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On Good Works 


An extract from Martin Luther's sermon on Good Works


Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Germany was the man who took the first steps in leading the Reformation, proclaiming the Word of God and its doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. As a young man he had earned his Master of Arts at the University of Erfurt, but after a series of events including the death of a close friend and a near-death experience of his own, he decided to try to atone for his sins as a monk of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther went to great extremes in order to obtain forgiveness of sins by his own “good works”, going so far as to damage his health permanently by severe physical punishment such as fasting for many days and abstaining from sleep. Ordained to the Roman priesthood in 1507, he still found no satisfaction, seeing nothing but the depth and darkness of his own guilt. He then discovered a Bible in a library, from which he found his first great rays of hope through Jesus Christ, and travelling to Rome with the light of the Word in his heart, he saw through the pagan superstitions of the Papal system. Finally he returned to his studies at university, this time in Wittenberg where he gained a doctorate in 1512. Here, encouraged by his mentor, the Augustinian scholar Johann von Staupitz (1470-1524), he continued earnestly to study the Bible; and as the text from Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith”, had several times come to him with power, so he began to preach this earth-shattering doctrine to the world.


The first, the noblest, the sublimest of all works, is faith in Jesus Christ.[1] It is from this work that all other works must proceed: they are but the vassals of faith, and receive their efficacy from it alone.  

If a man feels in his heart the assurance that what he has done is acceptable to God, the work is good, if it were merely the lifting up of a straw; but if he have not this assurance, his work is not good, even should he raise the dead. A heathen, a Jew, a Turk, a sinner, can perform all the other works; but to trust firmly in God, and to feel an assurance that we are accepted by him, is what a Christian, strong in grace, alone is capable of doing.  

A Christian who possesses faith in God does everything with liberty and joy; while the man who is not at one with God is full of care and kept in bondage; he asks himself with anguish how many works he should perform; he runs to and fro; he questions this man and that; he nowhere finds peace, and does everything with sorrow and fear.  

Consequently, I have always extolled faith. But in the world it is otherwise. There, the essential thing is to have many works – works high and great, and of every dimension, without caring whether they are quickened by faith. Thus, men build their peace, not on God’s good pleasure, but on their own merits, that is to say, on sand. (Matthew 7:27.)  

To preach faith (it has been said) is to prevent good works; but if a man should posses the strength of all men united, or even of all creatures,[2] this sole obligation of living in faith would be a task too great for him ever to accomplish. If I say to a sick man: ‘Be well, and thou shalt have the use of thy limbs,’ will any one say that I forbid him to use his limbs? Must not health precede labour? It is the same when we preach faith: it should go before works, in order that the works themselves should exist.  

Where then, you will say, can we find this faith, and how can we receive it? This is in truth what it is most important to know. Faith comes solely from Jesus, who was promised and given freely.  

O man! figure Jesus Christ to yourself, and contemplate how God in him has shown thee his mercy, without any merit on thy part going before.[3] Draw from this image of his grace the faith and assurance that all thy sins are forgiven thee. Works cannot produce it. It flows from the blood, and wounds, and death of Christ; thence it wells forth into our hearts. Christ is the rock whence flow milk and honey. (Deut. 32.)


[1] Das erste und hochste, alleredelste . . . gute Werck ist der Glaube in Christum. L. Opp. (L.) xvii. 394.

[2] Wenn ein Mensch tausend, oder alle Menschen, oder alle Creaturen wäre. Ibid. 398.

[3] Siehe, also must du Christum in dich bilden, und sehen wie in Ihm Gott seine Barmherzigkeit dir fürhält und anbeut. Ibid. 401.




Quoted in J. H. Merle d’Aubigné's “History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century”, Baker Book House (USA), p. 186. (Reprinted from the edition issued in London in 1846).