We have often heard what good works are, since we have come to the light and to knowledge through baptism and through the gospel. We did not learn in the papacy what constitutes a good work. Before the gospel came, we were told that the works which we ourselves devised and chose were good works, such as making a pilgrimage to St. James or some other place, giving money to the monks in the cloisters for the reading of many masses, burning candles, fasting with but bread and water, praying a certain number of rosaries, etc. But now that the gospel has come, we preach thus: Good works are not those which we choose of ourselves but those which God has commanded and those which our vocation calls for.
A servant does good works when he fears God, believes in Christ, and leads his life in obedience to his master. First he is justified before God through faith in Christ; then he goes on to lead a godly life in faith, maintains moderation and decency, serves his neighbor, cleans the stable, gives the horses fodder, etc. If he goes on performing works such as these, he is doing better works than any Carthusian monk. For since he is baptized, believes in Christ, and in assured hope is waiting for eternal life, he knows that whatever he does in his calling pleases God. Therefore everything that he does in his occupation is a good and precious work. To be sure, they do not seem to be great, outstanding works: riding out to the field, driving to the mill, etc. But because God’ s law and command covers them, such works cannot but be and be called good works and services rendered to God, no matter how insignificant they appear to be.
In like manner also a maidservant does good works when she performs her calling in faith, obeys her mistress, sweeps the house, washes and cooks in the kitchen, etc. Though these works are not as glamorous as the works of the Carthusian who hides behind a mask and has people gaping at him, still such works are much better and more precious before God than those of the Carthusian who wears a hair shirt, keeps his vigils, gets up at night and chants for five hours, eats no meat, etc. Although these appear to be glittering and shining works before the world, yet they have no command and order of God. How, then, can such so called “good works” possibly please God? Likewise when a peasant or a farmer helps his neighbor, serves him where he can, warns him of the danger threatening his body, wife, servant, cattle, and goods, helping him when he needs help, etc., such works do not make a great show, but they are nevertheless good and precious works.
When the civil government punishes the wicked and protects the virtuous, and when the citizens yield obedience to the government and do so from faith in Christ and in the hope of eternal life, they are performing good works, even though they do not shine and glitter in the sight of reason…. If you ask reason for advice, the works of a servant, a maid, a master, a mistress, a mayor, and a judge are common, lowly works compared with the Carthusian’s keeping his vigil, fasting, praying, abstaining from meat. But if you ask God’s word for advice, the works of all Carthusians and all monks, melted together in one mass, are not as good as the work of a single poor maidservant who by baptism has been brought into the kingdom of God, believes in Christ, and in faith is looking for the blessed hope.
These two articles St. Paul would keep alive among Christians: the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ and the knowledge of the office entrusted to us, so that we may rightly learn to know our occupation as Christians. Through baptism and through the gospel we are called as heirs of eternal life. Therefore we should wait for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, since we are now Christians and heirs of the kingdom of heaven, everything we do in our calling and occupation is altogether a good and precious work. Also for that reason we should be zealous for good works….
Now, therefore, since we have heard what blessed hope we should look for, we should also learn what good works are, namely, those which result from faith, in the calling commended to us, according to God’s command and word. Although such works do not glitter in the sight of reason, they are nevertheless precious before God, while the Carthusian and the monk cannot see and understand these things. For example, I am a preacher; that is my office. If now I believe in Christ and look for the blessed hope and then go and tend to my preaching and perform my calling, even though people hold my office in low esteem, I would not trade my office for all the works that all the monks and nuns do in the cloister….
Likewise also that wife is a living saint who believes in Christ, looks for the blessed hope and appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in such a faith goes and does what belongs to the calling of a wife….
Just as reason knows nothing of the blessed hope of eternal life, so, too, it does not understand what constitutes truly good works. It reasons thus: This maid milks the cow, the farmer plows the field. They are performing common, lowly works which also the heathen perform. How, then, can they be good works? But this man becomes a monk, this woman becomes a nun; they look sour, put on a cowl, wear a rough garment: these are exceptional works which other people don’t do, therefore they must be good works. Thus reason argues. Thereby reason leads us away from the true knowledge, both of the blessed hope and of good works.
Martin Luther, “Of Our Blessed Hope” – A sermon on Titus 2:13 preached on August 19, 1531 in Kemberg. Translated by Arthur Schulz in “Journal of Theology” Volume 35, Number 3 (September, 1995). Quoted at length by Franz Pieper in “Christian Dogmatics” Volume 3, pages 40-42 (ET), pages 47-50 (German).