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  Martin Luther



_A treatise on Good Works

together with the

Letter of Dedication_

by Dr. Martin Luther, 1520

Published in:

_Works of Martin Luther_

Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds.

(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol. 1, pp. 173-285.


1. The Occasion of the Work. -- Luther did not impose himself

as reformer upon the Church. In the course of a conscientious

performance of the duties of his office, to which he had been

regularly and divinely called, and without any urging on his

part, he attained to this position by inward necessity. In

1515 he received his appointment as the standing substitute

for the sickly city pastor, Simon Heinse, from the city

council of Wittenberg. Before this time he was obliged to

preach only occasionally in the convent, apart from his

activity as teacher in the University and convent. Through

this appointment he was in duty bound, by divine and human

right, to lead and direct the congregation at Wittenberg on

the true way to life, and it would have been a denial of the

knowledge of salvation which God had led him to acquire, by

way of ardent inner struggles, if he had led the congregation

on any other way than the one God had revealed to him in His

Word. He could not deny before the congregation which had been

intrusted to his care, what up to this time he had taught with

ever increasing clearness in his lectures at the University --

for in the lectures on the Psalms, which he began to deliver

in 1513, he declares his conviction that faith alone

justifies, as can be seen from the complete manuscript,

published since 1885, and with still greater clearness from

his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1515-1516), which

is accessible since 1908; nor what he had urged as spiritual

adviser of his convent brethren when in deep distress --

compare the charming letter to Georg Spenlein, dated April 8,


Luther's first literary works to appear in print were also

occasioned by the work of his calling and of his office in the

Wittenberg congregation. He had no other object in view than

to edify his congregation and to lead it to Christ when, in

1517, he published his first independent work, the Explanation

of the Seven Penitential Psalms. On Oct 31 of the same year he

published his 95 Theses against Indulgences. These were indeed

intended as controversial theses for theologians, but at the

same time it is well known that Luther was moved by his duty

toward his congregation to declare his position in this matter

and to put in issue the whole question as to the right and

wrong of indulgences by means of his theses. His sermon Of

Indulgences and Grace, occasioned by Tetzel's attack and

delivered in the latter part of March, 1518, as well as his

sermon Of Penitence, delivered about the same time, were also

intended for his congregation. Before his congregation (Sept.,

1516-Feb., 1517) he delivered the Sermons on the Ten

Commandments, which were published in 1518 and the Sermons on

the Lord's Prayer, which were also published in 1518 by

Agricola. Though Luther in the same year published a series of

controversial writings, which were occasioned by attacks from

outside sources, viz., the Resolutiones disputationis de

Virtute indulgentiarum, the Asterisci adversus obeliscos Joh.

Eccii, and the Ad dialogum Silv. Prieriatis responsio, still

he never was diverted by this necessary rebuttal from his

paramount duty, the edification of the congregation. The

autumn of the year 1518, when he was confronted with Cajetan,

as well as the whole year of 1519, when he held his

disputations with Eck, etc., were replete with disquietude and

pressing labors; still Luther served his congregation with a

whole series of writings during this time, and only regretted

that he was not entirely at its disposal. Of such writings we

mention: Explanation of the Lord's Prayer for the simple Laity

(an elaboration of the sermons of 1517); Brief Explanation of

the Ten Commandments; Instruction concerning certain Articles,

which might be ascribed and imputed to him by his adversaries;

Brief Instruction how to Confess; Of Meditation on the Sacred

Passion of Christ; Of Twofold Righteousness; Of the

Matrimonial Estate; Brief Form to understand and to pray the

Lord's Prayer; Explanation of the Lord's Prayer "vor sich und

hinter sich"; Of Prayer and Processions in Rogation Week; Of

Usury; Of the Sacrament of Penitence; Of Preparation for

Death; Of the Sacrament of Baptism; Of the Sacrament of the

Sacred Body; Of Excommunication. With but few exceptions these

writings all appeared in print in the year 1519, and again it

was the congregation which Luther sought primarily to serve.

