SALVATION BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH
The Argument of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians.
Extracts* from the Introduction to the Commentary on this epistle
by Martin Luther.
Paul goes about to establish the doctrine of faith, grace, forgiveness of sins, or Christian righteousness, so that we may have a perfect knowledge of the difference between this Christian righteousness and all other righteousnesses. For there are different sorts of righteousness. There is a political or civil righteousness which Emperors, Princes of the world, philosophers and lawyers deal with. There is also ceremonial righteousness which the traditions of men teach. This righteousness parents and schoolmasters may teach without danger, because they do not attribute to it any power to satisfy for sin, to please God, or to deserve grace: but they teach such ceremonies as are only necessary for the correction of manners and certain observations concerning this life. Besides these there is another righteousness which is called the righteousness of the law or of the Ten Commandments which Moses teaches. This do we also teach but according to the doctrine of faith.
There is yet another righteousness which is above all these which is the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness which we must diligently distinguish from the other righteousnesses mentioned, for those are quite contrary to this righteousness.
But this most excellent righteousness of faith (which God, through Christ, imputes to us without works) is neither political nor ceremonial, nor the righteousness of God’s law, nor consisteth in works, but is completely contrary; that is to say, a completely passive righteousness as the others are active. For in this we work nothing, we render nothing to God but only receive and allow another to work in us, that is to say, God.
This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery which the world does not- know, indeed Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore it must be diligently taught and continually relied on, for whoever does not understand or apprehend this righteousness, in afflictions and terrors of conscience, must surely be overthrown. For their is no comfort of conscience so firm and so pure as this passive righteousness is.
But man’s weakness and misery is so great that in terrors of conscience and danger of death we look at nothing else but our works, our worthiness and the law which, when it shows to us our sin, soon brings our evil past life to remembrance. Then the poor sinner groans with great anguish of spirit and thinks like this to himself, “Alas, how desperately have I lived! Would to God I might live longer for then I would amend my life.” So man’s reason cannot stop itself from looking again to this active or working righteousness, that is to say, his own righteousness nor can he lift up his eyes to see the passive or Christian righteousness but rests altogether in this active righteousness. So deeply is this evil rooted in us!
On the other side, Satan, abusing our natural infirmity, increases and aggravates these thoughts in us. Then it is inevitable that the poor conscience must be even more grievously troubled, terrified and confounded, for it is impossible that the mind of man, of itself, should conceive of any comfort, or look up to grace only, in the feeling and horror of sin or be able constantly to reject all disputing and reasoning about works. For this is far above man’s strength and ability, indeed, it is also above the law of God. True it is that, of all things in the world, the law is most excellent yet it is not able to quieten a troubled conscience but only increases terrors and drives it to desperation, for by the law sin is made exceedingly sinful.
Wherefore the afflicted and troubled conscience has no remedy against desperation and eternal death unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by grace, freely offered in Christ Jesus, that is to say, this passive righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness. Which, if it can apprehend then it may be quiet and boldly say, “I do not seek this active or working righteousness, although I know I ought to have it and also to fulfil it. But even if I had it and did fulfil it I could not trust in it neither dare I set it against the judgment of God. So I abandon all active righteousness both of my own and of God’s law and embrace that passive righteousness alone which is the righteousness of grace, mercy and forgiveness of sins and I rest only upon that righteousness which is the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Ghost.
Just as the earth cannot produce rain nor is able by her own strength, labour and travail to obtain it but receives it by the free gift of God from above, so this heavenly righteousness is given to us by God without our workings or deservings. Consider then how much the earth is able to do of itself in getting seasonable showers of rain to make it fruitful, even so much and no more are we able to to do by our strength and works in winning this heavenly and eternal righteousness unless God Himself, by imputation alone and by His indescribable gift, bestows it on us. The greatest knowledge then, and the greatest wisdom of Christians is, not to know the law and to be ignorant of works and of the whole active righteousness specially when conscience wrestles with the judgment of God. Just as, on the contrary, amongst those who are not of the number of God’s people, the greatest point of wisdom is to know and earnestly to urge the law and this active righteousness.
