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WORKS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
A TREATISE ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY WITH A LETTER TO POPE LEO X - INTRODUCTION
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THE Letter to the Pope, like an earlier letter dated March 3, 1519, was written at the suggestion of Carl von Miltitz. Sent to Germany to bring Luther to Rome, this German diplomat knew German conditions and to some extent sympathized with Luther’s denunciation of Tetzel and the sellers of indulgences. He preferred, therefore, to try to settle the controversy and to leave Luther in Germany. Although the pope insisted that Luther must come to Rome and recant, Miltitz arranged for a hearing of the case before a German bishop. Evidently Miltitz was far too optimistic in his representations both to Luther and to the pope. The pope, in a writing dated March 29, 1519, spoke in friendly terms to Luther, and urged him to come to Rome immediately and to make his recantation there.
Luther, in the letter dated March 3, 1519, writes in most humble language to the pope, but declares it impossible for him to recant what he had written in the XCV Theses. The pope’s letter did not reach Luther; Luther’s letter was not forwarded to the pope.
Luther had promised to keep silent if his opponents would do the same, and had devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures. John Eck, however, had no such occupation to keep him from controversy, and Luther was not averse to a debate. At the Leipzig disputation, June 27 - July 15, 1519, Luther learned more of the logical implications of his position. The plan of Miltitz had failed, but he would not be discouraged.
When Miltitz went to Germany, it was under the pretense of a mission “to deliver to his elector the papal golden rose, which the latter had coveted in vain for two years.” Fa491 Now he decided to go in person to Augsburg, where it had been deposited with the Fuggers, and present it to Frederick.
This also gave an opportunity for a second meeting with Luther at Liebwierde, October 9, 1519. Luther, although placing little confidence in Miltitz, consented to argue his case before the archbishop of Treves. The plan failed, partly because there was no citation for Luther to appear, partly because the Elector would not allow Luther to go without proper safe conduct, and partly because Miltitz had not tried to prevent Luther’s opponents from challenging him.
In spite of the evident lack of confidence on both sides, and in spite of Luther’s constant progress in opposition to the Roman Church, Miltitz insisted that “the case is not as black as we priests make it,” even when a papal bull was issued against Luther on June 15, 1520. On August 28th Miltitz attended a meeting of the Augustinian monks in Eisleben, and obtained their promise that Luther should be requested to write a letter to the pope assuring him that he had never attacked the pope’s person. On September 11th Luther reported to Spalatin what he had done, and said that, although neither he nor his fellow monks had any confidence in the plan, he would do Miltitz the favor of writing such a letter. This promise seemed meaningless to him after the bull against him had been published.
The papal bull had been obtained by Eck, whom Miltitz now considered to be substituted for himself in dealing with Luther, in spite of the authority he had received. That the bull was ignored in some places and despised in others, pleased him and gave him new courage. There might, after all, be some chance for him to make use of his diplomatic skill.
Again he invited Luther to meet him in Lichtenberg. They met in the monastery of St. Anthony on October 12th, and Luther renewed his promise to write to the pope, to send the letter within twelve days, and to date it back to September 6th, that the appearance of intimidation by the papal bull might be avoided, it was agreed that Luther should send with the letter an historical account of his difficulties with the Roman Church which world show that Eck was the chief instigator, and that Luther had been forced to take the positions he defended. In writing, however, the historical review became a part of the letter, and a treatise of far different tone was sent as a gift to the pope, and as an evidence of the kind of work Luther would prefer to do if his opponents permitted him to choose — the Treatise on Christian Liberty.
It is again a question whether the pope received this letter. It has been an interesting speculation for more than one writer, what the thoughts and feelings of Leo the Tenth might have been if he did receive and read it.
Schaff traces the progress of Luther in the three letters he wrote to the pope: “In his first letter to the pope, 1518, Luther had thrown himself at his feet as an obedient son of the vicar of Christ; in his second letter, 1519, he still had addressed him as a humble subject, yet refusing to recant his conscientious convictions; in his third and last letter he addressed him as an equal, speaking to him with great respect for his personal character even beyond his deserts, but denouncing in the severest terms the Roman See, and comparing him to a lamb among wolves, and to Daniel in the den of lions.” Fa492 If the pope ever read it, “it must have filled him with mingled feelings of indignation and disgust.”
We may go even farther. Luther thinks of St. Bernard’s attitude toward Pope Eugene, and Bernard was Eugene’s superior in the Cistercian order and had been looked up to as “father.” Luther writes as a father confessor to a friend in trouble, and might have quoted Bernard’s words: “I grieve with you. I should say, I grieve with you if, indeed, you also grieve.
Otherwise I should have rather said, I grieve for you; because that is not grieving with another when there is none who grieves. Therefore if you grieve, I grieve with you; if not, still I grieve, and then most of all, knowing that the member which is without feeling is the farther removed from health and that the sick man who does not feel his sickness is in the greater danger.” Fa493 The pope was a humanist, not a spiritually minded priest; we may, therefore, believe that Charles Beard is not far wrong in his estimate of the possible effect of this letter upon him: “If Giovanni de Medici, the head of a house which had long come to consider itself princely, and the occupant of the Fisherman’s chair, when it claimed to be the highest of earthly thrones, read this bold apostrophe, addressed to him by a ‘peasant and a peasant’s son,’ he must have thought him mad with conceit and vanity. He was incapable of being touched by the moral nobleness of the appeal, and so audacious a contempt of merely social distinctions the world has rarely seen. Fa494 After the mighty thunder of the Address to the Christian Nobility and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Treatise on the Liberty of a Christian Man is, indeed, like a still, small voice. Luther himself says: “Unless I am deceived, it is the whole of Christian living in a brief form.”
Perhaps we may trace here also the influence of St. Bernard’s De Consideratione, which was written as a devotional book for the pope and was a manual of Christian living for the pope, as this is a manual of Christian living for all Christians.
It has been rather difficult for the enemies of Luther to find much fault with this book. The Catholic historians, Janssen and Hergenrother, do not mention it. Grisar characteristically devotes a little space to each of the three great writings of 1520, and considers the book on Christian Liberty as the most mischievous of them all. “It does, indeed, frequently bring its false thoughts in the form of that mystical, heart searching style which Luther learned from older German models.” FA495 The French Catholic, Leon Cristiani, is far more generous in his estimate: “A truly religious spirit breathes in these pages. Provoking polemic is almost entirely avoided. Here one finds again the inspiration of the great mystics of the Middle Ages.
Does not the ‘Imitation’ continually describe the powerlessness of man when left to himself, the infinite mercy of God, the great benefit of the redemption of Christ? Does it not preach the necessity of doing all things through love, nothing of necessity? He is not a true Christian who would venture to disapprove the passages in which Luther speaks so eloquently of the goodness of God, of the gratitude which it should inspire in us, of the spontaneity which should mark our obedience, of the desire of imitating Christ which should inspire us.” FA496 Protestants consider this book “perhaps the most beautiful of Luther’s writings, the result of religious contemplation rather than of theological labor.” FA497 “It takes rank with the best books of Luther, and rises far above the angry controversies of his age, during which he composed it, in the full possession of the positive truth and peace of the religion of Christ.”
FA498 The clear presentation of the thought of the liberty of a Christian man occurs at the close of the Tessaradecas. In the Babylonian Captivity Luther had promised to publish a treatise on the subject after he had seen the effect of that treatise. But the promise to send a treatise to the pope gave him an earlier opportunity, so that barely a month and a half intervened between the publication of the Captivity, October 6th, and that of the Liberty, middle of November. The German, although a translation in part and in part an abbreviation and rewriting of the Latin, appeared first, before November 16th. The publisher, seeing his opportunity, had, however, issued the Letter to the Pope in German separately before November 4th, FA501 so that a new dedicatory letter, addressed to Hieronymus Mulphordt (Muhlpfort), of Zwickau, was prefixed to the German edition.
Our translation is made from the Latin, although the German has been compared wherever it is a real translation.
Two translations into English appeared in the sixteenth century: one printed by John Byddell before 1544, the translation being, according to Preserved Smith, FA502 by John Tewkesbury; the other, prepared by James Bell and printed by Ralph Newbery and H. Bynneman, in 1579.
Unfortunately, neither of these was accessible to the present translators.
Modern translations, into English by Wace and Buchheim, and into German by Letoroe, have been consulted. W. A. LAMBERT. SOUTH BETHLEHEM,PA.
LETTER TO POPE LEO X.
To Leo the Tenth, Pope at Rome: Martin Luther wishes thee salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
IN the midst of the monsters of this age with whom I am now for the third year waging war, I am compelled at times to look up also to thee, Leo, most blessed Father, and to think of thee; nay, since thou art now and again regarded as the sole cause of my warfare, I cannot but think of thee always. And although the causeless raging of thy godless flatterers against me has compelled me to appeal from thy See to a future council, despite those most empty decrees of thy predecessors Pius and Julius, who with a foolish tyranny forbade such an appeal, yet I have never so estranged my mind from thy Blessedness as not with all my heart to wish thee and thy See every blessing, for which I have, as much as lay in me, besought God with earnest prayers. It is true, I have made bold almost to despise and to triumph over those who have tried to frighten me with the majesty of thy name and authority. But there is one thing which I cannot despise, and that is my excuse for writing once more to thy Blessedness. I understand that I am accused of great rashness, and that this rashness is said to be my great fault, in which, they say, I have not spared even thy person.
