If one is without faith, no good work will enhance their righteousness, and no evil work will make one evil. Rather, unbelief, which makes the person (and the tree) evil, does evil and damnable works. Thus whether one is righteous or evil does not follow from works but from faith. As the author of (the apocryphal book of) Sirach 10:12 says, “The beginning of all sin is to depart and not trust God.” (1) Christ also teaches that one must not begin with works: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad” (Matt 12:33). It is as if he was saying, “Whoever wants to have good fruit must begin with the tree and plant it right.” Therefore, whoever wishes to do good works should not start with the works but with their own person. Nothing makes us good except faith alone, and nothing makes a person evil except unbelief.
It is certainly true that before the eyes of the world, what one does makes them righteous or evil. That is, works indicate externally who is righteous or evil. Christ even says in Matthew 7:20, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” However, this is just a matter of appearance. Such appearances lead many people astray because they teach that one should do good works to become righteous. And of course, these people never consider faith. And off they go. The blind forever leading the blind. They torture themselves with many good works and never achieve true righteousness. As St. Paul says, those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge” of true righteousness (2 Tim 3:5, 7).
Now, whoever does not want to go astray with the blind needs to look beyond good works or teachings about works. You must look inside the person for all things that make them righteous. You do not become righteous through following commandments and doing good works but through God’s promises of grace in his Word—through faith. He does not save us through our works but through his gracious Word. And he does so freely out of his endless mercy.
When works include the false condition and confused notion that through them we will become righteous and saved, then they are already no good and completely damnable because they are not done freely.
From all the above, it should be easy to understand in what sense good works should be rejected and in what sense they are not to be rejected, as well as how we should understand all the teachings that instruct us to do good works. When works include the false condition and confused notion that through them we will become righteous and saved, then they are already no good and completely damnable because they are not done freely. They insult the grace of God, which saves through faith alone. Even though salvation is beyond the competence of works, many still presume to be able to accomplish it themselves. They deny the gracious work and honor of God. Therefore, we should reject good works not for their own sake but for the sake of this evil addition—the false and misleading belief that regards them as good based on their appearance even though they are not good. Those who teach this belief deceive themselves and everyone else along with them, just like ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothes (Matt. 7:15). This evil addition and misleading opinion cannot be overcome where there is no faith. It remains among people intoxicated by the teaching of works righteousness until faith arrives and utterly destroys it. Nature cannot expel it by itself. It cannot even recognize it. It admires it. That is why so many people are led astray by it.
So even though it is good to teach contrition, confession, and satisfaction, if one does not continue all the way to faith, then demonic and misleading teachings will be the result. Preachers should not just preach the law and commandments; they should also include both of God’s Words. They should preach the commandments. This will frighten sinners and expose sin that will lead to contrition. It should not end there, however. They must preach the other Word as well—the promise of grace—to teach faith, without which the law and contrition (and everything else) are in vain. There certainly are and always will be preachers who preach contrition for sin and grace but who do not emphasize the commands and promises of God in order to teach where contrition and grace come from or how they come about. For contrition flows out of the commandments and faith out of the promises of God. And from this, one who has been humbled by fear of God’s commands is then justified and raised anew by believing the divine Word.