Augsburg Confession, Article XX: Good Works

“Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works,” so begins Article XX of the Augsburg Confession. It continues, “Their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and other similar writings, bear witness that they have usefully taught about all estates and duties of life. They have taught well what is pleasing to God in every station and vocation in life.”[1]

Article XX of the Augsburg Confession is subtitled, “Good Works,” and is by far the longest article in the Augustana (the Latin title of the AC). You may remember that the topic of good works has come up already – particularly in Article IV, “[We teach] people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. [They] are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith…” and in Article VI, “[We] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.”[2] Despite these clear discussions of the relationship between faith and good works, it still got muddied by our opponents. This topic was, perhaps, the chief difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans – and it remains so today. However, we will allow that the different poles have grown (slightly) closer over the centuries.

This article is a long one, so I will provide the link for you to read it here. In a nutshell, the article answers the question: “What about good works?” The answer is: we do them, not to merit righteousness nor salvation, but because they are God’s will. A living faith is bound to and will bring forth good fruit. The Lutherans were falsely accused by the Romans of both abolishing and forbidding good works. They accused us of removing good works from salvation, and then going as far as to say that we are not allowed to do them. Well, we’re guilty on the first charge: our good works do not contribute to our salvation. On the second charge, some Lutherans did teach this later on and were publicly rebuked for it.

So what do we teach? “First…that our works cannot reconcile God to us or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification. We obtain reconciliation only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake.” (9) That’s pretty much what we already said back in Article IV. Our good works do not reconcile us to God, nor do they merit anything salvific. We are reconciled to God for Christ’s sake through faith. The article goes on to quote both St. Paul and our Lord on this matter. It also defends against the charge that the Lutherans have created a new interpretation of Paul. “If anyone wants to be tricky and say that we have invented a new interpretation of Paul, this entire matter is supported by the testimony of the Fathers. Augustine defends grace and the righteousness of faith in many volumes against the merits of works. Ambrose, in his book The Calling of the Gentiles, and elsewhere, teaches the same thing.” (12-13)

But, why go over all this again? Both our conscience and the comfort of salvation are at stake. The article says, “This whole doctrine must be related to the conflict of the terrified conscience. It cannot be understood apart from that conflict.” (17) That is to say, when sins wreaks havoc in our lives and we are revealed to be the most terrible and wretched of sinners, it is of the utmost comfort to know that it is not my work that gains salvation – but Christ’s. As the hymn goes, “Thy works, not mine, O Christ.” Now, the article says, spiritually inexperienced people dislike this doctrine. Our sinful flesh would like nothing more than to take pride in our own worth. But, “God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it [this article] brings the greatest consolation.” (15)

The article then points out the fact that, up until then, the consciences of God’s people were plagued by the doctrine of works. There was no comfort offered in the Gospel of Christ. Instead, people were driven into the desert and monasteries, hoping to merit grace by a pious life. Over time, more good works were invented to merit grace – pilgrimages and such. To these things, people were pointed – and not to the comfort of the Gospel of Christ. “That is why the need was so great for teaching and renewing the doctrine of faith in Christ, so that anxious consciences would not be without consolation but would know that grace, forgiveness of sins, and justification are received by faith in Christ.” (22)

Next, the article moves onto what we mean by “faith.” It says, “People are also warned that the term faith does not mean simply a knowledge of a history, such as the ungodly and devil have. Rather, it means a faith that believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history.” (23) This is actually pointing back at our opponents. It was taught that if one simply acknowledges the historical facts of Christ’s passion, it was enough. The Lutherans teach that assenting to the bare facts is not enough. Faith is also trusting in the effects of it all: Christ suffered and died for us on the cross so that we may receive forgiveness and righteousness by grace through faith. As it says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

Lastly, “We teach that it is necessary to do good works. This does not mean that we merit grace by doing good works, but because it is God’s will.” (27) It is only by faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and through those things He also renews our wills and causes us to bring forth good works. Without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to do good works. Works that seem to be righteous (considered righteousness even by the world) are in fact sinful, when done apart from faith.

It is necessary to do good works according to God’s holy will. Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit leads us to do them. While we are in the flesh, we will never be perfect in our works. Our sinful flesh is always at war with the law of our minds, as St. Paul would say. Nor are all good works visible. Prayer on behalf of others is an example of a good work that flows from faith, but isn’t necessarily visible.

This was a rather long discussion. But, then again, it’s a rather important topic. Where does our righteousness before God – and salvation – come from? From our works? No, but from Christ. Christ is our righteousness, and His work is counted to us through faith. Do we then discount good works? No. Good works are to be done. It is God’s will. As the hymn goes, “For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”

Next month we’ll cover a topic that maybe you’ve had some questions about: the saints in heaven. What are they up to, and why do Lutherans not pray to them? After that, we’ll turn to the next section of the Augustana, concerning errors that had popped up in the practice of the Church, which are now corrected. Examples? Communing in both kinds, the marriage of priests, and the authority of the Church. See you next month!


[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 42. Further quotes from this article are marked by their paragraph number.

[2] Ibid., pg. 33.

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