In his book A Formula for Parish Practice, Timothy J. Wengert explains how a friend of Luther’s named Nicolaus von Amsdorf objected to the works-salvation taught by Lutherans like Philip Melanchthon and George Major. Amsdorf controversially said:
“All those who teach and write that good works are necessary for salvation are going directly against Luther, yes, directly against themselves. For Luther of blessed and holy memory writes everywhere and especially on Galatians that good works not only are not necessary for salvation, but are also harmful to salvation” (see here).
Not only did Amsdorf deny that works were necessary for salvation—he said they were harmful to it!
That quote is interesting for several reasons.
First, it shows that Amsdorf understood that Lutherans were teaching that works were necessary to salvation.
Second, it shows he thought they did not realize what they were teaching.
Third, it shows he thought they were contradicting themselves, presumably because they also taught salvation by faith apart from works. Hence, Amsdorf was calling for them to be more consistent in their preaching.
Unfortunately, the Lutherans did not take Amsdorf’s warning to heart as you can see in a story that Wengert tells about visiting a dying woman:
“I still remember visiting in the hospital the dying mother of a woman who was a member of our congregation. She must have been subjected to moralistic sermons throughout her many years in Lutheran parishes. She knew she was dying, and she knew that I knew, too, so she blurted out as she sat on the side of her bed, ‘I’ve tried to live a good life. But have I done enough?’ The problem with George Major and with all the pietistic preachers who follow in his train rests not in their intentions (to combat lawlessness) but in the effect of their words. Proclaiming the necessity of works in our relation with God will always leave the weak dangling their feet over the bed wondering, especially at the end of life, whether they have done enough” (A Formula, p. 66).
This story shows that works are harmful to salvation in the sense that works-salvation preaching undermines assurance. The woman was dying without assurance. Perhaps she struggled her whole life with a lack of assurance. How terrible!
But it is even more harmful in the sense that if you have only ever believed in works-salvation, then you are not yet born again. That dying woman might have lacked assurance because she never believed the saving message.
Amsdorf was right. If good works are made a condition of salvation, then they are harmful to it.