Rightly Understanding Good Works: Purpose vs. Substance

To say that the value of our good works is their benefit to our neighbor is nothing more than an extension of the doctrine of justification.  Our works do not make us righteous before God–Christ has completely taken care of that for us.  Having received His imputed righteousness, there’s nothing for us to add.  Neither do our works benefit God, who is already perfect and omnipotent.  However, God has chosen to provide for the world through worldly means–means that include human beings.  For example, God feeds infants, but he does through through mothers.  The mother’s work of providing nourishment is therefore of benefit to the child God has given into her care.  Accordingly, it is fair to say that the purpose of our good works is to serve our neighbors, as Lutherans consistently teach.

Unfortunately, some Lutherans end up going too far–usually when they are asked for ethical advice on difficult subjects.  “Is it a sin to watch R-rated movies?”  “Is it a sin wear these kinds of clothes?”  When hearing such questions, this kind of Lutheran piously tells them that, as Paul & Isaiah instruct us, everything we do is sinful.  “We’re never going to become pure in this life, and living in a fallen world means that we will always be exposed to sin.  So when you consider what you should do and how you should behave, don’t worry about whether or not it’s sinful–it will be no matter what you do.  The question you should ask yourself is whether and how it is going to help your neighbor.  That, after all, is the purpose of your good works.”

That sounds reasonable.  It seems like a logical extension of Biblical teaching.  It contains a great deal of truth, and indeed, Scripture does tell us to consider whether a work is helpful to our neighbors (e.g., 1 Cor. 6).  And yet, a subtle shift occurs halfway through.  “Don’t worry about whether something is sinful.”  Here the Lutheran errs, for he has not simply taught that the purpose of our works is to serve our neighbors–he has made service to our neighbors the very substance of our good works.  In other words, serving our neighbors is no longer simply what our good works are for–it is the very thing that makes them “good” in the first place.  In attempting to piously highlight the doctrine of justification, he not only fails to provide ethical guidance to someone in need, he inadvertently makes man the ethical measure of all things.  After all, his neighbor must judge what is harmful and beneficial, but he has instructed his neighbor not to consider what is sinful.

So if not sin, then what is harmful to our neighbors?  What counts as serving them?  Well, it’s up to us at that point and whatever ethical philosophy we happen to subscribe to.  You might peruse the 10 commandments in a literalistic fashion, but only because they are ethical principles that are nearly universal across cultures–not because they are God’s instructions.  Or you might not.  If you’re a utilitarian, the far simpler measure of a good work would be whether your neighbor is pleased by it.  This opens up literally any activity that happens to please someone else.  Theft?  Well, Robin Hood shows us how much theft can please people.  Murder?  We’re already deep in the business of getting unwanted babies and those problematic elderly out of the way–in service to our neighbors, of course.  Homosexuality?  Well, my gay neighbors seem pretty pleased with it, and if you pick the right studies, even science tells you that it doesn’t harm anyone.  At the end of the day, if serving our neighbors is the substance of a good work, then any sin becomes good as long as you have an accomplice.

Most Lutherans would then back off and say that their advice is only applicable on issues where Scripture is silent (others would not;  I’ve encountered, for example, Lutheran homosexual activists who use precisely this argument to advocate same-sex relationships.)  But those who do back off might then say that while theft, murder, and adultery are straightforwardly condemned, the Bible doesn’t specifically mention, for example, the appropriateness of watching HBO’s Game of Thrones.  So because Scripture is silent on these subjects, we should fall back on considerations of whether we would harm our neighbors by watching it.  But Scripture is not silent on such subjects.  For Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”  Naturally, Luther teaches the same thing.  In the Large Catechism, he writes “[The 6th] commandment is also directed against every form of unchastity, no matter what it is called.  Not only is the outward act forbidden, but also every kind of cause, provocation, and means, so that your heart, you lips, and your entire body may be chaste and afford no occasion, aid, or encouragement to unchastity” and also, “live chastely in deed, word, and thought.”  So God’s Word is not silent on the subject after all.

“Well yes,” they say, “but it doesn’t tell us whether a given racy TV show is impure or filthy–or whether simply watching some of its scenes counts as unchastity or provocation to lust.”  Quite right.  It does not.  And as a result, we must not lay down some kind of one-size-fits-all rule for all Christians.  That would exceed the authority we have been given in Scripture.  We must instead judge for ourselves whether such things are or are not impure or filthy (and nothing but Enlightenment hyper-individualism says that this judgment must be entirely encapsulated within each person’s own mind.)  Furthermore, we aren’t merely to judge whether it will harm or help our neighbors.  Paul precedes his instruction by telling us to “be imitators of God” and follows it by exhorting us to “try and discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”   The substance of a good work–what makes it good–therefore remains whether it is God-pleasing.  It is something we have to discern and reason out based on His word and the Law written on our hearts.

This doesn’t exclude personal judgment from the matter.  Different people’s thoughts may react in different ways to different stimuli, and so, say,  nudity in film is not always a provocation to lust.  Likewise, not all nudity is necessarily impure.  We have no hard and fast rules for navigating which is which–it requires discernment.  And indeed, science adds its 2 cents as well;  if we find out, for example, that pornography messes up our brain chemistry and therefore violates the 5th commandment as well as the 6th, then that is one more reason to avoid it.  Nevertheless, the seat of our moral judgments remains in God’s Word as indications of what harms our neighbor.  That means Lutheran pastors and theologians need to be prepared to offer ethical guidance when they are asked the hard questions–not to dismiss well-intentioned Christians and presume them to be seeking works-righteousness.  Sometimes a simple “God’s word doesn’t give specifics, so use your good judgment based on what His Word does say” would be adequate for these questions.  But reframing it as “all action is sin, so don’t worry about avoiding sin, but don’t go out and sin freely or anything, and don’t hurt your neighbor” does nothing but muddle the issue.  Lutherans must recover a Christian understanding of human moral judgment instead of seeing it as a threat to justification and/or sola scriptura.

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