Last month we took a brief excursion into Article XII – Of Repentance. I promised to expand on that a bit this month and so here goes! The text of the article is a bit long, so here is a condensed version:
Article XII – Of Repentance – (Our churches) teach that for those who have fallen after Baptism there is remission of sins whenever they are converted and that the Church ought to impart absolution to those thus returning to repentance. Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance.
This article is tied inextricably to Article IV – Of Justification. In that article, we confess that “. . . people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ has made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4).”
If there is a theme or a thread that permeates the Lutheran Confessions, it is that we are jealous to give and ascribe everything that pertains to our salvation to Christ. Nothing that we do contributes to our justification. Our righteousness is not our own; it is Christ’s righteousness that is given to us as we believe – as we receive faith. Rome looks at contrition and faith as things that we are to muscle up from within ourselves – to reach down and pull out of our inner being. As the Roman confutators read this article, they claimed that the Lutherans – by a sleight of wordsmithing – had tried to deny works but failed to do so because in their view faith itself is a work.
But our Confession emphatically and resolutely denies this, based on the Scriptures and specifically Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 2:8-9) where he writes: “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians%202%3A7%2D9&version=ESV)
The Article holds that repentance consists of two parts: contrition and faith. But notice that repentance is not our work! Contrition is given from hearing the Law’s accusations; faith is given from hearing the promises of the Gospel. So what about those “works of satisfaction?” How are they “necessary?”
The letter of James (2:15-18) is often quoted in this discussion:
15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[b] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
The resolution comes from understanding this passage as a part of the whole counsel of God and the distinction between what is necessary for salvation, and what flows from that salvation as a “necessary” consequence. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matt 7:18). It is also written in Romans 14:23 “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
So whatever “good works” we participate in come to pass through the work of the Holy Spirit, as that Spirit sustains our faith through Word and Sacrament. Our righteousness before God is the righteousness of faith in Christ. Period. In good works we bear the fruit of that faith in Christ. So “our” works – of blessing those around us, etc. – are the fruit but not the cause of our salvation.
This issue is always something for us to keep in mind, as our sinful nature always wants to participate in our own salvation. The controversy remained a serious threat among Lutherans for the next 50 years! The subject of “Good Works” is treated in much greater detail in the Confessions under Article IV in the Formula of Concord.
I commend that to your reading! If you do not have a hard copy of the Book of Concord, you can find it online at http://bookofconcord.org/fc-ep.php#IV.%20Good%20Works in abbreviated form, or you can dig really deeply at http://bookofconcord.org/sd-goodworks.php.
Next month, Article XIII – The Use of the Sacraments!
- Pr. Meyer