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Faith   and   Works  

Luther's Distortion of Paul's Teaching




by  Terry  Sullivan







radical  christian   press



I                  Paul  versus  James                                                              2

II                 Luther's  Distortion                                                                 4

III                Luther  Denies  Free  Will                                                      8

IV                Faith  Working  Through  Love                                             10

V                 First  Commandment:  Faith  not  Love                               12

VI                The  Works  of  the  Law                                                       14

VII               The  Doctrine  of  Moral  Helplessness                               19

VIII              You  Can't  Keep  the  Law                                                   23

IX                Total  Depravity                                                                      25

X                 Jesus  Teaches  the  Opposite                                            27

XI                The  Lease  on  the  Promised  Land                                  29

XII               Keeping the Law:  Just  Men  and  Women                        32

XIII              Great  Sinner  Doctrine                                                          35

XIV             God's  Fellow  Workers                                                         40

Appendix  A    Paul  Teaches  Good  Works                                          45

Appendix  B    Balthasar  Hubmaier  on  Justification                           48

Appendix  C    Action  and  Passion                                                        49


            This paper criticizes the doctrine of saved by faith, not works which originated with Martin Luther, which was promulgated by the Protestant Reformation generally, and which is still taught with varying emphasis by most Protestant denominations.  I am going to argue that Luther's teaching was a serious distortion of what Saint Paul taught.

            Context:  I am not arguing the Catholic case versus this basic Protestant doctrine.  Rather, I am arguing against it in the context of the attempt by Dispensationalist theology to correct Protestant theology on this point by the doctrine that there are two different gospels, one which requires works, and one which doesn't.  This doctrine is not of course widely held in the mainstream Protestant tradition.  And I don't agree with it either.  But it makes a convincing case that Jesus and James et al taught  works.  So, in trying to resolve a basic contradiction in Protestant theology created by the faith, not works doctrine, it shows the consequences of that contradiction.

            Sources:  Luther's Works show how he arrived at his teaching of faith, not works.  The most important of these are: Freedom of a Christian 1520 found in volume 31, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church found in volume 36, Lectures on Galatians 1535 and Lectures on Galatians 1519 found in volumes 26 & 27, and Treatise on Good Works 1520 found in volume 44.  The treatise on Bondage of the Will in volume 33 shows the theology of moral helplessness which Luther got from Augustine, and which is the real foundation of the faith, not works doctrine and its corollary Passive Righteousness.  The same treatise sets forth the doctrine of Sovereign Grace or Irresistible Grace, which is the flip side of the denial of free will.  The treatise On the Jews and their Lies 1543 in volume 47, and excerpts from other treatises reveal something important about Luther's personal character and suggest a basic spiritual reason for his vehement rejection of Love God and love your neighbor as central to the Christian faith. 

            Another primary source that I studied is the Battles edition of the 1536 version of John Calvin's Institutes.  Calvin copied Luther's basic attitude as to the uselessness and the spiritual danger of attempting good works.  A believer who takes John Calvin seriously might very well conclude that the wisest course is to shun works entirely lest he offend God by his presumption.

            My source for Dispensationalist theology is mainly Bob Enyart's book,  The Plot of the Bible.  I also read several pamphlets by Pastor Bob Hill of the Derby Bible Church, which make a good case that Augustine (and Calvin et al) derived the doctrine of the Immutability of God from classic (i.e. pagan) philosophy, not from the bible.  And I have had some conversations with individuals who belong to this church.  For the purposes of this paper I am making the assumption that the theology in Bob Enyart's book, the theology of Pastor Bob Hill of the Derby Bible Church, and the theology associated with the Dispensationalist movement are substantially the same.  The Derby Bible Church is also a school of Dispensationalist theology and Pastor Hill endorses Mr. Enyart's book.  I should make it clear that I have not made a careful comparison study of variations in Dispensationalist theology.  My aim here is to argue with Luther's doctrines, so I am not going to dig into Dispensationalist theology except insofar as it serves that purpose. 



I  Paul  versus  James

            Luther recognized that the teaching found in the epistle of James: faith without works is dead contradicts the faith not works doctrine that he found in Saint Paul.  Luther resolved the contradiction by disparaging the epistle of James.  It was an epistle of straw he said.  It was not by an apostle.  It should be thrown into the Elbe River.  Later Reformers modified Luther's judgment on James and modern Protestantism has worked up various formulas to reconcile what Luther saw as the contradiction between Paul and James.

