For as long as there has been a Christian church, the matter concerning Good Works has been at the forefront of theological discourse. After the Reformation some 500 years ago, the theologians of Augsburg disagreed concerning Good Works and how to rightly emphasize them.
On the one hand, some said that “Good Works are necessary for salvation,” and “It is impossible to be saved without Good Works.” Yet, on the other hand, some said, “Good Works are harmful to salvation,” and “We should not preach/teach the Law at all but only the Gospel.” They even went as far to say that the “New Obedience in the regenerate is not necessary” because it implies obligation or coercion, that the Law “forces” people to do good works.
There was also the view that Good Works, while not required for salvation, are yet required…for other reasons (whatever that may be).
However, if we are to be a people of the Book (the Bible), we must reject all these opinions as not from the Scripture and must instead look to the Scripture alone.
First, as we read in Ephesians 2:10 and elsewhere, it is God’s will, order, and command that believers should do Good Works. And such good works are not those done from a good intention, ror are they about following human traditions, but they are those works which the Lord Himself has commanded in His Word. Good Works are not of natural will or powers but are a result of God’s reconciling a person to Himself through faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as we read in Ephesians 2:10 once again.
Second, it is clear that the Good Works of believers is pleasing and acceptable to God, even though they are impure and incomplete in the flesh. They are acceptable for the sake of Christ through faith because the person has been declared acceptable to God. For unbelievers, even their works which are ‘good’ in a temporal sense are not regarded as earnful but wholly sinful for they do not come from faith. As our Lord teaches, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit and a rotten tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18), and “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). For his works to be truly good in the eyes of God, he must first be accepted (declared acceptable) by God for the sake of Christ.
Faith must be the source of all truly Good and God-Pleasing Works, which are fruits truly of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Now concerning the issue at hand. Because of the misuse or misunderstanding of words like necessary, commanded, ought, must, and needful, some have created for themselves a false and dead faith whereby they believe themselves abiding in the vine yet without true repentance or good works. This has truly become commonplace in our day and age since modern concepts of autonomy and individualism have trampled upon objective and universal truth and divine authority. Christians (or those who call themselves as such) will say, “See, I was baptized and confirmed, and though I do not bother with church or repenting of sin, I am saved because I believe myself to be a believer.” They act as if there could be true faith in the heart while at the same time living openly as the wicked do with every intention to continue thus.
Yet this is simply impossible (Romans 6:1-2)! One cannot confess Christ as Lord and savior and forgiver of sin if one does not wish to repent of sin, be set free from its snare, and convert. Further, it has become all too commonplace for people to have a pretend faith, to declare themselves righteous, and to consider themselves saved, in spite of the fact that they are living apart from the vine, as wild trees which bear nothing but rotten fruit. One who intentionally, purposefully, and unwontedly persists in sin and disobedience does so because he has not a faith which saves and delivers the Spirit of holiness to his heart.
We learn, then, that when the Scripture uses words like necessary, or must regarding Christian obedience, it’s not meant to coerce or be an obligation of our will, but only as the command of God’s unchanging will, to whom we each owe all things. The creature should be obedient to is Creator. But such works done as a way to earn grace or favor with God are hypocritical because they are impure and fettered with sin and flesh, and the Lord does not care to give such works the time of day. But people of the Gospel are to be a willing people (Psalm 110:3) and sacrifice freely (Psalm 54:6), not reluctantly or under compulsion, but to be obedient “from the heart” (Romans 6:17). In this way, it is rightly and biblically taught that truly Good Works should be done willingly, voluntarily, and by all those whom the Lord’s Christ has set free.
But what of the rebellious and unwilling flesh? Hear St. Paul’s words: “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27), and “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Thus, it must never be taught that Good Works are optional for believers to do nor not do, and it must also never be taught that believers are permitted to act against God’s Law and still have faith and God’s favor and grace.
To summarize: Good Works must never be taught as part of the language of salvation and justification. Good works are NOT necessary for salvation, and we MUST be saved apart from Good Works for Christ’s atonement to truly be atonement. Similarly, it must never be taught that Good Works are optional or unnecessary for the Christian who earnestly seeks to repent and believe the Gospel. Any Christian who refuses to repent, to mortify the flesh of its passions and lusts, who lives continually against the Law of God without any desire to obey God, he is outside the faith and living as a heathen.
Based on Article IV. Good Works, from The Epitome of the Formula of Concord, The Lutheran Confessions.