Augsburg Confession – Article 20 – Faith and Good Works

Articles 19 & 20 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

(To read Article 19, click here.)

The accusation that our teachers forbid good works is levied against them falsely. For their writings on the Ten Commandments and other writings prove that they have explained and promoted actual Christian stations and works profitably and well. Prior to this little was taught about these and instead the focus of all sermons, for the most part, was on childish and unnecessary works, such as the Rosary,1 worship of the saints, monasticism, pilgrimages,2 appointed fasts, holy days, brotherhoods,3 etc. Even our opposition no longer praises such unnecessary works as much as they once did, and they have even learned to talk about faith now. Formerly they did not preach about faith at all; now, however, they teach that we become righteous before God not just by works, but they add faith in Christ, saying that faith and works make us righteous before God. Speaking this way might bring a little more comfort than only teaching people to trust in works.

Now since the doctrine of faith, which is the centerpiece of Christianity, has been neglected for such a long time, as everyone must admit, and instead only works-doctrine was preached in all places, this is the instruction on faith that our teachers give:

First, our works cannot reconcile us with God or earn grace for us. This happens only through faith, when we believe that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ, the only mediator who can appease the Father. Now whoever mistakenly imagines that he can accomplish this by works and can merit grace despises Christ and is seeking a peculiar way to God contrary to the gospel.4

Second page of Article 20 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

This doctrine of faith is clearly and plainly treated by Paul in many places, especially in Ephesians 2: “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and none of this is from yourselves, but it is God’s gift, not by works, so that no one may boast, etc.”

And we can prove from Augustine that we are not introducing some new understanding here, for he thoroughly treats this matter and teaches the same thing, that we obtain grace and become righteous before God through faith in Christ, and not through works, as his entire book On the Spirit and the Letter demonstrates.5

Now although this doctrine is much despised among untried people, the fact is that it is very comforting and healing for weak and terrified consciences. For the conscience cannot find rest and peace through works, but only through faith, when it can conclude for certain that it has a gracious God for Christ’s sake, just as Paul says in Romans 5: “If we have been justified through faith, we have rest and peace before God.”

This comfort used to be neglected in sermons. Poor consciences were instead directed to their own works, and many kinds of works were undertaken. Bad consciences have chased some people into the cloisters, where they were hoping to earn grace through the monastic lifestyle. Others have invented other works by which they might merit grace and make satisfaction for sin. Many of these people have learned from experience that there is no peace to be found in these ways. Therefore it has been necessary to preach and diligently promote this doctrine of faith in Christ, so that people may know that God’s grace is apprehended through faith alone, apart from merit.

The people are also instructed that here we are not talking about such faith as the demons and the godless have, who also believe the historical accounts of Christ’s suffering and rising from the dead.6 We are rather talking about true faith, which believes that we receive grace and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

Third page of Article 20 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Now the one who knows that he has a gracious God through Christ truly knows God, calls upon him, and is not without God like the heathens. For demons and godless people do not believe this article of the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly they are hostile to God, are unable to call on him, and expect nothing good from him. And thus, as has now been indicated, Scripture speaks of faith, but by “faith” it does not mean the kind of knowledge that the devil and godless people have. For this is what the Letter to the Hebrews teaches about faith in Chapter 11, that faith is not just knowing the historical accounts, but having confidence in God that we will receive what he has promised. And Augustine also reminds us that we should understand the word faith in Scripture as meaning confidence in God, that he is gracious to us, and not just knowing historical accounts the way even the demons know them.7

We furthermore teach that good works should and must be done, not so that we may trust that we have merited grace through them, but for the sake of God and to the praise of God. It is always faith alone that apprehends grace and the forgiveness of sins. And since the Holy Spirit is given through faith, the heart is thereby already equipped to do good works.8 For prior to receiving faith, the heart is too weak, since it is without the Holy Spirit; in addition, it is in the control of the devil, who drives the poor human nature to many sins. We see this in the philosophers; they strove to live honorable and blameless lives, but nevertheless did not succeed, having instead fallen into many glaring, open sins. That’s how it goes with a person when he is apart from the true faith, without the Holy Spirit, and governs himself only through his own human power.

Therefore this teaching about faith should not be denounced for forbidding good works. It should rather be praised for teaching how to do good works and offering help so that people can actually attain to good works. For apart from faith and outside of Christ human nature and ability is much too weak to do good works, to call on God, to have patience in suffering, to love one’s neighbor, to diligently carry out one’s entrusted responsibilities, to be obedient, to avoid evil desires, etc. Such high and proper works cannot be done without Christ’s help, as he himself declares in John 15, “Without me you can do nothing.”

(To continue to Article 21, click here.)

Notes

1 The Rosary is a collection of prayers, arranged in sets of ten Hail Marys with each set preceded by an Our Father and followed by a Glory Be to the Father. During recitation of each set, known as a decade, thought is given to one of the so-called Mysteries of the Rosary, which recall events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. The Glorious mysteries are said on Sunday and Wednesday, the Joyful on Monday and Saturday, the Sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday, and the Luminous Mysteries are said on Thursday. Normally, five decades are recited in a session.

2 One of the most common pilgrimages mentioned repeatedly by Luther is the Way of St. James, which ended at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The cathedral supposedly houses the earthly remains of James the apostle, the son of Zebedee and brother of John; his beheading by King Herod Agrippa is recorded in Acts 12. Such pilgrimages earned various indulgences.

3 Brotherhoods were associations of laypeople who organized for religious exercises and to participate in, support, and sponsor church-related work.