            However, Dispensationalist doctrine agrees with Luther that the faith and works teaching of James is contrary to the faith not works doctrine of Paul.  And then they go much, much further, not without some logic on their side.  They argue that James and all of the original apostles (exclusive of Paul) taught a gospel of faith and works which is essentially different from the faith not works teaching of Paul.  They argue that faith and works was the original teaching of Jesus himself as found in the gospels.  But after the Jews were cast out, Paul began teaching a gospel of grace to the gentiles which is essentially different from the gospel of the Kingdom intended for the Jews.  The gospel of the Kingdom, according to Dispensationalist doctrine, did require works.  But Paul's gospel of grace--which has to do with the Body of Christ rather then the Kingdom--does not require any works.

            In brief summary, this is the Dispensationalist theology, which Bob Enyart argues at length in his book The Plot of the Bible.  And he makes a convincing case that Jesus Christ teaches the necessity of works--you had to dosomething to be saved.  You had to do many things in fact.  But then he argues that it was only the Jews who were required to do these things.  We Gentiles, who have received Paul's gospel of grace don't have to do any of it.  The key verse, which shows that there are two different gospels is Galatians 2.7: gospel of the uncircumcision committed unto me . . .  gospel of the circumcision unto Peter.   (See Chapter 4 page 29 of The Plot.)

            On page 11 of Chapter 7 of his book, Mr. Enyart summarizes the works teaching of Jesus: So Christ taught that the Kingdom believer had to love his neighbor, forgive, bear good fruit, do the will of the Father, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, show mercy, endure until the end, be patient, fit and profitable in order to enter into the Kingdom.  Whew !  When God gave to Paul the dispensation of grace for the Body of Christ, He gave a marvelous new thing to His newest followers.

            As indicated by the sigh of relief--Whew ! -- we non Jews who have received Paul's gospel of grace are freed from the necessity of doing any of these works  which Jesus Christ commanded.  According to this Dispensationalist doctrine, you can call yourself a Christian even while you disregard the plain teaching of Jesus Christ as found in the four gospels--He's not talking to me.

            Most Protestant denominations do not of course subscribe to this extreme logic.  But it does make explicit what is implicit in the saved by faith not works doctrine which is commonly held.  It points up the serious moral danger of this doctrine.  People are taught to believe that I don't have to do anything to be saved.  God has saved me.  That's it.  I can't get to heaven by good works.  My salvation is already assured.  It would show a lack of faith if I did anything in respect to good works.  Instead, with God's help, I will go out and make a million in real estate.


            Luther himself used the phrase Passive Righteousness to describe his doctrine.  And the attitude evoked by that phrase is commonly seen among evangelical believers.  They rather turn up their noses at the strenuous good works of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity who are as it were trying to work their way into heaven.  If these believers do engage in good works now and then, they do it as a hobby, not as something necessary to the Christian life.  The gentleman land owner may do a little gardening now and then, if he feels like it, but his privileged position excuses him from getting out in the field and working up a sweat helping his laborers with the harvest (contra the hard-working farmer in 2nd Timothy 2.6).  That is the attitude towards a Christian life of good works and personal sacrifices which tends to grow out of the faith not works doctrine.

            Of course many Protestant churches have modified the extreme doctrines of the Reformers, and, even if the result is somewhat illogical, the effect is to move away from the worst consequences of Reformation doctrine.  And individual believers often do not practice what they preach, for better and for worse.  Those who insist upon faith not works are to be found helping their neighbors.  Those who make the best argument in favor of works sometimes appear to feel that, once they have made the argument, nothing more is required of them.

            But it is still the case that the saved by faith not works doctrine provides thousands of Christians with an excuse for not bothering with the works of mercy which Jesus commanded in Matthew 25.31-46.  Instead of recognizing that you will be among the goats on Judgment Day, if you neglect to do what is enjoined by Matthew 25.35: I was a stranger, and you took me in (cf. also Romans 12.13, Isaiah 58.7) many Christians recognize no duty to the homeless except to call in on the talk show to help mock those who pretend to be helping them.  The Good Samaritan Reformed passes by the fallen man with a shrug: probably drunk. 

            That is where the logic found in chapter 7 of Mr. Enyart's book is intellectually refreshing even while it is morally disheartening.  He declares explicitly what is in fact the implicit doctrine of many believers, who defend their neglect of Christian good works and their apathy about living a Christian life by the famous doctrine which Martin Luther launched: we are saved by faith not works.

