“All sensible people, not to mention Christians, should watch with the greatest care what they say, lest their tongue get ahead of their mind and babble forth before they have organized their thoughts.”
Urbanus Rhegius, 1535
Lately I have been seeing more articles, books, and blogs that suggest a renewed tension in the Church’s understanding of the relationship between faith and works. On the one hand, some folks seem to suggest (or are accused of suggesting!) that a Christian is saved by grace through faith and that works are completely unrelated. These folks are often called “antinomians” as they are “against the law.” On the other hand, some Christians are similarly accused of teaching that a Christian’s works (their personal acts of obedience) are somehow a part of the grounds for their justification or are a condition for salvation. These folks have their nicknames as well.
My foremost concern in this ongoing debate is pastoral: what will be the effect of this debate on the man or woman in the pew? How will they respond when they are told that their good works are unnecessary or, conversely, that their good works qualify or contribute to the grounds of their salvation? On this point I find myself in nearly complete agreement with a German pastor and theologian who contended against the same kinds of confusion in the early sixteenth century: Urbanus Rhegius.
Rhegius was so concerned that preachers were being dangerously imprecise in the manner in which they taught the Protestant understanding of many things (justification by faith included) that he produced one of the first reformed handbooks on preaching: A Guide to Preaching about the Chief Topics of Christian Doctrine Carefully and without Giving Offense, for Young Ministers of the Word in the Duchy of Lüneburg (1535). In dealing with justification by faith and its relationship to good works, he makes a bold statement:
“We insist that a line be drawn between faith and good works and that the purpose of each be kept distinct, so that it is clear what Christ means, and how we have and receive anything that is good from God alone for the sake of Christ, and what we do and possess of ourselves. Such knowledge by itself makes a blessed Christian out of a condemned sinner. There is more at stake in a right distinction between faith and good works than the world supposes.”
Faith, according to Rhegius, is the instrument by which people are saved. Faith’s great purpose is, as it were, nothing other than to unite us to Christ in whom we receive all of the benefits God gives his people. But Rhegius urges caution in how this should be preached. He introduces his discussion of “A Careful Way of Speaking About Faith, Works, and Merits,” by noting that pastors should “avoid making severely truncated remarks like ‘Faith alone makes righteous, our works are nothing,’ and then moving immediately to something else.”
He offers a better way to speak about this:
“Of course, faith alone (that is, heartfelt trust in God’s mercy promised to us in Christ) or God’s mercy alone justifies the sinner. Yet faith never remains alone, for genuine faith is active through love (Galatians 5:6). Just as a good tree yields good fruit, faith also produces good works that most certainly accompany faith.”
The fact that faith and good works are inseparable does not mean that they both serve the same purpose. In other words, the fact that genuine faith produces a change in the believer’s life does not mean that the good works associated with that change share the same purpose that faith serves. Good works do not unite us to Christ. Rather, good works result from our union with Christ by faith (John 15).
Then what is the purpose of good works if good works do not contribute to or provide some condition for the believer’s salvation? Rhegius identifies six legitimate purposes of good works (summarized):
- Good works are a way of giving thanks to God when we willingly do what he has commanded.
- Through our good works God is glorified in us (Matthew 5:16)
- Through good works our faith is trained and enhanced, so that it increases and grows.
- Good works are a witness of our faith to our neighbors, who are edified by them, inspired to do the same, and find help through them.
- Through good works we gain an assurance of our salvation (2 Peter 1:10).
- “Although they do not merit ineffable treasures like forgiveness of sins, justification, liberation from death and the devil (for only Christ does that), nevertheless on the basis of God’s freely-given promise they do merit physical and spiritual rewards (Jeremiah 17:10; Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; Matthew 25:35).
Do any of these sound familiar? Does your preacher discuss – often or ever? – the purpose of your humble obedience to God in your pursuit of the Christian life? I wonder from time to time if it is not the absence of clear, positive teaching on why Christians need to do good works that has created a conceptual void within which good works are either being lumped together with faith as grounds for justification or altogether jettisoned as relatively unimportant vestigial remnants of the Old Testament.
If nothing else, I hope that this five hundred year later echo of a faithful preacher might remind you that: (1) you are not saved by your good works – it is only the obedience of Christ that merits our salvation, and (2) God nonetheless has a grand purpose and plan in the good works he has “prepared in advance for you.” (Ephesians 2:10). So put your faith in Christ alone – and get out there in his strength and do good works for his glory, your neighbors blessing, and your own growth!
 Urbanus Rhegius, Preaching the Reformation: The Homiletical Handbook of Urbanus Rhegius , (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2003), p. 25.
 Ibid., pp.. 51-53.
 The scriptures cited are noted by Rhegius.