Monkery Business: Martin Luther Faith vs. Works Debate

Anyone want to help me think this through? I have friends so hostile to Martin Luther it might be impossible.

I have read a lot about Martin Luther, but I’ve only read a little by Martin Luther. Almost everything I’ve read has been from the 7 or 8-volume series of his Complete Sermons.

Here is my debate proposal. Like a high school debate team’s proposal, I am proposing it not because I have one side or the other, but because I am hoping to discuss it. If you have friends that would care to give their input, please invite them.


1. that Martin Luther rejected only the good works that he described as “monkery” (prescribed by monasteries)
2. that Martin Luther would have rejected the doctrine of eternal security
3. that Martin Luther required good works to prove a person was a Christian

I will tell you in advance that this is not a bizarre proposal. I can find, and am collecting, a number of quotes to back up these proposals. I suspect, however, that he contradicted himself on these subjects. Anyone care to take up one side or the other?

Possible formats:

1. We discuss this in the comments, and I will pull pertinent comments for ongoing posts to keep the discussion going.
2. I give someone, or maybe two or more someones, the opportunity to debate this on the blog. I cannot take the negative side because it requires too broad a familiarity with Luther’s writings, though I hope to increase my knowledge through this debate. I could do an acceptable job on the pro side if I can’t find someone to do it better.
3. I’m going to try a Reformed blogger to take the negative side if one of my readers does not volunteer.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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21 Responses to Monkery Business: Martin Luther Faith vs. Works Debate

  1. Anna says:

    My impression, for what it’s worth, is that #1 isn’t quite the case, although #2 might be. Although Luther began mostly by objecting to Catholic abuses, ultimately his objection went deeper than just those particular “good works” that shouldn’t have even been done in the first place, or which were practically worthless. I think—and I admit that it’s been a long time since I read Luther, so I could be totally off—that his emphasis on faith instead of works was a reaction against the prevailing legalism of his time. Like the Pharisees, the Catholic clergy had developed their set of rules about right and wrong, which in practice focused heavily on external and visible actions (especially the ones most profitable for the clergy). Do X,Y, and Z, and you will be Right With God. In a sense, it was like God had no choice; you were earning your salvation, and He had to give it to you because you had jumped through all the right spiritual hoops. Luther saw that attitude for the crap that it is. He read the book of Romans, which is primarily directed against the idea that the Law (of Moses) saves us, and recognized that we cannot, in fact, earn our salvation.

    So I think he would say that genuinely good works like, say, giving money to the poor, are genuinely good, and they can even be necessary in the sense that they are moral obligations, but even they cannot make us deserving of God’s free gift of grace, no matter how many of them we do. We have all sinned and fallen short.

    That might not help much against people who are overly comfortable in their salvation, but in their own way, they are doing the same thing that Luther objected to. They just have different rules. Instead of X) being baptized, Y) going to Mass, and Z) doing penances/buying indulgences to be saved, OSAS has (sometimes) replaced that with X) say the appropriate salvation prayer, or Y) attend the right church, or Z) be baptized/respond to altar call/something else… to be saved. They run into problems when they miss out on the inner conversion aspect—not just conversion as a change in beliefs, but as the turning of our whole lives and hearts to the Lord, something that can never be finished in one moment (or in any number of moments less than a lifetime’s worth)… no more than you can complete a masterpiece of art in the first moment you grasp its beauty in your mind’s eye.

    • paulfpavao says:

      The Protestant doctrine of eternal security is terrible. I’m hesitant to call it evil, but it is unscriptural, and combined with turning the atonement into the gospel, rather than Jesus as King being the Gospel, OSAS teaches “Christians” that they can be evil without repercussions. It is false, and it ought to be loudly condemned.

      The RCC has a much more accurate teaching on faith, grace, and works that just about any Protestant church except maybe the Pentecostals, but in the RCC it really doesn’t do any good. The only teachings that a church can claim to really teach is the ones it demonstrates, and for the most part, the RCC demonstrates that doing all the rituals, combined with weekly confession, is what saves. It doesn’t matter what you teach in your official catechism if your practices lead to the huge majority of your congregation being nominal and believing that they’re saved without any attempt to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and live soberly, righteously, and godly” in this present age, much less deny themselves, take up their cross, and forsake all their possessions.

      Like Protestantism, Roman Catholicism demonstrates that only saints and nuns forsake everything for Jesus. For the Protestants it’s missionaries and some pastors. Just a different “sainthood” class.

