On Good Works

Johann Gerhard; edited by Joshua J. Hayes, Benjamin T. G. Mayes, and Aaron Jensen; translated by Richard J. Dinda.

St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019. 368 pages. Hardcover. $59.99.

Reviewed by Gifford A. Grobien on 04/01/2020

The publication of On Good Works is the thirteenth in the current series from CPH, a series that continues to exemplify high-quality translations, editorial helps, and physical products. In addition, this volume is of particular interest because of its extensive coverage of the topic “good works,” unmatched by any other Lutheran treatment in English. Gerhard begins the volume by addressing the various kinds of good works, but devotes most of his attention to the question of the necessity of good works and the merits of good works. His comprehensive treatment of these questions, grounded thoroughly in Scripture, carefully distinguishes in what manner the Bible teaches the necessity and merits of good works from misunderstandings, errors, and false teaching.

Good works are not necessary in order to attain righteousness before God and salvation. This is impossible, for one who lacks righteousness cannot do the good works that would be needed to make him righteous. Nor are good works necessary in the sense of compulsion; they are not to be forced out of the unwilling—indeed, they cannot be. Rather, good works are necessary in a cause-effect relationship. That is, good works necessarily come forth from the person who is good, who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit in Christ. More than this, however, good works are necessary in relation to God’s will: good works are not arbitrary, but align with and conform to God’s will. This is to say that God’s commands are good and people ought to strive to pursue them.

The question of merits is not a major point of discussion in Lutheran theology today, as Lutherans agree that works merit nothing for salvation. However, the topic was hotly debated with Roman Catholics in Gerhard’s time, and interesting insights can be gleaned from Gerhard’s presentation. For example, the question of nonsalvific rewards is rarely addressed today, yet Gerhard gives considerable attention to it. He distinguishes between “essential” rewards, those offered freely in the Gospel, from “accidental” rewards, particular rewards given to the pious according to their works and suffering (115). Rewards are given in accordance with works, yet these works do not merit eternal life. Eternal life is given as a free gift, through the merits of Christ, even while those who receive eternal life through faith will experience different gifts and rewards in their state of eternal life. Indeed, some accidental rewards and accidental punishments are received even in this life.

Gerhard importantly points out that where his opponents have interpreted some passages to say that eternal life is the reward of good works, these passages in fact express that good works bear testimony to faith, and that salvation is given freely through this faith, while other, accidental, heavenly rewards will be given in accordance with the works (187–193; Ps 62:12; Matt 16:27; Luke 6:38; Rom 2:5–6; 1 Cor 3:8; Gal 6:8; Rev 22:12).

A final chapter addresses the question of the loss of faith through sin, popularly known as “mortal sin,” but which Gerhard helpfully labels “sins against conscience.” Not all sin drives out faith and the Holy Spirit, for faith and the Holy Spirit abide to forgive sin. But the person who sins and fails to repent, but believes acceptance of sin abides along with faith and the Holy Spirit, has actually cast out the Holy Spirit and lost faith.

As with the other volumes in this series, this book should have wide appeal, both to those who want to read carefully Gerhard’s account of good works, and also to those who would use it as a key scriptural reference on the topic.