If the bounds of his congregation spread ever wider beyond

Wittenberg, so that his writings found a surprisingly ready

sale, even afar, that was not Luther's fault. Even the

Tessaradecas consolatoria, written in 1519 and printed in

1520, a book of consolation, which was originally intended for

the sick Elector of Saxony, was written by him only upon

solicitation from outside sources.

To this circle of writings the treatise Of Good Works also

belongs Though the incentive for its composition came from

George Spalatin, court-preacher to the Elector, who reminded

Luther of a promise he had given, still Luther was willing to

undertake it only when he recalled that in a previous sermon

to his congregation he occasionally had made a similar promise

to deliver a sermon on good works; and when Luther actually

commenced the composition he had nothing else in view but the

preparation of a sermon for his congregation on this important


But while the work was in progress the material so accumulated

that it far outgrew the bounds of a sermon for his

congregation. On March 25. he wrote to Spalatin that it would

become a whole booklet instead of a sermon; on May 5. he again

emphasizes the growth of the material; on May 13. he speaks of

its completion at an early date, and on June 8. he could send

Melanchthon a printed copy. It was entitled: Von den guten

werckenn: D. M. L. Vuittenberg. On the last page it bore the

printer's mark: Getruck zu Wittenberg bey dem iungen Melchior

Lotther. Im Tausent funfhundert vnnd zweyntzigsten Jar. It

filled not less than 58 leaves, quarto. In spite of its

volume, however, the intention of the book for the

congregation remained, now however, not only for the narrow

circle of the Wittenberg congregation, but for the Christian

layman in general. In the dedicatory preface Luther lays the

greatest stress upon this, for he writes: "Though I know of a

great many, and must hear it daily, who think lightly of my

poverty and say that I write only small Sexternlein (tracts of

small volume) and German sermons for the untaught laity, I

will not permit that to move me. Would to God that during my

life I had served but one layman for his betterment with all

my powers; it would be sufficient for me, I would thank God

and suffer all my books to perish thereafter.... Most

willingly I will leave the honor of greater things to others,

and not at all will I be ashamed of preaching and writing

German to the untaught laity."

Since Luther had dedicated the afore-mentioned Tessaradecas

consolatoria to the reigning Prince, he now, probably on

Spalatin's recommendation, dedicated the Treatise on Good

Works to his brother John, who afterward, in 1525, succeeded

Frederick in the Electorate. There was probably good reason

for dedicating the book to a member of the reigning house.

Princes have reason to take a special interest in the fact

that preaching on good works should occur within their realm,

for the safety and sane development of their kingdom depend

largely upon the cultivation of morality on the part of their

subjects. Time and again the papal church had commended

herself to princes and statesmen by her emphatic teaching of

good works. Luther, on the other hand, had been accused --

like the Apostle Paul before him (Rom. 3 31) -- that the

zealous performance of good works had abated, that the bonds

of discipline had slackened and that, as a necessary

consequence, lawlessness and shameless immorality were being

promoted by his doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Before 1517 the rumor had already spread that Luther intended

to do away with good works. Duke George of Saxony had received

no good impression from a sermon Luther had delivered at

Dresden, because he feared the consequences which Luther's

doctrine of justification by faith alone might have upon the

morals of the masses. Under these circumstances it would not

have been surprising if a member of the Electoral house should

harbor like scruples, especially since the full comprehension

of Luther's preaching on good works depended on an evangelical

understanding of faith, as deep as was Luther's own. The

Middle Ages had differentiated between fides informis, a

formless faith, and fides formata or informata, a formed or

ornate faith. The former was held to be a knowledge without

any life or effect, the latter to be identical with love for,

as they said, love which proves itself and is effective in

good works must be added to the formless faith, as its

complement and its content, well pleasing to God. In Luther's

time every one who was seriously interested in religious

questions was reared under the influence of these ideas.

Now, since Luther had opposed the doctrine of justification by

love and its good works, he was in danger of being

misunderstood by strangers, as though he held the bare

knowledge and assent to be sufficient for justification, and

such preaching would indeed have led to frivolity and

disorderly conduct. But even apart from the question whether

or not the brother of the Elector was disturbed by such

scruples, Luther must have welcomed the opportunity, when the

summons came to him, to dedicate his book Of Good Works to a

member of the Electoral house. At any rate the book could

serve to acquaint him with the thoughts of his much-abused

pastor and professor at Wittenberg, for never before had

Luther expressed himself on the important question of good

works in such a fundamental, thorough and profound way.