      You wrote: >>Not just conversion as a change in beliefs, but as the turning of our whole lives and hearts to the Lord, something that can never be finished on one moment<<

      Excellent. We agree on something, and this is the most important thing of all! We just don't agree on whether your church teaches it. I say by demonstration they very much don't, just as the Protestants don't.

      There are those of us in the RCC, in Protestantism, in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and in other heresies, who do know that there is only one way: to bow our knee to Jesus, to humble submit to his will every day, and to rely on his grace to empower us and his mercy to forgive us.

      The organizations have proven by centuries of demonstration that they produces a few Christians and the occasional congregation (some even become a movement) that happen upon the way of submission on their own, but mostly their purpose is to spend their time teaching the godly that they must be in union with the ungodly. This is the plan of the devil to make sure disciples never actually come together into the most powerful force on earth, the church (gathered ones) of King Jesus.

      Unfortunately, Tobias and Sanballat have found their way into Roman Catholic and Protestant congregations alike. They've been inside the walls of Jerusalem for so long that they have moved their relatives in and grown exponentially so that the congregation of the Lord cannot be recognized as the congregation of the Lord.

      If you know, believe, and understand what you said about conversion, then I urge you to run from the great harlot and her daughters. Find those who believe what you believe and practice what you practice, then pursue love, faith, peace, and righteousness with them. Pursuing such things with those whose hearts are not pure is forbidden by Scripture. What concord has our King with Belial?

      • Anna says:

        So I got to start by saying… weekly confession? What world do you live in? 😉 Catholics I know are doing good if they make it to the twice-a-year Easter & Christmas penance services.

        “It doesn’t matter what you teach in your official catechism if your practices lead to the huge majority of your congregation being nominal …”

        That depends on what you mean by “it doesn’t matter”. If what you teach in your official catechism is a treasure trove of truth and wisdom, then it matters very much to me, even if you can’t figure out how to convince everyone else, or even your own members, to read it or believe it.

        “Like Protestantism, Roman Catholicism demonstrates that only saints and nuns forsake everything for Jesus.”

        Mmm. It is true that this has been a big problem. Vatican II put out a whole document on the Dignity of the Laity that addressed the fact that the laity, too, are to fully participate in the work of God. A number of different movements got spawned after that, and the idea that every believer, not just priests and nuns, is called to holiness and sainthood has been slowly percolating through the Church. Too slowly, and I don’t know how far it will get before some new problem comes along, but it’s there at least.

        And, in fairness, even among the more nominal Catholics, I think there is a lot of hope. Most Christian denominations try to get their members to be good people who genuinely love God. “Love covers a multitude of evils”. Yes, the evil spirits are constantly at work to keep Christians from the full heritage of what is possible; but that does not mean they are all damned. I think there’s a lot of middle ground between “living in the Kingdom to the max” and “going to hell”. Sometimes the nominal and misled Christians are endangering their salvation, but sometimes they’re just missing out on a preview of eternal life.

        “Pursuing such things with those whose hearts are not pure is forbidden”

        Good heavens, if I had to wait until I found people whose hearts were pure, I’d never have a church or community at all. 😉 More seriously, you know that your own community is not perfect. How do you think God draws the line between a community being “imperfect but good enough” and “not good enough”? Also, for the record, God made it clear that I was to go to my specific Catholic parish. You probably don’t trust my judgment enough to let that influence your view of the Catholic Church, but I just thought I’d throw it out there anyway.

        • Matthew says:

          I agree with you, Anna. Until and if the Lord says to leave, I heartily recommend serving, loving, and making disciples in the community God has given you. He powerfully uses radically flawed congregations 24/7.

          I find the eternal security question distracting. I believe it’s the wrong question, created by us Protestants based on Luther’s imperfect theology. The right questions might be, “Is Jesus King, and if He is, then how should I respond to His kingship?” The believer who spends all his time answering that question is a believer who has no concern for his eternal security, but is consumed instead with the eternal glorification of God.

          Both sides of the argument security argument tend to assume a tragically small idea of a “salvation” which focuses on the eternal comfort of humans rather than the eternal glorification of God. I try to never answer the OSAS question because of its presuppositions.

          • paulfpavao says:

            To anyone reading this, I know Matthew, and I don’t often respond online to friends. I prefer the more personal approach when possible.

