During the 70s there was a popular hum-and-strum ditty among Christian youth that reflects just a bit of self-congratulation. In a repetitive refrain: the pious works of the Christian are extolled in a warm, self-flattering way—touting proof to the world of a genuine faith in Christ: They will know we are Christians by our love. Ironically however, there was also a thought-provoking question about your Christian living that is not so warm-hearted and it caused many to squirm: If you were on trial having been accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? How should we evaluate the song’s refrain and this question? Will they know you are indeed a true-believer (not some hypocrite) by your love? Do you have the right stuff that you could parade at some court proceeding to prove that you belong to Christ? Just how should we think about our good works in the Christian life of faith as we live that life before others... and before God?
Painful as it might sound, a Lutheran understanding of good works that ultimately serve Christ do have a hidden or invisible side to them and therefore we affirm them as an article of faith, not a conclusion or evaluation by others around us. Yes, the good works of the Christian do have a very visible quality that everyone can see. The visible quality is in the outward godly actions and words about which we are to understand our Lord in Matthew 5:16:... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven. When we see such works by professing Christians, let’s have them shining so, indeed, others see them and give glory to God. However, evidencing true saving faith in the heart of the one doing the works is another matter.
What distinguishes good works in God’s sight from civil righteousness is the obedience of faith. Saving faith lives with the righteousness of Christ rendering good works, according to Luther as the doing of faith. Listen to Luther:
In theology, therefore, “doing” necessarily requires faith itself as a precondition ... Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, and that is different from moral doing. When we theologians speak about “doing” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have not right reason and good will except faith. (AE 36, 262-63)
Works of the Christian that serve Christ through the neighbor only spring from true saving faith (Rom. 14:23) which is the well-spring in the New Creation that performs them out of fear, love, and trust in God (the First Commandment that Luther maintained is embedded in all the others). For this reason, good works have an invisible quality about them and therefore, we affirm them as an article of faith in the Gospel. By faith, we believe that the New Creation from Baptism is a slave of God and righteousness (Romans 6:18, 22); a branch grafted into the vine which is Christ for the inevitable production of fruit (John 15:5); and that God has foreordained the good works that we walk in (Ephesians 2:10).
We believe we are indeed producing good works as Christ has His way with us through the impact of the Gospel. Good works that are done out of fear, love, and trust in God are not a conclusion reached by others examining any given work by the outward standards of the Commandments as Luther expounded their meaning in his Catechisms. The Law will show us what a good work is (one done out of fear, love and trust in God and in accord with the other Commandments), but it will not show us actual works of faith that flow from fear, love, and trust in God. These heart-centered elements are hidden; they cannot be perceived by those who observe how we are living our lives and they cannot be submitted as evidence before some court of law.
The Law written on the heart will expose the sinful, fleshly sentiments within the Christian that are there also in all his works, but these corrupt elements are covered by the righteousness of Christ. In this sense, works that flow from faith are God’s secret to be revealed for everyone to see on Judgment Day. Then and only then when the Lord holds His Court will evidence of our saving faith be provided to prove we are Christians by our love of both our neighbor and our Lord.
So, trash the song and resist all who would seek to put your faith on trial. Just trust the Lord’s words about your Baptism; trust His Word about how your works have been foreordained, and anticipate listening to Him extoll your works of faith on Judgment Day at the Great Honors Banquet to come.