On the contrary, works and the keeping of the law must be so strictly required in the world as if there were no promise or grace and that is because of stubborn, proud and hard-hearted men before whose eyes nothing must be set but the law that they may be terrified and humbled. For the law is given to terrify and kill such men and to exercise the old man. So, both the word of grace and of wrath must be rightly divided according to the Apostle 2 Tim. 2.15.
There, then, is required a wise and faithful dispenser of the word of God, which can so moderate the law that it may be kept within its limits. He who teaches that men are justified before God by the observation of the law passes the limits of the law and confounds these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, and is but a poor teacher for he does not rightly divide the truth. On the contrary he who sets forth the law and works to the old man and the promise of forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy to the new man, divides the word well. For the flesh, or the old man, must be coupled to the law and works, but the spirit, or the new man, must be joined to the promise of God and His mercy. Wherefore, when I see a man who is bruised enough already, oppressed by the law, terrified with sin and thirsting for comfort it is time for me to remove the law and active righteousness out of his sight and to set before him, by the gospel, the Christian and passive righteousness which, excluding Moses with the law, offereth the promise made in Christ, who came for the afflicted and for sinners. By this, man is raised up again and conceives a good hope, neither is he any longer under the law, but under grace. But how is he not under the law? According to the new man to whom the law does not apply for the law has its limits up to Christ as Paul says “The law continues unto Christ” who, being come, Moses with his law ceases, circumcision, the sacrifice, the sabbaths, yes and all the prophets.
This is our divinity whereby we teach how to put a difference between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, in order that manners and faith, works and grace, policy and religion should not be confounded or mistaken for one another. Both are necessary but both must be kept within their limits. Christian righteousness pertains to the new man and the righteousness of the law pertains to the old man which is born of flesh and blood. Upon this old man, as upon an ass, there must be laid a burden that may press him down and he must not enjoy the freedom of the Spirit of grace except he first puts on the new man by faith in Christ (which, however, is not fully done in this life) then may he enjoy the kingdom – an inestimable gift of grace.
Do we then do nothing? Are there no works to be done in order to obtain this righteousness? I answer, nothing at all. For this is perfect ! righteousness, to do nothing, to hear nothing , to know nothing of the law or of works; but to know and to believe this only that Christ is gone to the Father and is not now seen, that He sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father, not as a Judge, but made unto us, of God, wisdom and righteousness and holiness and redemption. Briefly that He is our High Priest intreating for us, reigning over us
and in us by grace. In this heavenly righteousness sin can have no place for there is no law, and where no law is there can be no transgression.
Seeing then that sin has no place here, there can be no anguish of conscience, no fear, no heaviness. Therefore John says “He that is born of God, cannot sin”. But if there is fear or grief of conscience it is an indication that this righteousness is withdrawn, that grace is hidden and that Christ is out of sight behind the clouds. But where Christ is truly seen indeed there must needs be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with peace in the conscience, which certainly will think like this, “Although I am a sinner by the law and under the condemnation of the law, yet I do not despair, yet I do not die because Christ liveth who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no fear of death. I am indeed a sinner in regard to this present life and the righteousness of it, as a child of Adam, where the law accuses me, death reigns over me and at last would devour me, but I have another righteousness and another life above this life, which is Christ the Son of God who knows no sin or death but is righteousness and life eternal by whom this body of mine, being dead and brought into dust, shall be raised up again and delivered from the bondage of the law and sin, and shall be sanctified together with my spirit.
So both these continue whilst we here live. The flesh is accused, exercised with temptations, oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by this active righteousness of the law, but the spirit reigneth, rejoiceth, and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness because it knows that it has a Lord in heaven at the right hand of His Father who has abolished law, sin and death and has trodden under His feet all evils, has led them captive and triumphed over them in Himself. (Col. 2.15)
Paul, therefore, in this Epistle goes about diligently to instruct us, to comfort us, to hold us in the perfect knowledge of this most excellent and Christian righteousness. For if the article of Justification be once lost then is all true Christian doctrine lost. And as many as are in the world who do not hold this doctrine are either Jews, Turks, Papists or heretics. For between the righteousness of the law and Christian righteousness there is no half-way house. He then that strays from this Christian righteousness must necessarily fall into the righteousness of the Law, that is to say, when he has lost Christ he must fall into trusting his own works.