            Still, this is my blog, and I do have one purpose for it that is affected by your response, Matthew, which I know wasn’t directed to me. God has used all sorts of things that are wrong. Even the best of the kings of Judah often were left with an obituary that said “but he didn’t take away the high places.” On the other hand, Hezekiah and Josiah were commended for doing so.

            Ray Comfort once gave an illustration of a parachute company making parachutes for WWII jumpers. They had found a faster way to roll parachutes, and thus they were able to supply them to the military faster than all the other companies. Of course, 90% of the people who jumped with the chutes plunged to their death. When the military got rid of the parachute company, they gave testimonies from the 10% who had lived.

            Yes, God uses radically flawed congregations. The testimonies are abundant because the 5 or 10% who became disciples are a large number. The much larger number who are taught a watered down gospel and a salvation that does not include denying oneself or forsaking possessions, who are told they have peace with God when they do not; they are casualties of our flawed parachute company.

            Even disciples are terrified of their congregations’ taboos. In Protestantism, most congregations can’t even quote the commands of the King without carefully explaining that 1, it is not necessary to do them to go to heaven, and 2, that they can’t be done without divine intervention.

            It is my desire to completely overthrow the system if there is any way I can do that. It is designed, among other things, to keep disciples apart.

        • paulfpavao says:

          You wrote: >>How do you think God draws the line between a community being “imperfect but good enough” and “not good enough”?

          Imperfect is one thing. A system in direct disagreement with some important basic premises of the Scripture is another. Today, there is no room for a command like “Don’t let the believer be yoked with an unbeliever.” The context of that command is church, not marriage. In the same letter, Paul tells us to purge the leaven from the loaf, and he defines that as “put out the wicked from among you.”

          Today, “churches” do exactly the opposite. They court unbelievers and even the wicked, thinking that “the church” is a place to evangelize. As a result, believers spend much of their time studying the Bible and doing religious things with unbelievers. The unbelievers are hardened, or even deceived into believing they are saved, and the believers are mediocre in their faith because we need more than good teaching to do well. We need daily exhortation and fellowship from disciples, which is hard to get because we spend so much time with unbelievers.

          That said, I wouldn’t deny that God told you to go to that Catholic parish. In the absence of anything resembling what the Scriptures define as the church, God sends people all sorts of places for their own good. I’m sorry for seeming rude, but you are correct that I wouldn’t trust your judgment on the Catholic Church. You have not been even close to careful in your arguments.

  2. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    As for the bondage of the will, I’ll summarize it here, as I have been taught:

    1) Because of sin, we are under damnation to begin with. We don’t even want salvation, thus our free will is bound to sin and we cannot do anything for the benefit of our righteousness.

    2) By His Grace, God is able to overcome our resistance.

    3) His Grace does not prevent us from sinning. Thus we need to live in continuing repentance (or whatever you want to call it*), lest we pull the judgement on ourselves.

    *The traditional term is repentance. The idea is not legalistic, though, but the point is that even this repentance – or revival, or whatever you want to call it – is work of God in our lives.

  3. T.S.Gay says:

    I appreciated your response to my input. I never thought about it quite the way you responded. I do believe Luther was in the “righteousness as an ‘automatic’ response of the children of God” perspective. Freeing the will seems so much more accurate.

  4. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    Yes, it is true, that Luther was excommunicated because of the power struggle. Yet it would be wrong to say that his reformation was only about money: had he not been excommunicated, he would still have worked for revival, just withing the RCC. It just happened that God organized a Streisand effect, and his theology of works made way more impact.

  5. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    Largely so, but I as I have understood, while the money issue was what made Rome angry, it wasn’t what made Luther popular. Luther’s work was first and foremost theological. Rome made an attempt to render him a heretic, but it backfired, because his theology was popular.

    We might say that while Luther didn’t reform the doctrine, he did call for a correction to certain practices, including monkery. Therefore he was first and foremost a revivalist, who was excommunicated due to a power struggle.

    The main topics in Luther’s thinking were the relationship between faith and works, and free will. Not much money issues there 🙂

    • paulfpavao says:

      Luther was thinking on faith and works long before the RCC dealt with him on his stance on indulgences. He was taught about faith and works by his mentor in the monastery (Stauffer, I think). Faith and works were central to his thinking, but they had nothing at all to do with his conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The 95 theses were all about the sale of indulgences, and Pope Alexander’s orders to Eck to take care of that German monk were because he wanted money for St. Peter’s Basilica.

