Faith and Deeds

In the old days, it was customary to speak of the two reformatory principles. One was named “the formal principle” which maintained that the Scripture is the only authority of Protestant Christianity. The other was called “the material principle” which states that justification by faith without the deeds of law is Christianity’s core content.  

The scriptural principle was the one that Luther brought forward in Worms stating that his conscience was not free, but tied and bound by the Scripture. He rejected all other authorities, whether the pope, the church meetings, common sense or conscience.  

To Luther the Scripture was not a reference book about all sorts of things, but a revelation that preached the conditions of human life. Man is the Creation of God and is in the hands of Him. Therefore, the scriptural authority in the Lutheran sense cannot be rocked.  

Today, “the material principle” seems somewhat outdated as modern people do not associate anything with the term “to be justified”. To Luther guilt and responsibility, sin and atonement were realities that man could not escape from. That is why the question of God’s grace and approval of man became so important. But this was not a question of avoiding hell or attaining salvation. It was rather a feeling that life had to be taken seriously, that hopelessness exists, that people fear being burned in hell, etc. Man must acknowledge his guilt and responsibility.  

On the other hand, man will naturally attempt to build his life, to find something “to pride himself of”, something that at least can give one a certain raison d’être and make one creditable. This, however, was the struggle that Luther had to give up in the monastery and he came to the understanding about the absolution of sins and that man must learn in faith to accept Christ as a gift.  

Christ lived a human life. He granted love in the way life should be, and in his forgiving love he draws people into a relationship with Him, grants them his love and justice and takes their guilt and sins upon himself. This relationship with Christ is faith as we see it depicted in so many of the evangelical narratives.  

This is the way of thinking that arouses indignation amongst good Catholic as well as other ethical people. Why would man make an effort to do good deeds when all his sinfulness is endorsed? To this Luther says that good deeds do not create a good person, but a good person does good deeds. A good tree bears good fruit.  

Therefore, man can live without worries. Deeds only belong here on earth and must be done for the fellow human being as required every day by God. Luther’s polemics are not directed against good deeds, but against these penetrating into where they do not belong, namely in the relationship with God.  

This, however, does not mean – as Catholics often have claimed – that Luther rejects good deeds, on the contrary. They are intertwined with faith and have their place in calling and occupation. To him it is a clear evidence of sin and selfishness when man attempts to save his life by free will, piety and morality.  

Consequently, there are no particular Christian ethics (moral guidance) besides being where people need you. There are no especially pious deeds, such as becoming a monk, going on a pilgrimage, fasting or bestowing gifts upon the church, all of which played a significant role in late medieval piety. The good deeds belong to the neighbour, and only to him.

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042

Faith and Deeds

In the old days, it was customary to speak of the two reformatory principles. One was named “the formal principle” which maintained that the Scripture is the only authority of Protestant Christianity. The other was called “the material principle” which states that justification by faith without the deeds of law is Christianity’s core content.  

The scriptural principle was the one that Luther brought forward in Worms stating that his conscience was not free, but tied and bound by the Scripture. He rejected all other authorities, whether the pope, the church meetings, common sense or conscience.  

To Luther the Scripture was not a reference book about all sorts of things, but a revelation that preached the conditions of human life. Man is the Creation of God and is in the hands of Him. Therefore, the scriptural authority in the Lutheran sense cannot be rocked.  

Today, “the material principle” seems somewhat outdated as modern people do not associate anything with the term “to be justified”. To Luther guilt and responsibility, sin and atonement were realities that man could not escape from. That is why the question of God’s grace and approval of man became so important. But this was not a question of avoiding hell or attaining salvation. It was rather a feeling that life had to be taken seriously, that hopelessness exists, that people fear being burned in hell, etc. Man must acknowledge his guilt and responsibility.  

On the other hand, man will naturally attempt to build his life, to find something “to pride himself of”, something that at least can give one a certain raison d’être and make one creditable. This, however, was the struggle that Luther had to give up in the monastery and he came to the understanding about the absolution of sins and that man must learn in faith to accept Christ as a gift.  

Christ lived a human life. He granted love in the way life should be, and in his forgiving love he draws people into a relationship with Him, grants them his love and justice and takes their guilt and sins upon himself. This relationship with Christ is faith as we see it depicted in so many of the evangelical narratives.  

This is the way of thinking that arouses indignation amongst good Catholic as well as other ethical people. Why would man make an effort to do good deeds when all his sinfulness is endorsed? To this Luther says that good deeds do not create a good person, but a good person does good deeds. A good tree bears good fruit.  

Therefore, man can live without worries. Deeds only belong here on earth and must be done for the fellow human being as required every day by God. Luther’s polemics are not directed against good deeds, but against these penetrating into where they do not belong, namely in the relationship with God.  

This, however, does not mean – as Catholics often have claimed – that Luther rejects good deeds, on the contrary. They are intertwined with faith and have their place in calling and occupation. To him it is a clear evidence of sin and selfishness when man attempts to save his life by free will, piety and morality.  

Consequently, there are no particular Christian ethics (moral guidance) besides being where people need you. There are no especially pious deeds, such as becoming a monk, going on a pilgrimage, fasting or bestowing gifts upon the church, all of which played a significant role in late medieval piety. The good deeds belong to the neighbour, and only to him.

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042