Martin Luther brilliantly taught that justification by faith alone is profoundly related to a Christian’s love for his neighbor. If a Christian thinks that his works play even a small a part in justification, he will never be able to help his neighbor out of true love. Instead, he will use his neighbor as a notch to put on his belt of God’s approval. Here’s how Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand summarize Luther’s thought on this topic.
“Works done on the premise of becoming righteous before God are ultimately works done not for one’s neighbor but for the glory and salvation of self. Our neighbor’s needs then become little more than means to an end. They cannot and are not carried out simply for the good of neighbor or because they are the right thing to do regardless of the benefit we may gain from them. Whatever benefit they give the neighbor is collateral, like ‘icing the cake.’ In the process, the neighbor either becomes instrumentalized as a means to an end or devalued as of little use. In the attempt to secure my future, I cannot carry my service to my neighbor, and thereby I deprive my neighbor of the Creator’s gifts. Theologies of glory thus create a situation where a person does only the bare minimum required to meet the need of one’s neighbor” (p. 83).
This might be compared to a politician holding a baby for a photo op. He doesn’t really care about the baby, he just holds the child for a picture to gain voter approval. So it is with the person who thinks his works play a part in his justification. When he helps his neighbor, he doesn’t really care about his neighbor. He is only helping his neighbor to gain God’s approval. He’s using his neighbor, not loving him.
Once we realize that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, we no longer view our neighbor as someone to use to gain God’s favor. We realize that Christ has already gained God’s favor for us by his life, death, and resurrection. That frees us up to truly love our neighbor, serve him, and help him. So Luther also said famously said that God doesn’t need our good works. Our neighbor does!
rev shane lems