Therefore we do earnestly set forth and so often repeat this doctrine of Faith or Christian righteousness that by this means it may be kept in continual exercise and may be plainly distinguished from the active righteousness of the Law. Otherwise we shall never be able to hold the true divinity (for by this doctrine alone the church is built, and in this it consists) but by and by we shall either become Canonists, observers of ceremonies, observers of the Law, or Papists, and Christ so beclouded that none in the church shall be either rightly taught or comforted. Wherefore, if we will be teachers
and leaders of others, it behoves us to have a great care of these matters and to mark well this distinction between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of Christ. And this distinction is easily expressed in words but in practise and experience it is very hard, although it be most diligently exercised and practised, for in the hour of death, or in other agonies of conscience these two sorts of righteousness come much closer together than you would wish or desire. Wherefore I do admonish you, especially such as shall become instructors and guides of men’s consciences and also every one separately, that you exercise yourselves continually by study, by reading, by meditation of the word and by prayer so that in time of temptation you may be able to instruct and comfort both your consciences and others and to bring them from law to grace, from the active and working righteousness, to the passive and recieved righteousness and, in conclusion, from Moses to Christ. For the devil is likely, in affliction and in conflict of conscience, to make us afraid by the law and to lay against us the guilt of sin, our wicked past life, the wrath and judgment of God, hell and eternal death that, by these means, he may drive us to desperation, make us bondslaves to himself and pluck us from Christ. Furthermore he is likely to set against us those places of the gospel where Christ himself requires works of us and with plain words threatens damnation to those that do them not. Now, if at this point we are not able to judge between these two kinds of righteousness, if we do not by faith, take hold of Christ sitting at the right hand of God who makes intercession to the Father for us wretched sinners, then are we under the law and not under grace and Christ is no more a Saviour but a Law-giver, so that now there remains no more salvation but certain desperation and everlasting death, except repentance follows.
Let us diligently learn to judge between these two kinds of righteousness so that we may know how far we ought to obey the law. Now we have said before that, in a Christian, the law ought not to go beyond its limits but ought to have dominion only over the flesh which is in subjection to it and remains under it. When it is like that the law is kept within its limits but when it shall presume to creep into your conscience and there seek to reign remember to be a cunning logician and make the true division. Give no more to the law than is proper but say, “O, law, you would climb up into the kingdom of my conscience and there reign and reprove it of sin and would take from me the joy of my heart which I have by faith in Christ, and drive me to desperation that I might be without all hope, and utterly perish. This you do outside of your position, keep yourself within your limits and exercise your power upon the flesh but touch not my conscience for I am baptized and, by the gospel, am called to partake of righteousness and of everlasting life in the kingdom of Christ wherein my conscience is at rest, where there is no law but only forgiveness of sins, peace, quietness, joy, health and everlasting life. Trouble me not in these matters for I will not allow you, an intolerable tyrant and cruel tormentor, to reign in my
conscience for it is the seat and temple of Christ the Son of God who is the King of righteousness and peace and my most sweet Saviour and Mediator. He shall keep my conscience joyful and quiet in the sound and pure doctrine of the Gospel and in the knowledge of this Christian and heavenly righteousness.
When I have this righteousness reigning in my heart, I descend from heaven, like the rain making the earth fruitful, that is to say I come forth into another kingdom and I do good works however and whenever opportunity is offered. If I be a Minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the broken hearted, I administer the sacraments. If I be a householder I govern my house and my family, I bring up my children in the knowledge and fear of God. If I be a Magistrate, the charge that is given me from above I execute diligently. If I be a servant I do my master’s business faithfully. To conclude, whoever is certainly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness does not only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation but also submits himself through love to the magistrates and to their laws, even though they be severe, sharp and cruel, and (if necessity demands) to all manner of burdens and to all dangers of this present life because he knows that this is the will of God and that this obedience pleases Him. So far then concerning the argument of this Epistle where Paul intreats, taking occasion of false teachers which had darkened this righteousness of faith amongst the Galatians, against whom he sets himself in defending and commending his authority and office.
* These extracts are abridged and the language somewhat modernised.