2. The Contents of the Work. -- A perusal of the contents

shows that the book, in the course of its production, attained

a greater length than was originally intended. To this fact it

must be attributed that a new numeration of sections begins

with the argument on the Third Commandment, and is repeated at

every Commandment thereafter, while before this the sections

were consecutively numbered. But in spite of this, the plan of

the whole is clear and lucid. Evidently the whole treatise is

divided into two parts: the first comprising sections 1-17,

while the second comprises all the following sections. The

first, being fundamental, is the more important part. Luther

well knew of the charges made against him that "faith is so

highly elevated" and "works are rejected" by him; but he knew,

too, that "neither silver, gold and precious stone, nor any

other precious thing had experienced so much augmentation and

diminution" as had good works "which should all have but one

simple goodness, or they are nothing but color, glitter and

deception." But especially was he aware of the fact that the

Church was urging nothing but the so-called self-elected

works, such as "running to the convent, singing, reading,

playing the organ, saying the mass, praying matins, vespers,

and other hours, founding and ornamenting churches, altars,

convents, gathering chimes, jewels, vestments, gems and

treasures, going to Rome and to the saints, curtsying and

bowing the knees, praying the rosary and the psalter," etc.,

and that she designated these alone as truly good works, while

she represented the faithful performance of the duties of

one's calling as a morality of a lower order. For these

reasons it is Luther's highest object in this treatise to make

it perfectly clear what is the essence of good works. Whenever

the essence of good works has been understood, then the

accusations against him will quickly collapse.

In the fundamental part he therefore argues: Truly good works

are not self-elected works of monastic or any other holiness,

but such only as God has commanded, and as are comprehended

within the bounds of one's particular calling, and all works,

let their name be what it may, become good only when they flow

from faith, the first, greatest, and noblest of good works."

(John 6:29.) In this connection the essence of faith, that

only source of all truly good works, must of course be rightly

understood. It is the sure confidence in God, that all my

doing is wellpleasing to Him; it is trust in His mercy, even

though He appears angry and puts sufferings and adversities

upon us; it is the assurance of the divine good will even

though "God should reprove the conscience with sin, death and

hell, and deny it all grace and mercy, as though He would

condemn and show His wrath eternally." Where such faith lives

in the heart, there the works are good "even though they were

as insignificant as the picking up of a straw"; but where it

is wanting, there are only such works as "heathen, Jew and

Turk" may have and do. Where such faith possesses the man, he

needs no teacher in good works, as little as does the husband

or the wife, who only look for love and favor from one

another, nor need any instruction therein "how they are to

stand toward each other, what they are to do, to leave undone,

to say, to leave unsaid, to think."

This faith, Luther continues, is "the true fulfilment of the

First Commandment, apart from which there is no work that

could do justice to this Commandment." With this sentence he

combines, on the one hand, the whole argument on faith, as the

best and noblest of good works, with his opening proposition

(there are no good works besides those commanded of God), and,

on the other hand, he prepares the way for the following

argument, wherein he proposes to exhibit the good works

according to the Ten Commandments. For the First Commandment

does not forbid this and that, nor does it require this and

that; it forbids but one thing, unbelief; it requires but one

thing, faith, "that confidence in God's good will at all

times." Without this faith the best works are as nothing, and

if man should think that by them he could be well-pleasing to

God, he would be lowering God to the level of a "broker or a

laborer who will not dispense his grace and kindness gratis."

This understanding of faith and good works, so Luther now

addresses his opponents, should in fairness be kept in view by

those who accuse him of declaiming against good works, and

they should learn from it, that though he has preached against

"good works," it was against such as are falsely so called and

as contribute toward the confusion of consciences, because

they are self-elected, do not flow from faith, and are done

with the pretension of doing works well-pleasing to God.

