The Public Witness of Good Works: Lutheran Impulses for Political Ethics: Part II

Luther on how to become a citizen
[1] Since contemporary political theory wonders how to regain and reactivate citizenship in a time of globalisation and anonymisation, it seems appropriate to return to those who invented the concept. It has frequently been noted that Luther and the Reformation stand at the cradle of citizenship. It would be more adequate, though, to say that Luther engendered the concept indirectly through his radical understanding of good works; that is, in making faith God’s measure of the quality of a work, including the works of citizenship. It is incorrect to see Luther as holding an “ethic of absolute ends” (so Weber) or an “ethics of conviction” “Gesinnungsethik”): Neither success nor “Gesinnung” are the measure of good works according to Luther. The only measure is faith because it means to live with God, to listen to him and to receive everything from him. The ethics of Gesinnung (mind), the ethics of the good will (Kant) reduce faith to a mental attitude or reduce God’s works to a human moral capacity. According to Luther, it is neither a specific substance nor a judgment of practical reason that makes good works good, but only their origin in and accompaniment by the word of God. It remains an open question whether modernity’s conceptions of an isolated moral subject blurs our vision on the creaturely life that Luther had in view. In any case, what we will see unfold here is the implications of the understanding of good works when carried consistently into a political ethic and political theory.

2.1 The realism of good works
[2] While contemporary political theory has focused on the moral subject or shifted attention completely to procedures and institutions, people have not stopped turning towards each other in justice. Enlightenment social contract politics is more about surviving than about the good life. For Luther, though, it is about the good life in a carefully defined sense since both the righteous person and the citizen originate in God’s calling. The righteous one is called to convert to God in order to let his heart be ruled by him and receive God’s justice. The citizen is called to his neighbour to become God’s “co-operator” in the worldly realm. As a product of God’s word citizenship is endowed with the promise that God is with those who let themselves be called into this institution. To become a citizen means first to be called to engage in good works for the sake of humanity that God wants to be truly humane. It also means to live with God within a reality of the world that appears unveiled and unmitigated.

[3] The reality of good works is thus given with the assuredness that God–the God of creation, reconciliation, justice and salvation–is with us when we turn towards our neighbour. This is consistent with the understanding that this God is a serving God, having shown in the servant Christ both who he really is and what human beings really are. Luther follows Paul in asserting that what a good work is can only be seen when we see how Christ served humankind.[1] Thus, good works call people into the immediacy of human need, rather than fleeing into long-range plans or into the world of ideas or utopias. It is within this unveiled reality of living together that people learn to lift their heads to heaven, and learn to expect everything from God. It is in following the call to their neighbour and encountering the reality of human need that the person learns how to receive everything good out of the hands of God, and hand it on to their neighbour. What justice vis-à-vis the other means is only discovered when people realize that they encounter their neighbour with hands that were empty unless God has filled them with everything good. Wherever people suffer the reality of the other in his or her need, they are amidst the Christ-story. This is why Luther holds that the communion with Christ in faith is the only way to encounter reality. Without the company of Christ in their suffering, people will always be tempted to flee from reality into their judgements or ideas and into doing good works on one’s own account. Instead, those who let themselves be called by the Word into an entanglement into the other’s life find that they learn something about the reality of humankind: that it cannot be built on ethics and that it entirely depends on God’s mercy to survive. Through the practice of good works the flesh (i.e., the person as he lives incurved upon himself) is crucified and the justice of God becomes incarnate for the neighbour.[2] It is in good works that Christ, the servant, takes command through people serving each other.

[4] The “citizen” that Luther thus brought into view is called out of indifference and anonymity to do good works in the liberty to start anew and to co-operate with others in love and justice. The citizen is called to lift his head out of the flowing stream of indifference and despair in which human society drifts and which dictates its laws on any human action. He is called to see and do the good work that is waiting to be done for the consolation of his neighbour. And he is called to receive God’s mercy that is there for him to rule his heart and become the law of his existence: Doing good works means discerning a goodness that is already prepared, and handing it on to others in the freedom from works.

[5] In this regard, though, it is important to stress again that the calling to do those works and to such citizenship reaches heathens as well as Christians.[3] Their citizenship does not differ from those of the Christians, except that the Christian understands that he lives in freedom from works. Luther’s point here is the reality of God’s justice in the social order. Most scholars have thought that Luther emphasizes this point in order to secure consolation from any doubts that may arise when the faithful look at their lives. This is indeed true. However, Luther’s main point is that God’s justice is publicly present; it is there in God’s word and institutions for everybody to dwell in it. In faith people move outside their morality into the reality of God’s justice. That’s why good works are unspecified in quantity or quality; they are of another kind, namely God’s, so that the whole life of faith becomes a good work.[4] This work of God happens through heathens even if they do not understand it. The key difference is that the Christian recognizes, in faith, the real presence of God in the middle of the person’s life. God calls the faithful to citizenship as if to say: “Look and see that I am your God, I am already there in my justice, in my peace and in my mercy for you to live with me and with your neighbour.” The common theme is that faith and ethics both have an external origin, the call to discern God’s presence in the world.