            It is hardly possible to read the gospels conscientiously without seeing that Jesus commands good works as essential to our salvation.  The description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25.31-46 plainly states that a person who performs these works of mercy thereby achieves salvation, and that you risk damnation by not doing them.  He tells us that the two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor fulfill the law.  He illustrates the essential commandment of the Christian life love thy neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan, a man of doubtful faith who is contrasted with the orthodox priest and the orthodox Levite who pass by without helping.  What is it that the Samaritan does, if it is not a good work ?  And Jesus tells this story in response to the question: what shall I do to inherit eternal life ?  (Luke 10.25)  And compare Romans 2.7   well  doing  leads to  eternal  life. 

            In Luke 10.25-28 Jesus says that eternal life is the reward for someone who Loves God and his neighbor.  Then Jesus illustrates what is required with the story of a man who stops to help another man.  This doctrine is the opposite of the doctrine, which the Reformation adopted, as I will show further on.


            Can you love your neighbor without performing acts of love ?  Do you love your wife, if you occasionally say I love you but never do anything for her ?  So aren't acts of love ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED?  And aren't acts of love the same as good works and well doing ?  These questions, which are ignored or fudged in most churches, are at least dealt with in the peculiar theology of the Dispensationalist tradition.  So it points up a vital question of Christian faith and morals.  If the Dispensationalists have the wrong answer, at least they are asking the right question.

What Did Paul Really Teach ?

            Attempt at a Succinct Summary of what Paul was arguing to the foolish Galatians: Contrary to your teachers and contrary to what is written in the five books of Moses, you cannot get rid of your sins by having goats, bullocks and doves sacrificed in the Temple:   a man is not justified by the works of The Law.  (Galatians 2.16)  The blood of Jesus Christ made a complete atonement for your sins.  We no longer need the blood of the goat sacrificed on the Day of Atonement.  Justification is the free gift (grace) of God.  You don't need to pursue justification through these endless  works  of the temple.  Just like Abraham, our covenant with God is by faith.  We are freed from the old covenant of circumcision and all its laws just as a widow is no longer bound to her former husband.  We no longer have to conform to The Law of Moses.  (And we fulfill the 10 commandments when we obey the two great commandments.)  If you try to get right with God through the works of the Law, you in effect admit that you never received grace and that you have no faith in Jesus Christ.  Through Jesus Christ we have become Sons of God and we are no longer servants bound by The Law. (Romans 3.28)   Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of The Law.

II  Luther's Distortion

            Paul's epistle to the Galatians takes up 5 pages.  Luther's Lectures on Galatians,  which were given in 1531 at the University of Wittenberg, and published as the Commentary on Galatians in 1535, take up 610 pages in volumes 26 and 27 of the Luther's Works  edition.  An earlier series of lectures on Galatians is found in volume 27 as the 1519  Commentary on Galatians.  It takes up 257 pages.  Like most academic lectures, much of what is found in these two Commentaries might be fairly described as filler.  They are verbose, discursive and redundant.  And then often fail to give any argument for controversial assertions.  There are also major differences between the 1519 version and the 1535 version.  Luther's thinking evolved as time passed.  He even contradicted himself within the limits of one treatise.  So you can quote him on both sides of many of these questions.  Nonetheless his position on faith, not works was fairly consistent by the time of the 1535 version. 

Galatians 2.16:  Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law:  for by the works of the law shall no man be justified. 

            Luther:  "These words, works of the Law, are to be taken in the broadest possible sense and are very emphatic.  I am saying this because of the smug and idle scholastics and monks, who obscure such words in Paul--in fact everything in Paul--with their foolish and wicked glosses, which even they themselves do not understand.  Therefore take works of the Law generally, to mean whatever is opposed to grace:  Whatever is not grace is Law,  


whether it be the Civil Law, the Ceremonial Law, or the Decalog.  Therefore even if you were to do the work of the Law, according to the commandment You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart etc.  (Matt. 22:37) you still would not be justified in the sight of God;  for a man is not justified by works of the Law."  ( Luther's Commentary  on Galatians 2.16, Luther's Works, Volume 26  page 122.)

            What Luther slips in here is the startling assertion that the great commandment found in Matthew 22.37 Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind  is not primary and central to the relationship between God and the Christian.  And that it belongs in the category of those  works of the Law  which Paul says cannot justify  us and which are "opposed to grace." 

