The True Gospel According to Martin Luther
Editorial Note: ln order that the reader may see the stark contrast between the message that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation and the "holiness" doctrine (see preceding article), we shall here reproduce some of Luther's comments1 on Galatians 5. Let none imagine that his message merely represents another mode of expressing the gospel. It is a different doctrine altogether. Not only is the ground of receiving and retaining justification altogether different in Luther's theology, but his whole philosophy of the Christian life is as different from the "holiness" concept as night is from day.
"For We Through the Spirit by Faith Wait for the Hope of Righteousness [Gal. 5:5]"
"We wait through the Spirit by faith for righteousness with hope and desire; that is to say, we are righteous, howbeit our righteousness is not yet revealed, but hangeth yet in hope (Rom. viii. 24). For as long as we live here, sin remaineth in our flesh; there is also a law in our flesh and members, rebelling against the law of our mind, and leading us captives unto the service of sin (Rom. vii. 13). Now when these affections of the flesh do rage and reign, and we on the other side do through the spirit wrestle against the same, then is there a place for hope. Indeed we have begun to be justified through faith: whereby also we have received the first fruits of the Spirit, and the mortification of the flesh is also begun in us; but we be not yet perfectly righteous."
"For my righteousness is not yet perfect, it cannot yet be felt: yet I do not despair; for faith sheweth unto me Christ in whom I trust, and when I have laid hold of him by faith, I wrestle against the fiery darts of the devil, and I take a good heart through hope against the feeling of sin, assuring myself that I have a perfect righteousness prepared for me in heaven."
"Wherefore when the law accuseth and sin terrifieth thee, and thou feelest nothing but the wrath and judgment of God, despair not for all that, but take unto thee the armour of God, the shield of faith, the helmet of hope, and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. vi 16 ff.), and try how good and how valiant a warrior thou art. Lay hold of Christ by faith, who is the Lord of the law and sin, and of all things else which accompany them. Believing in him thou art justified: which thing reason and the feeling of thine own heart when thou art tempted, do not tell thee, but the Word of God. Moreover, in the midst of these conflicts and terrors which often return and exercise thee, wait thou patiently through hope for righteousness, which thou hast now by faith, although it be yet but begun and imperfect, until it be revealed perfect and eternal in the time appointed.
"But thou wilt say: I feel not myself to have any righteousness, or at the least, I feel it but very little. Thou must not feel, but believe that thou hast righteousness. And except thou believe that thou art righteous, thou dost great injury unto Christ, who hath cleansed thee by the washing of water through the Word; who also died upon the cross, condemned sin and killed death, that through him thou mightest obtain righteousness and everlasting life. These things thou canst not deny (except thou wilt openly shew thyself to be wicked and blasphemous against God, and utterly to despise God and all his promises, Christ and all his benefits), and so consequently thou canst not deny but that thou art righteous."
"There is nothing more dear or precious in all the world, to the true children of God, than this doctrine. For they that understand this doctrine, do know that whereof all the world is ignorant, namely, that sin, death and all other miseries, afflictions and calamities, as well corporal as spiritual, do turn to the benefit and profit of the elect. Moreover, they know that God is then most dear unto them, when he seemeth to be farthest off, and that he is then a most merciful and loving Savior, when he seemeth to be most angry, to afflict and to destroy. Also they know that they have an everlasting righteousness, which they wait for through hope, as a certain and sure possession laid up for them in heaven, even when they feel the horrible terrors of sin and death; moreover, that they are then lords of all things, when they are most destitute of all things, according to that saying: 'Having nothing, and yet possessing all things' (2 Cor. vi. 10). This, saith the Scripture, is to conceive comfort through hope. But this cunning is not learned without great and often temptations."