2.2 Good works – beyond good and evil
[6] If Luther ever was radical, then he was so in reserving the term “good” for God alone. Luther disconnects good works from human judgment about good or bad, and thus from the worldly powers that mold human action. The key ethical question instead is whether a person has God’s word for what he is doing. Is God in the command- and can the person be sure of that? This is why the first commandment, the commandment of faith, is the clue to all the other good works. The implication is that those who go out to do their works in faith do them beyond good and evil! They do them beyond their power to judge over the quality of a work that orients itself to the possibilities of the human being, rather than of God. That is why Luther bound good works to God’s own commandments, as he found them paradigmatically in the Decalogue and in calling faith “the first and highest, the most noble good work”[5].

[7] Consistent with the discussion above, Luther holds that not only the renewal of the heart through faith but also citizenship has external sources. The latter is external as the vocation (the calling) to act for others and with others to render society humane. The frequent use of Luther’s image of the good tree that bear good fruit has somewhat blurred his understanding by making good works seem to issue from the inward person. It is crucial for Luther’s thought on political ethics to insist that he regards political or civic action and good works as possible only by reference to externality. That is, he regards them by reference to the way God takes command through his word. This explains why Luther never grew tired of preaching good works in his sermons and teaching them in his catechisms. He was doing that not on account of a coherent theory of good works, but on theological distinctions that help to discern good works for what they are. The context is always God’s work to create faith and justice, but neither lies in the possibilities and imperatives of the human subject. Good works live on faith while faith lives on God’s word that he is with those who engage in his commandments: “God’s Word is the first of all; faith follows it, and love follows faith. Love finally does every good work, for it does not cause harm, it is the fulfilling of the law. But the person can in no other way accord to or act with God than through faith.”[6] Only those works may be called “good” in which the human actor becomes the instrument of God’s works. The passivity of faith gives way to God’s activity in good works.

[8] It is crucial to stress again here that although “love doing good works” has sometimes been interpreted as if Luther’s ethics means to turn the inward person outwards-again as the image of the tree and the fruits is sometimes used–Luther never concluded this. This false interpretation is only prevented if we continually recall that both the person with God (“inward person”) and the person with God and with others (“outward person”) originate in an external calling. This is quite consistent with all the evidence in Luther that good works do not originate within a supposed subjectivity, a res cogitans of an inner person, but in God’s creative action and commandment which refers the person to his neighbour.

[9] For Luther, the paradigm of preaching, and listening to God’s word, is directed against all forms of politics that start from the possibilities of human government. Preaching is about the liberation of the person from any human politics that tries to manipulate the human heart. Luther’s sermons and catechisms aim at a public that is specified and constituted by listening to the challenge and promise of the politics of God conveyed to them by his word. Political ethics hence starts with the transformative power of God’s word that withdraws governance from and places cooperation at the heart of politics. A public that is constituted by God’s word is a public of witnesses to a power that contradicts the necessities and reality of violent, administrative, and anonymous forms of power. Such a public is the place for the political good works to happen: Where people are invited to discern how to find power and to act cooperatively for the sake of others.

[10] Preaching good works of citizens does not mean preaching a radical ethics of “supermen”, but a confrontation of God’s will for politics to become truly humane. It is in good works that citizens do for and with others and so find themselves engaged in the initiation of politics and the full exploration of what it means to become a citizen. Luther’s sermon on good works may just as well have been called the sermon of good works. Luther hence does not presuppose a Christian society or restrict ethics to the Christian community, but he sets the ethics of good works into the context of the citizen who finds himself in the context of God’s public work.

[11] The citizen and his public witness are constituted by what he has heard about how human beings may become humane. Luther relates good works to a becoming, a transformation of the person by God’s word to serve the neighbour. The citizen that Luther has (re)discovered is not just there somehow, but he is called to action within a story of a liberating power. Luther was well aware that the witness of good works calls for a public and for a politics that does not yet exist. He knew it is yet to be found by listening to the particular neighbour, by paying attention to his needs and by being freed to discern the good life with others. The preaching of good works constitutes a civic society by drawing attention to good works of God around the specific need of the neighbor: the iustitia civilis (civic justice).

[12] Good works are, then, a medium for God’s justice to reach his creatures. God himself has set a new start between himself and humankind and clears the way for the genuine encounter among humans in good works. Good works are removed from the story of justification and released from the burden to improve human life. Luther thus cleared the way for an unprecedented spontaneity of ethics that grants them their genuine consolatory character. Good works are freed from responding to failures in the human condition and from the task to contribute to human fulfilment. Ethics becomes freed from resentment, and a new beginning is suddenly possible. By this means good works become initiative, true action within the encounter of persons with each other. One could say that only such ethics may be called truly political, because it focuses on true encounter. Only within such an unburdening, liberating, and promising story initiatory and cooperative action becomes possible.