For my part, I will openly confess that I know I have only spoken good and honorable things of thee whenever I have made mention of thy name. And if I had done otherwise, I myself could by no means approve of it, but would entirely approve the judgment others have formed of me, and do nothing more gladly than recant such rashness and impiety on my part. I have called thee a Daniel in Babylon, and every one who reads knows with what zeal I defended thy notable innocence against thy defamer, Sylvester.
FA504 Indeed, thy reputation and the fame of thy blameless life, sung as they are throughout the world by the writings of so many great men, are too well known and too high to be assailed in any way by any one man, however great he may be. I am not so foolish as to attack him whom every one praises: it has rather been, and always will be, my endeavor not to attack even those whom public report decries; for I take no pleasure in the crimes of any man, since I am conscious enough of the great beam in my own eye, nor could I be he that should cast the first stone at the adulteress.
I have indeed sharply inveighed against ungodly teachings in general, and I have not been slow to bite my adversaries, not because of their immorality, but because of their ungodliness. And of this I repent so little that I have determined to persevere in that fervent zeal, and to despise the judgment of men, following the example of Christ, Who in His zeal called His adversaries a generation of vipers, blind, hypocrites, children of the devil.
And Paul arraigned the sorcerer as a child of the devil full of all subtilty and mischief, and brands others as dogs, deceivers and adulterers. If you will allow those delicate ears to judge, nothing would be more biting and more unrestrained than Paul. Who is more biting than the prophets? Nowadays, it is true, our ears are made so delicate by the mad crowds of flatterers that as soon as we meet with a disapproving voice we cry out that we are bitten, and when we cannot ward off the truth with any other pretext we put it to flight by ascribing it to a fierce temper, impatience and shamelessness. What is the good of salt if it does not bite? Or of the edge of the sword if it does not kill? Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully.
Wherefore, most excellent Leo, I pray thee, after I have by this letter vindicated myself, give me a hearing, and believe that I have never thought evil of thy person, but that I am a man who would wish thee all good things eternally, and that I have no quarrel with any man concerning his morality, but only concerning the Word of truth. In all things else I will yield to any man whatsoever: to give up or to deny the Word I have neither the power nor the will. If any man thinks otherwise of me, or has understood my words differently, he does not think aright, nor has he understood what I have really said.
But thy See, which is called the Roman Curia, and of which neither thou nor any man can deny that it is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which is, as far as I can see, characterized by a totally depraved, hopeless and notorious wickedness — that See I have truly despised, and I have been incensed to think that in thy name and under the guise of the Roman Church the people of Christ are mocked. And so I have resisted and will resist that See, as long as the spirit of faith shall live in me.
Not that I shall strive after the impossible or hope that by my lone efforts anything will be accomplished in that most disordered Babylon, where the rage of so many sycophants is turned against me; but I acknowledge myself a debtor to my brethren, whom it is my duty to warn, that fewer of them may be destroyed by the plagues of Rome, or at least that their destruction may be less cruel.
For, as thou well knowest, these many years there has flowed forth from Rome, like a flood covering the world, nothing but a laying waste of men’s bodies and souls and possessions, and the worst possible examples of the worst possible things. For all this is clearer than the day to all men, and the Roman Church, once the most holy of all, has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that even Antichrist himself, should he come, could think of nothing to add to its wickedness.
Meanwhile thou, Leo, sittest as a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of the lions, and, with Ezekiel, thou dwellest among scorpions.
What canst thou do single handed, against these monsters? Join to thyself three or four thoroughly learned and thoroughly good cardinals: what are even these among so many? You would all be poisoned before you could undertake to make a single decree to help matters. There is no hope for the Roman Curia: the wrath of God is come upon it to the end; it hates councils, it fears a reformation, it cannot reduce the raging of its wickedness, and is meriting the praise bestowed upon its mother, of whom it is written, “We have cured Babylon, but she is not healed: let us forsake her.” FA505 It was thy duty, indeed, and that of thy cardinals, to remedy these evils, but that gout of theirs mocks the healing hand, and neither chariot nor horse heeds the guiding rein. FA506 Moved by such sympathy for thee, I have always grieved, most excellent Leo, that thou hast been made pope in these times, for thou wert worthy of better days. The Roman Curia has not deserved to have thee or men like thee, but rather Satan himself; and in truth it is he more than thou who rules in that Babylon.
O would that thou mightest lay aside what thy most mischievous enemies boast of as thy glory, and wert living on some small priestly income of thine own, or on thy family inheritance! To glory in that glory none are worthy save the Iscariots, the sons of perdition. For what dost thou accomplish in the Curia, my dear Leo? Only this: the more criminal and abominable a man is, the more successfully will he use thy name and authority to destroy the wealth and the souls of men, to increase crime, to suppress faith and truth and the whole Church of God. O truly, most unhappy Leo, thou sittest on a most dangerous throne; for I tell thee the truth, because I wish thee well. If Bernard pitied his Pope Eugene FA507 at a time when the Roman See, although even then most corrupt, yet ruled with better prospects, why should not we lament who have for three hundred years had so great an increase of corruption and worthlessness? Is it not true that under yon vast expanse of heaven there is nothing more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful than the Roman Curia? It surpasses the godlessness of the Turks beyond all comparison, so that in truth, whereas it was once a gate of heaven, it is now an open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, because of the wrath of God, cannot be shut; there is only one thing that we can try to do, as I have said: perchance we may be able to call back a few from that yawning chasm of Rome and so save them.
Now thou seest, my Father Leo, how and why I have so violently attacked that pestilential See: for so far have I been from raging against thy person that I even hoped I might gain thy favor and save thee, if I should make a strong and sharp assault upon that prison, nay that hell of thine. For thou and thy salvation and the salvation of many others with thee will be served by every thing that men of ability can contribute to the confusion of this wicked Curia. They do thy work, who bring evil upon it; they glorify Christ, who in every way curse it. In short, they are Christians who are not Romans.
To go yet farther, I never intended to inveigh against the Roman Curia, or to raise any controversy concerning it. For when I saw that all efforts to save it were hopeless, I despised it and gave it a bill of divorcement and said to it, “He that is filthy, let him be filthy still, and he that is unclean, let him be unclean still.” Then I gave myself to the quiet and peaceful study of holy Scripture, that I might thus be of benefit to my brethren about me.
When I had made some progress in these studies, Satan opened his eyes and filled his servant John Eck, FA508 a notable enemy of Christ, with an insatiable lust for glory, and thereby stirred him up to drag me at unawares into a disputation, laying hold on me by one little word about the primacy of the Roman Church which I had incidentally let fall. Then that boasting braggart, frothing and gnashing his teeth, declared that he would venture all for the glory of God and the honor of the holy Apostolic See, and, puffed up with the hope of misusing thy power, he looked forward with perfect confidence to a victory over me. He sought not so much to establish the primacy of Peter as his own leadership among the theologians of our time; and to that end he thought it no small help if he should triumph over Luther. When that debate ended unhappily for the sophist, an incredible madness overcame the man: for he feels that he alone must bear the blame of all that I have brought forth to the shame of Rome.
But permit me, I pray thee, most excellent Leo, this once to plead my cause and to make charges against thy real enemies. Thou knowest, I believe, what dealings thy legate, Cardinal of St. Sixtus, FA509 an unwise and unfortunate, or rather, unfaithful man, had with me. When, because of reverence for thy name, I had put myself and all my case in his hand, he did not try to establish peace, although with a single word he could easily have done so, since I at that time promised to keep silent and to end the controversy, if my opponents were ordered to do the same. But as he was a man who sought glory, and was not content with that agreement, he began to justify my opponents, to give them full freedom and to order me to recant, a thing not included in his instructions. When the matter was in a fair way, his untimely arbitrariness brought it into a far worse condition.
Therefore, for what followed later Luther is not to blame; all the blame is Cajetan’s, who did not suffer me to keep silent and to rest, as I then most earnestly asked him to do. What more should I have done?
Next came Carl Miltitz, FA510 also a nuncio of thy Blessedness, who after great and varied efforts and constant going to and fro, although he omitted nothing that might help to restore that status of the question which Cajetan had rashly and haughtily disturbed, at last with the help of the most illustrious prince, Frederick the Elector, barely managed to arrange several private conferences with me. Again I yielded to your name, I was prepared to keep silent, and even accepted as arbiter either the archbishop of Treves or the bishop of Naumburg. So matters were arranged. But while this plan was being followed with good prospects of success, lo, that other and greater enemy of thine, Eck, broke in with the Leipzig Disputation which he had undertaken against Dr. Carlstadt. When a new question concerning the primacy of the pope was raised, he suddenly turned his weapons against me and quite overthrew that counsel of peace. Meanwhile Carl Miltitz waited: a disputation was held, judges were selected; but here also no decision was reached, and no wonder: through the lies, the tricks, the wiles of Eck everything was stirred up, aggravated and confounded worse than ever, so that whatever decision might have been reached, a greater conflagration would have resulted. For he sought glory, not the truth. Here also I left nothing undone that I ought to have done. FA511 I admit that on this occasion no small amount of corrupt Roman practices came to light, but whatever wrong was done was the fault of Eck, who undertook a task beyond his strength, and, while he strove madly for his own glory, revealed the shame of Rome to all the world. He is thy enemy, my dear Leo, or rather the enemy of thy Curia. From the example of this one man thou canst learn that there is no enemy more injurious than a flatterer. For what did he accomplish with his flattery but an evil which no king could have accomplished? To day the name of the Roman Curia is a stench throughout the world, and papal authority languishes, ignorance that was once held in honor is evil spoken of; and of all this we should have heard nothing if Eck had not upset the counsel of peace planned by Carl and myself, as he himself now clearly sees, and is angry, too late and to no purpose, that my books were published. This he should have thought of when, like a horse that whinnies on the picket line, he was madly seeking only his own glory, and sought only his own gain through thee at the greatest peril to thee. The vainglorious man thought that I would stop and keep silent at the terror of thy name; for I do not believe that he trusted entirely to his talents and learning. Now, when he sees that I have more courage than that and have not been silenced, he repents him too late of his rashness and understands that there is One in heaven who resists the proud and humbles the haughty, if indeed he does understand it at last.
