What is the role of works in the Christian life? Is true freedom found within the walls of a monastery or in the everyday outworking of faith? With a careful examination of The Rule of St. Benedict and Luther’s essay The Freedom of a Christian Man, this paper further explains and compares two very different approaches to Christian life and the sacred nature of each.
The predominant interpretation of Martin Luther’s theology affirms justification by faith alone, with works irrelevant to salvation. This assessment, while not misplaced, often leaves Luther’s teaching as a faith vs. works statement. This common oversimplification can misguidedly lead to the demonization of works, and subsequently the Catholic Church as an alleged perpetrator of this works-based doctrine. In truth, neither Protestantism nor Catholicism can be grossly simplified to salvation by faith-alone or works-alone. Martin Luther had great respect for works as an outworking of Christian freedom; these works, however, must come from faith. In the same way that Luther is occasionally misinterpreted, so is monastic life. The goal of Benedictine monasticism was not to discipline the body and mind into purity worthy of salvation; rather, the Rule was composed so that “through its observance in the monasteries, we may know that we have made some progress in pursuit of virtue and the commencement of a monastic life” (Benedict 106). Both Luther and St. Benedict agree that salvation is guaranteed by neither works nor perfect discipline. Christian freedom is manifest in servitude, and through the writings of both St. Benedict and Luther we come to see two seemingly opposing lifestyles in great similarity to one another as servants of the same Lord.
The Rule of St. Benedict was written for the purpose of ordering and guiding the activity of monastic life. As such, it is not a comprehensive account of the doctrine and literary work taught in the monastery, but a record of rules which govern the monks and abbot to reconfigure their lives as vessels of complete devotion to God. A comparison of Christian freedom in monastic life and Lutheran teaching must therefore take into account the audience of The Rule. While Luther’s essay entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man is directed at all Christians, the regulations and restrictions of the Rule are written for those who have dedicated themselves to monastic life. Not all Christians are equipped for the demands of the order, for as Paul writes, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17 ESV). In light of this, all references to the teachings of St. Benedict are distinct from his attitude towards life outside the monastery; likewise, the comparisons between the Christian freedom as described in the Rule and in Luther’s essay refer only to monastic life and Luther’s audience.
The stipulations of monastic life require members to revoke worldly comfort in order to initiate reorientation towards God. This freely chosen life of restriction appears to be in opposition to a Christian life in which “All things are lawful” (1 Cor. 10:23 ESV); however, the Rule demands a life of servitude and abstinence which exercises Christian freedom to its fullest extent. As the verse continues, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). The strict Rule for monastic life limits temptation in order to procure untainted acts of service for one’s neighbor. The greatest exercise of freedom is servitude, as demonstrated by God’s incarnation and submission to human history, law, and suffering. The significance of servitude in the Christian life is the greatest commonality between the Rule and Luther.
In order to limit temptation, the Rule demands that “Individual desires have no place in the monastery” (Benedict 51). No private possessions were kept after their admission, but were instead distributed to the poor. Therefore, it is written: “Monks have neither free will nor free body, but must receive all they need from the abbot” (76). As Christ’s representative, the abbot was the head of the monastery and source of provision (48). Dependency upon the abbot for provision and confession was a representation of the Christian’s utter dependence upon God. Communal life fostered humility, upon which the rest of the virtues were built; on the other hand, it also bred discontent. As an assured precursor to sin, desire was assuaged by a life of temperance, but not depravity. “The abbot must always remember, ‘And distribution was made to everyone according to his need’ (Acts 4:35). He should take into account the frailties of those in need and not the hostility of the envious” (Benedict 92). With the provision of necessities, there was no excuse for complaint or dissatisfaction among the Brothers.
As demonstrated by the limitation of personal belongings in the Rule, humility was considered one of the cardinal values of the Christian life. From it proceeds all other virtue, and without it righteousness is unattainable. Invoking Old Testament imagery of Jacob’s Ladder, St. Benedict instructs us to construct a ladder built upon the twelve steps of humility, which require obedience, silence, and unreserved submission. “The ladder represents our life in the temporal world; the Lord has erected it for those of us possessing humility. We may think of the sides of the ladder as our body and soul, the rungs as the steps of humility and discipline we must climb in our religious vocation” (Benedict 57). In the monastic life, obedience to God was not inconsequential. “Only if we are found to excel in good works and humility are we preferred in the eyes of God as individuals” (49). Therefore, the Rule demands humility in all things, from possessions to conduct, the end of which brings one closer to God.
Regarding works as products of humility, Luther’s approach differs greatly form St. Benedict’s. Luther rejects the Aristotelian notion that the goodness or wickedness of works make a man good or wicked. He states:
Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works. Consequently it is always necessary that the substance or person himself be good before there can be good any good works, and that good works follow and proceed from the good person, as Christ also says ‘A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit’ [Matt. 7:18] (Luther 17).