[13] It lies at the heart of Luther’s political ethics that Luther sees the whole world under God’s rule. It is always a rule which has an inward and an outward side. Inwardly, it is about God’s renewal of his creatures through his word of grace, outwardly it is about God’s maintenance of them through justice. This introduces the vita passiva (life of reception or suffering) of the inward person and distinguishes it from the vita cooperativa (life of cooperation) of the outward person and so locates good works within God’s outward regiment. Ethics is about the cooperation of God’s justice with the person for the sake of others. The possibility of good works therefore rests on the reality of God’s twofold regiment and any genuinely humane res publica (public matter) can only be found within the freedom from works. The freedom from the works of the inward person corresponds with the outward person’s freedom to discern the legal institutions as humane instruments of justice. It is crucial, then, that the res publica is not constituted by what people simply have in common, but by the justice that they discern within their story under God.

[14] The freedom of good works is that they do not fight anything, or respond to anything else than vocation. The Christian lives by the call that there is no reason anymore why justice, peace, and consolation for the neighbour should not be possible. In that sense good works are the signature of consolation which is given in the message that God is our God. In this freedom the teaching, preaching and doing good works takes shape as witness. They are not valuable for their substance or for the goodness of the person, but as witness to the goodness of God. While doing good works, people find themselves receiving God’s works. In actual fact good works happen to them.

[15] Although good works live on the assuredness that God is with us, they do not become transformed into a pious inwardness within the private realm. Rather, they live from the external word of God. God’s commandment finds those who do good works in public. The public-ness of the worldly powers is the battleground into which the reality of God breaks with the message that the battle is won for us. This message is heard through public teaching and preaching that God is our God, a message that contains the call to do good works.

[16] Moreover the witness of good works constitutes a new public which is challenged by the promise that peace, justice and charity are possible because God himself has made them the reality in which people are called to live. Good works originate in the gospel that “the law” – God’s will – is already fulfilled. But the place of good works is within God’s worldly regiment. God’s reconciliatory action is the reality in which true politics occur: In which initiative and a new beginning is possible and in which they are called to exert power to make peace, to do justice, and so forth. Wherever people live in the presence of reconciliation, peace, and justice, good works become inevitable. As the signature of creaturely life good works convey God’s goodness to those who are in need of goods, health, justice and peace.

[17] In terms of political ethics, in summary, good works stand for the difference between any given politics that has lost the human being in its particularity and a new politics that has become attentive to the needs of particular human beings. Those who do good works become the “pipes” or “channels” for God’s justice to reach human beings. Good works draw the attention from our politics to God’s politics and initiate the res publica of a public that realizes what has to be done and where to start anew instead of merely going on. The public reality of God’s goodness controverts the privatisation or idealisation of ethics. The witness of good works is that justice is possible because the resurrection of the dead is real. In the light of the message that God overcomes death, good works are ready to be discovered and done. They are the message on which a public figure arises in ethics, the figure of the citizen. And thus, the public witness of good works is that citizenship is possible.

2.3 Good works and political institutions
[18] Since the politics of good works originate in listening to God’s commandments to act for and with the other, the question of political ethics arises as to how God’s commandments relate to political institutions. Space permits only a short, if suggestive, discussion of this question.

[19] For Luther, good works are related to institutionalized human life-forms because politics is not only about the neighbor next door, but also about the third, the fourth, the four hundredth neighbor, and so on. Political “institutions” are themselves established to prevent anyone from falling out of the economy of good works and so that good works may happen. That is, that good works may happen interactively in the presence of justice for those who are out of immediate reach. God’s commandments call institutions to become media of good works. Law as an institution has the commandment that it shall include everybody as citizen in cooperation and communication. Institutions extend the cooperative aspect of the political life to every citizen.

[20] In this respect citizenship can be called a paradigmatic institution and the citizen a paradigmatic life-form. Living within life forms means to co-operate rather than to produce order out of chaos or to realize ideas of justice and the good life in an unjust world. Within life-forms, human life becomes limited in order to remain humane. Such is the purpose of institutions. They remain limited by God’s word which safeguards and renews them as places where human beings can remain humane in cooperation and communication. The institution of citizenship is thus practiced within a political ethics of good works that moves within a political space – institutions. Luther distinguished between the vain and useless “opera legis” (works of law) and the fulfilment of the law by the “opera fidei” (works of faith), effected by the Holy Spirit.[7] He discovered that the law as the expression of God’s will no longer stands between God and the person, but leads the person to the neighbour. In the light of the fulfilment of the law in Christ institutions are “de-sacralized.” This was radical in its time for it meant an end to the divinisation of political institutions by rendering them genuine places of cooperation. They were not sacred in themselves even though they were instruments for God’s justice to reach humankind. Luther’s politics of good works therefore transforms the understanding of institutions into places of promise.

[1]Martin Luther, WA 7 (Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, 1520)

[2]See Martin Luther, sermon de duplici iustitia (1518), WA 2, 147.

See Luther, WA 6, 206, 14ff.

[4] See Luther, WA 6, 207, 3ff. (A treatise on good works, 1520)

[5]WA 6, 204, A treatise on good works, 1520. (my translation)

[6]WA 6, 514, 19-22 ” On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. A prelude by Martin Luther, 1520 (my translation).

[7]Cf. Martin Luther, WA DB 7, 7,1-26 (Vorrede auf die Epistel S. Pauli an die Römer, 1522).