We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ. Today I want to go deep into thinking about works. But before I go into works I want talk about the idea that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works. This is fundamental to a Lutheran theology. It says all sorts of things about God and about us in relationship to God. Importantly, it means that if we have a relationship with God, it is because God wants it and makes it.
To understand this from a specifically Lutheran perspective, you also have to understand that Luther had little faith in humanity. He did not think we were pretty good, just in need of little fixing. He saw as fallen, turned in on ourselves. As a young Augustinian monk, Martin Luther went on a trip to Rome and was severely disappointed. He thought he was going to go and find a holy city, devout priests serving devout people in the heart of Catholicism in the shadow of the pope. Instead he found faith for sale and priests and bishops living in luxury. He found hypocritical priests who mocked the sacraments they administered. He found monks with loose morals, unconcerned with anything spiritual. I think he believed he saw what happens when we leave faith in the hands of humanity. We are turned inward and will always make things about us. The relationship with God becomes a tool for our own self-gratification or success.
As I have said before, Luther had some issues and sometimes his take on humanity comes across as pretty hopeless. I don’t think he would be taken with the power of positive thinking or the many variations of choice-centered theology, that we choose Jesus, that we choose righteousness. I think Luther sees humanity as that person sitting in the drive-through who has been told to eat healthier and is saying to himself, “Right after this Whopper I will make better choices.”
So for Luther works and choices simply could not save us. The things we do could never save us because they are always a bit suspect, tinged with selfishness, a hidden calculation of “What’s in it for me?” Again, it sounds pretty dismal, but it is right in that moment of despair that the gospel shines through. It is right at the moment when we recognize that we cannot please God or earn God’s love on our own that we discover that God is already in love with us. It is when we realize that what was broken is already fixed, that God is already pleased with us, that we have nothing to add, that we have nothing to do but be loved…it is in the moment that we know that we are loved not because of what we have done but because of who God is, that we are turned toward God in faith.
These ideas are in the background of some of what is happening in the story of the man born blind that we heard in the gospel reading. The opening question from the disciples is, “Who did something wrong that this man was born blind?” That was the assumption of the time. It is the difficulty of the claim that everything happens for a reason. Someone must have done something that this man was born blind, otherwise God is not fair and the whole system breaks down. We like the idea that we live in a causal universe, that people get what they deserve, that doing good things earns you good things and that doing bad things earns somebody else bad things. A lot of our day to day living works this way. I know that if I spend time in contemplative prayer in the morning I will have a better rest of my day. I know that if I practice an instrument (or any skill) every day, I will improve in that skill. I know that if I don’t text and drive, I have much lower risk of getting into an accident.
In the story of the man born blind Jesus’ action of healing the man causes all kinds of trouble, because he disrupts the world view. First, the man born blind can see, which shouldn’t happen if blindness is a consequence from God. Second, Jesus heals him on the Sabbath, which is not what you are supposed to do. A good thing is happening, the man can see, because someone is doing the wrong thing, healing a non-life threatening condition on the Sabbath. So there is a lot of back and forth as people are trying to come to terms with a situation that doesn’t follow the rules. The Pharisees are getting upset because that simple formula of good things for good people and bad things for bad people is falling apart.
And just to be clear, this is not “legalistic” Jewish thought versus “gracious” Christian thought. While you can find this idea in Hebrew scripture you can also find challenged in Hebrew scripture and the same can be said for New Testament scripture as well and it crops up consistently throughout Christian history. It is a recurring theme because it is such a simple and attractive idea, but it is an idea that is disrupted by grace.
Going back to Luther, from his perspective, if bad thoughts and actions earn us bad credit with God, we are all going to be called by angry debt collectors, because the debt outweighs the good credit. We are always more selfish than selfless; we are always more turned inward than turned outward in love. By the grace of God, the gift of God’s love in Jesus, that debt is wiped clean. But the flip side of that is that the good credit is wiped clean as well. The whole system is torn down as it impacts our relationship to God. If mistakes don’t take away points, good decisions don’t give us extra points. In Christ, God has turned off the whole credit/debt/point system. We live in a situation where, as Drew Carey used to say on Whose Line is it Anyway?, “Everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
So then you might ask, “If there is no longer a point system, why should I bother doing anything?” Ask a runner why she runs even though she may never win a race. Ask a painter why he paints even though he may never sell a piece. Ask a musician why she plays hours of scales that no one will ever want to listen to. Ask old lovers why they still hold hands. Luther didn’t have a deep explanation of works but assumed that they would happen and assumed they would be part of the joy of Christian living. If the works aren’t there, then the faith probably isn’t there. Works, loving actions, holy habits in the service of God are simply a byproduct of faith. If you are in a loving relationship of faith with God, one where you are turning and returning to God, why wouldn’t you do things that nurture that relationship? Why wouldn’t you come to the meal Christ hosts each Sunday? Why wouldn’t you be in conversation or paying attention in prayer? Why wouldn’t you seek to love those whom God loves and care for those who are God’s concern?
Saying we are justified by grace through faith apart from works doesn’t excuse us from the works. It excuses us from the guilt and legalism that often surround them. It excuses us from the voices that tell us the Christian life has to look a particular way. If you are not doing x, y and z then you are not a real Christian. As an aside, we do lean toward legalism about being in worship because it is the bare minimum in our tradition. I suppose you can be an unchurched Christian but you really can’t be an unchurched Lutheran because word and sacrament is so central to how we define ourselves. Now if I say that you should all run for church council next year, you can yell at me for making an unnecessary law.
I think the most helpful image in our understanding of works is a tree growing fruit. Jesus uses this image a few times. Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit. The point is that you can’t tell a tree to bear fruit. When the conditions are right, it just does. It is not the obligation of the tree to bear fruit, it hasn’t signed a contract, doesn’t promise a quota, isn’t earning points. It just does what it has been made to do.
That’s the Lutheran theology of works. Look at Jesus and know that you are loved completely by God. Be aware of the Spirit of God’s love that is in you. Bask in that love. Celebrate that love. Then go do what you were made to do.