I was looking through an old notebook this morning and found this:
It turns out that Luther’s Works, volume 44, page 298 is in the middle of Luther’s 1521 essay “Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows.” This is an important essay, but one I hadn’t read. This section has some great stuff of faith and works, and the role of the conscience in justification.
Here’s a beautiful excerpt:
What Christian Liberty Is
Since therefore it is absolutely certain from these arguments that no vow is acceptable to God unless it is a kind not deemed necessary for righteousness and salvation, and since God has not commanded the taking of any vow, it clearly follows that this kind of vow is a matter of free choice and can be laid aside. For the two statements—that a vow is not necessary for righteousness and salvation, and that a vow cannot be set aside without endangering righteousness and salvation—are clearly at odds with each other. If a vow cannot be set aside, it is necessary; if it is not a matter of necessity, it can be set aside. So then, as God sees the matter, the form of a vow that is godly and Christian would appear to be this; “I vow to thee this kind of life, which by its very nature is not necessary to attain righteousness, neither can it ever become a matter of necessity.” Unless the vow were something like this, it could not be a godly vow, as is sufficiently clear from what has been said. What then will God say to this? Will he not say, “Why make such foolish vows then? Have you not plenty of vows already which you owe me?”
But here it will be strongly objected that the works of the divine law commanded in the decalogue, such as chastity, gentleness, generosity, and obedience to parents, do not justify, nor are they necessary for righteousness and salvation, since Paul says, “No flesh is justified by the works of the law” [Rom. 3:20]. Yet they are necessary, as Christ says in Matthew 16 [19:17], “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments.” Nor can these works be set aside even where faith, which alone justifies, is present, since they are the fruits of a justifying faith. For faith without works is dead and worth nothing. And Peter requires virtue in the man of faith [II Pet. 1:5]. And to the Galatians Paul prescribes a faith active in love [Gal. 5:6]. Thus it can be said in the matter of a vow and its works that the works are still necessary, even after the vow has been set aside, for these works are still commandments, just as the fruits of righteousness, even though they are not necessary for the attainment of the righteousness which is of faith alone, are still righteousness. Nor can the freedom of the gospel dispense with the commandments of God. The commandment of God is, “Make your vow and keep it” [Ps. 76:11]. For we do not destroy the law by faith, we establish it, as Paul says in Romans 3[:31].
Now that the question is raised, we must have a look at the nature of Christian freedom. Christian or evangelical freedom, then, is a freedom of conscience which liberates the conscience from works. Not that no works are done, but no faith is put in them. For conscience is not the power to do works, but to judge them. The proper work of conscience (as Paul says in Romans 2[:15]), is to accuse or excuse, to make guilty or guiltless, uncertain or certain. Its purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God’s sight. Christ has freed this conscience from works through the gospel and teaches this conscience not to trust in works, but to rely only on his mercy.
And so, the conscience of a man of faith depends solely and entirely on the works of Christ.The conscience may be likened to the dove resting in safety in the clefts of the rock and in the secret places [Song of Sol. 2:14]. Such a soul knows with absolute certainty that it can have neither confidence nor peace except in Christ alone, and that in its own works nothing but guilt, fear, and condemnation can abide. It is in this way that conscience discerns and judges between Christ’s works and its own. It embraces the works of Christ and speaks in this way: Through these works shall I be justified, through them be saved, through them set free from all sin and evil. I have no doubt about all this because it is for this very purpose these things were done by him, and in baptism all these blessings were poured over me. Without these there is no salvation, no peace for my bones [Ps. 38:3], no satisfaction for sins. In fact, such a conscience sees that its own works are evil and condemns them. It is by the works of Christ that conscience is victorious and despises its own works, lest they destroy it. The works of Christ are more powerful to save us and to give us peace than are our works to capture and terrify. If only you could believe this! Of course, conscience lays hold of its own good works too, but declares these works are to be done freely and only for the good of one’s neighbor, and to give the body something to do, but in no case to acquire righteousness and peace and the satisfaction and remission of sins. For conscience seeks these things only in the works of Christ and finds them in a firm faith, just as it sees that Christ did all his works freely for our good and submitted his life to the will of God.
It is this knowledge of freedom and this health of conscience that is assailed by every device of human and ungodly doctrines. It is here that the craftiness of the serpent seeks to corrupt the simplicity which is in Christ. Here you see how ungodly are the laws about satisfactions by which we are taught to wipe out our sins by our own works. These are the jaws of ravening wolves, which tear consciences from Christ and, when they are torn away, pitifully cast the consciences on the resources of their own works. These are the people who are always learning and always performing works, but who never come to the knowledge of truth and peace [II Tim. 3:1–7]. Paul in Acts 20[:29–30] calls such people grievous wolves who have broken in, not sparing the sheep, men who arise and teach perverse doctrine to draw disciples after them. What does it mean to draw the disciples after them if not to take them away from Christ? This is what happens when consciences are taught to effect their own salvation by their own efforts and works, to wipe away their sins and earn grace by merit, when this should be sought only in the works of Christ through faith.