"True it is that we ought to fulfil the law and to be justified through the fulfilling thereof: but sin hindereth us. Indeed the law prescribeth and commandeth that we should love God with all our heart, &c., and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves; but it followeth not: This is written, therefore it is done; the law commandeth love, therefore we love. There is not one man to be found upon the whole earth, which so loveth God and his neighbor as the law requireth. But in the life to come, where we shall be thoroughly cleansed from all vices and sins, and shall be made as pure and as clear as the sun, we shall love perfectly and shall be righteous through perfect love. But in this life that purity is hindered by the flesh; for as long as we live, sin remaineth in our flesh; by reason whereof, the corrupt love of ourselves is so mighty that it far surmounteth the love of God and of our neighbor. In the meantime notwithstanding, that we may be righteous in this life also, we have Christ the mercy-seat and throne of grace, and because we believe in him, sin is not imputed unto us. Faith therefore is our righteousness in this life. But in the life to come, when we shall be thoroughly cleansed and delivered from all sins and concupiscences, we shall have no more need of faith and hope, but we shall then love perfectly."
"If we were pure from all sin, and were inflamed with perfect love both towards God and our neighbor, then should we indeed be righteous and holy through love, and God could require no more of us. This is not done in this present life, but is deferred until the life to come. Indeed we receive here the gift and first fruits of the Spirit, so that we begin to love, howbeit very slenderly. But, if we loved God truly and perfectly as the law of God requireth, which saith: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,' &c., then should we be as well contented with poverty as with wealth, with pain as with pleasure, and with death as with life; yea, he that could love God truly and perfectly, should not long continue in this life, but should straightway be swallowed up by this charity."
"For the Flesh Lusteth Against the Spirit, and the Spirit Against the Flesh [Gal. 5:17]
"When Paul saith that the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, he admonisheth us that we shall feel the concupiscence of the flesh, that is to say, not only carnal lust, but also pride, wrath, heaviness, impatience, incredulity, and suchlike. Notwithstanding he would have us so to feel them, that we consent not unto them, nor accomplish them: that is, that we neither think, speak, nor do those things which the flesh provoketh us unto. As, if it move us to anger, yet we should be angry in such wise as we are taught in the fourth Psalm, that we sin not. As if Paul would thus say: I know that the flesh will provoke you unto wrath, envy, doubting, incredulity, and suchlike: but resist it by the Spirit, that ye sin not. But if ye forsake the guiding of the Spirit, and follow the flesh, ye shall fulfil the lust of the flesh, and ye shall die, as Paul saith in the eighth to the Romans. So this saying of the Apostle is to be understood, not of fleshly lusts only, but of the whole kingdom of sin.
"And These Are Contrary One to the Other, So that Ye Cannot Do the Things that Ye would. . ."
"These two captains or leaders (saith he), the flesh and the spirit, are one against another in your body, so that ye cannot do what ye would. And this place witnesseth plainly that Paul writeth these things to the saints, that is, to the Church believing in Christ, baptized, justified, renewed, and having full forgiveness of sins. Yet notwithstanding he saith that she hath flesh rebelling against the spirit. After the same manner he speaketh of himself in the seventh to the Romans: 'I (saith he) am carnal and sold under sin;' and again: 'I see another law in my members rebelling against the law of my mind,' also: 'O wretched man that I am,'.
"Here, not only the school men, but also some of the old fathers are much troubled, seeking how they may excuse Paul. For it seemeth unto them absurd and unseemly to say, that that elect vessel of Christ should have sin. But we credit Paul's own words, wherein he plainly confesseth that he is sold under sin, that he is led captive of sin, that he hath a law in his members rebelling against him, and that in the flesh he serveth the law of sin. Here again they answer, that the Apostle speaketh in the person of the ungodly. But the ungodly do not complain of the rebellion of their flesh, of any battle or conflict, or of the captivity and bondage of sin: for sin mightily reigneth in them. This is therefore the very complaint of Paul and of all the saints. Wherefore they have done very wickedly which have excused Paul and other saints to have no sin. For by this persuasion (which proceedeth of ignorance of the doctrine of faith) they have robbed the Church of a singular consolation: they have abolished the forgiveness of sins, and made Christ of none effect."