Since we gained nothing by this disputation except that we brought greater confusion to the cause of Rome, Carl Miltitz made a third attempt; he came to the fathers of the Augustinian Order assembled in their chapter, and asked counsel in settling the controversy which had now grown most confused and dangerous. Since, by the favor of God, they had no hope of being able to proceed against me with violence, some of the most famous of their number were sent to me, and asked me at least to show honor to the person of thy Blessedness, and in a humble letter to plead as my excuse thy innocence and mine; they said that the affair was not yet in the most desperate state if of his innate goodness Leo the Tenth would take a hand in it. As I have always both offered and desired peace that I might devote myself to quieter and more useful studies, and have stormed with so great fury merely for the purpose of overwhelming by volume and violence of words, no less than of intellect, those whom I knew to be very unequal foes: I not only gladly ceased, but also with joy and thankfulness considered it a most welcome kindness to me if our hope could be fulfilled.
So I come, most blessed Father, and, prostrate before thee, I pray, if it be possible do thou interpose and hold in check those flatterers, who are the enemies of peace while they pretend to keep peace. But that I will recant, most blessed Father, let no one imagine, unless he prefer to involve the whole question in greater turmoil. Furthermore, I will accept no rules for the interpretation of the Word of God, since the Word of God, which teaches the liberty of all things else, dare not be bound. Grant me these two points, and there is nothing that I could not or would not most gladly do or endure. I hate disputations; I will draw out no one; but then I do not wish others to draw me out; if they do, as Christ is my Teacher, I will not be speechless. For, when once this controversy has been cited before thee and settled, thy Blessedness will be able with a small and easy word to silence both parties and command them to keep the peace, and that is what I have always wished to hear.
Do not listen, therefore, my dear Leo, to those sirens who make thee out to be no mere man but a demigod, so that thou mayest command and require what thou wilt. It will not be done in that fashion, and thou wilt not succeed. Thou art a servant of servants, FA512 and beyond all other men in a most pitiable and most dangerous position. Be not deceived by those who pretend that thou art lord of the world and allow no one to be a Christian unless he accept thy authority; who prate that thou hast power over heaven, hell and purgatory. These are thy enemies and seek thy soul to destroy it; as Isaiah says, “O my people, they that call thee blessed, the same deceive thee.” They err who exalt thee above a council and above the Church universal. They err who ascribe to thee alone the right of interpreting Scripture; for under cover of thy name they seek to establish all their own wickedness in the Church, and alas! through them Satan has already made much headway under thy predecessors. In short, believe none who exalt thee, believe those who humble thee. For this is the judgment of God; “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.” See, how unlike His successors is Christ, although they all would be His vicars. And I fear that most of them have indeed been too literally His vicars. For a vicar is a vicar only when his lord is absent. And if the pope rules while Christ is absent and does not dwell in his heart, what else is he but a vicar of Christ? But what is such a Church except a mass of people without Christ? And what is such a vicar else than antichrist and an idol? How much more correctly did the Apostles call themselves servants of the present Christ, and not vicars of an absent Christ!
Perhaps I am impudent, in that I seem to instruct so great, so exalted a personage, from whom we ought all to learn, and from whom, as those plagues of thine boast, the thrones of judges receive their decisions. But I am following the example of St. Bernard in his book de consideratione ad Eugenium, a book every pope should have by heart. For what I am doing I do not from an eagerness to teach, but as an evidence of that pure and faithful solicitude which constrains us to have regard for the things of our neighbors even when they are safe, and does not permit us to consider their dignity or lack of dignity, since it is intent only upon the danger they run or the advantage they may gain. For when I know that thy Blessedness is driven and tossed about at Rome, that is, that far out at sea thou art threatened on all sides with endless dangers, and art laboring hard in that miserable plight, so that thou dost need even the slightest help of the least of thy brethren, I do not think it is absurd of me, if for the time I forget thy high office and do what brotherly love demands. I have no desire to flatter in so serious and dangerous a matter, but if men do not understand that I am thy friend and thy most humble subject, there is One that understandeth and judgeth.
Finally, that I may not approach thee empty handed, blessed Father, I bring with me this little treatise published under thy name as an omen of peace and of good hope. From this book thou mayest judge with what studies I would prefer to be more profitably engaged, as I could be if your godless flatterers would permit me, and had hitherto permitted me. It is a small thing if thou regard its bulk, but, unless I am deceived, it is the whole of Christian living in brief form, if thou wilt grasp its meaning. I am a poor man, and have no other gift to offer, and thou hast no need to be made rich by any other than a spiritual gift. With this I commend myself to thy Fatherhood and Blessedness. May the Lord Jesus preserve thee forever.
Amen. Wittenberg , September 6, 1520. FA513
A TREATISE ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY
Many have thought Christian faith to be an easy thing, and not a few have given it a place among the virtues. This they do because they have had no experience of it, and have never tasted what great virtue there is in faith.
For it is impossible that any one should write well of it or well understand what is correctly written of it, unless he has at some time tasted the courage faith gives a man when trials oppress him. But he who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate or hear enough concerning it. For it is a living fountain springing up into life everlasting, as Christ calls it in John 4:14 For my part, although I have no wealth of faith to boast of and know how scant my store is, yet I hope that, driven about by great and various temptations, I have attained to a little faith, and that I can speak of it, if not more elegantly, certainly more to the point, than those literalists and all too subtile disputants have hitherto done, who have not even understood what they have written.
That I may make the way easier for the unlearned — for only such do I serve — I set down first these two propositions concerning the liberty and the bondage of the spirit: A Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Although these two theses seem to contradict each other, yet, if they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully.
For they are both Paul’s own, who says, in 1 Corinthians 9:10, “Whereas I was free, I made myself the servant of all,” and, Romans 13:8, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” Now love by its very nature is ready to serve and to be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although Lord of all, was made of a woman, made under the law, and hence was at the same time free and a servant, at the same time in the form of God and in the form of a servant.
Let us start, however, with something more remote from our subject, but more obvious. Man FA514 has a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily.
According to the spiritual nature, which men call the soul, he is called a spiritual, or inner, or new man; according to the bodily nature, which men call the flesh, he is called a carnal, or outward, or old man, of whom the Apostle writes, in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” Because of this diversity of nature the Scriptures assert contradictory things of the same man, since these two men in the same man contradict each other, since the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh ( Galatians 5:17).
First, let us contemplate the inward man, to see how a righteous, free and truly Christian man, that is, a new, spiritual, inward man, comes into being.
It is evident that no external thing, whatsoever it be, has any influence whatever in producing Christian righteousness or liberty, nor in producing unrighteousness or bondage. A simple argument will furnish the proof.
What can it profit the soul if the body fare well, be free and active, eat, drink and do as it pleases? For in these things even the most godless slaves of all the vices fare well. On the other hand, how will ill health or imprisonment or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune hurt the soul? With these things even the most godly men are afflicted, and those who because of a clear conscience are most free. None of these things touch either the liberty or the bondage of the soul. The soul receives no benefit if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of the priesthood, or dwells in sacred places, or is occupied with sacred duties, or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food or does any work whatsoever that can be done by the body and in the body. The righteousness and the freedom of the soul demand something far different, since the things which have been mentioned could be done by any wicked man, and such works produce nothing but hypocrites. On the other hand, it will not hurt the soul if the body is clothed in secular dress, dwells in unconsecrated places, eats and drinks as others do, does not pray aloud, and neglects to do all the things mentioned above, which hypocrites can do.
Further, to put aside all manner of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, avail nothing. One thing and one only is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as he says, John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, shall not die forever”; and John 8:26, “If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”; and Matthew 4:4, “Not in bread alone doth man live; but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” Let us then consider it certain and conclusively established that the soul can do without all things except the Word of God, and that where this is not there is no help for the soul in anything else whatever. But if it has the Word it is rich and lacks nothing, since this Word is the Word of life, of truth, of light, of peace, of righteousness, of salvation, of joy, of liberty, of wisdom, of power, of grace, of glory and of every blessing beyond our power to estimate. This is why the prophet in the entire 119th Psalm, and in many other places of Scripture, with so many sighs yearns after the Word of God and applies so many names to it. On the other hand, there is no more terrible plague with which the wrath of God can smite men than a famine of the hearing of His Word, as He says in Amos, just as there is no greater mercy than when He sends forth His Word, as we read in <19A720> Psalm 107:20, “He sent His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.” Nor was Christ sent into the world for any other ministry but that of the Word, and the whole spiritual estate, apostles, bishops and all the priests, has been called and instituted only for the ministry of the Word.
