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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.

I. The passions of anger and revenge, of which the Fifth

Commandment says, "Thou shalt not kill." This Commandment has

one work, which however includes many and dispels many vices,

and is called meekness. Now this is of two kinds. The one has

a beautiful splendor, and there is nothing back of it. This we

practice toward our friends and those who do us good and give

us pleasure with goods, honor and favor, or who do not offend

us with words nor with deeds. Such meekness irrational animals

have, lions and snakes, Jews, Turks, knaves, murderers, bad

women. These are all content and gentle when men do what they

want, or let them alone; and yet there are not a few who,

deceived by such worthless meekness, cover over their anger

and excuse it, saying: "I would indeed not be angry, if I were

left alone." Certainly, my good man, so the evil spirit also

would be meek if he had his own way. Dissatisfaction and

resentment overwhelm you in order that they may show you how

full of anger and wickedness you are, that you may be

admonished to strive after meekness and to drive out anger.

The second form of meekness is good through and through, that

which is shown toward opponents and enemies, does them no

harm, does not revenge itself, does not curse nor revile, does

not speak evil of them, does not meditate evil against them,

although they had taken away goods, honor, life, friends and

everything. Nay, where it is possible, it returns good for

evil, speaks well of them, thinks well of them, prays for

them. Of this Christ says, Matthew v: "Do good to them that

despitefully use you. Pray for them that persecute you and

revile you." And Paul, Romans xii: "Bless them which curse

you, and by no means curse them, but do good to them."

II. Behold how this precious, excellent work has been lost

among Christians, so that nothing now everywhere prevails

except strife, war, quarreling, anger, hatred, envy,

back-biting, cursing, slandering, injuring, vengeance, and all

manner of angry works and words; and yet, with all this, we

have our many holidays, hear masses, say our prayers,

establish churches, and more such spiritual finery, which God

has not commanded. We shine resplendently and excessively, as

if we were the most holy Christians there ever were. And so

because of these mirrors and masks we allow God's Commandment

to go to complete ruin, and no one considers or examines

himself, how near or how far he be from meekness and the

fulfilment of this Commandment; although God has said, that

not he who does such works, but he who keeps His Commandments,

shall enter into eternal life.

Now, since no one lives on earth upon whom God does not bestow

an enemy and opponent as a proof of his own anger and

wickedness, that is, one who afflicts him in goods, honor,

body or friends, and thereby tries whether anger is still

present, whether he can be well-disposed toward his enemy,

speak well of him, do good to him, and not intend any evil

against him; let him come forward who asks what he shall do

that he may do good works, please God and be saved. Let him

set his enemy before him, keep him constantly before the eyes

of his heart, as an exercise whereby he may curb his spirit

and train his heart to think kindly of his enemy, wish him

well, care for him and pray for him; and then, when

opportunity offers, speak well of him and do good to him. Let

him who will, try this and if he find not enough to do all his

life long, he may convict me of lying, and say that my

contention was wrong. But if this is what God desires, and if

He will be paid in no other coin, of what avail is it, that we

busy ourselves with other great works which are not commanded,

and neglect this? Therefore God says, Matthew v, "I say unto

you, that whosoever is angry with his neighbor, is in danger

of the judgment; but whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou

fool (that is, all manner of invective, cursing, reviling,

slandering), he shall be in danger of everlasting fire." What

remains then for the outward act, striking, wounding, killing,

injuring, etc., if the thoughts and words of anger are so

severely condemned?

III. But where there is true meekness, there the heart is

pained at every evil which happens to one's enemy. And these

are the true children and heirs of God and brethren of Christ,

Whose heart was so pained for us all when He died on the holy

Cross. Even so we see a pious judge passing sentence upon the

criminal with sorrow, and regretting the death which the law

imposes. Here the act seems to be one of anger and harshness.

So thoroughly good is meekness that even in such works of

anger it remains, nay, it torments the heart most sorely when

it must be angry and severe.

But here we must watch, that we be not meek contrary to God's

honor and Commandment. For it is written of Moses that he was

the very meekest man on earth, and yet, when the Jews had

worshiped the golden calf and provoked God to anger, he put

many of them to death, and thereby made atonement before God.

Likewise it is not fitting that the magistrates should be idle

and allow sin to have sway, and that we say nothing. My own

possessions, my honor, my injury, I must not regard, nor grow

angry because of them; but God's honor and Commandment we must

protect, and injury or injustice to our neighbor we must

prevent, the magistrates with the sword, the rest of us with

reproof and rebuke, yet always with pity for those who have

merited the punishment.