"But this must be our ground and anchorhold, that Christ is our only perfect righteousness. If we have nothing whereunto we may trust, yet these three things (as Paul saith) faith, hope and love do remain. Therefore we must always believe and always hope; we must always take hold of Christ as the head and fountain of our righteousness. He that believeth in him shall not be ashamed. Moreover, we must labour to be outwardly righteous also: that is to say, not to consent to the flesh, which always enticeth us to some evil; but to resist it by the spirit. We must not be overcome with impatiency for the unthankfulness and contempt of the people, which abuseth the Christian liberty; but through the Spirit we must overcome this and all other temptations. Look then how much we strive against the flesh by the spirit, so much are we outwardly righteous. Albeit this righteousness doth not commend us before God.
"Let no man therefore despair if he feel the flesh oftentimes to stir up new battles against the spirit, or if he cannot by and by subdue the flesh, and make it obedient unto the spirit. I also do wish myself to have a more valiant and constant heart, which might be able, not only boldly to contemn the threatenings of tyrants, the heresies, offences and tumults which the fantastical spirits stir up; but also might by and by shake off the vexations and anguish of spirit, and briefly, might not fear the sharpness of death, but receive and embrace it as a most friendly guest. But I find another law in my members, rebelling against the law of my mind, &c. Some other do wrestle with inferior temptations, as poverty, reproach, impatiency and suchlike.
"Let no man marvel therefore or be dismayed, when he feeleth in his body this battle of the flesh against the spirit: but let him pluck up his heart and comfort himself with these words of Paul: 'The flesh lusteth against the spirit,' &c., and: 'These are contrary one to another, so that ye do not those things that ye would.' For by these sentences he comforteth them that be tempted. As if he should say: It is impossible for you to follow the guiding of the Spirit in all things without any feeling or hindrance of the flesh; nay, the flesh will resist: and so resist and hinder you that ye cannot do those things that gladly ye would. Here, it shall be enough if ye resist the flesh and fulfil not the lust thereof: that is to say, if ye follow the spirit and not the flesh, which easily is overthrown by impatiency, coveteth to revenge, biteth, grudgeth, hateth God, is angry with him, despaireth, &c. Therefore when a man feeleth this battle of the flesh, let him not be discouraged therewith, but let him resist in the Spirit, and say: I am a sinner, and I feel sin in me, for I have not yet put off the flesh, in which sin dwelleth so long as it liveth; but I will obey the spirit and not the flesh: that is, I will by faith and hope lay hold upon Christ, and by his word I will raise up myself, and being so raised up, I will not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
"It is very profitable for the godly to know this, and to bear it well in mind; for it wonderfully comforteth them when they are tempted. When I was a monk I thought by and by that I was utterly cast away, if at any time I felt the concupiscence of the flesh: that is to say, if I felt any evil motion, fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother. I assayed many ways, I went to confession daily, &c., but it profited me not; for the concupiscence of my flesh did always return, so that I could not rest, but was continually vexed with these thoughts: This or that sin thou hast committed; thou art infected with envy, with impatiency, and such other sins; therefore thou art entered into this holy order in vain, and all thy good works are unprofitable. If then I had rightly understood these sentences of Paul: 'The flesh lusteth contrary to the spirit, and the spirit contrary to the flesh,' &c. and 'these two are one against another, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would do,' I should not have so miserably tormented myself, but should have thought and said to myself, as now commonly I do: Martin, thou shalt not utterly be without sin, for thou hast yet flesh; thou shalt therefore feel the battle thereof, according to that saying of Paul: 'The flesh resisteth the spirit.' Despair not therefore, but resist it strongly, and fulfil not the lust thereof. Thus doing thou art not under the law.
