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Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans

PART II: Now We Shall Take the Epistle Itself

Ch. 1 — The Gross Sins of Men

It behoves a preacher of the Gospel, first of all, by means of the revelation of the Law concerning sins, to reprove and denounce as sin everything in a person's life that does not proceed from the Spirit and from faith in Christ, in order that men be enabled to know themselves and their misery, become humble, and crave help. Therefore, St. Paul, following this rule, starts in the first chapter to rebuke gross sins and unbelief which are manifest, such as the sins of the Gentiles were and as are still in those who live without the grace of God. He says that by the Gospel is revealed the wrath of God from heaven upon all men because of their ungodliness and unrighteousness. For although they know and perceive every day, that there is a God, still their nature, outside of grace, is in itself so evil that they neither thank Him nor honour Him, but inflict blindness on themselves and without ceasing fall into worse evils, until, after practising idolatry, they commit, without shame, the most abominable sins and every vice and, moreover, do not rebuke them in others.

Your Day in Court

Ch. 2 — Hypocrisy and Self-righteousness

In the second chapter this reproof is still further extended, so as to embrace those who are outwardly pious or sin in secret. Of this class were the Jews, and are all hypocrites today, who lead a good and honest life without real love for it, because at heart they are enemies of God's Law. Yet they are ready to pass judgment on other people, as is the manner of all hypocrites, so as to esteem themselves pure, although they are full of avarice, hatred, pride, and all vileness. Matt. 23:25. These are the very people who despise the goodness of God and heap up wrath for themselves because of their hardness. Thus St. Paul, a true expounder of the Law, does not suffer anyone to pass for a sinless person, but denounces the wrath of God to all who would lead a good life by their natural strength or free will He does not suffer them to pass for anything better than manifest sinners; in fact, he tells them that they are hard-hearted and impenitent.

Ch. 3 — All Men Are Sinners

In the third chapter the apostle casts them all on the same heap, saying that one is no better than the other, and all of them are sinners in the sight of God. The only difference is that the Jews have had the Word of God, though many of them did not believe it. But that has not made the faith and truth of God of no effect. Incidentally, the apostle introduces the passage from Psalm 51:4, which declares that God is righteous whenever He judges. This point he takes up again in what follows and proves by Scriptures that all are sinners and no one is justified by the deeds of the Law, but that the Law has been given only that man might know sin.

Salvation by Grace

Next the apostle begins to teach the true way of becoming godly and being saved. He says: "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." They must all be saved without any merit of theirs, by faith in Christ, who has earned our salvation by shedding His blood. He has been set before us as a Mercy-seat by God, who forgives us all our past sins. In this manner he proves that only the righteousness which God gives to faith can help us. This righteousness was revealed at that time by the Gospel, but had been witnessed previously by the Law and the prophets. Thus the Law is established by faith, and the deeds of the Law, together with their glory, are dashed to the ground by this argument.

Ch. 4 — Good Works the Outward Signs of Faith

Having revealed sin in the first three chapters and having taught the way of faith unto righteousness, the apostle now begins to meet several objections and claims. First, he takes up the one which is commonly advanced by all when they hear that faith justifies without works. They say: Are we then, not to do any good works? He reminds himself of Abraham and says: What has Abraham accomplished with all his works? Was it all in vain? Did his works not benefit him at all? He winds up by declaring that Abraham was justified without any works, by faith alone, so much so that prior to the work of circumcision he is extolled in Scripture as a righteous man solely for the sake of his faith. Gen. 15:6. Now, if the work of circumcision, which God enjoined upon him and which was a goodly act of obedience, contributed nothing to his righteousness, surely no other good work will contribute anything to a person's righteousness. But just as the circumcision of Abraham was an external sign, exhibiting his righteousness by faith, so all good works are merely external signs flowing from faith and, as good fruits, attesting that a person is already inwardly righteous in the sight of God.

