Works of Man vs. Works of God

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever participated in opposite day? For those that do not know, opposite day is the day where you say the opposite of what you mean. Giving a person instructions and want them to turn right? Tell them to turn left. Greeting someone? Say, “bye”. Saying goodbye? “Hello”. You get the picture. Everything becomes like a Yakov Smirnoff joke. In America you find Waldo. In Soviet Russia Waldo find you!

We often call God’s law pure and holy, but we often do not think of it that way. Instead, we hate it. It just points out our sin. “Now the law came in to increase the sin reigned in death.” Yet, here is Luther stating an absolute paradox. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.” He calls the law the best doctrine for life, the law! And in the same breath says that it cannot advance life for us.

Descent from the Cross,by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.  Public Domain,

Descent from the Cross,by Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.
Public Domain,

“The basic question of the Disputation is stated in this and the following thesis: What advances sinners on the way of righteousness before God? Is it the way of glory or the way of the cross? It is imperative to recognize at the outset that since the theology of glory is under question, the whole discussion here is about the place and usefulness of good works, not about the perfidy of evil ones. It is without question that evil works can’t advance us toward righteousness. Even theologians of glory would agree to that premise. What then can it do? The immediate assumption of the theologian of glory is that good works done in obedience to divine law must be the way.”[i]

Luther is blunt, the law cannot save. In fact, when we stand before the judgment throne of God the law makes things worse. The law increases our trespasses. It convicts us. We are powerless to use the law to advance us to righteousness. “The law, that is, even the law of God, ‘the most[ii] salutary doctrine of life,’ is used as a defense against the gift. Thus, the more we ‘succeed,’ the worse off we are.” Instead of relying on the grace of God, the free gift, when we choose to justify ourselves with the law we are only flattering ourselves and say, “no thanks God, I prefer to do it on my own.”

So, not only can we not use the law the justify ourselves, but we cannot use our own works either. True, our works look pretty. Our judgment seems correct. Our reason seems pure. But, they are clouded by our sin. In the same way that the dead cannot bring themselves back to life neither can we do anything good merely from our will or reason. Speaking on Romans, Luther tells us,

Since the law of God, which is holy and unstained, true, just, etc., is given [to] man by God as an aid beyond his natural powers to enlighten him and move him to do the good, and nevertheless the opposite takes place, namely, that he becomes more wicked, how can he, left to his own power and without aid, be induced to do good? If a person does not do good with help without, he will do even less by his own strength. Therefore the Apostle, in Rom. 3[:10-12], calls all persons corrupt and impotent who neither understand nor seek God, for all he says, have gone astray.[iii]

Human works always look splendid, they appear to be good, yet they are nevertheless Mortal sins. However, the works of God always seem deformed, they appear to be bad, yet they are nevertheless in very truth Immortal merits. “Perhaps the most telling proof that woks done in human strength are really deadly sins comes again from St. Paul in Galatians 3:10 ‘All who rely on works of the law are under the curse.’ Since human works outside of grace are works of the law, they stand under the curse. Therefore they are deadly sins, not just venial ones.”[iv]

That the works of God are unattractive is clear from what is said in Isa. 53[:2], “He had no form or comeliness,” and in 1 Sam. 2[:6] “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” This is understood to mean that he Lord humbles and frightens us by means of the law and the sight of our sins so that we seem in the eyes of men, as in our own, as nothing, foolish, and wicked, for we are in truth that. Insofar as we acknowledge and confess this, there is no form or beauty in us, but our life is hidden in God (i.e., in the bare confidence in his mercy), finding in ourselves nothing but sin, foolishness, death, and hell, according to that verse of the Apostle in 2 Cor. 6[:9-10] “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as dying and behold we live.” And that it is which Isa. 28[:2] calls the alien work of God that he may do his work (that is, he humbles us thoroughly, making us despair, so that he may exalt us in his mercy, giving us hope), just as Hab. 3[:2] states, “In wrath remember mercy.” Such a man therefore is displeased with all his works; he sees no beauty, but only his depravity. Indeed, he also does those things that appear foolish and disgusting to others.

Descent from the Cross, By Peter Paul Rubens 1618., Public Domain,

Descent from the Cross, By Peter Paul Rubens 1618., Public Domain,

This depravity, however, comes into being in us either when God punishes us or when we accuse ourselves, as 1 Cor. 11[:31] says, “If we judge ourselves truly, we should not be judged” by the Lord. Deut. 32[:36] also states, “The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” In this way, consequently, the unattractive works that God does in us, that is, those that are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit.[v]

In short, it is through the inglorious passion and crucifixion of Christ that we find any hope or comfort. It is through the blood spilled that we find justification. As the Lenten hymn proclaims:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.

But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

My faith would lay its hand
On that dear head of Thine,
While as a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see
The burden Thou didst bear
When hanging on the cursed tree;
I know my guilt was there.

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice
And sing His bleeding love.[vi]

God grant it in Christ’s name. Amen.

[i] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 23.

[ii] Ibid, 27.

[iii] Ibid, 29.

[iv] Ibid, 32.

[v] Ibid, 33-34.

[vi] Lutheran Service Book (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2006), 431.