Hodge: The (Lutheran) Formula Of Concord Got It Right On Good Works And Salvation

The controversy was renewed not long after in another form, in consequence of the position taken by George Major, also a pupil of Luther and Melancthon, and for some years professor of theology and preacher at Wittenberg. He was accused of objecting to the proposition “we are saved by faith alone” and of teaching that good works were also necessary to salvation. This was understood as tantamount to saying that good works are necessary to justification. Major, indeed, denied the justice of this charge. He said he did not teach that good works were necessary as being meritorious, but simply as the necessary fruits of faith and part of our obedience to Christ; nevertheless, he maintained that no one could be saved without good works. How then can infants be saved? And how can this unconditional necessity of good works be consistent with Paul’s doctrine that we are justified by faith without works? Whom God justifies He glorifies. Justification secures salvation; and, therefore, if faith alone, or faith without works, secures justification, it secures salvation. It is very evident that this was a dispute about words. Major admitted that the sinner was in a state of salvation the moment he believed, but held that if his faith did not produce good works it was not a saving faith. In his sermon “On the Conversion of Paul,” he said: “As thou art now justified by faith alone, and hast become a child of God, and since Christ and the Holy Ghost through that faith dwell in thy heart, so are good works necessary, not to obtain salvation (which thou already hast as a matter of grace, without works, through faith alone on the Lord Jesus Christ), but to hold fast your salvation, that it be not lost, and also because if thou dost not produce good works, it is an evidence that thy faith is false and dead, a mere pretence or opinion.” ….

The “Form of Concord,” in which this and other controversies in the Lutheran Church were finally adjusted, took the true ground on this subject, midway between the two extreme views. It rejects the unqualified proposition that good works are necessary to salvation, as men may be saved who have no opportunity to testify to their faith by their works. On the other hand, it utterly condemns the unwarrantable declaration that good works are hurtful to salvation; which it pronounces to be pernicious and full of scandal. It teaches that “Fides vera nunquam sola est, quin caritatem et spem semper secum habeat.”

The same doctrine was clearly taught in the Lutheran Symbols from the beginning, so that the charge made by Romanists, that Protestants divorced morality from religion, was without foundation, either in their doctrine or practice…

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 3.239–241.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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12 comments

  1. And I understand that there are those who think we Reformed folks need to declare independence from the Lutherans at a point where the Reformed and Lutheran traditions agree.

  2. And I understand that there are those who think we Reformed folks need to declare independence from the Lutherans at a point where the Reformed and Lutheran traditions agree.

  3. Sadly, although Luther himself was just as adamant that the believer was secure in his salvation as that he was saved by grace, through faith alone, later Lutherans have lost that assurance of salvation, claiming that we must do our part, or we may lose salvation. See J. I. Packer Knowing God pages 223 – 228.

    • Is it just me, or does anyone else find this quotation from Major disturbing: “… hold fast your salvation, that it be not lost…”?

      • Angela,

        Yes, it disturbed a lot of people when he said it. That’s why, to their credit, the Lutherans in the Book of Concord rejected it. Nevertheless, it is true, as you note, that the BoC Lutherans also sided with the Remonstrants on perseverance. In this they rejected Luther’s teaching in Bondage of the Will (1525). It does introduce a significant problem to their theology and does, logically, tend to undermine the doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide. Fortunately, one rarely hears them teach this doctrine.

        What I thought was fascinating about this quotation from Hodge is how readily he was willing to acknowledge that, viz. Karg’s denial of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, the Lutherans were correct. There are far too many Reformed and Presbyterians today who have not read the BoC and who would never say such a thing out of misguided partisan loyalty. It’s also edifying that Hodge recognized that to say what Kang said, which is what Piper and others have been saying, is a de facto denial of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. Thus, one cannot say what Piper says about final salvation through works and profess justification by grace alone, through faith alone. His doctrine of “final salvation” has contradicted and obviates his doctrine of justification.

    • When Lutherans warn that salvation may be lost, are they not actually denying that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone? Are they not in effect saying that salvation is only finally decided on the basis of your faithfulness in persevering? Are they not going beyond claiming that good works are necessary as evidence and fruit of salvation, but also making them necessary as a ground of salvation?

