Nov 25, 2014

Are Good Works an Appropriate Topic for a Lutheran Tea Party?

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Good works. Pious living. Helping little old ladies across the street (you’ve heard the boy scout joke—“It took three of us to get her across the street.” “Why was that?” “She didn’t want to go”). We Lutherans are sometimes accused of fleeing from even the mere mention of such things, lest we be tempted into unrighteous pride or the bondage of the law.

Is it true that Lutherans do a poor job at addressing Christian living? Is it fair to accuse ourselves of being “weak” in our teachings on good works? When faced with such a question from our non-Lutheran friends, it is helpful to point to one of the passages in our Lutheran Confessions that make it clear we hold a Biblical position on good works. For instance, this one, from the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord

“First, there is no controversy among our theologians concerning the following points in this article, namely: that it is God's will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works; and that truly good works are not those which every one contrives himself from a good intention, or which are done according to traditions of men, but those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word; also, that truly good works are done, not from our own natural powers, but in this way: when the person by faith is reconciled with God and renewed by the Holy Ghost, or, as Paul says, is created anew in Christ Jesus to good works, Eph. 2:10.” (Emphasis mine).

The passage also explains that “although in this flesh [our good works] are impure and incomplete, [they] are pleasing and acceptable to God, namely, for the sake of the Lord Christ, by faith, because the person is acceptable to God.” Lutherans are prudently wary of the human tendency to notice that a result of a thing is good, and to chase the result to the neglect of the thing (kind of like trying to use willpower to achieve the happy, alert feeling that results from a good night’s sleep, instead of actually lying down and going to sleep). We also know that moralism (an idolatrous trust in our own goodness instead of in Christ) creeps into human hearts with serpent-like ease. That awareness makes many Lutherans suspicious of any conversation on how Christians “should” live.

Our pastors know that the emphasis must remain on Christ, who took our sins upon Himself “while we were enemies” of God, as Romans 5:10 says. His death and Resurrection save us. Through the means of Word and Sacrament, He gives us salvation. The Divine Service is a special, particular, blessed thing with a special, particular, blessed purpose (to deliver the forgiving, life-giving, saving benefits of the cross at pulpit, altar, and font). Our pastors don’t speak much from the pulpit or the altar rail about the details of how we Christians should train our children, speak to our neighbors, or write novels that present a Christian worldview. That is not why they preach. Not everything good, useful, or even Christian belongs up front on Sunday morning. I cannot help thinking of a time when a non-Lutheran friend told me that if she met someone who was a brand new convert to Christianity or who was considering the faith, she would want him to read the Bible on his own instead of coming to her church. She was afraid that if he heard her pastor’s sermons, he might conclude that Christianity is about living a moral life. How blessed we are to attend churches where our pastors preach Law and Gospel every week!

Yet sometimes we look at the nitty gritty details of our messy lives and we want to ask questions. Sometimes we are desperately in need of models, explanations, and instruction on what Christian living actually looks like. We want to do good, but we aren’t sure what that means. Perhaps our own parents are divorced, and we have no idea what healthy communication in a Christian marriage should look like. Perhaps our children don’t want to attend church, and we need a Lutheran perspective on how to handle it. Sometimes we need the simple, common-sense kind of advice that used to come from the older women in the community (see Titus 2:4-5). Often we crave the encouragement of talking with each other about living in a world that is hostile to our faith. We are not looking for a law to live by, but encouragement in our desire to fulfill our vocations.

The need is often especially painful to those of us who have the job of teaching small children (who would probably prefer to be antinomians) how to not only behave like civilized, do-gooding citizens who refrain from walloping their siblings and spitting on their friends, but also how to make decisions in the sphere of entertainment, love, life, and even sex.

The real problem has nothing to do with a supposed inadequacy in Sunday morning sermons. It is that in today’s culture, it is hard to find the Christian community that could, and should, provide us with appropriate fellowship and mentoring. I suspect that back in the early-Twentieth Century, when Lutheran churches were packed full of large families bound together by faith and, in some congregations, a common German language and culture, this particular challenge was virtually non-existent.

The challenge of our day and age is to consciously, intentionally build community with those who share our theological understanding. Grand schemes are nice. Little efforts are more important. When we make the somewhat counter-cultural move of inviting the single woman who sits behind us, the family from the front pew, or the new college student (especially if they are from--gasp--a different generation than ourselves) to our home, we are taking a step in the right direction. When we seek out families who do something well and ask them how they get their adorable little hoodlums to sit so nicely during church, we are taking an even bigger step. When we are willing to listen respectfully, non-defensively, and openly to the feedback of the elderly ladies in church (even if it disagrees with our favorite parenting book), we are practically jumping. Works like Harold Senkbeil’s Sanctification: Christ in Action and Dr. Veith’s God at Work and Family Vocations: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenthood, and Childhood  can give us helpful guidance in these conversations.

Sometimes fellowship is not, or cannot be, local. I hope that this blog helps to build Lutheran community. I hope that we can feel that here we are in safe space where we can assume that we all agree that good works do not save us; that we are all poor, miserable sinners who require Christ’s forgiveness every moment of the day; and that sometimes there are practical tips that help us learn to do a better job at not losing our tempers with the husbands whom we have promised to love and obey.

The Christian life is full of paradoxes. We worship a God who is three, yet one; we are saints and yet sinners; we wish to learn to do good, and yet need to be pointed constantly back to the cross instead of to ourselves. In this Christian life there is room for talking about how we can better serve others through our many vocations. The conversations on this site are not going to help us “reach God’s standards” or achieve a “guaranteed result” or any kind of delusional nonsense like that. That ain’t happening as long as we are human sinners. However, I think that they are helpful and appropriate when they are part of a life of constant repentance and trust in God’s grace.


Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

Title Image: "Tea Party"  by Louis Moeller (1905)


  1. This is a really great article. I have spent a lot of time pondering this very same topic as a mother with many young children. I crave specific advice for the day to day struggles I face, but I need it from a Lutheran perspective.

    1. I'm fortunate in having Lutheran relatives (mother and mother-in-law) who can give me advice, but I know a lot of people don't have that. Maybe we need an "adopt a family" program for older Lutherans willing to be honorary grandparents.

  2. I apologize, I just commented as anonymous without signing off.

  3. Well said, Anna! I am so very thankful to have found this community of women as I fumble through my earthly vocations.

  4. Yes. I have looked at so many books that promise great advice, but only end up telling me that I need to do something like train my child's heart properly. What!? What does that even mean? What does that look like, and how does it help me get the floor mopped or teach the children how to tie their shoes? Most importantly, how does it point me back to the cross?

    1. Yeah, the whole "train a child's heart" thing is tricky, because we do have the job of "being the law" to them, but also the job of teaching them the Gospel. Figuring out how to apply the sensible parts of evangelical parenting materials, while also being Lutheran, is not always easy!


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