By this argument, as by a powerful example drawn from Scripture, St. Paul establishes his former teaching concerning faith in chap. 3:27, and, in addition, introduces another witness, David, in the thirty-second psalm, who also says that man is justified without works, although he does not remain without works after he has become justified. Continuing, he expands the example which he has introduced, so as to make it cover all other works of the Law, and concludes that the Jews cannot be the heirs of Abraham because of their descent, much less on account of the work of the Law, but that, if they wish to be genuine heirs, they must inherit Abraham's faith, inasmuch as Abraham was justified by faith and called a father of the faithful prior to the Law, both that of Moses and that of circumcision. Moreover, the Law works wrath rather than grace, because no one obeys the Law willingly and from love; hence by the Law comes disfavour rather than grace. Therefore it must needs be that faith alone obtains the mercy promised to Abraham. For these examples have been recorded also for our sakes, in order that we might believe.

Ch. 5 — The Fruits of Faith

In the fifth chapter the apostle proceeds to discuss the fruits and works of faith, such as peace, joy, love of God and of all our fellow men; moreover, assurance, boldness, cheerfulness, courage and hope amidst tribulations and sufferings. For all these things follow where there is genuine faith, because of the superabundant treasure which God has bequeathed to us in Christ, when He caused Him to die for us before we could pray Him to do this, nay, while we were still enemies Thus we arrive at this result, viz., that faith justifies without any works, and yet it does not follow from this that we must not do any good works, but that genuine works will not be wanting. Of these works those who are saints by their own merit know nothing; they frame up works of their own, in which there is neither peace, joy, assurance, love, hope, boldness, nor the quality of any genuine Christian work and faith.

Next the apostle attempts a pleasure stroll for a diversion, and tells whence sin and unrighteousness, death and life, come, and in a splendid comparison places these two, Adam and Christ, over against each other. He means to say: For this reason Christ had to come, as another Adam, who was to bequeath his righteousness to us by a new, spiritual birth through faith, just as the former Adam had bequeathed sin to us through the old, carnal birth.

By this illustration it is made plain, and the teaching is confirmed, that no one can by means of works advance himself out of sin into righteousness, just as little as he can control his physical birth. This is also proved by the fact that the divine Law, which, if anything, might be expected to aid man toward righteousness, has not only come without such aid, but has even increased sin. For man's evil nature becomes all the more incensed against it and seeks to gratify its lust in proportion as the Law checks it. Hence the Law makes Christ all the more necessary and requires more grace to aid nature.

Ch. 6 — The Daily Struggle with Sin

In the sixth chapter, the apostle takes up a special work of faith, viz., the struggle of the Spirit against the flesh, which aims at the complete mortification of the remaining sins and lusts left over after justification. This teaches us that we are not so utterly freed from sin by faith that we can be idle, lazy and secure, as though sin did no longer exist. There still is sin, but for the sake of faith, which battles with it, it is not imputed for condemnation. Hence, as long as we live, we have all we can do to tame our body, to mortify its lusts, and to force its members to obey the Spirit and not the lusts By doing this, we share the death and resurrection of Christ and perfect our baptism (which typifies the death of sins and the new life of grace), until we become completely rid of sin and rise with Christ also in our bodies and live for ever.

We can do this, the apostle says, because we are under grace and not under the Law. He explains his meaning thus: To be without the Law is not the same as having no law and being at liberty to do as one pleases, while to be under the Law means to engage in works of the Law without grace. In the latter case sin surely reigns by means of the Law, because no one is by nature a lover of the Law. This state of affairs, however, constitutes a great sin. But grace makes the Law pleasant to us, and then there is no more sin, and the Law is no longer against us, but in harmony with us.

Christian Liberty

This condition, now, is genuine freedom from sin and from the Law. Regarding this matter the apostle writes to the end of this chapter, telling us that it is a liberty to do good gladly and to lead a good life without constraint by the Law. This liberty, therefore, is a spiritual liberty, which does not abolish the Law, but supplies us with the things which the Law demands, viz., willingness and love. These render satisfaction to the Law, so that it can no longer urge us nor make demands upon us. Suppose you were in debt to your landlord and unable to pay. You might obtain your release from him in one of two ways: either he might not take anything from you and tear up your account, or some good person might make payment for you, giving you enough to liquidate your account. In the latter way Christ has made us free from the Law. Therefore the liberty which He gives is not a wild, carnal liberty, which is not under obligation to do anything, but it is very active in many ways, and yet it is not subject to the Law's demands, and not indebted to it.