Here you see the entire canon law as well as the dominion of the pope condemned as being against Christ, because they do nothing else but ensnare consciences in their own works and take them away from Christ, after having first destroyed their freedom as well as any teaching or knowledge of freedom. But in particular it is the Parisian school that is condemned in this connection, that impure and foul whore which has declared that Aristotle’s teachings on morals are not in conflict with the teachings of Christ,62 since he teaches nothing other than that virtue is acquired by works, saying, “By doing good we become good.” The Christian conscience curses this statement as bilge water of hell and says, “By believing in a Christ who is good, I, even I, am made good: his goodness is mine also, for it is a gift from him and is not my work.” To sum up, in this you see the theology of all the schools condemned, speculative as well as practical, because they teach not Christ but human wisdom, which on their own admission they allege even creates the faith they call acquired faith. Woe to these lost and dreadful men of Sodom and Gomorrah! You see now why Paul condemned the works of the divine law (or the righteousness by the law)—and also why he considered his own pharisaic righteousness as dung and loss, even though he boasts in Colossians 2 [Phil. 3:6–7] that his righteousness was blameless—because it is opposed to the righteousness which is from Christ and in Christ. Pharisaic righteousness tears the conscience away and will not let it cling to the righteousness of Christ, but presumes upon its own righteousness and upon the works performed by itself. Romans 9[:30–32] says, “The heathen who do not pursue righteousness have taken hold of righteousness, but a righteousness which is of faith. Israel, however, in pursuing the law of righteousness has not attained the law of righteousness. Why? Because they sought it not by faith, but, as it were, by works.”
Do you now understand why I have said so often that neither our vows nor our works are necessary for righteousness and salvation? A good conscience declares this of the works of Christ alone, works which were poured out over us and freely given to us in baptism. Thus a good conscience is free from all works, not only from those that ought to be done, but from those that accuse us as well as those that shield us from condemnation. To those who believe in Christ there are no works so bad as to accuse and condemn us, but again, there are no works so good that they could save and defend us. But all our works accuse and condemn us. Christ’s works alone protect and save us. You yourself see how the works of the Ten Commandments these days are either set aside or performed, and these works are chastity, obedience, meekness, generosity, and the like. They ought not be dispensed with, but observed (if I may so express it) according to their inner meaning, but not according to our conscience. This means that they are not works that shield us from condemnation, nor are they works that justify us. For this would be to bruise the conscience and seduce it from Christ the groom, with whom the conscience is of one flesh and with whom it shares all his riches. But these works should be done freely and for no reward, to the benefit and advantage of our neighbor, just as the works of Christ were done freely for us and for no reward. Actually, then, our works are no longer works of the law but of Christ working in us through faith and living in us in everything we do. For that reason these works can no more be omitted than can faith itself, nor are they less necessary than faith. Otherwise, works that are only the works of the law are fancied and false. Apart from Christ no one at heart is gentle, chaste, generous, obedient, good, God-fearing, and so on; a man acts not from a free conscience but for gain, desire for glory, or fear of punishment. And since a simulated holiness is a double iniquity, it is clear that works of this kind not only are not necessary, but should be dispensed with altogether and avoided like the plague.
But here you will perhaps say, “Then your idea of Christian freedom teaches whoredom, murder, robbery, falsehood, rebellion, and idolatry. Don’t be a fool! As if I would tell you to commit a far worse evil by teaching you to set aside a lesser evil! I tell you not to get angry and do you then set off to commit a murder to prevent your getting angry? I want these imaginary works to be set aside and the true works done, so that you will cease being kind in an ungodly way, but will become kind in a godly way. For the works, too, will have to undergo a change (although they look the same outwardly) when you yourself have been changed inwardly, so that no longer are they your own works, but they become the works of Christ in you. Of course, it is not the task of human judgment to decide whether an ungodly spouse is worse than an adulterer, or the other way around. It is God who searches the heart. An adulterer abuses the flesh for illicit pleasure. An ungodly spouse abuses the flesh for an illicit glory. So, then, we command that judgment be reserved in this matter. In the gospel we see that the publicans are closer to Christ than the Pharisees, so that even though they are worse in man’s eyes, the gospel certainly commends them as being more fortunate; for it seems better to have fallen openly than to have held one’s ground in secret godlessness. But we do not recommend that people go and sin on this account. We leave to God the judgments that are his own, judgments that are hidden and to be feared.
-Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 44: The Christian in Society I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 297–302.