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

Introduction: outline and thesis of this essay
[1] Is there a specific Lutheran contribution to political ethics in terms of public witness of good works and reflections on the place of good works within politics? The question of “good works” itself diverges from the traditions of political ethics, and is regarded as highly problematic by some, namely: What are the different ways of witness through which God’s justice reaches into politics? This brief essay can hardly do justice to the questions-this reflection is part of a research project–but it addresses one of the most pressing questions of political theory: how is political action is possible.

[2] Recent political theory has placed these questions in the context of citizenship – if it has at all approached them. By focusing on the figure of the citizen as co-operator with God’s justice, Lutheran ethics holds an answer that I will unfold in the following: political action becomes possible by vocation, takes shape as cooperation, and witnesses explicitly or implicitly to God’s justice as already prepared for humankind and publicly present through God’s word. Witness to the reality of God’s justice is the signature of the institution of citizenship. It bears the promise that citizenship is a medium of God’s justice that helps to discern a truly humane political life. It originates in an external call to act for others, and with others and bears an intrinsic political message: that justice among men is possible because God, in his word, turns to the human being in justice. By being called to see the reality of God’s justice the human being becomes free to turn to his neighbour in justice. I offer two theses.

Thesis one
[3] Luther’s ethics of good works has a twofold emphasis: On the one hand, it is a message of consolation that the human is free from his works on account of the Gospel because God’s will is already fulfilled in Christ. While this point of Luther’s ethics is widely acclaimed among Lutheran scholars, a second emphasis of his ethics is yet to be duly considered, namely that the ethics of good works is about the reality of God’s justice as present among humans in his word. This unfolds in three ways.

[4] First, the First Commandment declares that God is for humankind and it is a word that calls people into the presence of a God who turns towards them in justice. Second, that the rest of the Commandments declare that the human is to be for others, they are words that call people into the presence of their neighbour in the mode of justice. Third, in a hidden way, God’s word lets itself be heard in the call for justice whenever that is raised by those suffering injustice and human need. The crucial point in each of these is that the justice of good works is found in the being called and hence in something external to the human agent in the realm of politics. God’s commandments, be they explicit or implicit, create a homo excurvatus, a homo audiens, who lets himself be called to live with God and with his neighbour in justice. Therefore good works are not specified as a peculiar set of actions, but as being called to live in the political realm with the neighbour in the reality of God’s justice.

Thesis two
[5] Although for reasons that I will unfold, there can be no general theory of action for the ethics of good works, good works are characterized in Luther’s as follows:
A) The explicit ethics of good works, in which the works are done in the name of God. Here the human does his works on account of God’s articulate word and promise, and explicitly praises God with his works. In order to describe this category, Luther used the metaphor of “overflowing love”, and of faith as the “master workman”. It is important to note that good works are not distinguished from other works in substance, but in origin. They originate in the way through which God makes himself present among humankind: in his word that guides people to their neighbours. Thus, the human being co-operates with God’s justice as it becomes present in his word. In this cooperation, God remains present with his name. The message that God encounters humankind in his merciful justice is the source of a happiness that removes the walls between people and lets them turn towards each other.

B) The ethics of the “works of the law” (Gesetzeswerke), in which the works are done in the name of the moral subject. Here the human being chooses his works himself on account of his moral judgement on good and evil. Luther calls these works “dead” in the sense that they do not co-operate, interact or communicate with a real, living other, but with the moral ideals and strategies of the homo incurvatus.

C) The “hidden” ethics of good works, in which the works are done in the name of the other, and through him – in a hidden way – in the name of God. Here–an outlier of category “A” the human being does works on account of the need and calling of the neighbour, and lets himself be called to live with his neighbour in justice. God secretly takes his place within this call for justice. His presence is hidden in the good work. Against theologies of the Deus absconditus that claim that God has an unknown and clandestine “other” side, this category of good works follows the promise that God’s hiddenness takes shape in and through the explicit, desperate and protesting calls for justice that pervade politics. God acts in those calls for justice. His word makes itself present in the words of those who yearn for justice.

[6] Note in both in category A and C that moral action originates in calling, which induces the liberation of the human being from his own works and moral sentiments to do the works of a new and better justice. Through the cries for justice God calls those whom he wants to do his works. They praise God in a hidden way, by following his commandments through the call that reaches the human being when she sees the need and lack of justice. The paradigmatic figure for that type of good works is the Good Samaritan (Lk 10) who lets himself be gripped by mercy while facing the misery of the one who fell among the robbers. The point to notice is that the means by which this hidden way of God’s regiment becomes explicit is the witness of Christian citizens. They are called to recognize this channel through which God’s justice reaches into the political realm, and to witness to it, in order to let God’s hidden regiment in the call for justice become explicit. Luther himself, I will show, self-consciously understood this as a category of good works without systematizing it. He unfolds the ethics of good works by distinguishing between good works that happen on account of God’s justice that searches and chooses those who do them, and the works of the law that happen on account of the human being’s own justice chosen by the human being himself. In his view the Christian citizen, lives in the awareness of the many ways through which God’s justice is present and active within politics.