      There were not only money issues, but there were only money issues.

      See and Only indulgences were the issue. The RCC had no problems with his views on faith and works; they taught it to him in the monastery.

  6. paulfpavao says:

    I can’t fault Luther for interpreting Gal. 6:7-9 the way he did and talking about hard-headed Christians who can’t be corrected as non-Christians. I would agree with him on both.

    I am not well-versed in some of this, but I do know the history and events of the Reformation very well. I know that Luther’s “Reformation” was a money issue, not a theological one. Tetzel’s (and others’) indulgence sales were immoral by any standard, and the Pope wanted St. Peter’s Basilica built. Inevitable clash, and Johannes Eck was a master at turning the money issue into an “authority of the councils” issue. Good job, Eck. You saved a lot of us from continuing under Rome’s wicked tyranny.

  7. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    I think the Augsburg confession should be a starting point to reading anything by Luther. Given your specific interests, I would also suggest his main work “On the Bondage of the Will”, which addresses some osas -related questions.

    In general one should remember that Luther was not a “reformed” Christian in the sense the word is used today, nor was he a “reformer” in the sense of being a founder or even ideologist for the “reformed” movement. Reformed protestants come from the John Calvin line, and the osas -idea, under the label “perseverance of the saints” is a product of that tradition.

    The critical point here is the line of reasoning. Reformed laid their own theology on certain type God-centered argument, ans osas is a logical consequence. Luther on the other hand built his theology on catholic thinking. In many ways the Lutheran theology is still closer to Catholic than reformed or evangelical. Any quotes from Luther should be read with this in mind.

    This also explains why Luther was willing to make the obvious step, while many reformed theologians are not.

    As for eternal condemnation, I imagine Luther’s carelessness there may come from his view that original sin alone is enough to deserve us the judgement, thus our wicked works are there secondary, results of that sin. This is related to the reformed concept of total depravity, but as the arguments are so different, they can’t really be compared.

  8. T.S.Gay says:

    I’m on the pro side of this debate, and believe those three bullet points accurate. Karl Holl was a Christian historian and researcher of Luther in the early 20th century. In a book called Geschictlich Aufsatze zur Kirchengeschichte I, 1921, he says that “to become divine” was a phrase common to Christian centuries, but its meaning varied. For Catholics it meant to become immortal, or to become filled with the supernatural. For mystics it meant to become one with the infinite. For the monks it meant to become master of the passions, and therefore of nature itself. For Luther it meant to become one who does good to others (that is, to love God………and neighbor as thyself.).
    He takes this from Luther’s persistence in describing the “Gabe” and “Aufgabe”. To us paraphrased it might be the divine gift and responsive human activity. I’ll give one Luther quote…..”One can no more separate works from faith than one can separate light and heat from a flame”. Epistle to the Romans(1522) in the preface.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Two things on separating works and faith:

      1. Modern Eternal Security (ES) believers will agree that we should not separate works and faith … as long as we’re talking about James 2. In any other situation, they are happy to attribute faith to the most egregious and unrepentant sinners. Very inconsistent.

      2. Luther, at this point, seems to have been more consistent, not allowing unrepentant and unrighteous to call themselves saints.

      3. What remains unaddressed is the issue covered in Bondage of the Will. Does salvation free the will, so that we must cooperate with God, or is righteousness the “automatic” response of the chosen of God.

  9. Tuomas Nurmi says:

    IMHO these questions are interesting, but Luther as a person not so much. I used to know some people who have turned “lutherology” into something between science, art and idolatry and, frankly, I became bored with it.

    As for the topics, I agree that the first one is hard to defend: he rejected a whole lot of specific good works, not limited to those. BUT one could say that he was more against lists of good works than works themselves. (See below.)

    As for the other two, I believe Luther did reject the doctrine of eternal security. That doctrine was originally suggested by Calvin and developed by his followers. Luther himself was not Calvinist, and most likely would have been appalled by what is now known as “Reformed Christianity”, in fact he wasn’t even a Lutheran, any more than the Christ was Christian.

    Luther did promote a doctrine of *assurance* of salvation, which simply means that if one has faith, he can be assured that he is saved by it. On the other hand, should one reject the faith, there would be no grounds for that assurance any more.