Ch. 7 — Dead to the Law

In the seventh chapter the apostle confirms this teaching by an illustration taken from married life. When a husband dies, his wife, too, becomes free, and each is released from the other. Not in this sense, that the woman is not to take another husband, but rather in this sense, that she is now truly free to take another, which she could not do before she became released from her former husband.

PreachinLikewise, under the sinful old man our conscience is bound to the Law; when he has been mortified by the Spirit, the conscience is free, and each is released from the other. Not in this sense, that henceforth it is to do nothing, but in the sense that it is now to cling truly to Christ, the other husband, and yield the fruit of life.

Continuing, the apostle expands his teaching concerning sins and the Law, and shows how sin begins to become quite active and grow powerful through the Law. For the old man becomes more incensed against the Law, because he cannot pay what the Law demands For sin is his nature, and of himself he cannot but sin. Therefore, the Law is his (instrument of) death, and inflicts on him all manner of torment. Not that the Law is evil, but the person's evil nature cannot tolerate what is good, and that good is required of him, just as a sick person cannot bear that people ask him to run and leap like a hale person.

St. Paul, then, in this epistle, draws the conclusion that the Law, when correctly understood and fully comprehended, accomplishes no more than that it brings our sins to our remembrance, slays us by means of them, and makes us subject to the wrath everlasting. All this is well learned by the experience of our conscience when it has been fully smitten by the Law, and we find out that we must have something else, something better than the Law, to make us godly and to save us. But those who do not understand the Law correctly are blind. They strut about in their conceit and imagine that they can satisfy the Law by their works. For they do not know how much the Law demands, namely, a willing, cheerful heart. They do not look Moses straight in the eye; the veil is before them, and the meaning of the Law is hidden from them.

The Conflict Within the Believer

Next he shows how the Spirit and the flesh struggle with one another in an individual and offers himself as an example to teach us the right understanding of this work of slaying sin in ourselves. He calls both the Spirit and the flesh a law; for as the nature of the divine Law is to urge and make demands, so the flesh in its struggle with the Spirit urges and makes demands and rages in an effort to achieve its desire. On the other hand, the Spirit keeps urging and makes demands in opposition to the flesh and wants to achieve His desire. This struggle lasts as long as we live; it is more violent in one person, less so in another, according as the Spirit or the flesh grows stronger. And yet the entire person is himself both Spirit and flesh, struggling with himself until he becomes altogether spiritual.

Ch. 8 — Afflictions an Aid Against the Flesh

In the eighth chapter the apostle comforts these strugglers, telling them that their flesh does not condemn them. Furthermore, he shows what is the nature of the flesh and of the Spirit, and how the Spirit is derived from Christ, who has given us His Holy Spirit. This Spirit makes us spiritual, subdues the flesh, and assures us that as long as we follow the Spirit, resist sin, and endeavor to slay it, we are, nevertheless, the children of God, no matter how violently sin rages in us. However, since nothing serves the purpose of bruising the flesh as well as crosses and sufferings, he comforts us in our sufferings by reminding us of the help afforded by the Spirit of love and by all creatures. He tells us that both the Spirit groans within us and all creatures are yearning with us for deliverance from the flesh and from sin. Thus we see that these three chapters, 6, 7, and 8, urge upon us this single work of faith which is called mortifying the old Adam and taming the flesh.

Ch. 9-11 — Predestination or Election

The apostle's teaching in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh chapters is concerning the eternal predestination of God, whence it originally flows, whether a person is to believe it or not, become rid of his sins or not, in order that our becoming godly may be taken entirely out of our own hands and placed in the hands of God. And this is of the very highest importance. For we are so feeble and full of uncertainty that, if it depended on us, not a single person would be saved; the devil would surely overpower all. But God being reliable so that His predestination does not fail, and no one can defeat His purpose, we have still reason for hope over against sin.

However, at this point a limit has to be staked off against presumptuous and arrogant spirits, who lead their reason to this point first, start from the top, undertake to explore before everything else the abyss of divine predestination, and worry to no purpose over the question whether they are predestinated. These people become the cause of their own downfall; they either despair of their salvation or abandon themselves to recklessness.