You ask, “What then is this Word of God, and how shall it be used, since there are so many words of God?” I answer, The Apostle explains that in Romans 1:1. The Word is the Gospel of God concerning His Son, Who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit Who sanctifies. For to preach Christ means to feed the soul, to make it righteous, to set it free and to save it, if it believe the preaching. For faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God, Romans 10:9, “If thou confess with thy mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe with thy heart that God hath raised Him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved”; and again, “The end of the law is Christ, unto righteousness to every one that believeth”; and, Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by his faith.” The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever, but only by faith. Hence it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and therefore it would not need faith. But this faith cannot at all exist in connection with works, that is to say, if you at the same time claim to be justified by works, whatever their character; for that would be to halt between two sides, to worship Baal and to kiss the hand, which, as Job says, is a very great iniquity. Therefore the moment you begin to believe, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable, as Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and lack the glory of God;” and again, “There is none just, there is none that doeth good, all have turned out of the way: they are become unprofitable together.” When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, Who suffered and rose again for you, that, believing in Him, you may through this faith become a new man, in that all your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone.
Since, therefore, this faith can rule only in the inward man, as Romans 10: says, “With the heart we believe unto righteousness”; and since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inward man cannot be justified, made free and be saved by any outward work or dealing whatsoever, and that works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inward man. On the other hand, only ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outward work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin. Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all trust in works, and more and more to strengthen faith alone, and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus, Who suffered and rose for him, as Peter teaches, in the last chapter of his first Epistle; since no other work makes a Christian. Thus when the Jews asked Christ, John 6:28, what they should do that they might work the works of God, He brushed aside the multitude of works in which He saw that they abounded, and enjoined upon them a single work, saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He hath sent. For Him hath God the Father sealed.”
Hence true faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison, which brings with it all salvation and saves from every evil, as Christ says in the last chapter of Mark, “He that believeth and is baptised, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be condemned.” This treasure Isaiah beheld and foretold in Isaiah 10:22, “The Lord shall make an abridged and consuming word upon the land, and the consumption abridged shall overflow with righteousness”; as if he said, “Faith, which is a brief and perfect fulfillment of the law, shall fill believers with so great righteousness that they shall need nothing more for their righteousness.” So also Paul says, Romans 10:10, “With the heart we believe unto righteousness.”
Should you ask, how it comes that faith alone justifies and without works offers us such a treasury of great benefits, when so many works, ceremonies and laws are prescribed in the Scriptures, I answer: First of all, remember what has been said: faith alone, without works, justifies, makes free and saves, as we shall later make still more clear. Here we must point out that all the Scriptures of God are divided into two parts — commands and promises. The commands indeed teach things that are good, but the things taught are not done as soon as taught; for the commands show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do it; they are intended to teach a man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his powers. That is why they are called and are the Old Testament. For example: “Thou shalt not covet” is a command which convicts us all of being sinners, since no one is able to avoid coveting, however much he may struggle against it.
Therefore, in order not to covet, and to fulfill the command, a man is compelled to despair of himself, and to seek elsewhere and from some one else the help which he does not find in himself, as is said in Hosea, “Destruction is thy own, O Israel: thy help is only in Me.” And as we fare with this one command, so we fare with all; for it is equally impossible for us to keep any one of them.
But when a man through the commands has learned to know his weakness, and has become troubled as to how he may satisfy the law, since the law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall perish, otherwise man will be condemned without hope; then, being truly humbled and reduced to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself no means of justification and salvation. Here the second part of the Scriptures stands ready — the promises of God, which declare the glory of God and say, “If you wish to fulfill the law, and not to covet, as the law demands, come, believe in Christ, in Whom grace, righteousness, peace, liberty and all things are promised you; if you believe you shall have all, if you believe not you shall lack all.” For what is impossible for you in all the works of the law, many as they are, but all useless, you will accomplish in a short and easy way through faith. For God our Father has made all things depend on faith, so that whoever has faith, shall have all, and whoever has it not, shall have nothing. “For He has concluded all under unbelief, that He might have mercy on all,” Romans 11:32 Thus the promises of God give what the commands of God ask, and fulfill what the law prescribes, that all things may be of God alone, both the commands and the fulfilling of the commands. He alone commands, He also alone fulfils. Therefore the promises of God belong to the New Testament, nay, they are the New Testament.
And since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free and peaceful words, full of all goodness, it comes to pass that the soul which clings to them with a firm faith, is so united with them, nay, altogether taken up into them, that it not only shares in all their power, but is saturated and made drunken with it. For if a touch of Christ healed, how much more will this most tender touch in the spirit, rather this absorbing of the Word, communicate to the soul all things that are the Word’s. This, then, is how through faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true and peaceful and free, filled with every blessing and made truly a child of God, as John 1:12 says, “To them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His Name.”
From what has been said it is easily seen whence faith has such great power, and why no good work nor all good works together can equal it — no work can cling to the Word of God nor be in the soul; in the soul faith alone and the Word have sway. As the Word is, so it makes the soul, as heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it. It is clear then that a Christian man has in his faith all that he needs, and needs no works to justify him. And if he has no need of works, neither does he need the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law, and it is true, “the law is not made for a righteous man.” And this is that Christian liberty, even our faith, which does not indeed cause us to live in idleness or in wickedness, but makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation.
This is the first power of faith. Let us now examine the second also. For it is a further function of faith, that whom it trusts it also honors with the most reverent and high regard, since it considers him truthful and trustworthy. For there is no other honor equal to the estimate of truthfulness and righteousness with which we honor him whom we trust.
Or could we ascribe to a man anything greater than truthfulness, and righteousness, and perfect goodness? On the other hand, there is no way in which we can show greater contempt for a man than to regard him as false and wicked and to suspect him, as we do when we do not trust him. So when the soul firmly trusts God’s promises, it regards Him as truthful and righteous, than which nothing more excellent can be ascribed to God. This is the very highest worship of God, that we ascribe to Him truthfulness, righteousness and whatever else ought to be ascribed to one who is trusted. Then the soul consents to all His will, then it hallows His name and suffers itself to be dealt with according to God’s good pleasure, because, clinging to God’s promises, it does not doubt that He, Who is true, just and wise, will do, dispose and provide all things well. And is not such a soul, by this faith, in all things most obedient to God? What commandment is there that such obedience has not abundantly fulfilled? What more complete fulfillment is there than obedience in all things? But this obedience is not rendered by works, but by faith alone. On the other hand, what greater rebellion against God, what greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God is there than not believing His promises? For what is this but to make God a liar or to doubt that He is truthful? — that is, to ascribe truthfulness to one’s self, but to God lying and vanity? Does not a man who does this deny God, and in his heart set up himself as his own idol?
Then of what avail are works done in such wickedness, even if they were the works of angels and apostles? Rightly, therefore, has God concluded all — not in anger or lust, but in unbelief; so that they who imagine that they are fulfilling the law by doing the works of chastity and mercy required by the law (the civil and human virtues), might not be confident that they will be saved; they are included under the sin of unbelief, and must either seek mercy or be justly condemned.
But when God sees that we count Him to be true, and by the faith of our heart pay Him the great honor which is due Him, He in turn does us the great honor of counting us true and righteous for our faith’s sake. For faith works truth and righteousness by giving to God what belongs to Him; therefore, God in turn gives glory to our righteousness. It is true and just that God is truthful and just, and to count Him and confess Him so is to be truthful and just. So in 1 Samuel 2:30, He says, “Them that honor Me, I will honor, and they that despise Me, shall be lightly esteemed.” So Paul says in Romans 4:3, that Abraham’s faith was counted unto him for righteousness, because by it he most perfectly gave glory to God, and that for the same reason our faith shall be counted unto us for righteousness if we believe.
The third incomparable benefit of faith is this, that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. And by this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage, nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but frail types of this one true marriage, it follows that all they have they have in common, the good as well as the evil, so that the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as if it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as His own. Let us compare these and we shall see things that cannot be estimated. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation; the soul is full of sins, death and condemnation. Now let faith come between them, and it shall come to pass that sins, death and hell are Christ’s, and grace, life and salvation are the soul’s. For it behooves Him, if He is a bridegroom, to take upon Himself the things which are His bride’s, and to bestow upon her the things that are His. For if He gives her His body and His very self, how shall He not give her all that is His? And if He takes the body of the bride, how shall He not take all that is hers?
Lo! here we have a pleasant vision not only of communion, but of a blessed strife and victory and salvation and redemption. For Christ is God and man in one person, Who has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and Who cannot sin, die or be condemned; His righteousness, life and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent; and He by the wedding ring of faith shares in the sins, death and pains of hell which are His bride’s, nay, makes them His own, and acts as if they were His own, and as if He Himself had sinned; He suffered, died and descended into hell that He might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow Him up, they were of necessity swallowed up of Him in a mighty duel. For His righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, His life stronger than death, His salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its Bridegroom, from all sins, secure against death and against hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of Christ, its Bridegroom. So He presents to Himself a glorious bride, without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her with the washing in the Word of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, of righteousness, and of salvation. Thus He marries her to Himself in faith, in loving kindness, and in mercies, in righteousness and in judgment, as Hosea 2:19 says.
