Faith is putting away the oars and hoisting the sails. [Img cred: watercolour by Wright Massey, from]

A few rough thoughts on the difficult topic of justification by works, inspired by the work of Martin Luther and Rudolf Bultmann.

In a blog post of his, Wesley Hill recently drew my attention to a beautiful progressive Lutheran Ash Wednesday sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It is Lutheran in the full-blooded sense of finding its inspiration in Martin Luther’s remarkable, subtle, and deeply interesting theology of sin, the “bondage of the will”. Here are two highlights from that sermon:

People who think I’m some crazy liberal are always so shocked about how much I love to talk about sin.   I think liberals tend to think admitting we are sinful is the same as having low self-esteem.  And then conservatives equate sin with immorality.  So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid mentioning it at all.  While the other end of the church tells us that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you can just be a good squeaky-clean Christian. Yet when sin is boiled down to low self-esteem or immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are simply in bondage to.  The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self. I cannot by my own understanding or effort disentangle myself from self interest – and when I think that I can…I’m basically trying to do what is only God’s to do.

So, to me, there is actually great hope in Ash Wednesday, a great hope in admitting my mortality and my brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program long enough to allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.


Therefore there’s no shame in the truth of who we are; the broken and blessed beloved of God.  There’s no shame in the truth that our lives on earth will all end and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  It’s not depressing.  What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise.  What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself, I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet.

Bolz-Weber correctly anticipates the sort of protest that this theology of sin will generate from both sides. Some will object that there’s too much talk of sin and doom and gloom, others that there’s not enough talk of personal moral responsibility. Nevertheless, if we can steer clear of Scylla and Charybdis, I believe we find a profound insight into perhaps the most discussed pattern of sin in all of St Paul’s writings: justification by works, or confidence in the flesh.

* * *

“Justification” is the divine verdict of “not guilty”, worthy, acceptable, O.K., righteous, passing the test, in good standing before God. Justification is an “objective” status rather than a subjective one: it doesn’t matter whether I think I’m a good person, it matters what God thinks. But justification is naturally a matter of importance to the human subject, too. It matters to us, instinctively, that we should understand ourselves as justified. We desire to experience the affirmation of those whom we respect, and, well, anyone really. If we don’t look for justification in God’s eyes, we’re more than happy to do just about anything to win justification in the sight of ourselves or of our friends.

St Paul spends a lot of time talking about the antithesis between justification by works and justification by faith (or more precisely, by God’s grace, through faith). The latter is the Christian ideal. God graciously declares that we are right and acceptable before Him, demanding only our faith in the authority of His word. Justification is a free gift of God accepted by a free act of faith (trust, self-surrender, obedience). It is not earned by any kind of works.

But what is justification by works?

Rudolf Bultmann, about whom I shall have a lot more to say in the near future, offers the following thoughts on justification by works (in this passage, “the works of the law,” or “confidence in the flesh”):

[S]in together with death goes back to the “flesh” (Rom 8:13, Gal 6:8, etc). But what is meant by “flesh” (sarx)? It is not what is corporal or sensual but rather the whole sphere of what is visible, available, disposable, and measurable, and as such the sphere of what is transient. This sphere becomes a power over us insofar as we make it the foundation of our lives by living “according to it,” that is, by succumbing to the temptation to live out of what is visible and disposable instead of out of what is invisible and nondisposable – regardless of whether we give ourselves to the alluring possibilities of such a life imprudently and with desire or whether we lead our lives reflectively and with calculation on the basis of our accomplishments, “the works of the law.”


Paul sees that human life is burdened with “care” (merimnan, 1 Cor 7:32ff.). Everyone cares about something. By nature our care is directed toward securing our life. “We put confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3-4), depending on our possibilities and successes in the sphere of what is visible, and consciousness of our security finds expression in “boasting” (kauchasthai).


Out of this grows also the slavery of anxiety that oppresses all of us (Rom 8:15) – the anxiety in which we each seek to hold onto ourselves and what is ours in the secret feeling that everything, including our own life, is slipping away from us.

From Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, trans. Ogden, pp.16-17

* * *

The real kicker is that “works” specially refers to good works. Social justice, criminal justice, pacifism, medicine, the diligent scholar, the humble salt-of-the-earth farmer or laborer, the devoted family man, the mega-philanthropist… There are a million worthy causes, Christian causes, all of them good works that ought to be done, but none of them should be taken as the ultimate grounds of our confidence, security, peace, affirmation. St Paul assures us that any such attempt to find justification in works will not succeed, whether by Christians or non-Christians.

What did any of these people do wrong? Aren’t they just trying their darndest to be good people, and being mightily effective at making the world a better place? If anyone deserves to be “justified” in God’s sight, shouldn’t it be these people?

The Christian does not disagree that these works are good;  however, if they are attempted merely humanly, out of the resources of self-reliance or the human spirit, then they cannot in the end justify us, not even to our own restless selves, still less before God. To explicate the point further, I suggest we briefly take a Lutheran look at sin and salvation.

* * *

When Christians talk about being saved, we don’t just mean being saved from divine punishments for our sins; we mean being saved from sin. Sin is a word rich in meaning, beyond the obvious sense of “deliberate wrongdoing”. The biblical metaphors for sin range from deliberate wrongdoing, to ignorance, stupidity, weakness, self-harm, death and the fear of death, sickness (of the heart), being lost, being enslaved, discovering that one’s entire existence has become futile and precarious and exposed and potentially worthless. (The book of Jeremiah skilfully weaves these metaphors together, often in the same verse.) Sin is the summation of the human existential plight.

Sin is something all-pervasive, something whose consequences spill on from generation to generation. All that talk about the “sins of the fathers” being handed down to their children – it’s entirely real! Look at any messy family history. Look at any systemic pattern of violence, oppression, or greed which has taken on a life of its own and become almost inexorable.

We are ultimately helpless in the face of sin’s power, and completely dependent upon intervention from Outside, from God. Justification by works is bad because it denies that fundamental fact, instead clinging to the hopeless shipwreck of our own lives independent of God, failing to recognise our own bankruptcy, the total emptiness inside of us. Justification by works is the attitude of the soul that experiences the terror and insecurity of knowing itself exposed as sinful through and through, yet tries to shield itself from the terror and construct for itself some security, just by hoping against hope that the sin isn’t as bad as it looked, that the injury was not a mortal one. But any form of self-reliance, independent of God, is sin itself (here I set myself quite firmly against Emerson). So the injury is in fact mortal, and justification by works is to make a pact with death:

Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement,

when the overwhelming whip passes through
it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,

a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’
And I will make justice the line,

and righteousness the plumb line;
and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”
Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through,
you will be beaten down by it.
As often as it passes through it will take you;
for morning by morning it will pass through,
by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on,
and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in.  (Isa 28:15-20)

Justification by works is the pattern of trying to exert oneself over the world, trying to gain control, security, peace by one’s own efforts. It is to stare down the essentially untameable wild and whirling otherness of the world (and especially the God) that confronts, surrounds, encompasses, and indeed accuses us, refusing to allow one’s self to be called into question. It is to suppose that by my own power, in any of a million silly and serious ways, I can be master over the world in its turmoil. Justification by works is to play God.

May we learn to let go of confidence in our works and approach God by faith alone.

– S.G.M.