Faith, Works, and Martin Luther


Ever since the beginning of the church, Christians have had to remind themselves why the church exists. Why do we need to gather together with other people of faith? Why do we do community outreach? Why do we study, pray, learn, fast, or sing? All these questions always come back to the centre of the Christian faith - namely Jesus Christ.

But why did God come down to earth incarnated in Jesus? Why did He live, teach, die, and rise again? These questions lead us to the core problem of humanity; that is, our separation from God and the certainty of death without Him. In other words, we need saving. 

All this leads us to the big question. Drum role please… How is it that we are saved?

If we already presume that there is a God, that humanity is separated from God because of sin and can’t be saved on their own, and that this God is inherently loving and wants to save us and give us life, then we must be able to answer this question. Especially if this is a message that we need to share with others. What is the process through which we are justified (saved, pronounced righteous, acquitted of all guilt)? Are we saved by believing, through faith? Or are we saved by doing something, through works?

When we speak of faith, we usually mean belief in something, a disposition of the heart. In terms of Christian faith, we believe that there is a God, that Jesus came, lived, died, and most importantly, rose from the dead to forgive us and grant us eternal life. As we believe this to be true, it is that faith which gives us access to God’s grace. 

When we speak of works, we speak of actions, not just belief, through which we access God’s grace. Actions like baptism, communion, caring for the poor and vulnerable, praying, fasting, etc. It is through these practices that God gives us His grace and salvation for our lives. 

Think of a ladder. Faith is the belief that the ladder will hold you as you climb it. Works is actually putting your feet on the rungs and pushing up to reach the top. If you don't have faith, will you climb? But if you don't actually climb, what good is the faith? Which is more important in using a ladder? We'll come back to this ladder later.

People have fought and argued over this question, Martin Luther being one of them. He was put on trial, forced to recant, and almost killed, were it not for a friend who rescued him in time. Luther is known for many things, including his role in the Protestant reformation, his emphasis on scripture alone (sola scriptura), and his belief that salvation comes only by faith. This was the focus of his work, On Christian Liberty.

It’s important to understand the context of Luther’s writings and the climate of the church in the early part of the 16th century. Luther’s emphasis on salvation by faith was a critique to practices within the church that persuaded people to do certain things in order to receive forgiveness. In his 95 Theses, Luther was particularly critical of the selling of indulgences (pieces of paper you could buy from the church in order to be forgiven of sins), emphasizing that purchasing them was a matter of choice, not a command in order to be justified by God.

Luther held a strong theological emphasis on faith and belief over works and good deeds. He argued that any human works, though important to the Christian life, aren't essential for justification. In On Christian Liberty, Luther offers us freedom from having to perform good works in order to be right with God. Although he doesn’t alleviate that responsibility, he frames works as a necessary response to God’s grace, a tool for us to refrain from bodily lusts, and a call to serve and love our neighbours.

In a time and place where works were pushed on people out of fear and greed, Luther’s emphasis on faith was critical. But it’s also possible to minimize the gospel so that all anyone needs to do is say a prayer and believe and all will be made right. That belittles the real effects Jesus wants to bring to our lives, the inside-out transformation which makes us reflect more and more the image of God (what is known as sanctification, or being made holy).

The more I’ve thought about it, the less convinced I am that Luther’s separation of faith and works is as essential as he claims. I believe that his goal was, rightly, to challenge the belief that we, through any merit of our own, could possibly earn salvation. But Luther goes so far as to claim that “Your faith is sufficient for you, through which God has given you all things.” 

I don’t actually think we are saved through faith. And I don’t think we are saved through works. The only thing that saves us is the grace of God. To emphasize faith or works is to emphasize our human agency, as if our role in the story is the most important. It’s not, and I see that every day as I fail both in my works and in my faith.

Faith and works are the ways through which we access God’s grace and experience justification and sanctification. They are glued together in practice, only really coming apart in theological debates. We might be able to pick verses that seem to highlight one over the other, but the simple fact that there are verses that emphasize both faith and works shows us that they are both vital. Yes, is we confess Jesus and believe in His resurrection, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). But at the same time, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

I’m not saying that we need to work for our salvation. We Protestants can become very defensive when we even lift up works on equal footing with faith. I’m just not convinced that it’s a clear-cut dichotomy. In fact, an overemphasis on faith becomes just another way for us to earn our salvation. When we truly experience Jesus' grace for us and His longing to be in a relationship with us, all of us will be transformed. This transformation is not only seen in what we believe, but also what we do with our lives.

Back to the ladder. What good is the faith that it will hold you if you never climb it? If you truly have faith, it will show in the act of climbing. In the same way, as you take the first steps to climb up the ladder, your faith will increase as you realize it really holds you up. Action not only confirms but reinforces faith.

So what held you up? Was it your faith that it would hold or the act of climbing up? Well, neither. The ladder held you up, independent of your faith or works, but simply because it could. Faith and action are the ways through which you experience the reality of being held up by the ladder, a reality that is independent of our belief or action. 

When it comes down to it, I think asking whether faith or works save us is to ask the wrong question. We don’t need faith or works to be saved. We need Jesus, and when we truly experience the saving and indwelling life of Christ, every part of us will be changed. Our faith will affect our lives as we strive to live as Christ taught. And as we strive to rely on Christ to live as He taught, our faith in His grace and unconditional love will abound. Faith and works are interconnected and inseparable. They are the way through which we experience God's grace, a reality that is independent of our faith or action. Get it? Just like the ladder.