Who, then, can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and godly Bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil and adorns her with all His good. It is now impossible that her sins should destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and she has that righteousness in Christ her husband of which she may boast as of her own, and which she can confidently set against all her sins in the face of death and hell, and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in Whom I believe, has not sinned, and all His is mine, and all mine is His” — as the bride in the Song of Solomon says, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” This is what Paul means when he says, in 1 Corinthians 15:57, “Thanks be to God, Which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” — that is, the victory over sin and death, as he there says, “the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”
From this you see once more why so much is ascribed to faith, that it alone may fulfill the law and justify without works. You see that the First Commandment, which says, “Thou shalt worship one God,” is fulfilled by faith alone. For though you were nothing but good works from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head, yet you would not be righteous, nor worship God, nor fulfill the First Commandment, since God cannot be worshiped unless you ascribe to Him the glory of truthfulness and of all goodness, which is due Him. And this cannot be done by works, but only by the faith of the heart. For not by the doing of works, but by believing, do we glorify God and acknowledge that He is truthful. Therefore, faith alone is the righteousness of a Christian man and the fulfilling of all the commandments. For he who fulfils the First, has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest. But works, being insensate things, cannot glorify God, although they can, if faith be present. be done to the glory of God. At present, however, we are not inquiring what works and what sort of works are done, but who it is that does them, who glorifies God and brings forth the works. This is faith which dwells in the heart, and is the head and substance of all our righteousness. Hence, it is a blind and dangerous doctrine which teaches that the commandments must be fulfilled by works. The commandments must be fulfilled before any works can be done, and the works proceed from the fulfillment of the commandments, as we shall hear.
But that we may look more deeply into that grace which our inward man has in Christ, we must consider that in the Old Testament God sanctified to Himself every first born male, and the birth right was highly prized, having a twofold honor, that of priesthood, and that of kingship. For the first born brother was priest and lord over all the others, and was a type of Christ, the true and only First born of God the Father and of the Virgin Mary, and true King and Priest, not after the fashion of the flesh and of the world. For His kingdom is not of this world. He reigns in heavenly and spiritual things and consecrates them — such as righteousness, truth, wisdom, peace, salvation, etc. Not as if all things on earth and in hell were not also subject to Him — else how could He protect and save us from them? — but His kingdom consists neither in them nor of them. Nor does His priesthood consist in the outward splendor of robes and postures, like that human priesthood of Aaron and of our present day Church; but it consists in spiritual things, through which He by an unseen service intercedes for us in heaven before God, there offers Himself as a sacrifice and does all things a priest should do, as Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews describes him under the type of Melchizedek. Nor does He only pray and intercede for us, but within our soul He teaches us through the living teaching of His Spirit, thus performing the two real functions of a priest, of which the prayers and the preaching of human priests are visible types.
Now, just as Christ by his birthright obtained these two prerogatives, so He imparts them to and shares them with every one who believes on Him according to the law of the aforesaid marriage, by which the wife owns whatever belongs to the husband. Hence we are all priests and kings in Christ, as many as believe on Christ, as 1 Peter 2:9 says, “Ye are a chosen generation, a peculiar people, a royal priesthood and priestly kingdom, that ye should show forth the virtues of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
This priesthood and kingship we explain as follows: First, as to the kingship, every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that by a spiritual power he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm whatever, nay, all things are made subject to him and compelled, to serve him to his salvation. Thus Paul says in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good to them who are called.” And, in 1 Corinthians 3:22, “All things are yours, whether life or death, or things present or things to come, and ye are Christ’s.” Not as if every Christian were set over all things, to possess and control them by physical power, — a madness with which some churchmen are afflicted, — for such power belongs to kings, princes and men on earth. Our ordinary experience in life shows us that we are subjected to all, suffer many things and even die; nay, the more Christian a man is, the more evils, sufferings and deaths is he made subject to, as we see in Christ the first born Prince Himself, and in all His brethren, the saints. The power of which we speak is spiritual; it rules in the midst of enemies, and is mighty in the midst of oppression, which means nothing else than that strength is made perfect in weakness, and that in all things I can find profit unto salvation, so that the cross and death itself are compelled to serve me and to work together with me for my salvation. This is a splendid prerogative and hard to attain, and a true omnipotent power, a spiritual dominion, in which there is nothing so good and nothing so evil, but that it shall work together for good to me, if only I believe. And yet, since faith alone suffices for salvation, I have need of nothing, except that faith exercise the power and dominion of its own liberty. Lo, this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians.
Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever, which is far more excellent than being kings, because as priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another the things of God. For these are the functions of priests, and cannot be granted to any unbeliever. Thus Christ has obtained for us, if we believe on Him, that we are not only His brethren, co heirs and fellow kings with Him, but also fellow priests with Him, who may boldly come into the presence of God in the spirit of faith and cry, “Abba, Father!” pray for one another and do all things which we see done and prefigured in the outward and visible works of priests. But he who does not believe is not served by anything, nor does anything work for good to him, but he himself is a servant of all, and all things become evils to him, because he wickedly uses them to his own profit and not to the glory of God. And so he is no priest, but a profane man, whose prayer becomes sin and never comes into the presence of God, because God does not hear sinners. Who then can comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian? Through his kingly power he rules over all things, death, life and sin, and through his priestly glory is all powerful with God, because God does the things which he asks and desires, as it is written, “He will fulfill the desire of them that fear Him; He also will hear their cry, and will save them.” To this glory a man attains, surely not by any works of his, but by faith alone.
From this any one can clearly see how a Christian man is free from all things and over all things, so that he needs no works to make him righteous and to save him, since faith alone confers all these things abundantly. But should he grow so foolish as to presume to become righteous, free, saved and a Christian by means of some good work, he would on the instant lose faith and all its benefits: a foolishness aptly illustrated in the fable of the dog who runs along a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth, and, deceived by the reflection of the meat in the water, opens his mouth to snap at it, and so loses both the meat and the reflection.
You will ask, “If all who are in the Church are priests, how do those whom we now call priests differ from laymen?” I answer: “Injustice is done those words, ‘priest,’ ‘cleric,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘ecclesiastic,’ when they are transferred from all other Christians to those few who are now by a mischievous usage called ‘ecclesiastics.’ For Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, except that it gives the name ‘ministers,’ ‘servants,’ ‘stewards,’ to those who are now proudly called popes, bishops, and lords and who should by the ministry of the Word serve others and teach them the faith of Christ and the liberty of believers. For although we are all equally priests, yet we cannot all publicly minister and teach, nor ought we if we could.”
Thus Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
But that stewardship has now been developed into so great a pomp of power and so terrible a tyranny, that no heathen empire or earthly power can be compared with it, just as if laymen were not also Christians.
Through this perversion the knowledge of Christian grace, faith, liberty and of Christ Himself has altogether perished, and its place has been taken by an unbearable bondage of human words and laws, until we have become, as the Lamentations of Jeremiah say, servants of the vilest men on earth, who abuse our misfortune to serve only their base and shameless will.
To return to our purpose, I believe it has now become clear that it is not enough nor is it Christian, to preach the works, life and words of Christ as historical facts, as if the knowledge of these would suffice for the conduct of life, although this is the fashion of those who must today be regarded as our best preachers; and far less is it enough or Christian to say nothing at all about Christ and to teach instead the laws of men and the decrees of the Fathers. And now there are not a few who preach Christ and read about Him that they may move men’s affections to sympathy with Christ, to anger against the Jews and such like childish and womanish nonsense.
Rather ought Christ to be preached to the end that faith in Him may be established, that He may not only be Christ, but be Christ for thee and for me, and that what is said of Him and what His Name denotes may be effectual in us. And such faith is produced and preserved in us by preaching why Christ came, what He brought and bestowed, FA515 what benefit it is to us to accept Him. This is done when that Christian liberty which He bestows is rightly taught, and we are told in what way we who are Christians are all kings and priests and so are lords of all, and may firmly believe that whatever we have done is pleasing and acceptable in the sight of God, as I have said.
What man is there whose heart, hearing these things, will not rejoice to its very core, and in receiving such comfort grow tender so as to love Christ, as he never could be made to love by any laws or works? Who would have power to harm such a heart or to make it afraid? If the knowledge of sin or the fear of death break in upon it, it is ready to hope in the Lord; it does not grow afraid when it hears tidings of evil, nor is it disturbed until it shall look down upon its enemies. For it believes that the righteousness of Christ is its own, and that its sin is not its own, but Christ’s; and that all sin is swallowed up by the righteousness of Christ is, as has been said above, a necessary consequence of faith in Christ. So the heart learns to scoff at death and sin, and to say with the Apostle, “Where, O death, is thy victory? where, O death, is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” For death is swallowed up not only in the victory of Christ, but also by our victory, because through faith His victory has become ours, and in that faith we also are conquerors.
Let this suffice concerning the inward man, his liberty and its source, the righteousness of faith, FA516 which needs neither laws nor good works, nay, is rather injured by them, if a man trusts that he is justified by them.
Now let us turn to the second part, to the outward man. Here we shall answer all those who, misled by the word “faith” and by all that has been said, now say: “If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded? We will take our ease and do no works, and be content with faith.” I answer, Not so, ye wicked men, not so. That would indeed be proper, if we were wholly inward and perfectly spiritual men; but such we shall be only at the last day, the day of the resurrection of the dead. As long as we live in the flesh we only begin and make some progress in that which shall be perfected in the future life. For this reason the Apostle, in Romans 8:23, calls all that we attain in this life “the first fruits” of the spirit, because, forsooth, we shall receive the greater portion, even the fullness of the spirit, in the future. This is the place for that which was said above, that a Christian man is the servant of all and made subject to all. For in so far as he is free he does no works, but in so far as he is a servant he does all manner of works.