This high, noble, sweet work can easily be learned, if we

perform it in faith, and as an exercise of faith. For if faith

does not doubt the favor of God nor question that God is

gracious, it will become quite easy for a man to be gracious

and favorable to his neighbor, however much he may have

sinned; for we have sinned much more against God. Behold, a

short Commandment this, but it presents a long, mighty

exercise of good works and of faith.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

In this Commandment too a good work is commanded, which

includes much and drives away much vice; it is called purity,

or chastity, of which much is written and preached, and it is

well known to every one, only that it is not as carefully

observed and practised as other works which are not commanded.

So ready are we to do what is not commanded and to leave

undone what is commanded. We see that the world is full of

shameful works of unchastity, indecent words, tales and

ditties, temptation to which is daily increased through

gluttony and drunkenness, idleness and frippery. Yet we go our

way as if we were Christians; when we have been to church,

have said our little prayer, have observed the fasts and

feasts, then we think our whole duty is done.

Now, if no other work were commanded but chastity alone, we

would all have enough to do with this one; so perilous and

raging a vice is unchastity. It rages in all our members: in

the thoughts of our hearts, in the seeing of our eyes, in the

hearing of our ears, in the words of our mouth, in the works

of our hands and feet and all our body. To control all these

requires labor and effort; and thus the Commandments of God

teach us how great truly good works are, nay, that it is

impossible for us of our own strength to conceive a good work,

to say nothing of attempting or doing it. St. Augustine says,

that among all the conflicts of the Christian the conflict of

chastity is the hardest, for the one reason alone, that it

continues daily without ceasing, and chastity seldom prevails.

This all the saints have wept over and lamented, as St. Paul

does, Romans vii: "I find in me, that is in my flesh, no good


II. If this work of chastity is to be permanent, it will drive

to many other good works, to fasting and temperance over

against gluttony and drunkenness, to watching and early rising

over against laziness and excessive sleep, to work and labor

over against idleness. For gluttony, drunkenness, lying late

abed, loafing and being without work are weapons of

unchastity, with which chastity is quickly overcome. On the

other hand, the holy Apostle Paul calls fasting, watching and

labor godly weapons, with which unchastity is mastered; but,

as has been said above, these exercises must do no more than

overcome unchastity, and not pervert nature.

Above all this, the strongest defence is prayer and the Word

of God; namely, that when evil lust stirs, a man flee to

prayer, call upon God's mercy and help, read and meditate on

the Gospel, and in it consider Christ's sufferings. Thus says

Psalm cxxxvii: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth the

little ones of Babylon against the rock," that is, if the

heart runs to the Lord Christ with its evil thoughts while

they are yet young and just beginning; for Christ is a Rock,

on which they are ground to powder and come to naught.

See, here each one will find enough to do with himself, and

more than enough, and will be given many good works to do

within himself. But now no one uses prayer, fasting, watching,

labor for this purpose, but men stop in these works as if they

were in themselves the whole purpose, although they should be

arranged so as to fulfil the work of this Commandment and

purify us daily more and more.

Some have also indicated more things which should be avoided,

such as soft beds and clothes, that we should avoid excessive

adornment, and neither associate nor talk with members of the

opposite sex, nor even look upon them, and whatsoever else may

be conducive to chastity. In all these things no one can fix a

definite rule and measure. Each one must watch himself and see

what things are needful to him for chastity, in what quantity

and how long they help him to be chaste, that he may thus

choose and observe them for himself; if he cannot do this, let

him for a time give himself up to be controlled by another,

who may hold him to such observance until he can learn to rule

himself. This was the purpose for which the monastic houses

were established of old, to teach young people discipline and


III. In this work a good strong faith is a great help, more

noticeably so than in almost any other; so that for this

reason also Isaiah xi. says that "faith is a girdle of the

reins," that is, a guard of chastity. For he who so lives that

he looks to God for all grace, takes pleasure in spiritual

purity; therefore he can so much more easily resist fleshly

impurity: and in such faith the Spirit tells him of a

certainty how he shall avoid evil thoughts and everything that

is repugnant to chastity. For as the faith in divine favor

lives without ceasing and works in all works, so it also does

not cease its admonitions in all things that are pleasing to

God or displease Him; as St. John says in his Epistle: "Ye

need not that any man teach you: for the divine anointing,

that is, the Spirit of God, teacheth you of all things."