            Luther offers no argument here for his assertion that Paul meant to include Thou shalt love the Lord thy God among the works of the law.  He just asserts it contra "the smug and idle scholastics and monks with their foolish and wicked glosses."  Since these fellows take the other view, since they are smug and idle, you know that Luther's view must be right.  It is typical of Luther's arguments that, instead of explaining his position, he abuses his opponents, re-states his view in an authoritative way and then moves on.  So here is an  ENORMOUS  ASSERTION which rests upon no coherent argument.  It isn't even clear what is wrong with their idleness if we are saved by faith, not works.  In fact smug and idle accurately describes many who have embraced Luther's doctrine.  Thus:   I am Saved because I say so and I  don't  have  to  Do  Anything !

            It is true that keeping the 10 commandments by fulfilling the two great commandments has to do with avoiding sin rather than with making atonement for sins already committed.  If you love God with your whole heart, you fulfill the law, so you don't need to make atonement for breaking the law.  The two great commandments to love God and your neighbor fulfill the 10 commandments.  They summarize them.  They go beyond avoiding sin, and the need to make  atonement does not arise. 

Loving  God  is  No  Use 

            But Luther is not making this argument.  Instead, what Jesus Christ calls  The Greatest Commandment is lumped in with Civil Law and Ceremonial Law as contrary to grace:  you still would not be justified in the sight of God.  Even if you Love God with your whole heart he may say to you  "Sorry, you are not one of the elect, so you can't get into heaven.  I don't care if you love me.  You didn't fit into the formula, so buzz off ! " 

            It is true in one sense that the Commandment to Love God is opposed to grace:   Grace is what God gives us.  It is God's love for us.   Is God's grace different from God's
love ?  Obviously, it is the same.  What we give him back, our whole-hearted love, is our response to grace, that is, our response to Love.   But it is absurd to see them as excluding one another.   When two people love one other are they going to argue:  She:  I  Love  You  !   He:   NO !   I  Love  You  ! !   ?   And in fact, how can I love God unless I have God's love ?   Through God's love I receive the Spirit of Love.  Through the Spirit of Love I love God back.  And if I refuse that Spirit, if I lose the Spirit, will God still love me as his son ?  Romans 8.15 says that it is through the Spirit whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

            But Luther's argument comes from some place else entirely.  In fact, what he is doing is imposing his doctrines upon Paul under the guise of interpreting Paul.  These doctrines are  Bondage of the Will, that is, man's lack of free will;  Man's moral helplessness, which means that his only hope is God's Sovereign and irresistible grace which infuses  faith and


confers upon him Passive Righteousness.  So man is not an actor at all in the drama of his own salvation.  And that is the doctrinal reason why Luther excludes Love of God from our primary relationship with God.  In Luther's theology our relationship with God is one way.  God does it all.  So it cannot be a love relationship.  So he insists that Paul is including Love God with the works of the Law which are irrelevant to salvation.

            A little later, on page 138, Luther emphasizes that works means ALL  WORKS:   "Thus we must learn to distinguish all laws, even those of God, and  all works  from faith and from Christ if we are to define Christ accurately."    This is Luther's interpretation--his assertion--as to  what Paul means by  works  of  the  law--it means  all  law  and  all  works. 

            But, quite obviously, it does not mean all  law  and it does not mean all  works.  Works  is limited by  of the Law.  Law  plainly means  The Law of Moses.  If I swear by  the  gold  in  The  Temple,  (Matthew 23.16) am I swearing by  All  Gold  ?  No.  The second term  strictly  limits  the first.  Am I swearing by  All  Temples  ?  No.  Only The Temple in Jerusalem. 

He  Meant  It  LITERALLY ! 

            When Paul speaks of the works of the Law, he means just that.  He does not mean  All Works.  Nor does he mean  All Laws.  The second term  strictly  limits  the first.  And the Law means precisely: THE LAW, as is obvious from the context.  By Works of the Law, he means those prescribed in Leviticus etc. by which the Jews made atonement for their sins and justified themselves.  He means the regulations of the Jewish religion.  He means all the ceremonies and sacrifices and purifications which the ancient Jews performed to make themselves clean again.  By The Law he means the 613 commandments found in the 5 books of Moses, THE LAW by which ancient Israel lived, THE LAW which was the foundation of the Jewish religion.  That is what Paul was arguing against when he argued against relying upon the works of the law:  Galatians 4.10  You observe days and months and seasons and years.   Colossians 2.16  Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.  17  which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.  By  works  Paul  does  not  mean  good works, acts of love etc. 