How this is possible, we shall see.
Although, as I have said, a man is abundantly justified by faith inwardly, in his spirit, and so has all that he ought to have, except in so far as this faith and riches must grow from day to day even unto the future life: yet he remains in this mortal life on earth, and in this life he must needs govern his own body and have dealings with men. Here the works begin; here a man cannot take his ease; here he must, indeed, take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors and other reasonable discipline, and to make it subject to the spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inward man and to faith, and not revolt against faith and hinder the inward man, as it is the body’s nature to do if it be not held in check. For the inward man, who by faith is created in the likeness of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in Whom so many benefits are conferred upon him, and therefore it is his one occupation to serve God joyfully and for naught, in love that is not constrained.
While he is doing this, lo, he meets a contrary will in his own flesh, which strives to serve the world and to seek its own advantage. This the spirit of faith cannot tolerate, and with joyful zeal it attempts to put the body under and to hold it in check, as Paul says in Romans 7:22, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin”; and, in another place, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway,” and in Galatians, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its lusts.”
In doing these works, however, we must not think that a man is justified before God by them: for that erroneous opinion faith, which alone is righteousness before God, cannot endure; but we must think that these works reduce the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts, and our whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of lusts. For since by faith the soul is cleansed and made a lover of God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be as pure as itself, so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. Hence a man cannot be idle, because the need of his body drives him and he is compelled to do many good works to reduce it to subjection. Nevertheless the works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God, and considers nothing except the approval of God, Whom he would in all things most scrupulously obey.
In this way every one will easily be able to learn for himself the limit and discretion, as they say, of his bodily castigations: for he will fast, watch and labor as much as he finds sufficient to repress the lasciviousness and lust of his body. But they who presume to be justified by works do not regard the mortifying of the lusts, but only the works themselves, and think that if only they have done as many and as great works as are possible, they have done well, and have become righteousness; at times they even addle their brains and destroy, or at least render useless, their natural strength with their works. This is the height of folly, and utter ignorance of Christian life and faith, that a man should seek to be justified and saved by works and without faith.
In order that what we have said may be more easily understood, we will explain it by analogies. We should think of the works of a Christian man who is justified and saved by faith because of the pure and free mercy of God, just as we would think of the works which Adam and Eve did in Paradise, and all their children would have done if they had not sinned. We read in Genesis 2:15, “God put the man whom He had formed into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” Now Adam was created by God righteous and upright and without sin, so that he had no need of being justified and made upright through his dressing and keeping the garden, but, that he might not be idle, the Lord gave him a work to do — to cultivate and to protect the garden. These would truly have been the freest of works, done only to please God and not to obtain righteousness, which Adam already had in full measure, and which would have been the birthright of us all.
Such also are the works of a believer. Through his faith he has been restored to Paradise and created anew, has no need of works that he may become or be righteous; but that he may not be idle and may provide for and keep his body, he must do such works freely only to please God; only, since we are not wholly re created, and our faith and love are not yet perfect, these are to be increased, not by external works, however, but within themselves.
Again: A bishop, when he consecrates a Church, confirms children or performs any other duty belonging to his office, is not made a bishop by these works; nay, if he had not first been made a bishop, none of these works would be valid, they would be foolish, childish and a mere farce. So the Christian, who is consecrated by his faith, does good works, but the works do not make him more holy or more Christian; for that is the work of faith alone, and if a man were not first a believer and a Christian, all his works would amount to nothing at all and would be truly wicked and damnable sins.
These two sayings, therefore, are true: “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”; so that it is always necessary that the “substance” or person itself be good before there can be any good works, and that good works follow and proceed from the good person, as Christ also says, “A corrupt tree does not bring forth good fruit, a good tree does not bring forth evil fruit.” It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on the fruits, but, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees must exist before their fruits, and the fruits do not make trees either good or corrupt, but rather as the trees are so are the fruits they bear; so the person of a man must needs first be good or wicked before he does a good or a wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked.
Illustrations of the same truth can be seen in all trades. A good or a bad house does not make a good or a bad builder, but a good or a bad builder makes a bad or a good house. And in general, the work never makes the workman like itself, but the workman makes the work like himself. So it is also with the works of man: as the man is, whether believer or unbeliever, so also is his work — good, if it was done in faith; wicked, if it was done in unbelief. But the converse is not true, that the work makes the man either a believer or an unbeliever. For as works do not make a man a believer, so also they do not make him righteous. But as faith makes a man a believer and righteous, so faith also does good works. Since, then, works justify no one, and a man must be righteous before he does a good work, it is very evident that it is faith alone which, because of the pure mercy of God through Christ and in His Word, worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person, and a Christian man has no need of any work or of any law in order to be saved, since through faith he is free from every law and does all that he does out of pure liberty and freely, seeking neither benefit nor salvation, since he already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because of his faith, and now seeks only to please God.
Furthermore, no good work helps an unbeliever, so as to justify or save him. And, on the other hand, no evil work makes him wicked or damns him, but the unbelief which makes the person and the tree evil, does the evil and damnable works. Hence when a man is made good or evil, this is effected not by the works, but by faith or unbelief, as the Wise Man says, “This is the beginning of sin, that a man falls away from God,” which happens when he does not believe. And Paul, Hebrews 11:6, says, “He that cometh to God must believe.” And Christ says the same: “Either make the tree good and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt and his fruit corrupt,” as if He would say, “Let him who would have good fruit begin by planting a good tree.” So let him who would do good works not begin with the doing of works, but with believing, which makes the person good. For nothing makes a man good except faith, nor evil except unbelief.
It is indeed true that in the sight of men a man is made good or evil by his works, but this being made good or evil is no more than that he who is good or evil is pointed out and known as such; as Christ says, in Matthew 7:20, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But all this remains on the surface, and very many have been deceived by this outward appearance and have presumed to write and teach concerning good works by which we may be justified, without even mentioning faith; they go their way, always being deceived and deceiving, advancing, indeed, but into a worse state, blind leaders of the blind, wearying themselves with many works, and yet never attaining to true righteousness. Of such Paul says, in 2 Timothy 3:5, “Having the form of godliness, but denying its power, always learning and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.”
He, therefore, who does not wish to go astray with those blind men, must look beyond works, and laws and doctrines about works; nay, turning his eyes from works, he must look upon the person, and ask how that is justified. For the person is justified and saved not by works nor by laws, but by the Word of God, that is, by the promise of His grace, and by faith, that the glory may remain God’s, Who saved us not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy by the word of His grace, when we believed.
From this it is easy to know in how far good works are to be rejected or not, and by what standard all the teachings of men concerning works are to be interpreted. If works are sought after as a means to righteousness, are burdened with this perverse leviathan FA517 and are done under the false impression that through them you are justified, they are made necessary and freedom and faith are destroyed; and this addition to them makes them to be no longer good, but truly damnable works. For they are not free, and they blaspheme the grace of God, since to justify and to save by faith belongs to the grace of God alone. What the works have no power to do, they yet, by a godless presumption, through this folly of ours, pretend to do, and thus violently force themselves into the office and the glory of grace. We do not, therefore, reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible. We do not condemn them for their own sake, but because of this godless addition to them and the perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them; for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good; they deceive men and lead men to deceive each other, like ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But this leviathan and perverse notion concerning works is insuperable where sincere faith is wanting. Those work saints cannot get rid of it unless faith, its destroyer, come and rule in their hearts. Nature of itself cannot drive it out, nor even recognize it, but rather regards it as a mark of the most holy will. And if the influence of custom be added and confirm this perverseness of nature, as wicked Magisters have caused it to do, it becomes an incurable evil, and leads astray and destroys countless men beyond all hope of restoration. Therefore, although it is good to preach and write about penitence, confession and satisfaction, if we stop with that and do not go on to teach about faith, our teaching is unquestionably deceitful and devilish.
Christ, like His forerunner John, not only said, “Repent ye,” but added the word of faith, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And we are not to preach only one of these words of God, but both; we are to bring forth out of our treasure things new and old, the voice of the law as well as the word of grace. We must bring forth the voice of the law that men may be made to fear and to come to a knowledge of their sins, and so be converted to repentance and a better life. But we must not stop with that. For that would be only to wound and not to bind up, to smite and not to heal, to kill and not to make alive, to lead down into hell and not to bring back again, to humble and not to exalt. Therefore, we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness, by which faith is taught and strengthened. Without this word of grace the works of the law, contrition, penitence and all the rest are performed and taught in vain.
There remain even to our day preachers of repentance and grace, but they do not so explain God’s law and promise that a man might learn from them the source of repentance and grace. For repentance proceeds from the law of God, but faith or grace from the promise of God, as Romans 10:17 says, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”; so that a man is consoled and exalted by faith in the divine promise, after he has been humbled and led to a knowledge of himself by the threats and the fear of the divine law. So we read in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
Let this suffice concerning works in general, and at the same time concerning the works which a Christian does for his own body. Lastly, we will also speak of the things which he does toward his neighbor. A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, so as to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth, nay, rather, he lives only for others and not for himself. And to this end he brings his body into subjection, that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others, as Paul says in Romans 14:7, “No one lives to himself, and no man dies to himself. For he that liveth, liveth unto the Lord, and he that dieth, dieth unto the Lord.” Therefore, it is impossible that he should ever in this life be idle and without works toward his neighbors. For of necessity he will speak, deal with and converse with men, as Christ also, being made in the likeness of men, was found in form as a man, and conversed with men, as Baruch 3 says.