This brings us to the end of the fundamental part of the

treatise. It was not Luther's intention, however, to speak

only on the essence of good works and their fundamental

relation to faith; he would show, too, how the "best work,"

faith, must prove itself in every way a living faith,

according to the other commandments. Luther does not proceed

to this part, however, until in the fundamental part he has

said with emphasis, that the believer, the spiritual man,

needs no such instruction (1. Timothy 1:9), but that he of his

own accord and at all times does good works "as his faith, his

confidence, teaches him." Only "because we do not all have

such faith, or are unmindful of it," does such instruction

become necessary.

Nor does he proceed until he has applied his oft repeated

words concerning the relation of faith to good works to the

relation of the First to the other Commandments. From the

fact, that according to the First Commandment, we acquire a

pure heart and confidence toward God, he derives the good work

of the Second Commandment, namely, "to praise God, to

acknowledge His grace, to render all honor to Him alone." From

the same source he derives the good work of the Third

Commandment, namely, "to observe divine services with prayer

and the hearing of preaching, to incline the imagination of

our hearts toward God's benefits, and, to that end, to mortify

and overcome the flesh." From the same source he derives the

works of the Second Table.

The argument on the Third and Fourth Commandments claims

nearly one-half of the entire treatise. Among the good works

which, according to the Third Commandment, should be an

exercise and proof of faith, Luther especially mentions the

proper hearing of mass and of preaching, common prayer, bodily

discipline and the mortification of the flesh, and he joins

the former and the latter by an important fundamental

discussion of the New Testament conception of Sabbath rest.

Luther discusses the Fourth Commandment as fully as the Third.

The exercise of faith, according to this Commandment, consists

in the faithful performance of the duties of children toward

their parents, of parents toward their children, and of

subordinates toward their superiors in the ecclesiastical as

well as in the common civil sphere. The various duties issue

from the various callings, for faithful performance of the

duties of one's calling, with the help of God and for God's

sake, is the true "good work."

As he now proceeds to speak of the spiritual powers, the

government of the Church, he frankly reveals their faults and

demands a reform of the present rulers. Honor and obedience in

all things should be rendered unto the Church, the spiritual

mother, as it is due to natural parents, unless it be contrary

to the first Three Commandments. But as matters stand now the

spiritual magistrates neglect their peculiar work, namely, the

fostering of godliness and discipline, like a mother who runs

away from her children and follows a lover, and instead they

undertake strange and evil works, like parents whose commands

are contrary to God. In this case members of the Church must

do as godly children do whose parents have become mad and

insane. Kings, princes, the nobility, municipalities and

communities must begin of their own accord and put a check to

these conditions, so that the bishops and the clergy, who are

now too timid, may be induced to follow. But even the civil

magistrates must also suffer reforms to be enacted in their

particular spheres; especially are they called on to do away

with the rude "gluttony and drunkenness," luxury in clothing,

the usurious sale of rents and the common brothels. This, by

divine and human right, is a part of their enjoined works

according to the Fourth Commandment.

Luther, at last, briefly treats of the Second Table of the

Commandments, but in speaking of the works of these

Commandments he never forgets to point out their relation to

faith, thus holding fast this fundamental thought of the book

to the end. Faith which does not doubt that God is gracious,

he says, will find it an easy matter to be graciously and

favorably minded toward one's neighbor and to overcome all

angry and wrathful desires. In this faith in God the Spirit

will teach us to avoid unchaste thoughts and thus to keep the

Sixth Commandment. When the heart trusts in the divine favor,

it cannot seek after the temporal goods of others, nor cleave

to money, but according to the Seventh Commandment, will use

it with cheerful liberality for the benefit of the neighbor.

Where such confidence is present there is also a courageous,

strong and intrepid heart, which will at all times defend the

truth, as the Eighth Commandment demands, whether neck or coat

be at stake, whether it be against pope or kings. Where such

faith is present there is also strife against the evil lust,

as forbidden in the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, and that

even unto death.