            Actually the term Paul uses in 2.16 is faith rather than grace,  implying something we do versus something that God does.  Is not God's grace the same as God's Love ?  Luther will not recognize that my activeresponse must be both faith and love.   Obviously, they go together.  Both are essential to the Christian life.  They are two aspects of the one relationship we have with God.  Paul keeps emphasizing faith, because his key argument against the Judaizers is that the faith of Abraham was the basis of the original Covenant, and that the  New Covenant does not require The Law of Moses and the works of the law.  His argument is that the New Covenant renews the covenant of faith that God made with Abraham while it releases us from the Law given to Moses.

            But these distinctions are ignored by Luther.  Because, following Augustine, he subscribes to the Bondage of the Will doctrine.  Luther's faith is passive, not active.  And Luther's grace does not mean gift.  It means God's Attack, his lightning bolt of election.  Like the Mafia, God makes you an offer you cannot refuse.  It is this false doctrine of  grace which leads Luther to contrast it with everything else.  Luther's Bondage is derived from Augustine's doctrine that man is morally helpless.  And, logically, how can man love God if he does not have free will ?


            What Luther is saying here  is not an  INTERPRETATION of Galatians 2.16.  Rather he is   IMPOSING  HIS  DOCTRINE  upon Galatians 2.16.  Paul cannot possibly have meant to include Civil Law and the Commandment to Love God in the phrase works of the law found in 2.16.  No one was teaching the Galatians to do the "works" of the Civil Law to get rid of their sins.  What would it even mean ?   And, if their new teachers were telling them to Love God with your whole heart,  Saint Paul could not have objected to it as a false gospel.

Luther's  Political  Agenda  

            Luther had a political mandate from the German princes, as their major propagandist, to undermine the authority of the medieval Catholic Church, which was asserted through its canon laws.  His career depended upon his success.  And he wished also to undermine the authority of the monastic rules which bound him and others.  That is the political reason why he asserts that Paul is disparaging church laws in general instead of what Paul meant:  The Law of Moses.  He had a similar motive for attacking all the church works of the medieval Church which were important to its revenue and its power.  Luther's theological arguments are driven and often distorted by this political agenda. 

            If Luther had been content to argue that the church works and ceremonies of the medieval Catholic Church were similar to the meats and drinks and divers washings, and carnal ordinances (Hebrews 9.10) found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and which Paul described as the works of the Law, he had a good case.  But his state church theology and his precarious political and personal situation pushed Luther to distort Paul's teaching far beyond what Paul meant by it. 

            Luther was targeting gross abuses found in the medieval church, in respect to working your way into heaven via church works--buying your way into heaven even--whether or not he was sincere and disinterested--he wasn't.  But the Anti Works theological principle he developed in response is so extreme that it negates the Christian life.  There wasn't much Christian life to be seen in the Imperial Church of the Middle Ages but the Reformation doctrines compounded the problem.  Consider three examples of works:   1)  the Canterbury pilgrim walks all the way to Canterbury where he says 100 Aves and 100 Pater Nosters while kneeling on thorns so as to obtain a plenary indulgence for himself or for his brother who is in Purgatory (at best) after being killed in a tavern brawl.  2)  Saint Paul suffers beatings and jailings while he makes arduous and dangerous journeys to preach the gospel.   3)  A Sister of the Sick Poor spends days and nights at the bedside of a sick patient.  Are the 2nd and 3rd examples of works to be lumped in with the first as useless for salvation, presumptuous and even offensive to God ?  Has Paul offended God by thinking that his works are important and necessary in God's plan of Salvation ?  Has the Sister fallen into error in thinking that by complying with the caring for the sick injunction found in Matthew 25.31-46 she is securing her inclusion with the sheep ?  Isn't that what it says ? 

            Luther's attack on the powers of the priesthood and his re-definition of the sacrament of the Eucharist were necessary to undercut the power of Rome and the threat of the Interdict.  The false history of the Protestant Reformation ignores the basic fact that Luther was first to last entirely dependent upon the German princes and entirely at their service in their rebellion against Rome and the Empire.  His theology is shaped and re-shaped by the necessities of Reformation era politics.

 Faith and Works :

Luther's Distortion of Paul's Teaching

by Terry Sullivan
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Terry Sullivan 
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