    As for the necessity of good works, the longest article in the Augsburg confession, largely drafted by Luther, says: “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works. For their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and others of like import, bear witness that they have taught to good purpose concerning all estates and duties of life, as to what estates of life and what works in every calling be pleasing to God. Concerning these things preachers heretofore taught but little, and urged only childish and needless works, as particular holy-days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such like. …

    First, that our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification, but that we obtain this only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone has been set forth the Mediator and Propitiation, 1 Tim. 2:5, in order that the Father may be reconciled through Him. Whoever, therefore, trusts that by works he merits grace, despises the merit and grace of Christ, and seeks a way to God without Christ, by human strength, although Christ has said of Himself: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John 14:6.

    Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

    Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins is apprehended, and that, for nothing. And because through faith the Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed and endowed with new affections, so as to be able to bring forth good works. For Ambrose says: Faith is the mother of a good will and right doing.

    Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended, because it shows how we are enabled to do good works.”

    Thus the official Lutheran teaching is: If you have faith, you can rest assured that you are saved and are to do good works.

    Then again, that’s more into the question of Lutheranism and Lutheran doctrine than to the question in hand about all the things Martin Luther himself ever happened to scribble.

    Thus, I’m think I’ll pass this one.

    P.S. If you are interested in the Lutheran teaching about righteousness and good works, then I suggest to read that part of the confession. The more modern Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a good read too.

    • paulfpavao says:

      I’m more interested in Luther than Lutheran theology. However, if I find the right things in the Augsburg Confession, I may get interested.

      I have Luther’s commentary on Galatians. I was wondering one day what Luther would do with Gal. 6:7-9, since it very blatantly ties sowing to the Spirit, doing good, and eternal life together TIGHTLY. Luther is very fair with it, agrees that if one does not sow to the Spirit he’s not receiving eternal life, and he adds something I missed. The context, in Gal. 6:6, is giving to those who feed you spiritually. Luther applies vv. 7-9 to how a Christian spends his money. On himself and carnal things, and he’s going to reap eternal corruption (says Luther), but if he will give to spiritual things (in particular, giving to the pastor), then he is sowing to spiritual things and will reap eternal life.

      I have noticed a consistent lack of carefulness in Luther’s writings about tying together works and eternal condemnation. For example, in one sermon he preached, he said that a Christian that is difficult to correct is not a Christian at all.

      I know both Luther and modern eternal security folks both say that good works should just happen naturally. The difference between Luther and eternal security folk is that Luther is willing to take the obvious next step, that is, if the works aren’t there, neither is the faith nor the grace. Most modern eternal security folk are not willing to take that next step.

  10. Matthew says:

    I’m afraid #1 may prove rather hard to defend. While Luther raged against monasticism, his primary targets appear to me to be Roman rituals of faith. Luther re-defined lay participation in mass, penance, & confession into works-based righteousness. To a pious Roman of course, such activities were (and are) faith, neither the earning nor the self-endowing of righteousness.

    Since Luther aimed so often and so strongly at lay participation in Roman ritual, the definition of works may need to be expanded beyond monkery in order to be defensible unless this was already part of your thoughts on monkery? Sounds like an interesting debate!

    • paulfpavao says:

      I don’t know if I made it clear that “monkery” was one of Luther’s favorite words, and it seems to me, in my limited reading, that every time, or almost every time, he mentions works that cannot save, he uses the word “monkery.” When he does, as you say, “his primary targets appear … to be Roman rituals of faith.” We’re agreed on that.

      At the heart of my bringing this up is the authority purposely or subconsciously attributed to Luther and other Reformers.

      Because Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him, I like to “give thought to how to provoke one another to love and good works.” The great love and kindness of God is one way, but another way is the fear of God. “On some have compassion … others save with fear” (Jude 22-23). If even Luther did not allow for Christians of faith who had no fruit, maybe it will provoke some of the uncaring ones who profess the King to fear and obey.

  11. Nathaniel says:

    I believe that I have read a fair amount from Luther. I read his Table Talk, which covers various theological issues. Supposedly he has little if anything positive to say about Church Fathers except when they talk about Hymns, which he of course translated into German. Luther was not as radical of a reformers as some Catholics make him out to be. Anyways I would like to be in a good debate over him.

    • paulfpavao says:

      I’m going to let this play out here for right now. I can see the benefit, as a history lesson, of making the debate more formal, so I’m going to give some thought to how to do that.

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