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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Age of Epicurean Delusions: Are Good Works Necessary?

In the Holy Scriptures themselves the words necessity, needful, and necessary, as well as ought and must, are used to describe what we are bound to do because of God’s ordinance, command, and will. …These sayings should rightly be employed and used to reject the secure, Epicurean delusion. For many create for themselves a dead faith or delusion that lacks repentance and good works. They act as though there could be true faith in a heart at the same time as the wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin [Romans 6:1–2]. This is impossible. Or, they act as though a person could have and keep true faith, righteousness, and salvation even though he is and remains a corrupt and unfruitful tree, from which no good fruit comes at all. In fact, they say this even though a person persists in sins against conscience or purposely engages again in these sins. All of this is incorrect and false.[1]

Above all, this false Epicurean delusion is to be seriously rebuked and rejected: some imagine that faith, and the righteousness and salvation that they have received, cannot be lost through sins or wicked deeds, not even through willful and intentional ones. They imagine that a Christian retains faith, God’s grace, righteousness, and salvation even though he indulges his wicked lusts without fear and shame, resists the Holy Spirit, and purposely engages in sins against conscience.[2]

       In these two paragraphs from our Lutheran Confessions, we see an important topic which must be addressed again in our American culture. But what is an Epicurean delusion? Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a Greek philosopher who taught that actions of gods should be rejected in favor of a materialistic view, rejecting a theistic approach to philosophy. The individual was to lead a self-sufficient life that pursued pleasure, peace, freedom from fear, and the absence of pain. This pursuit of pleasure led to more indulgence in fine foods, drink, hedonism and lust.

       While this is a simplification, it helps to understand his connection to our own era. In the American post-modern era we have rejected a theistic base for moral behavior and made the individual the source of moral standards. Pleasure has become the primary goal of life and thus my own moral perversion should be a standard that is tolerated for there can be no absolute position. Without any governing principle, the society is adrift. Theism never produces Christians, but it does impose a standard that is not determined by individual whims.

       All this has had a profound impact on the Christian church. Many of the baptized, even Lutherans, have wandered off into the Epicurean wilderness. They have come to believe that each has Jesus in his heart no matter what they do. After all, salvation is by grace through faith alone; thus, they argue that I am saved no matter what I do. This is nothing new, but the problem is that many churches and congregations are now openly supporting this delusion. This dangerous false teaching has worked its way into Lutheranism because private confession and absolution have been neglected and church discipline through excommunication has been abandoned. The argument goes like this: “Why do I need the pastor or a congregation when I can forgive myself? Why should a congregation be able to tell me I can’t have a pleasure filled, happy life? Should they be allowed to impose their standards on me? No one should be a judge over me and my behavior. I still believe in Jesus in my heart and I need to follow my own heart to be at peace.”

       Paul begs to differ when he makes it clear in Romans 6 that we should not continue in sin for we have already died to sin and been raised up to live in Christ. Jesus calls us to repentance throughout the Gospel and speaks of the need for the fruit of good works in John 15; Matthew 7:13-27; Mark 11:12-14; Luke 24:44-47; and numerous other places. As Jesus tells us the Church is to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins. As you learn to confess in Baptism IV, the Old Adam in us must daily be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires and the New Man emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. The grace of God must never become an excuse to engage in willful sin.

            The Christian does not follow his heart where sin dwells, but his conscience that has been shaped by the Word of God. We hear Peter’s words in 2 Peter 1:10, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” Through these words we learn to confess that when we have been forgiven we are to do good works in faithfulness to our calling given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. We desire to continue now in good works so that we do not lose the gift that has been given through faith. When we reject repentance, we no longer have faith or the Holy Spirit.

            Luther went so far as to say baptism is repentance. In the fifth chief part of the Catechism, we are taught which sins we are to confess and how to examine ourselves in our daily vocations. While other reformers rejected private confession, Lutherans maintained the practice for pastoral care for they knew the need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. They recognized that daily repentance and return to faith in the Gospel is the only true Christian life. In this way, the Law is always a part of the Christian’s life as we daily repent and discover the good that God has given us to do in the Law.

            When the Law has done its work, then the Gospel of Christ’s atoning work is applied, the sinner is set free from the curse of death, and now the Christian desires to willingly do the good works that are given to do in his vocation. The Christian delights in the Law of God, yet the sinful flesh continues to rebel as Paul teaches in Romans 7. We learn to discipline our bodies and confess that good works are not optional but necessary for the Christian life because we do not desire to return to the chains of sin and death. Should I sin all the more that grace may abound? Absolutely not. Instead, grant, O Lord, that all your baptized children may be fruitful in every good work in accordance with Your will. Amen.

[1] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 548–549). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[2] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 550). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Karl Fabriziius