The gospel of good works

I’m nearing the end of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship (for previous posts, see here). The closing section of his penultimate chapter (“The Saints”) is another critical passage, I think, for understanding Bonhoeffer’s argument in the book as a whole. Overall, it demonstrates that Bonhoeffer really is saying nothing that cannot be found in the Lutheran confessions (see my post on Love and the fulfilling of the law) or, more importantly, in the New Testament.

Like Melanchthon, Bonhoeffer gives short shrift to the idea that faith and good works are mutually exclusive:

We shall be judged according to our works – this is why we are exhorted to do good works. The Bible assuredly knows nothing of those qualms about good works, by which we only try to excuse ourselves and justify our evil works. The Bible never draws the antithesis between faith and good works so sharply as to maintain that good works undermine faith. No, it is evil works rather than good works which hinder and destroy faith.

As he continues, “the law of God is still in force, and still demands fulfilment (Romans 3:31). And the only way to fulfil the law is by doing good works”.

However, critically, for the Christian the doing of good works is not a matter of law, but of gospel. It is not that God commands that the believer must do good works; rather, God promises that we will do good works:

We cling in faith to Christ and his works alone. For we have the promise that those who are in Christ Jesus will be enabled to do good works.

See Ephesians 2:10, cited by Bonhoeffer in an earlier paragraph.

As a result, what Bonhoeffer is advocating is emphatically not an inward-looking obsession with how “sanctified” we are, or even a self-willed effort to become more “sanctified” by our own endeavours. On the contrary:

From this it follows that we can never be conscious of our good works. Our sanctification is veiled from our eyes until the last day, when all secrets will be disclosed.

If we want to see some results here and assess our own spiritual state, we have our reward. The moment we begin to feel satisfied that we are making some progress along the road of sanctification, it is all the more necessary to repent and confess that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.

Bonhoeffer continues:

Yet the Christian life is not one of gloom, but of ever increasing joy in the Lord. God alone knows our good works, all we know is his good work. We can do no more than hearken to his commandments, carry on and rely on his grace, walk in his commandments, and – sin.

We ourselves will have no idea of the good works that God has done in and through us until the last day:

All the time our new righteousness, our sanctification, the light which is meant to shine, are veiled from our eyes. The left hand knows not what the right hand does. But we believe, and are well assured, “that he which began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

In that day Christ will show us the works of which we were unaware. While we knew it not, we gave him food, drink and clothing and visited him, and while we knew it not we rejected him. Great will be our astonishment in that day, and we shall then realise that it is not our works which remain, but the work which God has wrought through us in his good time without any effort of will and intention on our part (Matthew 25:31ff.).

So we are not to be cast into despair by our apparent lack of good works, our continuing sinfulness. Rather, we are “to look away from ourselves to him who has himself accomplished all things for us and to follow him”.

The good works will come, not because we roll up our sleeves and make a tremendous effort of the will (unlike those half-hearted Christians, over there), but because God has promised that they will happen. And we won’t even realise it has happened until we stand before him.

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