Faith as the Highest Work
January 28, 2020

The Protestant Reformation was defined by certain clarifying disagreements between the medieval Church and those who came to be known as Protestant Reformers. Chief among these was the nature of justification: whether one was justified by works, or by faith and works, or—as Martin Luther contended—by faith alone. Now over 500 years hence it is easier to see that there were substantial points of agreement between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, even (and perhaps especially) after the mid-16th-century Council of Trent.1 For example, both agreed that faith was integral to justification, and both agreed that works were inextricably linked to justification. Both agreed (in different ways) that faith and works were made possible by grace. Both saw justification and sanctification as each presuming the other.

The main points of contention, however, related to causation and to timing, more than to the components of justification and sanctification. To Luther and the Reformers, justification and sanctification were separate, and came in that order; to the Roman Catholic Church, the two were conflated. This was not a trifle, but a serious disagreement that spoke to the character of God, the work of Christ, the nature of faith and assurance, and the ordering of one’s life individually and in community. To Luther, justification was no less than the doctrine on which the Church would stand or collapse.

The centerpiece of the debate over justification was whether faith alone or works brought about justification. Luther, Melanchthon and other Reformers asserted that works that were not prompted by faith were ineffectual and, given the depth of sin by humankind, would never be sufficient either to save or even contribute to salvation. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, viewed works as necessary to salvation as a causative proposition (along with faith, but necessary no less). The Lutherans said that faith—and faith alone—was the sine qua non for justification, and genuine good works would then naturally flow from that faith.  The Roman Catholics saw works as helping produce justification. The disagreement was at its core whether works were for justification or from justification.

Luther (and Protestants ever since) have been criticized by Roman Catholics for a doctrine that would seem to give quarter to antinomianism. After all, if only faith is required for salvation, and not works, where is the incentive to follow God’s law and do acts of love and service? Why not simply be a “free-rider” Christian, and continue a life of sin? The doctrine of justification by faith—particularly when paired with a doctrine of eternal security and assurance—seemed to invite or even guarantee lawlessness and societal disorder.

Of course, the risk of antinomianism is an argument also against a much wider range of Christian doctrines, including God’s forgiveness generally, his unmerited grace, and the Cross itself—areas in which Protestants and Catholics in the main agree. And the examples from history of believers who hold to justification by faith alone actually espousing antinomianism because of that belief is sparse at best. Still, the charge is one familiar to Christians from the time of the early church (e.g., Rom 3:31). It is as pervasive as the sin that marks it.

According to Luther, this fear was unfounded. Good works—genuine good works—were the natural, inevitable, and necessary byproduct and result of justification by faith. Indeed, they were more reflexive and properly motivated when they sprang from faith (and were not truly “good” in any sense involving God or salvation unless they did spring from a true and lively faith.)

What, though, was that faith? How was it to be understood so that it was not essentially a work by some other name? The notion of faith in medieval Europe was integrally entwined with doing works of a ritual nature, such that what was causative and what was the result of trusting God had at best become confused. Those who performed these works did so believing they were ensuring or bettering the chances of their salvation.2  This was not a peculiarly medieval problem, either. In our own day, it is likely the majority view of the nominally Christian public that one is saved (often expressed as “goes to heaven”) if one has lived (or sincerely tried to live) a so-called “good” life, usually evidenced by having been nice to others.

Indeed, certain expressions of evangelical Christianity, while using the nomenclature of faith, yield examples of how the notion of faith can become as formulaic and works-oriented as in the medieval church. A conversion is sometimes thought the equivalent of walking the aisle after an altar call or saying a particular prayer. In some places, presumed conversions are counted, recorded, and used as measures of success no less than were the number of masses said. The temptation to think that we are the prime actor in salvation is no less potent than the ever-present temptation to think we are in control of other aspects of our lives.

Luther viewed faith as simple trust in God’s action on our behalf on the Cross and his promises to us, not requiring any “doing” on our part. In essence, so placing our faith in God represented a reordering of our lives, because implicit in that faith was a ceding of our notion of being able to accomplish our own salvation, and an acknowledgement of God’s Lordship over us.  The only action this faith required on our part was belief, trust, and confidence in what God had done—and even that we could not do on our own, but only by God’s grace.

It is interesting, therefore, that one of Luther’s most compelling arguments about the nature of that faith was that it was in fact the highest work.3 This seems counterintuitive, particularly given the stridency with which Luther seemed to distinguish faith from works. But in so asserting, as he did in his Treatise on Good Works, Luther was demonstrating that his averments about faith (by God’s grace) as what makes possible good works was in fact rooted in the Decalogue. In this way he rebuts charges he is disinterested or antagonistic toward good works that reflect God’s law and desires for his people. The Law depended on faith, now as it always had.

