January / February 1995 The Majoristic Controversy

From the January / February 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran




In the previous article, you read of the death of Luther in 1546. Luther’s prediction that after his death many would compromise and sell out to the papacy and to the sacramentarians was fully realized. One after another, doctrinal controversies broke out. One doctrinal controversy which began while Luther was still alive but which burst open after his death was what is called, “The Majoristic Controversy.” It was named after George Major who was the chief proponent of the error which created the controversy.

Who was George Major? He was a Lutheran theologian who lived from 1502-1574. He was a professor on the faculty in Wittenberg. However, he was one of the several men after Luther’s death who joined with Philip Melancthon in making concessions to Rome. In 1548 the Pope had declared the Augsburg Interim which was the first step in an organized effort to reduce the Lutherans to obedience to the Pope. All those men who sided with or were sympathetic with Philip Melancthon in making concessions were called Philippists. Not only did these compromisers make concessions, they also proceeded to teach and to defend various false doctrines.

Major’s error may be summarized by the Latin phrase, causa sine qua non. Literally this means, a cause without which not. Idiomatically it means a necessary or essential cause. George Major taught that good works are a necessary cause to salvation! Obviously this is the same as saying that good works are necessary to justification. This false position had already arisen before Luther died. It had been expounded earlier by none other than Melancthon in his 1535 treatise called, Loci. Melancthon actually coined the phrase, causa sine qua non. However, Luther in private and others in public challenged Melancthon, whereupon Melancthon modified and somewhat backed off of his position. However, the leaven had begun to spread. Later George Major picked up on Melancthon’s causa sine qua non and publicly championed this error that good works are necessary to salvation. Soon Major gained avid support from Menius who also began to teach that good works are necessary to salvation.

Now we know, as any true Christian knows, that a man is saved or justified by faith in Christ alone without the deeds of the law. The Bible says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28) How did Major, a man in the Lutheran camp, come up with his notion that good works are necessary to salvation or justification? Like many, Major saw a danger in neglecting or minimizing good works in the life of a Christian. He once wrote, “They (good works) are necessary to such an extent that, if you fail to do them, it is a sure indication that your faith is dead and false, a painted faith, an opinion existing only in your imagination.” He knew that Scripture taught the necessity of good works. Indeed, after the Bible says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9), it goes on to say, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10) Here the Bible plainly says we were created in Christ Jesus unto good works and that we are to walk in them. To put in other words, we are saved for the purpose of doing good works and to glorify God. However, our good works are not the basis of salvation. Good works are a necessary and commanded FRUIT of saving faith, but they are not necessary to be justified or saved.

Major’s error was that he permitted Satan to lead him into false conclusions. Major put forth statements such as the following: “No one is saved by evil works, and also, that no one is saved without good works.” He went on to say, “Therefore it is impossible for a man to be saved without good works.” While Major may have originally intended to say that a saved person must and will do good works, he erred in saying that it is impossible to be saved (or justified) without works. Yet when it comes to a sinner’s salvation, it is all based on the works or merits of Christ. Saving or justifying faith trusts in the merits of Christ alone. The Bible says, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Galatians 2:16) Hence, works have absolutely no place in justification. Good works belong in the realm of sanctification or the holiness of living which flows out of saving faith.

Thus, Major placed the necessity of works in the wrong place. Good works are necessary, but not for salvation. The Christian must do good works as God commands it of him. Yet his good works, even though they are commanded and even though they give evidence of his saving faith, do not save him nor do they play any role in saving him. As stated before, good works are a necessary FRUIT of salvation, but they are not necessary to justification itself. Yet Major reasoned that since good works are necessary at all, then in the final analysis they must be necessary to salvation.

When pressed to correct his errors, Major still erred in that he tried merely to modify rather than to retract his error. He said good works are necessary to salvation, not in order to obtain, but to retain, salvation. Of course, this is also wrong! Even the retention of our salvation is wrought by God. The Bible says, “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” (I Peter 1:5) Although the Christian through his new man is to apply himself to good works and holiness of living and told to “work out his (your) own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), he does not by such good works preserve his salvation. Even the preservation of our salvation ultimately is the work of God. Scripture declares, “He (God) which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

The Majoristic Controversy was finally and formally settled by Article IV, “Of Good Works,” of the Formula of Concord 1580. We shall present what Article IV says on this matter. We shall quote from the Epitome which is the shorter version of the Formula of Concord. We shall present both the Affirmativa (the affirmed, true doctrine) and the Negativa (the rejected false doctrine). They read as follows from Pages 797-801 of the Concordia Triglotta:


Pure Doctrine of the Christian Churches concerning This Controversy.

For the thorough statement and decision of this controversy our doctrine, faith, and confession is:
1. That good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith, if it is not a dead, but living faith, as fruits of a good tree.
2. We believe, teach, and confess also that good works should be entirely excluded, just as well in the question concerning salvation as in the article of justification before God, as the apostle testifies with clear words, when he writes as follows: Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, Rom. 4,6 ff. And again: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast, Eph. 2,8.9.
3. We believe, teach, and confess also that all men, but those especially who are born again and renewed by the Holy Ghost, are bound to do good works.
4. In this sense the words necessary, shall, and must are employed correctly and in a Christian manner also with respect to the regenerate, and in no way are contrary to the form of sound words and speech.
5. Nevertheless, by the words mentioned, necessitas, necessarium, necessity and necessary, if they be employed concerning the regenerate, not coercion, but only due obedience is to be understood, which the truly believing, so far as they are regenerate, render not from coercion or the driving of the Law, but from a voluntary spirit; because they are no more under the law, but under grace, Rom. 6,14; 7,6; 8,14.
6. Accordingly we also believe, teach, and confess that when it is said: The regenerate do good works from a free spirit, this is not to be understood as though it is at the option of the regenerate man to do or to forbear doing good when he wishes, and that he can nevertheless retain faith if he intentionally perseveres in sins.
7. Yet this is not to be understood otherwise than as the Lord Christ and His apostles themselves declare, namely, regarding the liberated spirit, that it does not do this from the fear of punishment, like a servant, but from love of righteousness, like children, Rom. 8, 15.
8. Although this voluntariness [liberty of spirit] in the elect children of God is not perfect, but burdened with great weakness, as St. Paul complains concerning himself, Rom. 7, 14-25; Gal. 5,17;
9. Nevertheless, for the sake of the Lord Christ, the Lord does not impute this weakness to His elect, as it is written: There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, Rom. 8, 1.
10. We believe, teach, and confess also that not works maintain faith and salvation in us, but the Spirit of God alone, through faith, of whose presence and indwelling good works are evidences.


False Contrary Doctrine.

1. Accordingly, we reject and condemn the following modes of speaking: when it is taught and written that good works are necessary to salvation; also, that no one ever has been saved without good works; also that it is impossible to be saved without good works.
2. We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.
For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits.
3. We also reject and condemn the dogma that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost are not lost by willful sin, but that the saints and elect retain the Holy Ghost even though they fall into adultery and other sins and persist therein.