Yet we must not despair if we are not soon rid of the

temptation, nor by any means imagine that we are free from it

as long as we live, and we must regard it only as an incentive

and admonition to prayer, fasting, watching, laboring, and to

other exercises for the quenching of the flesh, especially to

the practice and exercise of faith in God. For that chastity

is not precious which is at ease, but that which is at war

with unchastity, and fights, and without ceasing drives out

all the poison with which the flesh and the evil spirit attack

it. Thus St. Peter says, "I beseech you, abstain from fleshly

desires and lusts, which war always against the soul." And St.

Paul, Romans vi, "Ye shall not obey the body in its lusts." In

these and like passages it is shown that no one is without

evil lust; but that everyone shall and must daily fight

against it. But although this brings uneasiness and pain, it

is none the less a work that gives pleasure, in which we shall

have our comfort and satisfaction. For they who think they

make an end of temptation by yielding to it, only set

themselves on fire the more; and although for a time it is

quiet, it comes again with more strength another time, and

finds the nature weaker than before.

Thou shalt not steal.

This Commandment also has a work, which embraces very many

good works, and is opposed to many vices, and is called in

German Mildigkeit, "benevolence;" which is a work ready to

help and serve every one with one's goods. And it fights not

only against theft and robbery, but against all stinting in

temporal goods which men may practise toward one another: such

as greed, usury, overcharging and plating wares that sell as

solid, counterfeit wares, short measures and weights, and who

could tell all the ready, novel, clever tricks, which multiply

daily in every trade, by which every one seeks his own gain

through the other's loss, and forgets the rule which says:

"What ye wish that others do to you, that do ye also to them."

If every one kept this rule before his eyes in his trade,

business, and dealings with his neighbor, he would readily

find how he ought to buy and sell, take and give, lend and

give for nothing, promise and keep his promise, and the like.

And when we consider the world in its doings, how greed

controls all business, we would not only find enough to do, if

we would make an honorable living before God, but also be

overcome with dread and fear for this perilous, miserable

life, which is so exceedingly overburdened, entangled and

taken captive with cares of this temporal life and dishonest

seeking of gain.

II. Therefore the Wise Man says not in vain: "Happy is the

rich man, who is found without blemish, who does not run after

gold, and has not set his confidence in the treasures of

money. Who is he? We will praise him, that he has done

wondrous things in his life." As if he would say: "None such

is found, or very few indeed." Yea, they are very few who

notice and recognise such lust for gold in themselves. For

greed has here a very beautiful, fine cover for its shame,

which is called provision for the body and natural need, under

cover of which it accumulates wealth beyond all limits and is

never satisfied; so that he who would in this matter keep

himself clean, must truly, as he says, do miracles or wondrous

things in his life.

Now see, if a man wish not only to do good works, but even

miracles, which God may praise and be pleased with, what need

has he to look elsewhere? Let him take heed to himself, and

see to it that he run not after gold, nor set his trust on

money, but let the gold run after him, and money wait on his

favor, and let him love none of these things nor set his heart

on them; then he is the true, generous, wonderworking, happy

man, as Job xxxi says: "I have never yet: relied upon gold,

and never yet made gold my hope and confidence." And Psalm

lxii: "If riches increase, set not your heart upon them." So

Christ also teaches, Matthew vi, that we shall take no

thought, what we shall eat and drink and wherewithal we shall

be clothed, since God cares for this, and knows that we have

need of all these things.

But some say: "Yes, rely upon that, take no thought, and see

whether a roasted chicken will fly into your mouth!" I do not

say that a man shall not labor and seek a living; but he shall

not worry, not be greedy, not despair, thinking that he will

not have enough; for in Adam we are all condemned to labor,

when God says to him, Genesis iii, "In the sweat of thy face

shalt thou eat bread." And Job v, "As the birds to flying, so

is man born unto labor." Now the birds fly without worry and

greed, and so we also should labor without worry and greed;

but if you do worry and are greedy, wishing that the roasted

chicken fly into your mouth: worry and be greedy, and see

whether you will thereby fulfil God's Commandment and be


III. This work faith teaches of itself. For if the heart looks

for divine favor and relies upon it, how is it possible that a

man should be greedy and worry? He must be sure beyond a doubt

that God cares for him; therefore he does not cling to money;

he uses it also with cheerful liberality for the benefit of

his neighbor, and knows well that he will have enough, however

much he may give away. For his God, Whom he trusts, will not

lie to him nor forsake him, as it is written, Psalm xxxvii: "I

have been young, and now am old; never have I seen a believing

man, who trusts God, that is a righteous man, forsaken, or his

child begging bread." Therefore the Apostle calls no other sin

idolatry except covetousness, because this sin shows most

plainly that it does not trust God for anything, expects more

good from its money than from God; and, as has been said, it

is by such confidence that God is truly honored or dishonored.

