We believe and teach
– that the Holy Spirit regenerates us through the Gospel and gives us a new mind which wills to follow God’s commandments and do good works;
– that God’s ultimate goal of the gospel is sanctification, so that we again are conformed to his image and become Christlike,
– that we can never earn salvation by our sanctification, as it always is a result of us being already justified in Christ,
– that sanctification is a process in which our old man daily is suffocated and killed and the new man matures and grows,
– that God promotes our sanctification through both his Word and life events,
– that sanctification continues throughout life and is completed only in eternal glory,
– that a life of holiness holds great promises for both this life and the life to come.
The matter of sanctification and good works is no side issue in the Christian faith. Someone who takes grace and forgiveness as a kind of permission to be less careful about their lifestyle has not understood God’s purpose with the Gospel. Justification by grace through faith alone has ultimately one single purpose: that we shall be perfectly good and holy with our whole being, in thoughts, words and deeds.
The objective of sanctification for believers is that they shall be like Christ. The first Adam, who was created in God’s image, lost this image in the Fall. But in Christ, who is the second Adam, there appears again a holy and good human being – one that fully reflects the essence of God. All Christians are called to be like Christ. He is the firstfruits of the new creation, the Christian Church. We are born again and incorporated in this new creation by faith in the gospel. Sanctification is the gradual rebuilding of the image of God in believers. But it is something which is just begun here on earth. Right after death, when our evil flesh finally dies and is erased, shall we reach perfection. Then there is no sin more, but only pure and thoroughly perfect love.
It can never be overemphasized that the prerequisite for the creation of new life is Christ and faith in the gospel. Only living branches in the vine of Christ can bear fruit: “Without me you are able to do nothing”, says Jesus. Our Lutheran Confessions also say that we should hold on to the rule: “that the Law is not observed without Christ” (Ap III, Trigl. p. 197). Though justification and sanctification are inseparable, they are still different things which must not be confused. Sanctification is always a result of justification, not something that precedes it or is a precondition for it. It is possible only when we believe that justification by grace without works gives us salvation and makes us God’s good children. Luther sums up nicely the correct order with the words: “Good works does not make one a Christian, but a Christian does good works.”
We need the Gospel’s forgiveness in the means of grace as long as we live. But this forgiveness is finite. In glory, where there is no sin, we shall need no longer to beg for mercy and have faith in the gospel. On the other hand God’s law of a life in perfect love has no end, it lasts for ever. For this life we are already here on earth being prepared through sanctification.
By good works, we mean conduct which is commanded by God and which is performed by good people. It is therefore insufficient through external, good deeds, such as even pagans can do. The deeds performed must also be good according to the words of Jesus: “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:17). The only possibility for such goodness is given to us by faith in the gospel, which by grace makes us righteous before God, gives us new birth and fills us with God’s love and God’s Spirit.
Works invented by people, and hence which do not have God’s word and promise with them, are not good works in the biblical sense. Such acts flow not out of belief in the gospel, but have their root in the old man’s proud and self-righteous mind. Those who believe in salvation by their own deeds are drawn to self-selected, extraordinary acts of various kinds. Therefore, there has throughout history popped up all kinds of man-made laws about what is forbidden or permitted in questions regarding food, clothing, entertainment, days and times, etc. – things that have burdened and entangled people's consciences. To live a poor and ascetic life, renouncing marriage and breaking up the natural ties of family and relatives, has often been presented as a more noble path to a God pleasing piety. Such self-imposed hardships are false asceticism. These things may certainly impress people, but have nothing to do with true sanctification.
The gospel frees us to good works. Belief in Christ’s perfect and vicarious work protects us from the worst abuse of the law of God. God doesn’t want us to use the law for self-righteous purposes and by our deeds purchase our peace with God. To do so is to despise and belittle Christ’s atonement as not being sufficient. God does not need our works in heaven. Instead, it is our neighbour on earth who needs them. Belief in the Gospel closes the way of upward works, but opens it to the side, towards our fellow men. That’s where the works are needed.
