The position that the seeming good works of the ungodly are glittering vices was that of the Reformers and of Augustine before them. In his attack on the gospel of the Reformation, Erasmus argued for the free will of the sinner, upon which salvation must depend. In support of free will, Erasmus asserted that there is some good still in unregenerated men, some ability for good, and the actual performance of works that are good. These are Erasmus’ words: “Not every energy in man is [sinful] flesh. There is an energy called the soul, and one called the spirit, by which we aspire to what is upright, as did the philosophers; who taught that we should welcome a thousand deaths sooner than commit a vile action, even if we knew that men would never learn of it and God would pardon it.”
To this assertion that the ungodly retain some good and are able to do good works, Luther responded in his great book, The Bondage of the Will. What follows is this response by Luther. The quotation is from the translation by Packer and Johnston, James Clarke, 1957, pages 251- 253. The reader should know that “I” in the quotation is Luther himself; “you” is Erasmus; and the “Diatribe” is Erasmus’ book against Luther, the Reformation, and the gospel of grace.
You say: “Not every energy in man is flesh. There is an energy called the soul, and one called the spirit, by which we aspire to what is upright, as did the philosophers; who taught that we should welcome a thousand deaths sooner than commit a vile action, even if we knew that men would never learn of it and God would pardon it.”
I reply: One who has sure faith in nothing can easily believe and say anything. I will not ask you, but let your friend Lucian ask you, whether you can point it to anyone out of the entire human race, though he be a Socrates twice or seven times over, who has succeeded in carrying out their teaching as you here state and report it? Why then do you chatter on with empty words? Could they aspire to upright action, when they did not even know what an upright action was? If I should ask you for the most outstanding example of such uprightness, you would say, perhaps, that it was nobly done when men died for their country, for their wives and children, or for their parents; or when they refrained from lying or treachery; or when they endured exquisite torments rather than lie or betray others, as did Q. Scaevola, M. Regulus, and others. But what can you show us in all these men but the external appearance of their works? Have you seen their hearts? Why, it is at once apparent from the look of their works that they did it all for their own glory, so that they were not ashamed to acknowledge and to boast that it was their own glory that they sought. The Romans, on their own confession, performed their valiant acts out of a thirst for glory. So did the Greeks. So did the Jews. So does the whole human race. But, upright though this may be in men’s eyes, nothing is less upright in the sight of God. It is, indeed, the supreme impiety and the height of sacrilege, inasmuch as they did not do it for the glory of God, nor did they glorify Him as God. By the most ungodly robbery, they robbed God of His glory and took it to themselves, and were never less upright and more vile than when they shone in their highest virtues. How could they work for the glory of God, when they knew neither God nor His glory?—not because it was not visible, but because the flesh did not allow them to behold God’s glory, by reason of the mad fury with which they sought their own glory. Here you have your “spirit that rules,” your “principal part of man, which aspires to what is upright”—a plunderer of God’s glory, and a usurper of His majesty! And that applies most of all when men are at their noblest, and are most distinguished for their own highest virtues! Now deny that these men were flesh, and were ruined by ungodly affection! ….
The Diatribe may raise this still outstanding question: “Even if the whole of man, and the most excellent thing in man, is called flesh, must all that is called flesh be at once and for that reason called ungodly?” I reply: I call a man ungodly if he is without the Spirit of God; for Scripture says that the Spirit is given to justify the ungodly. As Christ distinguished the Spirit from the flesh, saying: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” and adds that what is born of the flesh “cannot see the kingdom of God,” it obviously follows that whatever is flesh is ungodly, under God’s wrath, and a stranger to his kingdom. And if it is a stranger to God’s kingdom and Spirit, it follows of necessity that it is under the kingdom and spirit of Satan. For there is no middle kingdom between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, which are ever at war with each other.
These are the arguments which prove that the brightest virtues among the heathen, the best works among the philosophers, the most excellent deeds among men, which appear in the sight of the world to be upright and good, and are so called, are really flesh in the sight of God, and minister to the kingdom of Satan; that is, they are ungodly, sacrilegious, and evil in every respect.