But none of these things does a man need for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore, in all his works he should be guided by this thought and look to this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, having regard to nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor. Thus, the Apostle commands us to work with our hands that we may give to him who is in need, although he might have said that we should work to support ourselves; he says, however, “that he may have to give to him that needeth.” And this is what makes it a Christian work to care for the body, that through its health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire and to lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be sons of God, each caring for and working for the other, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Lo, this is a truly Christian life, here faith is truly effectual through love; that is, it issues in works of the freest service cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward, and for himself is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.
So Paul after teaching the Philippians how rich they were made through faith in Christ, in which they obtained all things, proceeds immediately to teach them further, saying, “If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, thinking nothing through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness each esteeming the other better than themselves; looking not every man on his own things, but on the things of others.” Here we see clearly that the Apostle has prescribed this rule for the life of Christians, — that we should devote all our works to the welfare of others, since each has such abundant riches in his faith, that all his other works and his whole life are a surplus with which he can by voluntary benevolence serve and do good to his neighbor.
As an example of such a life the Apostle cites Christ, saying, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He became obedient unto death.” This salutary word of the Apostle has been obscured for us by those who have not at all understood the Apostle’s words, “form of God,” “form of a servant,” “fashion,” “likeness of men,” and have applied them to the divine and the human nature. Paul means this: Although Christ was filled with the form of God and rich in all good things, so that He needed no work and no suffering to make Him righteous and saved (for He had all this always from the beginning), yet He was not puffed up by them, nor did He lift Himself up above us and assume power over us, although He could rightly have done so; but, on the contrary, He so lived, labored, worked, suffered and died, that He might be like other men, and in fashion and in actions be nothing else than a man, just as if He had need of all these things and had nothing of the form of God. But He did all this for our sake, that He might serve us, and that all things He accomplished in this form of a servant might become ours.
So a Christian, like Christ, his Head, is filled and made rich by faith, and should be content with this form of God which he has obtained by faith; only, as I have said, he ought to increase this faith until it be made perfect.
For this faith is his life, his righteousness and his salvation: it saves him and makes him acceptable, and bestows upon him all things that are Christ’s, as has been said above, and as Paul asserts in Galatians 2:20, when he says, “And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God.” Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, to take upon himself the form of a servant, to be made in the likeness of men, to be found in fashion as a man, and to serve, help and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with himself. And this he should do freely, having regard to nothing except the divine approval. He ought to think: “Though I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that henceforth I need nothing whatever except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will, do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father, Who has overwhelmed me with His inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered Himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”
Lo, thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.
For a man does not serve that he may put men under obligations, he does not distinguish between friends and enemies, nor does he anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness; but most freely and most willingly he spends himself and all that he has, whether he waste all on the thankless or whether he gain a reward. For as his Father does, distributing all things to all men richly and freely, causing His sun to rise upon the good and upon the evil, so also the son does all things and suffers all things with that freely bestowing joy which is his delight when through Christ he sees it in God, the dispenser of such great benefits.
Therefore, if we recognize the great and precious things which are given us, as Paul says, there will be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost the love which makes us free, joyful, almighty workers and conquerors over all tribulations, servants of our neighbors and yet lords of all. But for those who do not recognize the gifts bestowed upon them through Christ, Christ has been born in vain; they go their way with their works, and shall never come to taste or to feel those things. Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we also have been in need before God and have lacked His mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our help, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each should become as it were a Christ to the other, that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all; that is, that we may be truly Christians.
Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life? It can do all things, and has all things, and lacks nothing; it is lord over sin, death and hell, and yet at the same time it serves, ministers to and benefits all men. But, alas, in our day this life is unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached about nor sought after; we are altogether ignorant of our own name and do not know why we are Christians or bear the name of Christians. Surely we are so named after Christ, not because He is absent from us, but because He dwells in us, that is, because we believe on Him and are Christs one to another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us. But in our day we are taught by the doctrine of men to seek naught but merits, rewards and the things that are ours; of Christ we have made only a taskmaster far more harsh than Moses.
Of such faith we have a preeminent example in the blessed Virgin. As is written in Luke 2:22, she was purified according to the law of Moses, after the custom of all women, although she was not bound by that law, and needed not to be purified. But out of free and willing love she submitted to the law, being made like other women, lest she should offend or despise them. She was not justified by this work, but being righteous she did it freely and willingly. So our works also should be done, not that we may be justified by them; since, being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.
St. Paul also circumcised his disciple Timothy, not because circumcision was necessary for his righteousness, but that he might not offend or despise the Jews who were weak in the faith and could not yet grasp the liberty of faith. But on the other hand, when they despised the liberty of faith and insisted that circumcision was necessary for righteousness, he withstood them and did not allow Titus to be circumcised, ( Galatians 2:3). For as he was unwilling to offend or to despise any man’s weak faith, and yielded to their will for the time, so he was also unwilling that the liberty of faith should be offended against or despised by stubborn work righteous men.
He chose a middle way, sparing the weak for a time, but always withstanding the stubborn, that he might convert all to the liberty of faith.
What we do should be done with the same zeal to sustain the weak in faith, as Romans 14:1 teaches; but we should firmly withstand the stubborn teachers of works. Of this we will say more later.
Christ also, in Matthew 17:24, when the tribute money was demanded of His disciples, argued with St. Peter, whether the sons of the king were not free from the payment of tribute, and Peter affirmed that they were.
None the less Christ commanded Peter to go to the sea, and said, “Lest we should offend them, go, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.” This incident fits beautifully to our subject, since Christ here calls Himself and those that are His, children and sons of the King, who need nothing; and yet He freely submits and pays the tribute. Just as necessary or helpful as this work was to Christ’s righteousness or salvation, just so much do all other works of His or of His followers avail for righteousness; since they all follow after righteousness and are free, and are done only to serve others and to give them an example of good works.
Of the same nature are the precepts which Paul gives, in Romans 13:1 and Titus 3:1, that Christians should be subject to the powers that be, and be ready to do every good work, not that they shall in this way be justified, since they already are righteous through faith, but that in the liberty of the Spirit they shall by so doing serve others and the powers themselves, and obey their will freely and out of love. Of this nature should be the works of all colleges, monasteries and priests. Each one should do the works of his profession and position, not that by them he may strive after righteousness, but that through them he may keep under his body, be an example to others, who also need to keep under their bodies, and finally that by such works he may submit his will to that of others in the freedom of love. But very great care must always be taken that no man in a false confidence imagine that by such works he will be justified, or acquire merit or be saved; for this is the work of faith alone, as I have repeatedly said.
Any one knowing this could easily and without danger find his way among those numberless mandates and precepts of pope, bishops, monasteries, churches, princes and magistrates, upon which some ignorant pastors insist as if they were necessary to righteousness and salvation, calling them “precepts of the Church,” although they are nothing of the kind. For a Christian, as a free man, will say, “I will fast, pray, do this and that as men command, not because it is necessary to my righteousness or salvation; but that I may show due respect to the pope, the bishop, the community, some magistrate or my neighbor, and give them an example, I will do and suffer all things, just as Christ did and suffered far more for me, although He needed nothing of it all for Himself, and was made under the law for my sake, although He was not under the law.” And although tyrants do violence or injustice in making their demands, yet it will do no harm, so long as they demand nothing contrary to God.
From what has been said, every one can pass a safe judgment on all works and laws and make a trustworthy distinction between them, and know who are the blind and ignorant pastors and who are the good and true. For any work that is not done solely for the purpose of keeping under the body or of serving one’s neighbor, so long as he asks nothing contrary to God, is not good nor Christian. And for this reason I mightily fear that few or no colleges, monasteries, altars and offices of the Church are really Christian in our day: no, nor the special fasts and prayers on certain saints’ days FA518 either. I fear, I say, that in all these we seek only our own profit, thinking that through them our sins are purged away and that we find salvation in them. In this way Christian liberty perishes altogether. And this comes from our ignorance of Christian faith and of Liberty.
This ignorance and suppression of liberty very many blind pastors take pains to encourage: they stir up and urge on their people in these practices by praising such works, puffing them up with their indulgences, and never teaching faith. But I would counsel you, if you wish to pray, fast or establish some foundation in the Church, take heed not to do it in order to obtain some benefit, whether temporal or eternal. For you would do injury to your faith, which alone offers you all things. Your one care should be that faith may increase, whether it be trained by works or by sufferings.
Give your gifts freely and for nothing, that others may profit by them and fare well because of you and your goodness. In this way you shall be truly good and Christian. For of what benefit to you are the good works which you do not need for the keeping under of your body? Your faith is sufficient for you, through which God has given you all things.
See, according to this rule the good things we have from God should flow from one to the other and be common to all, so that every one should “put on” his neighbor, and so conduct himself toward him as if he himself were in the other’s place. From Christ they have flowed and are flowing into us:
He has so “put on” us and acted for us as if He had been what we are.
From us they flow on to those who have need of them, so that I should lay before God my faith and my righteousness that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor, which I take upon myself and so labor and serve in them as if they were my very own. For that is what Christ did for us. This is true love and the genuine rule of a Christian life.