Sanctification is both joy and torment. Following God’s good commandments in one's daily life, at home and at work, is the new man’s pleasure and joy and fills life with meaning. But the new man’s growth also consists of fighting against our old man, who would prefer to live without God, and be like most others. The painful side of sanctification is that our evil flesh with its desires must be denied and killed, which will not happen without struggle and agony.
The Helper, the Holy Spirit, moves us to holiness through the word of God, its warnings and admonitions, consolation and encouragement. But God also trains us in sanctification through various trials in life, not least through the cross and suffering that comes from people who despise, torment and persecute us for our faith. Everyday life with all its difficulties, setbacks and disappointments is sanctification’s forge and workshop. There we are matured and shaped as Christians and taught to mortify our flesh, walking in Christ’s footsteps, casting all our anxiety on God and trusting that he lets all things work together for good.
God in Scripture often encourages the faithful to do good works with the promise of reward. It is a reminder that God’s commandments always bring with them great blessings both in this and in the future lives of those who believe. The rewards that God promises the faithful should not be construed as if God somehow cancels the gospel and finally still lets our blessedness depend on works. The gospel brings us from the beginning to the end full salvation by undeserved grace. The rewards, which are also of grace, repeal in no way this fact. They are just God’s pedagogical ways to attract and move his children to do good. So he nurtures and shapes us in His fatherly love with both admonition and praise.
What the Holy Scriptures say
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:10)
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. (1 Thess. 4:7)
But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:15-16)
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. (Luke 9:23)
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
And Jesus said unto her (the adulteress), Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more. (John 8:11)
I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. (Rom. 6:19)
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. - - - And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:16, 24)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:20-23)
Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. (1 Tim. 4:8)
Each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. (1 Cor. 3:8)
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
Also they [our churces] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone. (AC VI, Trigl. p. 47 f.)
Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise do the works of the First or of the Second Commandment. Without faith it does not call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing; and the Church sings:
Lacking Thy divine favor,
There is nothing found in man,
Naught in him is harmless
(AC XX, Trigl. p. 57)
For Christian perfection is to fear God from the heart, and yet to conceive great faith, and to trust that for Christ’s sake we have a God who has been reconciled, to ask of God, and assuredly to expect His aid in all things that, according to our calling, are to be done; and meanwhile, to be diligent in outward good works, and to serve our calling. In these things consist the true perfection and the true service of God. It does not consist in celibacy, or in begging, or in vile apparel. ...They hear celibacy praised above measure; therefore they lead their married life with offense to their consciences. They hear that only beggars are perfect; therefore they keep their possessions and do business with offense to their consciences. - - -
There are on record examples of men who, forsaking marriage and the administration of the Commonwealth, have hid themselves in monasteries. This they called fleeing from the world, and seeking a kind of life which would be more pleasing to God. Neither did they see that God ought to be served in those commandments which He Himself has given and not in commandments devised by men. A good and perfect kind of life is that which has for it the commandment of God. (AC XXVII, Trigl. p. 83)
We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the remission of sins, for grace or justification (for these we obtain only by faith), but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says, 1 Cor. 3:8: Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor. There will, therefore be different rewards according to different labors. But the remission of sins is alike and equal to all, just as Christ is one, and is offered freely to all who believe that for Christ’s sake their sins are remitted.... By these praises of good works, believers are undoubtedly moved to do good works. (Ap III, Trigl. p. 175)
We warn against
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scripture teach, for example,
– that one can be Christian without the pursuit of sanctification,
– that sanctification is a part of justification or a condition for it (synergism, Roman error);
– that a Christian through the struggle of sanctification can achieve almost perfect sinlessness here on earth (Methodist error)
– that a Christian in his holiness does not need the law’s cautions and guidance (antinomianism),
– that God’s promises to reward the faithful shows that they are saved not only by grace but also by deeds.
Lord Jesus, make me fit for thy name’s glory. Let me be the clay that you shape, the vessel that you fill with your gifts, the tool that you avail, the temple in which you live. I am weak and in all ways inept, but make me useful. I am a sinner, but you be my righteousness. Help me, Lord Jesus, to become and be a useful member of your church. Let me even on this day do something to serve you. Keep me with all your faithful in your fellowship, and unite us all in the love of you and in the praise of your name for ever. Amen.
M. F. Roos