[7] This view of the citizen follows from Luther’s understanding of the gospel. Citizens are called to co-operate with God in the res publica, be it explicit or hidden, to apply in the political realm the “exceeding righteousness” (Mat 5:20) that Christ made possible. This righteousness is not “exceeding” in terms of its substance, but in terms of its reality. It really happens. For Luther, cooperation with God’s justice in the political realm is the practice of citizenship.. Doing justice, making peace and granting forgiveness thus become political good works, which live on the presence of God’s justice in his word. The citizens of the politia Christi witness to society what it means to become and stay human.1 They are called into a story that originates in God’s worldly governance. Such a citizen cannot be reduced to an element of political procedures, or to a defender of a conservative society. This citizen witnesses to the manifold ways how God takes command with his justice. He discerns the reality of God’s justice, how it is practiced in good works of the iustitia civilis. The citizen’s prayer and motto is: “Tu es creator et instrumentum ego”2. (You are the creator and I am the instrument) Just as parents are called to co-operate with God in begetting and raising children, or as farmers are called to co-operate with God in winning the fruits of the earth, so is the citizen called to co-operate with God’s justice for his neighbour.

[8] Such talk about the citizen may sound provocative for many reasons. Such a citizen, for instance, is more than the “citizen” as understood in today’s political ethics.. Luther does not mean that the “exceeding righteousness” in which the citizen is called to turn to his neighbour is supererogatory. The extraordinary thing is that he believes that such action is justice, full stop. It is simply justice, justice practiced cooperatively. It is justice that really arrives at those who are in need of them. The citizen is called to turn to his neighbour in the reality of God’s justice. Through this call he becomes free to see the need of his neighbour and the justice that is prepared for him.

[9] Luther’s view of political institutions falls into line with this understanding. Political institutions “are God’s larvae, allegories…which shall all contain Christ.”3. God’s justice in Christ encompasses the worldly institutions, transforms them and makes them instruments of his justice to reach humankind. God rules in the political world through the institutions, just as he rules the hearts with his word. The justification that the human being receives passively and the call that instills cooperation in citizenship both originate in God’s all-encompassing word. Hence not only living under the lex Christi but also living in political orders means, for Luther, to live under God’s judgment and justice.

[10] This line of Luther-exegesis connects to names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer4, Ernst Wolf5, Oswald Bayer6, and Hans G. Ulrich7, among others, and questions any reading of Luther that tears the spiritual and the worldly regiment apart, or lets them collapse into each other. The reduction of God’s claim on the human being to the spiritual leads to a politics that regards the worldly orders as in a state of entelechy, or it regards the freedom of the Christian as a habitus with which he would be free to act responsible in a world bereaved of God’s governance. Both lines of reading Luther are anchored in Lutheran traditions, but, as I will show, they cannot refer to Luther himself.

[11] Luther’s (re)discovery of the institution of citizenship and of a political ethics of the iustitia civilis is often noted, even within political ethics. It often fails to see Luther’s impulse for political ethics, however, when it holds that Luther freed ethics and a worldly realm from God’s rule. On the contrary, Luther’s citizen is someone who contradicts the course of worldly powers by acting on account of God’s presence in his word, in the cry for justice, and by witnessing how the civic institutions are drawn into God’s governance of the world. Contemporary political ethics reduces the citizen to a sole witness to law, to values, morals or conventions. In contrast Luther tells us the citizen witnesses to God’s justice, a justice that reaches into the political realm in manifold ways most notably through good works. It seems overdue that political ethics rediscover Luther’s full view of the institution of citizenship and with it good works of the iustita civilis.

[12] Such an argument can only be sketched in brief in the space here but three brief explorations must suffice. 1) A few more remarks on the Christological hermeneutics of good works by reference to the character of vocation and to Luther’s Christological anthropology. 2) A closer look at Luther’s ethics of citizenship as the political form of life in which good works are practiced in cooperation with God and the neighbour. 3) Some attention to contemporary conceptions of the citizen and political power as institutionally located and communicatively achieved, in contrast to Luther’s view. This section closes with suggestion about the systematic place of good works within political ethics.