As to yourself, I say: Follow the order of this epistle. Occupy your mind with Christ and His Gospel in order that you may know your sin and His grace, and then wrestle with your sin, as chaps. 1,2,3,4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 have taught you to do. After you have arrived at the eighth chapter and are subjected to crosses and sufferings, you will be rightly taught how comforting predestination is, as explained in chaps. 9, 10, and 11. For outside of a condition of suffering, cross-bearing, and mortal anguish, a person cannot contemplate predestination without injury to himself and without harbouring a secret grudge against God. Therefore Adam must be quite dead before a person can bear to listen to this teaching and drink of this strong wine. Beware, then, of drinking wine while you are still a suckling infant. There is a proper limit, time, and age for every doctrine.

Ch. 12 — God-pleasing Worship

In the twelfth chapter the apostle teaches us the true worship of God, and declares all Christians priests, calling upon them to offer up sacrifices, which are to be not money or cattle, as under the Law, but their own bodies and the slaying of their lusts. Next he describes the outward conduct of Christians in their spiritual government; how they are to teach, preach, rule, serve, give, suffer, love, live, and act towards their friends, enemies, and everybody else. These are works such as a Christian does. For, as was stated before, faith is never idle.

Ch. 13 — Our Duty Towards Government and All Men

In the thirteenth chapter the apostle instructs us how to honour and obey the civil government, which has been ordained for the following purpose: Although it does not make people pious in the sight of God, still it effects this much, that the godly enjoy external peace and protection, and the wicked are not free to do evil without fear, with impunity and unmolested. For this reason the civil government must be honoured even by the godly, although they have no need of it. Finally, he comprises everything under the head of love, and encloses it in the example of Christ; as He has done for us, we are to do likewise and follow after Him.

Ch. 14 — Our Duty Towards Weaker Brethren

In the fourteenth chapter the apostle teaches us how to treat tenderly the weak consciences of believers, and to spare them, by using the liberty of Christians, not to the injury, but to the advancement of weak brethren. For wherever this is not done, discord and contempt of the Gospel, which is of paramount importance, will ensue. Accordingly, it is better to yield somewhat to those weak in faith until they become stronger than to permit the teaching of the Gospel utterly to perish. To do this is an especial work of love, and it is quite necessary even today, because by boldly and inconsiderately eating forbidden meats and taking other liberties when there is no necessity for it, the tender consciences of people become confused before they learn to know the truth of this matter.

Ch. 15 — Christian Love

In the fifteenth chapter the apostle places before us the example of Christ, to teach us that we must bear with other weak brethren, such as show their frailty by manifest sins or by unpleasant manners. Such persons we must not cast aside, but bear with them until they, too, are improved. For so Christ has treated us, and is still treating us every day; He tolerates in us a great many things that are not virtues, but evil habits, in addition to all our imperfections, and succours us unceasingly.

In conclusion, he prays for them, praises them, commends them to God, indicates to them his office as a preacher, and solicits in a very seemly manner a contribution for the poor at Jerusalem. In short, it is all love that he is talking about and inculcating.

Ch. 16 — Salutations and a Warning

The last chapter is a chapter of salutations, but he weaves into it a very solemn warning against doctrines of men which are introduced along with the teaching of the Gospel and cause offences. It reads as if he had foreseen with certainty that out of Rome and through the Romans would come the misleading, offensive canons and decretals, and all the brood and breed of human laws and commands which now have overwhelmed the whole world, so that they have done away with this epistle and all the Holy Scriptures, together with the Spirit and faith, leaving nothing except their idol, the belly, as servants of which St. Paul denounces them in this chapter. God save us from them! Amen.


You find, then, in this epistle, the greatest abundance of things that a Christian ought to know: what the Law is, the Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, righteousness, Christ, God, good works, love, hope, cross-bearing, also how we are to conduct ourselves in every relation toward the godly and toward sinners, toward those of strong and those of weak faith, toward friends, toward enemies, and toward ourselves. Moreover, all this teaching has been masterfully built up on the Scripture ground, and illustrated by the apostle's personal example and by the example of the prophets, so that there is nothing left for us to desire. It seems, therefore, that the apostle's object in this epistle was to draw up a syllabus of the entire Christian and evangelical doctrine, and to prepare an introduction to the entire Old Testament. For any person who has received this epistle into his heart has without question the light and strength of the Old Testament in himself. Accordingly, let every Christian become familiar with this epistle, and put it into constant practice. To this end may God grant us His grace! Amen.

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