Luther understands works of faith as essentially no different from works of law, except that they are missing the glory that one seeks for oneself in one’s own works. Faith cannot live without actions, yet faith does not live from the actions that it effects, but lives because God is active and because Christ “is not idle.” Faith lives because one believes and so the believer does a good work, but he does not require the good work to be what he is already. That is why the death and the transformation – the coming-out-of-oneself – of a person is important, so that “the person learns to do good works not for his own sake, but out of the overflowing of mercy – the free and spontaneous action in response to God”s graciousness – without trusting in the works themselves.” Whoever acts in this way as an instrument of God because he has everything he wants from God and can give himself to his works without seeking his own self-interest in the works themselves. On the other hand, the person who does not do works in this way (as actions that are done simply and unselfconsciously in response to need) but who seeks in each action to make himself or herself good and pious – because they see that other pious people do them – these people Luther calls “holy apes.”
We are therefore able to say in response to the accusation that is made regarding Luther’s emphasis on good works (viz., that it produces the opposite of what it intends) that without despairing of oneself and one’s ability to truly do pure, good works, a person will never gain the truth about himself or about God, which will prevent any action that he does from having any integrity and stability. Simply put, unless a person can stop himself from being the purpose and goal of his own actions and begin to seek God’s honor and not his own honor, there is no such thing as a good work.
Hans Iwand, “The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther”, pages 58-59