The love is true and genuine where there is true and genuine faith. Hence, the Apostle says of love in 1 Corinthians 13:5, that it seeketh not its own.
We conclude, therefore, that a Christian man lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love; by faith he is caught up beyond himself into God, by love he sinks down beneath himself into his neighbor; yet he always remains in God and in His love, as Christ says in John 1:51, “Verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Enough now of liberty. As you see, it is a spiritual and true liberty, and makes our hearts free from all sins, laws and mandates, as Paul says, Timothy 1:9, “The law is not made for a righteous man.” It is more excellent than all other liberty which is external, as heaven is more excellent than earth. This liberty may Christ grant us both to understand and to preserve. Amen.
Finally, something must be added for the sake of those for whom nothing can be so well said that they will not spoil it by misunderstanding it, though it is a question whether they will understand even what shall here be said.
There are very many who, when they hear of this liberty of faith, immediately turn it into an occasion for the flesh, and think that now all things are allowed them. They want to show that they are free men and Christians only by despising and finding fault with ceremonies, traditions and human laws; as if they were Christians because on stated days they do not fast or eat meat when others fast, or because they do not use the accustomed prayers, and with upturned nose scoff at the precepts of men, although they utterly disregard all else that pertains to the Christian religion. The extreme opposite of these are those who rely for their salvation solely on their reverent observance of ceremonies, as if they would be saved because on certain days they fast or abstain from meats, or pray certain prayers; these make a boast of the precepts of the Church and of the Fathers, and care not a fig for the things which are of the essence of our faith. Plainly, both are in error, because they neglect the weightier things which are necessary to salvation, and quarrel so noisily about those trifling and unnecessary matters.
How much better is the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who bids us take a middle course, and condemns both sides when he says, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth.” Here you see that they who neglect and disparage ceremonies, not out of piety, but out of mere contempt, are reproved, since the Apostle teaches us not to despise them. Such men are puffed up by knowledge. On the other hand, he teaches those who insist on the ceremonies not to judge the others, for neither party acts toward the other according to the love that edifies. Wherefore, we ought here to listen to the Scriptures, which teach that we should not go aside to the right nor to the left, but follow the statutes of the Lord which are right, rejoicing the heart.
For as a man is not righteous because he keeps and clings to the works and forms of the ceremonies, so also will a man not be counted righteous merely because he neglects and despises them.
Our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works. For faith redeems, corrects and preserves our consciences, so that we know that righteousness does not consist in works, although works neither can nor ought to be wanting; just as we cannot be without food and drink and all the works of this mortal body, yet our righteousness is not in them, but in faith; and yet those works of the body are not to be despised or neglected on that account. In this world we are bound by the needs of our bodily life, but we are not righteous because of them. “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Christ, but He does not say, “My kingdom is not here, that is, in this world.” And Paul says, “Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh,” and in Galatians 2:20, “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God.” Thus what we do, live, and are in works and in ceremonies, we do because of the necessities of this life and of the effort to rule our body; nevertheless we are righteous not in these, but in the faith of the Son of God.
Hence, the Christian must take a middle course and face those two classes of men. He will meet first the unyielding, stubborn ceremonialists, who like deaf adders are not willing to hear the truth of liberty, but, having no faith, boast of, prescribe and insist upon their ceremonies as means of justification. Such were the Jews of old, who were unwilling to learn how to do good. These he must resist, do the very opposite and offend them boldly, lest by their impious views they drag many with them into error. In the presence of such men it is good to eat meat, to break the fasts and for the sake of the liberty of faith to do other things which they regard the greatest of sins. Of them we must say, “Let them alone, they are blind and leaders of the blind.” For on this principle Paul would not circumcise Titus when the Jews insisted that he should, and Christ excused the Apostles when they plucked ears of corn on the sabbath; and there are many similar instances. The other class of men whom a Christian will meet, are the simple minded, ignorant men, weak in the faith, as the Apostle calls them, who cannot yet grasp the liberty of faith, even if they were willing to do so.
These he must take care not to offend; he must yield to their weakness until they are more fully instructed. For since these do and think as they do, not because they are stubbornly wicked, but only because their faith is weak, the fasts and other things which they think necessary must be observed to avoid giving them offense. For so love demands, which would harm no one, but would serve all men. It is not by their fault that they are weak, but their pastors have taken them captive with the snares of their traditions and have wickedly used these traditions as rods with which to beat them. From these pastors they should have been delivered by the teaching of faith and liberty. So the Apostle teaches us, Romans xiv, “If my meat cause my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth”; and again, “I know that through Christ nothing is unclean, except to him who esteemeth any thing to be unclean; but it is evil for the man who eats and is offended.”
Wherefore, although we should boldly resist those teachers of traditions and sharply censure the laws of the popes by means of which they plunder the people of God, yet we must spare the timid multitude whom those impious tyrants hold captive by means of these laws, until they be set free.
Fight strenuously therefore against the wolves, but for the sheep, and not also against the sheep. This you will do if you inveigh against the laws and the law givers, and at the same time observe the laws with the weak, so that they will not be offended, until they also recognize the tyranny and understand their liberty. But if you wish to use your liberty, do so in secret, as Paul says, Romans 14:15, “Hast thou the faith? have it to thyself before God”; but take care not to use your liberty in the sight of the weak.
On the other hand, use your liberty constantly and consistently in the sight of the tyrants and the stubborn, in despite of them, that they also may learn that they are impious, that their laws are of no avail for righteousness, and that they had no right to set them up.
Now, since we cannot live our life without ceremonies and works, and the froward and untrained youth need to be restrained and saved from harm by such bonds; and since each one should keep his body under by means of such works, there is need that the minister of Christ be far seeing and faithful; he ought so to govern and teach the people of Christ in all these matters that their conscience and faith be not offended, and that there spring not up in them a suspicion and a root of bitterness, and many be defiled thereby, as Paul admonishes the Hebrews; that is, that they may not lose faith and become defiled by the false estimate of the value of works, and think that they must be justified by works. This happens easily and defiles very many, unless faith is at the same time constantly taught; it is impossible to avoid it when faith is not mentioned and only the devisings of men are taught, as has been done until now through the pestilent, impious, soul destroying traditions of our popes and the opinions of our theologians.
By these snares numberless souls have been dragged down to hell, so that you might see in this the work of Antichrist.
In brief, as wealth is the test of poverty, business the test of faithfulness, honors the test of humility, feasts the test of temperance, pleasures the test of chastity, so ceremonies are the test of the righteousness of faith. “Can a man,” says Solomon, “take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?” Yet, as a man must live in the midst of wealth, business, honors, pleasures and feasts, so also must he live in the midst of ceremonies, that is, in the midst of dangers. Nay, as infant boys need beyond all else to be cherished in the bosoms and by the hands of maidens to keep them from perishing, and yet when they are grown up their salvation is endangered if they associate with maidens, so the inexperienced and froward youth need to be restrained and trained by the iron bars of ceremonies, lest their unchecked ardor rush headlong into vice after vice. Yet it would be death for them to be always held in bondage to ceremonies, thinking that these justify them. They are rather to be taught that they have been so imprisoned in ceremonies, not that they should be made righteous or gain great merit by them, but that they might thus be kept from doing evil, and might be more easily instructed unto the righteousness of faith. Such instruction they would not endure if the impulsiveness of their youth were not restrained. Hence ceremonies are to be given the same place in the life of a Christian as models and plans have among builders and artisans. They are prepared not as permanent structures, but because without them nothing could be built or made. When the structure is completed they are laid aside. You see, they are not despised, rather, they are greatly sought after; but what we despise is the false estimate of them, since no one holds them to be the real and permanent structure. If any man were so egregiously foolish as to care for nothing all his life long except the most costly, careful and persistent preparation of plans and models, and never to think of the structure itself, and were satisfied with his work in producing such plans and mere aids to work, and boasted of it, would not all men pity his insanity, and estimate that with what he has wasted something great might have been built? Thus we do not despise ceremonies and works, nay, we set great store by them; but we despise the false estimate placed upon works, in order that no one may think that they are true righteousness, as those hypocrites believe who spend and lose their whole lives in zeal for works, and never reach that for the sake of which the works are to be done; as the Apostle says, “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” For they seem to wish to build, they make their preparations, and yet they never build. Thus they remain caught in the form of godliness and do not attain unto its power. Meanwhile they are pleased with their efforts, and even dare to judge all others whom they do not see shining with a like show of works. Yet with the gifts of God which they have spent and abused in vain they might, if they had been filled with faith, have accomplished great things to the salvation of themselves and of others.
But since human nature and natural reason, as it is called, are by nature superstitious and ready to imagine, when laws and works are prescribed, that righteousness must be obtained through them; and further, since they are trained and confirmed in this opinion by the practice of all earthly lawgivers, it is impossible that they should of themselves escape from the slavery of works and come to a knowledge of the liberty of faith. Therefore there is need of the prayer that the Lord may give us and make us theodidacti, that is, taught of God, and Himself, as He has promised, write His law in our hearts; otherwise there is no hope for us. For if He Himself do not teach our hearts this wisdom hidden in a mystery, nature can only condemn it and judge it to be heretical, because nature is offended by it and regards it as foolishness. So we see that it happened in olden times, in the case of the Apostles and prophets, and so godless and blind popes and their flatterers do to me and to those who are like me. May God at last be merciful to them and to us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that we may know His way upon earth, His salvation among all nations, God, Who is blessed forever. Amen.
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