1.1 The publicity of vocation – and the distinctiveness of the good work
[13] Good works are there for every human being just as God’s reconciliation in Christ is there for all of humankind. This public character of the call to do good works is rooted in the reality of God’s justice for all of humankind. It becomes articulate in his word. This does not mean that this call is universally heard, but it is time and again heard by someone through whose good work the universality appears. The good work is the arrival of God’s justice at a distinctive place in a distinctive time for a distinctive person. In this distinctiveness the universal will of God is revealed.

[14] The universality and particularity of good works originate in God’s word which is external to the human being. The citizen who is called to do good works does not have to be a Christian in the confessional sense. Indeed, he can be anything, or less than anything, like a Samaritan. God’s justice reaches into the world through mouths and hands that it calls to service. In doing so, God’s verbum externum (external word) makes all people equal. According to Luther, God’s Word calls the human being in a twofold direction. It calls him to turn to God and to expect everything from him, and it calls him to turn to his neighbour to sooth his need. Luther thus distinguished between an inward and an outward directedness of each human being.8 The inward human being is the human being as he is called by God’s word to live with God in Christ and to receive everything from him. The outward human being is the human being as he is called by God’s word to live a political life with his neighbour and to convey to him the justice and care that he needs. The shapes of this call are manifold, but Luther’s paradigm is preaching. God makes himself heard Sunday mornings just as he preaches through the mouths of those who yearn for justice.

[15] Good works are possible and real extra muros ecclesiae, not because they are the possibility of human beings, but because they are the possibility of God who makes human beings instruments to reach into the world. Hence the visible, social existence of the Church is not the exclusive presupposition of good works.. However, the Church is the paradigmatic place where good works are named as God’s works, and where the Gospel is witnessed as God’s presence among humankind– that fact would otherwise remain hidden. The visibility of the Church is hence necessary as witness to God’s salvific action and call. Her job as creatura verbi is to witness how good works are drawn from the flesh into the Spirit, so that they witness to God’s world-maintaining care.9

[16] Both the Church and those who do good works are called to life in the presence of God’s justice. This call creates a certain type of person and a specific community wherever it is heard. Hence the political ethics that I trace here will not be unfolded in a Church/State or Church/World topology. Instead, I will focus on the citizen as a witness within a given society. The focus is on a person who is called to do good works as a witness to a justice, a peace and a liberty to which he or she is called. That is, the focus is not on the laws and habits of the society, but within those laws and habits. Within society the Church is constituted by God’s presence in his word and one word with two simultaneous directives. One calls people out of the society to become fellow citizens with the saints. (Ephesians 2:19) The other simultaneously calls people into society to become fellow citizens of humankind, to become co-operators of the iustitia civilis. This aspect distinguishes Lutheran political ethics from a more Augustinian political ethics in avoiding the habitual distinction between a group of saints (civitas Dei) and one of laymen (civitas terrena). God cares simultaneously for the new and for the old humankind. He expresses his kingdom with his word, in calling people to be saints and citizens.

[17] There are tasks to do within society, and these tasks are not irrelevant for the new humankind. The wall between God’s new world and this old world is paper thin. The Church witnesses that good works that happen anywhere on earth happen to glorify God’s presence among his creatures. She gives good works their name: it is the name of the Lord. And she gives humanity its name, as the unjust who are granted righteousness. His works that become articulate through his Word unite humankind in its godlessness and in its salvation. The church’s question is hence whether political action witnesses to God’s reality, to his justice and to his peace, or to human possibilities of justice and peace.

[18] God’s Word communicates a peace, a justice and a reconciliation that has become the reality of humankind in Jesus Christ and is ready to be discerned through political action that is formed by the need of the other. Attempts of political theory to find the origins of political action such as the approaches of virtue ethics, of communicative action, and so forth only explain empathy, solidarity and communication as answers to prevalent human possibilities and capabilities.. They are but derivates of a political ethics that witnesses to the reality of the new humanity as fulfilled in Christ. As Luther understands it, political ethics really originates in the call to act with and for others. This is a call that liberates from a self-centered ethics and guides people to discern the reality of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and justice in a non-reconciled world that yearns for this reality. Such liberating call is a call to citizenship. Lutheran political ethics puts the citizen and his witness on the agenda of political ethics.

[19] What is the story of this witness? How does the citizen appear in the public forum? What is the context in which he is called to act politically? Lutheran ethics is not about an individual who decides to make an appearance, but about a liberation of the human being that takes place within the political realm. It is a liberation to act for others within political institutions. The citizen is called into a political existence that witnesses to the reality that becomes present in Christ. In this story of ethics the question of why people should be moral does not disappear, but becomes part of a story that aims at overcoming moralistic appeals to all other sources including the functionalistic understanding of institutions. In this story God is at work in the just society, the iustitia civilis.