“The first and highest, the most precious of all good works is faith in Christ,” Luther asserts.4 To Luther, the Christian who has confidence in Christ will be prompted to do genuine good works, not run around trying to do ultimately fruitless ritual works to attempt to gain that confidence: “So a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God, knows all things, can do all things, undertakes all things that are to be done, and does everything cheerfully and freely; not that he may gather many merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God thereby, and he serves God purely for nothing, content that his service pleases God.”5

This is, Luther says, the very essence of the First Commandment, which he paraphrases thus: “Since I alone am God, thou shalt place all thy confidence, trust and faith on Me alone, and on no one else.” Luther says this means: “For that is not to have a god, if you call him God only with your lips, or worship him with the knees or bodily gestures; but if you trust Him with the heart, and look to Him for all good, grace and favor, whether in works or sufferings, in life or death, in joy or sorrow.”6 This true faith, this “inward trust,” is what keeps the First Commandment and “makes true, living children of God.” Conversely, trying to keep that commandment only by outward appearances is in fact disobeying the commandment flatly, and in fact “only makes worse idolatry and the most mischievous hypocrites on earth.”7

Luther’s view of faith as the essence of the First Commandment is also reflected in his Large Catechism teaching on that commandment. “A person’s entire heart and all his confidence must be placed in God alone and in no one else,” Luther teaches. “For to ‘have’ God, you can easily see, is not to take hold of Him with our hands or to put Him in a bag (like money) or to lock Him in a chest (like silver vessels). Instead, to ‘have’ Him means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely.”8

Following the other commandments is not possible without first following the First Commandment, because the violation of each of those which follow presupposes one having someone or something in God’s place. So, logically, faithful good works as reflected in the other nine commandments requires the trust and confidence in God (the faith that justifies) required by the First. Good works by the Christian, no less than by the Hebrew people in Old Testament times, presumes and requires a pre-existing faith. “The First Commandment forbids us to have other gods, and thereby commands that we have a God, the true God, by a firm faith, trust, confidence, hope and love, which are the only works whereby a man can have, honor and keep a God; for by no other work can one find or lose God except by faith or unbelief, by trusting or doubting; of the other works none reaches quite to God.”9

In the Anglican “Homily on Good Works,” the author (generally thought to be Archbishop Thomas Cranmer) echoes Luther in summarizing the Commandments and connecting faith with following the First Commandment: “First you must have an assured faith in God, and give yourselves wholly unto him, love him in prosperity and adversity, and dread to offend him evermore,”10 Thus, the official teaching of the English Church at the Reformation mirrored Luther’s teaching on the subject, which was also consistent with the Anglican articles on the subject (in particular Article 11, pertaining to justification, and 12 pertaining to good works).

The suggestion that faith and works were in opposition was always as such a false dichotomy, as neither Protestant nor Catholic denied the importance of both, or the existence and necessity of both in the life of the Christian (or in the larger view of salvation that includes both justification, sanctification, and glorification). Luther (and Cranmer after him) have managed to tie faith to works in such a way that they are not at all in opposition with each other, but are even more closely connected than we usually think of them, works following faith. The usual Protestant assertion is that works are not faith. Luther, of course, would say the same, but here connects the two in a different way, by asserting that faith is the highest work.

What are the implications of this approach? Plainly it did not settle the central Reformation dispute, nor provide basis to minimize or ignore it. But perhaps this does allow common ground today for those seeking it. If Luther can say that this “highest work” is necessary for salvation, then just maybe there is greater dialogue and cooperation possible with those who not unreasonably see danger in failing to recognize some involvement of works alongside justification. Certainly, by tying faith to the Commandments as Luther has done, he has provided a strong argument for the Christian’s holy living after justification, itself a strong preventative against antinomianism, thus addressing one of the primary Roman Catholic criticisms of sola fide.

While the issue of justification is a critical theological one, it is plain that some of the problem is that of nomenclature and of caricatures that bear little relation to the positions of either side—and Luther’s insights about faith as the highest work also help address distortions of the Protestant position (by Roman Catholics and by Protestants). Finally, it always bears remembering that we are by God’s grace justified by faith alone, not by our assertion and adherence to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Alexander Whitaker is the President of King University in Bristol, TN.

  1. Alister E McGrath, “The Reformation Debates Over the Doctrine of Grace,” in Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 262–64. ↩︎
  2. Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51. ↩︎
  3. Martin Luther, A Treatise on Good Works (Project Gutenberg, 1994), sec. II, ↩︎
  4. Luther, sec. II. ↩︎
  5. Luther, sec. VI. ↩︎
  6. Luther, sec. IX. ↩︎
  7. Luther, sec. VII. ↩︎
  8. Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005), 360. ↩︎
  9. Luther, Good Works, sec. XIX. ↩︎
  10. Thomas Cranmer, “Homily on Good Works: A Sermon of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith,” in Homilies, vol. 1 (Toronto: Renaissance Electronic Texts, 1994), ↩︎
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