And, indeed, in this Commandment it can be clearly seen how

all good works must be done in faith; for here every one most

surely feels that the cause of covetousness is distrust and

the cause of liberality is faith. For because a man trusts

God, he is generous and does not doubt that he will always

have enough; on the other hand, a man is covetous and worries

because he does not trust God. Now, as in this Commandment

faith is the master-workman and the doer of the good work of

liberality, so it is also in all the other Commandments, and

without such faith liberality is of no worth, but rather a

careless squandering of money.

IV. By this we are also to know that this liberality shall

extend even to enemies and opponents. For what manner of good

deed is that, if we are liberal only to our friends? As Christ

teaches, Luke vi, even a wicked man does that to another who

is his friend. Besides, the brute beasts also do good and are

generous to their kind. Therefore a Christian must rise

higher, let his liberality serve also the undeserving,

evil-doers, enemies, and the ungrateful, even as his heavenly

Father makes His sun to rise on good and evil, and the rain to

fall on the grateful and ungrateful.

But here it will be found how hard it is to do good works

according to God's Commandment, how nature squirms, twists and

writhes in its opposition to it, although it does the good

works of its own choice easily and gladly. Therefore take your

enemies, the ungrateful, and do good to them; then you will

find how near you are to this Commandment or how far from it,

and how all your life you will always have to do with the

practice of this work. For if your enemy needs you and you do

not help him when you can, it is just the same as if you had

stolen what belonged to him, for you owed it to him to help

him. So says St. Ambrose, "Feed the hungry; if you do not feed

him, you have, as far as you are concerned, slain him." And in

this Commandment are included the works of mercy, which Christ

will require at men's hands at the last day.

But the magistrates and cities ought to see to it that the

vagabonds, pilgrims and mendicants from foreign lands be

debarred, or at least allowed only under restrictions and

rules, so that knaves be not permitted to run at large under

the guise of mendicants, and their knavery, of which there now

is much, be prohibited. I have spoken at greater length of

this Commandment in the Treatise on Usury.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

This Commandment seems small, and yet is so great, that he who

would rightly keep it must risk and imperil life and limb,

goods and honor, friends and all that he has; and yet it

includes no more than the work of that small member, the

tongue, and is called in German Wahrheit sagen, "telling the

truth" and, where there is need, gainsaying lies; so that it

forbids many evil works of the tongue. First: those which are

committed by speaking, and those which are committed by

keeping silent. By speaking, when a man has an unjust

law-suit, and wants to prove and maintain his case by a false

argument, catch his neighbor with subtilty, produce everything

that strengthens and furthers his own cause, and withhold and

discount everything that furthers his neighbor's good cause;

in doing which he does not do to his neighbor as he would have

his neighbor do to him. This some men do for the sake of gain,

some to avoid loss or shame, thereby seeking their own

advantage more than God's Commandment, and excuse themselves

by saying: Vigilanti jura subveniunt, "the law helps him who

watches"; just as if it were not as much their duty to watch

for their neighbor's cause as for their own. Thus they

intentionally allow their neighbor's cause to be lost,

although they know that it is just. This evil is at present so

common that I fear no court is held and no suit tried but that

one side sins against this Commandment. And even when they

cannot accomplish it, they yet have the unrighteous spirit and

will, so that they would wish the neighbor's just cause to be

lost and their unjust cause to prosper. This sin is most

frequent when the opponent is a prominent man or an enemy. For

a man wants to revenge himself on his enemy: but the ill will

of a man of prominence he does not wish to bring upon himself;

and then begins the flattering and fawning, or, on the other

hand, the withholding of the truth. Here no one is willing to

run the risk of disfavor and displeasure, loss and danger for

the truth's sake; and so God's Commandment must perish. And

this is almost universally the way of the world. He who would

keep this Commandment, would have both hands full doing only

those good works which concern the tongue. And then, how many

are there who allow themselves to be silenced and swerved

aside from the truth by presents and gifts! so that in all

places it is truly a high, great, rare work, not to be a false

witness against one's neighbor.

II. There is a second bearing of witness to the truth, which

is still greater, with which we must fight against the evil

spirits; and this concerns not temporal matters, but the

Gospel and the truth of faith, which the evil spirit has at no

time been able to endure, and always so manages that the great

among men, whom it is hard to resist, must oppose and

persecute it. Of which it is written in Psalm lxxxii, "Rid the

poor out of the hand of the wicked, and help the forsaken to

maintain his just cause."