3. The Importance of the Work. -- Inquiring now into the

importance of the book, we note that Luther's impression

evidently was perfectly correct, when he wrote to Spalatin,

long before its completion -- as early as March 2 5. -- that

he believed it to be better than anything he had heretofore

written. The book, indeed, surpasses all his previous German

writings in volume, as well as all his Latin and German ones

in clearness, richness and the fundamental importance of its

content. In comparison with the prevalent urging of

self-elected works of monkish holiness, which had arisen from

a complete misunderstanding of the so-called evangelical

counsels (comp. esp. Matthew 19:16-22) and which were at that

time accepted as self-evident and zealously urged by the whole

church, Luther's argument must have appeared to all thoughtful

and earnest souls as a revelation, when he so clearly

amplified the proposition that only those works are to be

regarded as good works which God has commanded, and that

therefore, not the abandoning of one's earthly calling, but

the faithful keeping of the Ten Commandments in the course of

one's calling, is the work which God requires of us. Over

against the wide-spread opinion, as though the will of God as

declared in the Ten Commandments referred only to the outward

work always especially mentioned, Luther's argument must have

called to mind the explanation of the Law, which the Lord had

given in the Sermon on the Mount, when he taught men to

recognize only the extreme point and manifestation of a whole

trend of thought in the work prohibited by the text, and when

he directed Christians not to rest in the keeping of the

literal requirement of each Commandment, but from this point

of vantage to inquire into the whole depth and breadth of

God's will -- positively and negatively -- and to do His will

in its full extent as the heart has perceived it. Though this

thought may have been occasionally expressed in the

expositions of the Ten Commandments which appeared at the dawn

of the Reformation, still it had never before been so clearly

recognized as the only correct principle, much less had it

been so energetically carried out from beginning to end, as is

done in this treatise. Over against the deep-rooted view that

the works of love must bestow upon faith its form, its content

and its worth before God, it must have appeared as the dawn of

a new era (Galatians 3:22-25) when Luther in this treatise

declared, and with victorious certainty carried out the

thought, that it is true faith which invests the works, even

the best and greatest of works, with their content and worth

before God.

This proposition, which Luther here amplifies more clearly

than ever before, demanded nothing less than a breach with the

whole of prevalent religious views, and at that time must have

been perceived as the discovery of a new world, though it was

no more than a return to the clear teaching of the New

Testament Scriptures concerning the way of salvation. This,

too, accounts for the fact that in this writing the accusation

is more impressively repelled than before, that the doctrine

of justification by faith alone resulted in moral laxity, and

that, on the other hand, the fundamental and radical

importance of righteousness by faith for the whole moral life

is revealed in such a heart-refreshing manner. Luther's appeal

in this treatise to kings, princes, the nobility,

municipalities and communities, to declare against the misuse

of spiritual powers and to abolish various abuses in civil

life, marks this treatise as a forerunner of the great

Reformation writings, which appeared in the same year (1520),

while, on the other hand, his espousal of the rights of the

"poor man" -- to be met with here for the first time -- shows

that the Monk of Witttenberg, coming from the narrow limits of

the convent, had an intimate and sympathetic knowledge of the

social needs of his time. Thus he proved by his own example

that to take a stand in the center of the Gospel does not

narrow the vision nor harden the heart, but rather produces

courage in the truth and sympathy for all manner of misery.

Luther's contemporaries at once recognized the great

importance of the Treatise, for within the period of seven

months it passed through eight editions; these were followed

by six more editions between the years of 1521 and 1525; in

1521 it was translated into Latin, and in this form passed

through three editions up to the year 1525; and all this in

spite of the fact that in those years the so-called three

great Reformation writings of 1520 were casting all else into

the shadow. Melanchthon, in a contemporaneous letter to John

Hess, called it Luther's best book. John Mathesius, the

well-known pastor at Joachimsthal and Luther's biographer,

acknowledged that he had learned the "rudiments of

Christianity" from it.

Even to-day this book has its peculiar mission to the Church.

The seeking after self-elected works, the indolence regarding

the works commanded of God, the foolish opinion, that the path

of works leads to God's grace and good-will, are even to-day

widely prevalent within the kingdom of God. To all this

Luther's treatise answers: Be diligent in the works of your

earthly calling as commanded of God, but only after having

first strengthened, by the consideration of God's mercy, the

faith within you, which is the only source of all truly good

works and well-pleasing to God.