You’ve heard it said:
- Faith gives power for works.
- Faith reveals what God wants you to do.
To the contrary:
“Firstly, it is usual to regard the relation between faith and works – and for that we can now also say, between what God does and what man does – in the first instance as a relationship between power and performance. Faith is supposed to give the power for works. This way of speaking requires to be very critically examined. The basic relation of faith and works isnot the communication of power for works, but the communication of freedom for them – that is, freedom to do the works in their limitedness as works and therefore also in the limitedness of the powers that are at our disposal for them. Just as faith too does not, though it is easy to misunderstand it so, primarily receive the revelation of what is to be done; but faith gives the freedom to perceive the right, becausefaith assigns works to their due place” 1
1. “… faith … is not the communication of power for works, but the communication of freedom for them….”
Faith is not a psychological push to do good works. In other words, faith is freedom from having to do good works, now that Christ has done it all, so that I don’t have to deal with sin, death, and the devil. I am free to be myself, living for others.
2. “… faith …does not …receive the revelation of what is to be done….because faith assigns works to their due place.”
Where is Christ working in the world and in my life? We are told that if we live “a centered life,” we will be able to see how the work we “do everyday contributes to God’s work in the world.”2
And yet real life doesn’t seem to work out this way. The life I live is ambiguous and broken. Where is God in our lives and in the larger world? We cannot dial up a list of what God is doing.
How do Lutherans sort this out? Faith is hidden. Apart from Word and sacraments, Christ is hidden. Contrary to the popular Bible Camp song – you cannot tell Christians by their love – and every attempt to do so leads to pride, hypocrisy, or despair.
To think that we can identify where God is working in our lives and in the larger world is a temptation. Luther frequently cited 2 Cor 11:14: “Even the devil disguises himself as an angel of light.” And Paul, when pressed by his opponents, declared:
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4).
Like being humble, we all know that if you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it. All of which is to say that we live by faith, not by sight, by forgiveness, not “by seeing how God is sending me to do God’s work” (See footnote 2, #49). We trust him to know how to build his kingdom. Let God be God.3
1Gerhard Ebeling, “The Necessity of the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms,” Word & Faith (London: SCM, 1963), p. 404.
2See “Centered Life: An Initiative of Luther Seminary” and the following survey statements:
- #44: I can easily see how the work I do everyday contributes to God’s work in the world.
- #47: I see how the tasks of my every day work connect with God’s work.
- #49: Each day, I am able to see how God is sending me out to do God’s work.
3What about bearing fruit? That will have to be dealt with in another post, in which we would take up 1 Cor 4:3-4 more extensively.