4 Paul says the same in Galatians 5:4.

5 Luther often spoke highly of Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter, a work Augustine penned in 412 AD against the Pelagians which is also readily available in English. For example, he writes in Chapter 22: “Accordingly, by the law of works, God says to us, Do what I command thee; but by the law of faith we say to God, Give me what Thou commandest. … Now, having duly considered and weighed all these circumstances and testimonies, we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a holy life, but by faith in Jesus Christ,—in a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.”

Here the Latin version adds: “And Ambrose teaches similarly in On the Calling of the Gentiles and elsewhere. For this is what he says in On the Calling of the Gentiles: ‘Redemption through the blood of Christ would become worthless and human works would not surrender first place to the mercy of God, if justification, which takes place through grace, were due to merits that preceded it. Justification would not then be the gift of a bountiful giver, but a payment owed to workers.’”

This quote has more dubious origins. It has sometimes been attributed to Ambrose (c. 340-397), though it is now generally recognized not to be his (there is another, shorter work by the same name, On the Calling of the Gentiles, that is attributed to him). Sometimes it has been attributed to the well-educated layman and disciple of Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-c. 455), though some still doubt this attribution too. Regardless, the work is of early origin and the excerpt Melanchthon quotes fits well in this article. (The original Latin quote can be found in col. 669 [Book 1, Chapter 17] here.)

6 James 2:19

7 Augustine does distinguish the faith of a Christian from the faith of a devil, for example, in his Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John (Homily X, 2), but he does not make the same point there as Melanchthon makes here. Augustine rather distinguishes the two by saying that Christian faith produces the fruit of love (which is of course also true). Some scholars also think that Melanchthon might have in mind the work De cognitione verae vitae, which was commonly attributed to Augustine, though now generally ascribed to Honorius Augustodunensis (12th century). Chapter 37 (in col. 1025 here) of that work answers the question: “Is there a difference between believing God and believing in God?” and thus also distinguishes between Christian faith and the faith of demons and pagans. But there too the author does not stress confidence in God as Melanchthon does here. Perhaps Melanchthon mis-cited Augustine here, or perhaps he has some other work(s) in mind with which we are simply not familiar.

8 In addition to the proof passage Melanchthon himself cites later, see Psalm 51:10-13; 119:32; Matthew 12:33.

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Caspar Neumann’s Meditation on Death

Translator’s Preface

Pieter Schenk, Caspar Neumann, copperplate engraving. Neumann was called the “Chrysostom of Breslau” for his preaching ability.

Caspar Neumann’s (1648-1715) hymn, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben,” did gain some ground in German Lutheran hymnody – including in the Wisconsin Synod’s German hymnal, where, however, it was titled “Lieber Gott, wenn werd ich sterben.” But its fame consists primarily in the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) chose it as the basis for the cantata he composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, September 24, 1724. (He had just been hired as the St. Thomas Cantor in Leipzig the previous year.) Considering that Neumann had passed away less than 10 years earlier, and had only composed this hymn perhaps 30 years earlier (c. 1690), this was a high compliment from the great composer.

Bach selected Neumann’s hymn text in light of the Gospel appointed for that Sunday, Luke 7:11-17, the account of Jesus raising the son of the widow who lived in Nain. Bach simply incorporated sts. 1 & 5 into the cantata as they were, for the first and sixth movements (opening chorus and closing chorale), respectively. The remaining stanzas were paraphrased and reworked into different schemes by an as-yet unknown poet:

  • Original st. 2 (AB AB CC DD, 87 87 77 88) – 2nd movement (Tenor Aria; AB AAB, 98 998)
  • Original st. 3 – 3rd movement (Alto Recitative; AAB CCB DE DE, 649 687 69 65)
  • Original st. 4 – 4th movement (Bass Aria; AB CC AB, 12-11 5-5 12-11) and 5th movement (Soprano Recitative; AA BCCB DEED, 9-11 8-10-8-10 9-8-8-5)

I have retained the meter of the original in my translation, but my rhyme scheme is slightly different – AB CB DD EE.

The usual tune originally suggested was “Freu dich sehr” (used, e.g., with “Comfort, Comfort All My People”). I would also suggest “Der am Kreuz” (used, e.g., with “Jesus, Grant that Balm and Healing”). You can read the original German text along with a prose translation here. You can listen to a performance of the cantata here.

May Neumann’s meditation on death lead us to see what blessings, comfort, and assurance we have in Christ Jesus, and thus become our own meditation.

Dearest God, When Will Death Meet Me

1. Dearest God, when will death meet me?
Precious time keeps slipping by,
And heirs of the sinful nature,
With whose number, too, am I,
Have from Adam as their lot
But a brief and fleeting slot
on this earth to live in sorrow,
ere becoming earth tomorrow.

2. I wish not to meet unwilling
The conclusion of my time;
Mortal seeds sown in my members
Guarantee their passing prime,
Not to mention without fail
One and all go down death’s trail,
Many loved ones not omitted,
Who to graves are now committed.

3. Yet, O God, what questions anxious
Shall I raise when death draws near?
Where shall my cold frame be buried?
Where shall then my soul appear?
How my worries swell and soar!
Who’ll assume my treasure store?
Where shall all my loved ones scatter,
While I turn to earthly matter?

4. Stop! What right have I to worry,
Since I’ll go to Jesus’ side?
Better now ’twould be than later,
For my flesh shall be revived.
Pardon glad, world, I bestow
That you keep my goods below;
To my heirs I am supplying
God, a giver never dying.

5. Lord of life and death, I pray you,
Let my end a good one be.
Teach me to give up my spirit
With devout serenity.
Grant that I a decent grave
Next to faithful Christians have,
And at last, with ground my cover,
All disgrace may then be over.