In 1521, Luther listed and defended statements which the church of his day denounced. The resulting treatise was entitled Defense and Explanation of All the Articles. In relation to one of his statements, “A righteous man sins in all his good works,” Luther comments,

“This article annoys the great saints of work-righteousness, who place their trust not in God’s mercy, but in their own righteousness, that is, on sand. What happened to the house built on sand in Matt. 7[:26] will also happen to them. But a godly Christian ought to learn and know that all his good works are inadequate and insufficient in the sight of God. In the company of all the dear saints he ought to despair of his own works and rely solely on the mercy of God, putting all confidence and trust in him. Therefore we want to establish this article very firmly and see what the dear saints have to say about it” (LW 32:38).

It is highly likely that this article also annoys most lesser saints because most of us consider our “good works” to be good! When we do good works, we often feel “good,” but that, of course, depends on the good work. Raking leaves for hours in the hot sun to assist someone unable to do so, and especially for no pay and possibly no thanks, would probably not qualify as a “feel good” experience. Instead, we prefer to do “good works” when and where it suits us, especially “good works” which require little effort and receive some type of recognition or praise and, perhaps best of all, some monetary or material reward.

Paradoxically, we do not view our “good works” as sinful because of our human sin. Human sin blinds us to our sinful nature. In that sin, we believe that we are not sinful, or not very sinful, even when we do “bad things,” because doing something “bad” does not make us “bad,” or so we reason. On balance, most people would probably think that their 85% good deeds compared to their 15% not-so-good deeds is pretty good. Of course, one should especially remember that not-so-good deeds are not the same as bad deeds, or so we reason.

When was the last time that you gave much thought to why you do any “not-so-good” or even “bad” deeds at all, and if you have contemplated this, why did you do them in the first place? Furthermore, why would you even want to do them? Worse yet, why did you not refrain from doing them? Conversely, why would you not want to do “good” and “godly” deeds all the time? Well? What kind of a person are you?

So, we defend ourselves with the feeblest of defenses, like “nobody’s perfect” or “to err is human,” seeking in yet another way to place ourselves in the mostly good category, and if God does not like it, then God can just go to hell, right? Such is the state of sinful humanity, particularly our clever, atheistic humanity which exonerates itself with all manner of anti-religious self-righteousness. That is perhaps a little better, in their eyes, than being like “those hypocritical Christians” who cloth themselves in religious self-righteousness. Either way, the cross of Christ is the human attempt to tell God to go to hell for no liking our sinful self-righteousness.

All this makes one wonder which is more difficult, believing in God or believing in sin. In fact, theologically, the two are one and the same because the subject matter of theology pertains to the justifying God (deus iustificans) and the sinful human being (homo peccator). Physiologically or medically, we often know that something is not quite right with our bodies, but none of us likes to be told that we are terminally ill, especially when we generally feel “pretty good.” With time, however, the terminal condition becomes decided final, against our will and choice. Such is the consequence for all human beings because of human sin (Romans 6:23). Likewise, although we generally feel good about ourselves, even our sinful selves, and out “good works,” nonetheless our impending death is remains unimpeded because of our sin, our broken relationship with God, and our futile attempts to justify ourselves by our own efforts. Luther is basically saying that not a single good work on our part can stave off death. That is why in relation to our salvation our “good works” are at best good for nothing.

So, if our good works are no good, why do them at all? What is to be gained? The questions themselves reflect our selfish, sinful nature. In reality, which means solely from God’s perspective, any good works which we do are gifts given by God to others through us. Our “good works” are not our gifts to give. Instead, they are God’s gifts given to fellow sinners in need. That is exactly what Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection demonstrate, teach, and proclaim. Through Jesus Christ, God has given the gift of salvation, i.e. justification by grace alone through faith alone, to sinners as a gift, even if they are oblivious to this gift. This one good work promises to give death-bound human beings eternal life, at least to those human beings who believe that their innate sinfulness is forgiven by God’s overwhelming graciousness.