of mutual, self-giving love. Faith, that is, trust in the God who loves us, is an instrument that God’s love uses to achieve the goal of bringing us into the life of divine love.

    Love is first, last, and the origin and goal of faith.

    • Well said, Robert.

    • First, I’m kind of surprised that the main thread of comments is a competition between love and faith. I always thought of them as, you know, like cooperating, not competing.

      But as far as that goes, (and as much as I can totally relate to my own milk bucket kicking tendencies) I think it misses (hijacks?) the point of the post. I think Robert F. nails it.

      • Rick Ro. says

        I’m with you, David, thinking they’re much more lock-step with each other than competing. And I agree, Robert F. seems to nail it.

        And thinking about this stuff a little further…

        If I’m trying to share the Gospel message with a non-believer, what I hope to convey first and foremost is God’s love for them, not the “need for faith.” Perhaps that’s an indicator it’s slightly greater…?

        • Danielle says

          Indeed. If you don’t talk about love, the reason to have faith doesn’t really make sense. Faith in whom, who does what?

          • Robert F says

            Faith only has value when it is faith in the God who is love. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is love, and no gift is greater than the gift of God’s self. Faith is the container that gift comes to us in, the way water is given in a glass to a thirsty man.

          • Danielle says

            ” . . . the way water is given in a glass to a thirsty man.”

            Whoa, it occurs to me that this is the perfect ending metaphor.

            We could cut and paste the entire article, “Dripping Wet” (May 9) right here: _________.

      • Robert F says

        David Denis,

        Hijacks is the right word….

    • Danielle says


  8. Surely the doer (lover) was the Pharisee in the Temple. He did all that was required of him.

    And then you had the non-doer (non-lover), scumbag tax collector…who know that he was all about ‘the self’. So much so that he could not even lift his head to Heaven.

    We know which one that Jesus said went away justified.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > And then you had the non-doer (non-lover), scumbag tax collector

      It is a step to far to say the “scumbag tax collector” [a description which does not exist in scripture] did not have love or did not express love or did not have “good works”. Nothing says that. Where does it say the tax collector was all about the self? He held a very unpopular position in the culture, nothing says he was a villain. And the criticism of the Pharisee [at least as commonly interpreted] is not that he does works but that those works are pro-forma, not motivated by love of God or his neighbor, and that those works do not dignify his neighbor but rather establish rank. There is NOTHING WHAT-SO-EVER that is ANTI-WORKS in those verses. They only read as anti-works when read through an all-is-grace-vs-law myopia.

      Aside, I think people take the tax-collector-vs-pharisee verses too far too eagerly – as I’m not sure what the modern equivalent of the roles of tax-collector and temple-pharisee would be. I doubt there are clear equivalents. The point is simple, and just what it is.

  9. Danielle says

    CM, thanks for linking to this piece by Luther. I had not read it before, and intend to read it again more slowly later in the week. There were several statements in the Treatise that spoke to things I was thinking about this week. So I really appreciate being directed to them!

    Steve, I am not sure that I understand your objection. I wonder, are you thinking about “love” just in terms of a list of good things one does, in order to be moral? And objecting because the “gift of love” looks to you like a long checklist of impossible tasks one has to do, that distracts from faith? So you’re denouncing the primacy of “love” (the giant to-do list) in favor of “faith” (believing in the saving power of the cross).

    If so, it seems to me that CM is talking about love in quite a different way, one that doesn’t really need to raise your suspicions. I’m going to state this clumsily, but here is how I read the implications at first pass:
    -God reveals the divine nature to be love, and loves us;
    -In faith, the believer understands God’s self-revelation and is united to God, who is love;
    -Because God has overcome death and sin by love and unites the believer to God in faith, fear of death and judgement, along with humanity’s usual religious-moral gameplay (I’ll be good/you let me live and give me rewards) is wiped out, and is replaced by a new disposition toward love that is quite alien to a self-interested moral calculous. Good works become possible.

    Perhaps I am misconstruing what either you or CM are saying, but it sounds your concept of faith (along with its importance) is right at the center of CM’s explanation. It’s just being related to love (God’s) and the Christian’s life in God (a faith-based response to God’s love, that results in good works). Your instinct, perhaps, is one of method; to try to tease faith and love apart for sake of distinguishing closely related things from each other.

    But this kind of vivisection of a thing, though possible in the lab and useful for some kinds of study, destroys what was a living organism whose parts are supposed to be tied together. If you want the thing to live, you have to put the parts back together.

    If I mistook what anyone meant to say, feel free to slap me down accordingly! 🙂

  10. Kent Haley says

    Thanks for this discussion. This topic is one in which I have been particularly interested in lately. From reading the NT, it seems that God really does expect his people to do good works. Titus says that God has created a people zealuos for good works. And yet it is also apparent that good works can be useless if not done in love.

  11. If “love” is the greatest gift…and if it we are to “Love God with all we’ve got and our neighbors as ourselves”…

    I wonder why no one does it.

    But yet, everyone talks about it a lot. As if we will one day start to do it.

    • Steve, in your view the reason no one does love as you describe is due to a lack of faith?

    • “Everyone talks about it a lot…”

      I think the point is that the Bible talks about it a lot, and we are trying to discuss what that means.

      I am suspect of anyone’s theological “system” if it won’t let us deal with what the scripture says, loudly and clearly.

      • I must say, I reject any statement or theology that categorically states “no one” is doing their best to live out the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. A lot of us are attempting this, and I believe even though we fall short, the effort to do so pleases God.

        Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we are saved by God’s grace. That doesn’t mean we have to live our lives hating ourselves, believing we never can make any progress in sanctification and considering the good things we do in some twisted way that keeps us doubting our motivations and thinking of ourselves as worms.

        There is such a thing as being quiet as a weaned child in God’s grace and love, and then doing one’s best to obey his commands out of gratitude.

        • Rick Ro. says

          Amen! Just this Sunday, I shared this basic idea with the adult group I facilitate. I led the class with an opener question, “Where do you find yourself erring there most, on doing things you shouldn’t OR not doing things you should?”

          After we discussed this, I suggested that perhaps we’ve really grasped God’s grace and forgiveness WHEN WE’VE CEASED ASKING OURSELF THAT QUESTION!

  12. Sheep and Goats…..sorta says it all for me.

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