  4. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for answering my questions. It is a great personal concern to me because I started my Christian journey in the Lutheran Church. After some years of membership I was shocked to hear our pastor warn the congregation that if you do not persevere in faithfulness in using the means of grace, and doing good works, you will lose your salvation. When I raised objctions that this ultimately makes sanctification the ground of final salvation, he accused me of being a Calvinist and not a Lutheran! And he meant it as an insult, not a compliment. That was how I ended up Reformed! He insisted that lose of salvation is a very real danger, and that it was his duty to warn the members to maintain their salvation through faithfulness. I did a quick internet search, asking if Lutherans believe that you can lose your salvation and found many answers in the affirmative, and that we must do our part to maintain it. So it seems this idea is actually quite prevalent as a current teaching in the Lutheran church.

    It seems to me that there is a very important difference between Lutherans and Reformed. Where the Reformed teach that sanctification and good works are the necessary fruit and evidence that one HAS BEEN finally saved in justification so that there is now no more condemnation in Christ Jesus, the Lutherans really have returned to a works principle of do this and live by insisting that you can lose your salvation unless you do your part to ensure that you persevere in the faith. That makes good works and sanctification necessary TO BE finally saved, so there can be no assurance in this life that we going to be finally right with God.

  5. I have often wondered if the stress on “doing our part” among Missouri and Wisconsin Lutherans might not be a reaction to a kind of anitnomianism that seems to have been rampant in 19th century academic theology in Germany–the kind that may have led a number of 20th century authors to see Luther’s own theology as “antinomian”.

  6. Peter,
    You make an interesting point. So sad that those who name themselves by Luther would revert to moralism. Moralism is always dissatisfied with love and gratitude to God as sufficient motivation for good works, so it reverts to the works principle of, do this and live. That of course is impossible for anyone, but Christ, since the fall, and if we try to approach God on the basis of the covenant of works, and fail, we will come under its death curse. Gal. 6: 12-13 “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ…that they may boast in your flesh.”

  7. I’m a Missouri Lutheran (I recognize I’m probably at risk of annoying the management) and I’ve never heard anything remotely in the neighborhood of “we must do our part through good works.” The Lutheran approach to loss of faith is different than the Reformed, but both trains end up in the same station by my reckoning, since neither tradition holds that a person without faith is saved.

  8. Jon,
    I agree with you completely that, “neither tradition holds that a person without faith is saved.” It comes down to the question of whether or not a regenerate believer can lose their faith. The LCMS has a website featuring frequently asked questions. Under the section on salvation, page 13, they affirm that a believer can lose their salvation for a number of reasons including sin, and they list a few passages of Scripture which they believe support that position. They also go on to state that a person may be saved again by repenting and believing. It seems that Lutherans believe the true, regenerate believer is capable of forfeiting their faith and therefore their salvation. In my experience, when I asked how I can make sure that does not happen, I was advised that I needed to persevere in the use of the means of grace, prayer, constancy in God’s Word, and in doing good and avoiding sin. The obvious question is, I am a Romans 7 sinner as long as I am in this life, so how much of these these things must I do to ensure my perseverance, and how perfect must my perseverance be? As soon as I start to worry that I may loose salvation, by deficiencies in perseverance and I am told to maintain it by my behavior, am I not looking to my works to persevere as well as to Christ to be saved? If I can lose my salvation, then what good is justification if it can still be lost? How do I know I will persevere to the end? If I cannot trust that God will protect me from losing my salvation, even from my own sinful self, what hope do I really have?

  9. Some interesting information has come to light at christianity.stack exchange on the question, from a Lutheran perspective, does Hebrews 6 mean that some who fall away can never be restored? They quote Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper: “He that falls away from the faith does so through his own fault; the cause of apostasy in every case is rejection of God’s Word and resistance to the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Word.” Among the responders are a Lutheran pastor and Lutheran lay person with very different opinions.
    The Lutheran pastor agrees with Pieper and warns, “I see it as a warning not to neglect the faith and the things you have been taught. If you do, you may fall away and never be restored. Therefore remain in the faith, keep close to God’s Word, continue repenting for your sins, and continue learning so you don’t fall away…..you may fall away due to continued unrepentant sin or failure to nurture your faith through the means God has provided (Word and Sacrament).”
    The Lutheran lay person disagrees, saying that for those who are saved, apostasy is impossible and he provides a quote from the Book of Concord on support of his position, item 4 of section 11 (Election) of Epitome of the Formula of Concord:
    “The predestination or eternal election of God, however, extends only over the godly, beloved children of God, being a cause of their salvation, which He also provides, as well as disposes what belongs thereto. Upon this (predestination of God) our salvation is founded so firmly that the gates of hell cannot overcome it. John 10:28; Matt. 16:18.”
    Amazing that the actual confession is so similar to the Reformed Standards but the teaching in the Lutheran churches is often so different.

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