[20] Luther, while unfolding Christian ethics as an ethics of good works, never turns good works into an ethical theory, into a “theoria”(theory), an anonymous moral subject or a speculative “public” one.. For him, there are only two adequate ways to talk about good works: by way of Christian teaching, including the catechism, or by way of sermon. Both ways convey something external to the human mind, something that cannot be dug out of the depths of human intellect, seen in the realm of ideas, or drawn from a critique of human reason. Teaching and sermon both embark on a story that exceeds human effort. They are both about God’s works and proclaim that good works are possible only because God takes initiative among his godless creatures.

[21] Thus, good works are related to the communication of the will of God in his word: “The first thing that should be known is that there are no good works except for only those that God has commanded, just as there is no sin except for that which God has forbidden. Therefore: whoever wants to know and to do good works needs to know nothing else than God’s commandments.”10 Good works happen because God wants humanity to remain humane. In a sense it can be said that Luther thereby established political ethics as genuine ethics over against all forms of political theology or theological politics. One simply cannot underestimate the weight of the Word of God in Luther’s conception: The Gospel that is contained in the first commandment is the source of the humanisation of the human being and of ethics.

[22] It is equally important to note that for Luther, God became the human being in Christ because true humanity was not to be found on earth. Christ teaches us who the human being really is, as well as who we are not. Luther’s ethics hence sets out with the renewal of the human being to become human at all. It is entirely directed against the ethically enacted self-divinisation of the human being, against any idealism or progress-thinking. It is also against any complacent conservativism. What the human being is cannot be discerned with reference to the vita activa (life in action), as in philosophical reflection, but can only be seen in the light of God’s grace as it shines on the suffering and occurrences of the vita passiva (life suffered and received).Set at his place in salvation history the human being discovers who he really is:

[23] Consistent with this, Luther denies that the human being could become human by means of ethics, by his works of the vita activa. Rather, humans receive their humanity by being drawn into the story of liberation, into which God involves humankind in Christ. The truly human is found with those who bear the image of the human being as God sees and promises that that person is to be reinstalled into the image of God. The individual human can be seen in the true image of the human being, only as God “looks at him or her” through Christ. Luther’s conception of ethics thus has a Christological grammar–the human being becomes shaped in the likeness of Christ whenever he disrobes his divine guise and the justice of his own choice and takes on the likeness of the servant. The good works that ethics imagines it can achieve are given to the human along with God’s promise that he is our God. But it is important to note that they are given simultaneously to the Church and to society, because God is equally near to and far from both. Both are waiting for God to become present. Ethics, properly understood, witnesses to God’s works, and is thus cooperative, or it merely lines up “dead works”.. Such ethics that starts out with the first commandment takes shape in the political realm in the figure of the citizen.

End Notes
1 For a social ethics unfolded in the sense of the politia Christi, see: Ernst Wolf: Politia Christi. Das Problem der Sozialethik im Luthertum, in: ders., Peregrinatio, Studien zur reformatorischen Theologie und zum Kirchenproblem, München 21962, 214-242.

2 Martin Luther: WA 40, III, 214.

3 All forms of governance “sunt dei larvae, allegoriae…Sol alls Christum in sich fassen .” Luther WA 40/I, 463f. (In epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas Commentarius 1531 (1535)).

4 For Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Luther’s political ethics see: Dietrich Bonhoffer, Ethik, Ilse Tödt, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil and Clifford Green (ed.), DBW 6, Gütersloh 1998.

5 See besides the already mentioned article on the “Politia Christi” also: Wolf, Ernst: Königsherrschaft Christi und lutherische Zwei-Reiche-Lehre, in: ders., Peregrinatio Bd. 2, Studien zur reformatorischen Theologie, zum Kirchenrecht und zur Sozialethik, München 1965, 207-229. See also: Wolf, Ernst: Sozialethik, Theologische Grundfragen, Theodor Strohm (Hg.), Göttingen 1975.

6 Oswald Bayer: Martin Luthers Theologie. Eine Vergegenwärtigung, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 22004.

7 See Hans G. Ulrich: Wie Geschöpfe leben. Konturen evangelischer Ethik, ETHD 2, Münster 2005.

8 For this distinction see paradigmatically Luther’s “On Christian Liberty” (1520), WA 7,

9 Hans Joachim Iwand has called the process of drawing scripture from the flesh into the Spirit Luther’s christological hermeneutics. I like to apply this concept also to the other larvae like the institutions and political life forms such as citizenship. It could be labelled a christological hermeneutic of reality. See Hans Joachim Iwand: Luthers Theologie, Johann Haar (Hg.), Hans Joachim Iwand Nachgelassene Werke Bd. 5, Helmut Gollwitzer u.a. (Hg.), München 1974, 113.

10 WA 6, 204, A treatise on good works, 1520. (my translation)