It is evident, therefore, that the condition of the man constitutes the virtue of his work according to Luther. On the other hand, St. Benedict trains youth in discipline and servitude even before they know the gravity of good and evil. It is not necessary that their faith is strong before they are trained in the discipline of the Lord. Likewise, the twelve steps of humility are done not as a result of perfect faith, but as spiritual formation on the path towards God. As it is written:
When a monk has climbed all twelve steps, he will find that perfect love of God which casts out fear…He will no longer act out of the fear of Hell, but for the love of Christ, out of good habits and with a pleasure derived from virtue. The Lord, through the Holy Spirit, will show this to His servant, cleansed of sin and vice (Benedict 61).
The process of sanctification began with humility. The heart does not naturally act out of love of God, but out of fear of punishment. It is through the development of good habits that one will learn to find pleasure in virtue. While Luther requires faith before good works, St. Benedict requires discipline.
This is not to say that Luther believes one must be perfectly good in order to do good works; he only requires that faith be the prerequisite. All works, whether done in a church, monastery, or elsewhere, cannot be good unless they come from faith (Luther 17). For Luther, there exists both a spiritual nature and a corporeal one. The former concerns the soul, and the latter the flesh (5). No corporeal thing benefits the freedom of the soul; therefore “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robe of priests or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body” (5). These things can be done by wicked men as well; however, they will not do harm to the soul. The things which St. Benedict uses to cultivate a pure heart are useless to Luther unless done as an outworking of faith.
Christian life, therefore, needs nothing apart from righteousness and freedom (Luther 6). As Luther writes, “The very highest worship of worship of God is this: that we ascribe to Him truthfulness, righteousness, and whatever else should be ascribed to one who is trusted. When this is done, the soul consents to His will” (10). Because the soul is obedient by faith, the works of the body have no effect on the freedom of the soul. Faith unites us to Christ as a bride to her bridegroom. “Not by doing good works but by believing do we glorify God and acknowledge that He is truthful” (12). Faith exists only in the spiritual nature, and so corporeal works done without the purpose of glorifying God have no significance. Regarding justification, Luther writes:
To preach Christ means to feed to soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the word of God. Romans 1:17: “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Therefore, we are justified by faith alone and not any works, for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the word of God, nor subsequently faith. This faith can only rule in the inner man, as Romans 10:10 says “For man believes with his heart and is justified” (6).
No work can justify a sinner before God. With this knowledge, Romans 1:17 does not refer to a righteousness obtained by doing good works, but through faith, which is spiritual in nature. If justification were possible by corporeal means, faith and Scripture would have no purpose. But as Romans 10:10 makes clear, we are justified through belief.
Does freedom from the law grant freedom from works because we are justified by faith? Luther states that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” Even so, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Luther 4). There is no better example of perfect freedom than Christ. A God who cannot be coerced possessed the purest and highest freedom, yet chose to wash His disciples’ feet and befriend the sinner. Christ has made us free, but that freedom was not given as an excuse for idleness; rather, Christian freedom prompts us to imitate our savior in servanthood. Therefore, Luther writes: “Insofar as he is free he does no works, but insofar as he is a servant he does all kinds of works” (Luther 16). We are free from all things and over all things, but our freedom from sin means that we are bondservants of God. We have a duty to help our neighbor, and our justification by faith does nothing to negate that command (14). “Here the works begin,” Luther writes.
Here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline the body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do so if it is not in check (16).
Although faith is the starting point of works, a disciplined life keeps the desires of the heart oriented towards God’s. Here we see the similarity between St. Benedict and Luther. Both venerate spiritual discipline as a product of the Christian life, but the time and place for that discipline distinguishes the two. Works are important for godly living, but by them no man is justified.
Are the teachings of Luther and St. Benedict in fundamental opposition to one another? While their views are not contradictory, they are by nature distinct. While both agree that works are the natural outworking of Christian freedom, Luther says that they must come from faith, whereas St. Benedict says that faith is perfected through discipline. Luther says that we are over all things and subject to all things, but St. Benedict says that monks own nothing, “not even his own body” (Benedict 95). The difference lies not in doctrine, but in the nature of monastic vs. nonmonastic living. Where humility is the focus of virtue, temperance and discipline will yield a heart that earnestly seeks God. Where faith is the focus, works will naturally follow, although in a different form than evening vespers and communal living. To choose one is not to oppose the other, but is simply choosing what kind of life is appropriate for the spiritual gift one has been given. The monastic life is not for every believer, but the ones who can live temperately are blessed for their temperance. In the same way, those who exercise their faith outside of the monastic tradition are honored for their faith. Therefore, the spirit of Christian freedom lies in faith, but not without the outworking of our salvation in servitude to God and our neighbor.
Katelyn Walker is a second-year student at Gordon College, majoring in Biblical Studies and Philosophy and minoring in Psychology and Theology. Her interests include the intersection of theology and philosophy, the normalization of psychiatry in the religious community, women in theology, and Trinity and Christology. She is currently interning at Hendrickson Publishing and working as a Research Assistant for Dr. Hughes, TA for Dr. Kline and Dr. Gedney, and as a copy editor for The Gordon Review. When she’s not editing, she loves singing, making espresso drinks, reading, and changing her style constantly!