Such persecution, it is true, has now become infrequent; but

that is the fault of the spiritual prelates, who do not stir

up the Gospel, but let it perish, and so have abandoned the

very thing because of which such witnessing and persecution

should arise; and in its place they teach us their own law and

what pleases them. For this reason the devil also does not

stir, since by vanquishing the Gospel he has also vanquished

faith in Christ, and everything goes as he wishes. But if the

Gospel should be stirred up and be heard again, without doubt

the whole world would be aroused and moved, and the greater

portion of the kings, princes, bishops, doctors and clergy,

and all that is great, would oppose it and rage against it, as

has always happened when the Word of God has come to light;

for the world cannot endure what comes from God. This is

proved in Christ, Who was and is the very greatest and most

precious and best of all that God has; yet the world not only

did not receive Him, but persecuted Him more cruelly than all

others who had ever come forth from God.

Therefore, as at that time, so at all times there are few who

stand by the divine truth, and imperil and risk life and limb,

goods and honor, and all that they have, as Christ has

foretold: "Ye shall be hated of all men for My Name's sake."

And: "Many of them shall be offended in Me." Yea, if this

truth were attacked by peasants, herdsmen, stable-boys and men

of no standing, who would not be willing and able to confess

it and to bear witness to it? But when the pope, and the

bishops, together with princes and kings attack it, all men

flee, keep silent, dissemble, in order that they may not lose

goods, honor, favor and life.

III. Why do they do this? Because they have no faith in God,

and expect nothing good from Him. For where such faith and

confidence are, there is also a bold, defiant, fearless heart,

that ventures and stands by the truth, though it cost life or

cloak, though it be against pope or kings; as we see that the

martyrs did. For such a heart is satisfied and rests easy

because it has a gracious, loving God. Therefore it despises

all the favor, grace, goods and honor of men, lets them come

and go as they please; as is written in Psalm xv: "He

contemneth them that contemn God, and honoreth them that fear

the Lord"; that is, the tyrants, the mighty, who persecute the

truth and despise God, he does not fear, he does not regard

them, he despiseth them; on the other hand, those who are

persecuted for the truth's sake, and fear God more than men,

to these he clings, these he defends, these he honors, let it

vex whom it may; as it is written of Moses, Hebrews xi, that

he stood by his brethren, regardless of the mighty king of


Lo, in this Commandment again you see briefly that faith must

be the master-workman in this work also, so that without it no

one has courage to do this work: so entirely are all works

comprised in faith, as has now been often said. Therefore,

apart from faith all works are dead, however good the form and

name they bear. For as no one does the work of this

Commandment except he be firm and fearless in the confidence

of divine favor; so also he does no work of any other

Commandment without the same faith: thus every one may easily

by this Commandment test and weigh himself whether he be a

Christian and truly believe in Christ, and thus whether he is

doing good works or no. Now we see how the Almighty God has

not only set our Lord Jesus Christ before us that we should

believe in Him with such confidence, but also holds before us

in Him an example of this same confidence and of such good

works, to the end that we should believe in Him, follow Him

and abide in Him forever; as He says, John xiv: "I am the Way,

the Truth and the Life," -- the Way, in which we follow Him;

the Truth, that we believe in Him; the Life, that we live in

Him forever.

From all this it is now manifest that all other works, which

are not commanded, are perilous and easily known: such as

building churches, beautifying them, making pilgrimages, and

all that is written at so great length in the Canon Law and

has misled and burdened the world and ruined it, made uneasy

consciences, silenced and weakened faith, and has not said how

a man, although he neglect all else, has enough to do with all

his powers to keep the Commandments of God, and can never do

all the good works which he is commanded to do; why then does

he seek others, which are neither necessary nor commanded, and

neglect those that are necessary and commanded?

The last two Commandments, which forbid evil desires of the

body for pleasure and for temporal goods, are clear in

themselves; these evil desires do no harm to our neighbor, and

yet they continue unto the grave, and the strife in us against

them endures unto death; therefore these two Commandments are

drawn together by St. Paul into one, Romans vii, and are set

as a goal unto which we do not attain, and only in our

thoughts reach after until death. For no one has ever been so

holy that he felt in himself no evil inclination, especially

when occasion and temptation were offered. For original sin is

born in us by nature, and may be checked, but not entirely

uprooted, except through the death of the body; which for this

reason is profitable and a thing to be desired. To this may

God help us. Amen.