"I remember that Staupitius was wont to say: 'I have vowed unto God above a thousand times, that I would become a better man; but I never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience, that I am not able to perform it. Unless therefore God be favourable and merciful unto me for Christ's sake, and grant unto me a blessed and a happy hour when I shall depart out of this miserable life, I shall not be able with all my vows and all my good deeds, to stand before him.' This was not only a true, but also a godly and a holy desperation: and this must they all confess both with mouth and heart, which will be saved. For the godly trust not to their own righteousness, but saywith David: 'Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall none that liveth be justified' (Ps. cxliii. 2), and: 'If thou 0 Lord shouldst straightly mark iniquities, 0 Lord who shall stand?' (Ps. cxxx. 3). They look unto Christ their reconciler, who gave his life for their sins. Moreover, they know that the remnant of sin which is in their flesh, is not laid to their charge, but freely pardoned. Notwithstanding in the meanwhile they fight in the Spirit against the flesh, lest they should fulfil the lust thereof. And although they feel the flesh to rage and rebel against the spirit, and themselves also do fall sometimes into sin through infirmity, yet are they not discouraged, nor think therefore that their state and kind of life, and the works which are done according to their calling, displease God: but they raise up themselves by faith.
"The faithful therefore receive great consolation by this doctrine of Paul, in that they know themselves to have partly the flesh, and partly the spirit, but yet so notwithstanding that the spirit ruleth and the flesh is subdued, that righteousness reigneth and sin serveth. He that knoweth not this doctrine, and thinketh that the faithful oughtto be without all fault, and yet seeth the contrary in himself, must needs at the length be swallowed up by the spirit of heaviness, and fall into desperation. But whoso knoweth this doctrine well and useth it rightly, to him the things that are evil turn unto good. For when the flesh provoketh him to sin, by occasion thereof he is stirred up and forced to seek forgiveness of sins by Christ, and to embrace the righteousness of faith, which else he would not so greatly esteem, nor seek for the same with so great desire. Therefore it profiteth us very much to feel sometimes the wickedness of our nature and corruption of our flesh, that even by this means we may be waked and stirred up to faith and to call upon Christ. And by this occasion a Christian becometh a mighty workman and a wonderful creator, which of heaviness can make joy, of terror comfort, of sin righteousness, and of death life, when he by this means repressing and bridling the flesh, maketh it subject to the Spirit.
"Wherefore let not them which feel the concupiscence of the flesh, despair of their salvation. Let them feel it and all the force thereof, so that they consent not to it. Let the passions of lust, wrath and such other vices shake them, so that they do not overthrow them. Let sin assail them, so that they do not accomplish it. Yea the more godly a man is, the more doth he feel that battle. And hereof come those lamentable complaints of the saints in the Psalms and in all the holy Scripture. Of this battle the hermits, the monks, and the schoolmen, and all that seek righteousness and salvation by works, know nothing at all."
"This I say for the comfort of the godly. For they only feel indeed that they have and do commit sins, that is to say, they feel they do not love God so fervently as they should do; that they do not trust him so heartily as they would, but rather they often-times doubt whether God have a care of them or no; they are impatient, and are angry with God in adversity. Hereof (as I have said) proceed the sorrowful complaints of the saints in the Scriptures, and especially in the Psalms. And Paul himself complaineth that he is 'sold under sin' (Rom. vii. 14); and here he saith that the flesh resisteth and rebelleth against the spirit. But because they mortify the deeds of the flesh by the spirit (as he saith in another place; and also in the end of this chapter: 'They crucify the flesh with the desires and lusts thereof'), therefore these sins do not hurt them nor condemn them. But if they obey the flesh in fulfilling the lusts thereof then do they lose faith and the Holy Ghost. And if they do not abhor their sin and return unto Christ (who hath given the keys to his Church, to receive and raise up those that be fallen, that so they may recover faith and the Holy Ghost), they die in their sins. Wherefore we speak not of them which dream that they have faith, and yet continue still in their sins. These men have their judgment already: They that live after the flesh shall die (Rom. viii. 13), also: 'The works of the flesh are manifest, which are, adultery, fornication, &c., whereof I tell you before, as also I have told you that they which do such things, shall not inherit the kingdom of God.'