When Luther’s Servant Sold Herself to the Devil

There is a beautiful story handed down through the mists of time…

…about when Martin Luther had a domestic servant residing in his house by the name of Elizabeth, who, in a fit of displeasure, left it without giving the family any notice. She subsequently fell into habits of immorality, and became dangerously ill. In her sickness she requested a visit from Dr. Luther.

On taking his seat at her bedside, he said, ” Well, Elizabeth, what is the matter?” “I have given away my soul to Satan,” said she. “Why,” rejoined Luther, “that’s of no great consequence. What else?”

“I have,” continued she, “done many wicked things; but this is what most oppresses me, that I have deliberately sold my poor soul to the devil, and how can such a crime ever find mercy?”

“Elizabeth, listen to me,” rejoined the man of God. “Suppose, while you lived in my house, you had sold and transferred all my children to a stranger, would the sale or transfer have been lawful and binding?”

“Oh no,” said the deeply humbled girl, “for I had no right to do that.”

“Very well, you had still less right to give your soul to the Archenemy, Satan; for your soul no more belongs to you than do my children. It is the exclusive property of the Lord Jesus Christ; He made it, and when lost also redeemed it; it is His, with all its powers and faculties, and you can’t give away and sell what is not yours; if you have attempted it, the whole transaction was unlawful, and is entirely void.

Now, do you go to the Lord, confess your guilt with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and entreat Him to pardon you, and take back again what is wholly His own. And as for the sin of attempting to alienate His rightful property, throw that back upon the devil, for that, and that alone is his.”

The girl obeyed, prayed for forgiveness, and died full of hope.

“As ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.”
— Romans 6:19.

Author Unknown

Lessons From: The Publican and the Pharisee

Taken and adapted from “Sermons of Martin Luther”
Written by Martin Luther


And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” — Luke 18:9-14

This Gospel brings two extraordinary persons to our notice…

…or two kinds of people from the multitude called the people of God, who would be God’s servants and come before him seeking righteousness. And the two kinds of righteousness, which are found on earth, are also represented; the one, which makes a great show before all the world and in the eyes of men, and yet before God it amounts to nothing, and is therefore condemned; the other, which is not known among men, and yet before God it is called righteousness and is pleasing in his sight. The one is that of the beautiful, proud saint, the Pharisee; the other, that of the poor, humble, sorrowing sinner, the publican.

We also hear two wonderful, strange sentences of judgment, wholly and entirely opposed to human wisdom and the whims of reason, hard and terrible to all the world, which condemns the great saints as unjust, and declares the poor sinners acceptable, righteous and holy. But, as the text itself shows, he speaks of such saints who trusted in themselves to find a righteousness in their own lives and works, which God was bound to respect; and again of such sinners, who from their hearts desired to become? free from their sins, and long for forgiveness and the grace of God. For nothing is said here of that other great multitude in the world, who are like neither this publican nor this Pharisee, who care nothing at all, either for sin or grace, but continue in security and wickedness, without inquiring after any God, heaven or hell.

Of the two kinds of persons among the Jews, the Pharisees and publicans, we have sufficiently heard in another place, namely, that the name Pharisee means the very first, most upright and pious people, who with all earnestness endeavored to serve God, and to keep the law, as Paul also boasts of himself, that before his conversion he was one of them, Philippians 3:5.

Again, the name “publican” among them meant a man living in open sin and vice, and served neither God nor man, and was only busy to rob, to oppress and harm his neighbor, as they were forced to do in their occupation which they bought from the Romans for great sums of money, if they desired fully to take advantage of it. In short, they were people who were regarded as no better than public, godless heathen, even though they were Jews by birth, as Christ also compares them to Gentiles, Matthew 18:17: “And if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican.”

It is indeed wonderful that Christ brings two such persons together, who are so entirely different and the farthest removed from each other; and still more wonderful, and even offensive, that he expresses such weighty Judgments, wholly condemning the Pharisee and declaring the publican just. Although he plainly speaks thus of both, nevertheless he shows that he does not reject, nor desire to have rejected such works of which the Pharisee here boasts; for he represents and sets him forth as a beautiful saint, with works that are neither to be rebuked nor punished, but that are good and worthy of praise, On the other hand he can neither boast of nor praise the publican for his life and works, for he is himself forced to confess before God, and to condemn himself as a sinner, and can think of no good he has done. And yet Christ thus searches, proves and examines both, and finds nothing good in the holy Pharisee, although he did many costly works, not on account of the works, which in themselves are not wrong; but because the person was not good but full of iniquity. While on the other hand in the publican who hitherto had been a public, condemned sinner, he now finds a real good tree and good fruit, although he does not shine forth with the great works of the Pharisee. Wherefore let us in brief consider both persons.

First of all you must properly magnify and adorn the Pharisee, as Christ presents him with his beautiful life; for here you have a man who dares to stand before God, and praise his life in the divine presence. This can never be intended as a false praise, but is meant in all earnestness and truth. He appeals to himself as a witness, and is willing to announce himself before God and be found in the true worship, and give an account of his entire life, that it is spent in obedience to God. He begins with the highest and first commandment, and shows himself as one who worships the true and only God, and seeks first of all his kingdom and his will; he confesses that he has everything from God, what he is and lives, he brings all back to him and thanks him for all he has given him, especially for. this particular grace and kindness that he preserves him from sin and shame, that he is not like the public sinners and publicans, and prays that God may preserve him in this, and further grant unto him his grace and goodness. Here you see nothing but beautiful works of the first table of the law, of all three commandments; for hereby he also observes the Sabbath, because he goes into the temple only to seek God and to pray.

He later goes further into the second table, and purifies his conscience before God and the world, in that he is not unjust, a robber, adulterer, like the great majority of people. Here the other five commandments are taken together, so that he is a man who can boast of himself before all the world, that he has done no one wrong, violence or pain, nor oppressed or offended against the fifth, sixth and eighth commandments, and in this connection he dares to defy everyone to prove anything different against him. Besides he has strictly kept the sixth commandment, he has not committed adultery or led an unchaste life, but kept his body in subjection and discipline, and also fasted twice every week, which was not a false fasting, as that of our priests and monks chiefly is, but a real fasting as the Jews observed from morning until evening, to the going down of the sun.

Above all this, that he was not only not unjust, nor an extortioner of his neighbor’s goods and honor, but gave the tenth of all he had honestly and fairly earned, and by this also yields his obedience to God, and gives for the support of divine worship and the priestly office of all that God gave him, and does not lay up anything in a miserly spirit.

Here you view all the commandments together, and he appears to the world a paragon of godliness, a fine, pious, god-fearing and holy man, who is to be applauded as a mirror and an example for the whole world, that they might well desire, and it would indeed be well to desire, and the world would be very lovely if it had many such people.

Now contrast the publican with this picture, and you will see there is no resemblance to the holy Pharisee; for even his name at once indicates that little virtue or honor can be found in him, and no one could regard him as inquiring much after God or his commandments; and he does not only fail to give any of his goods for the service of God, but even publicly robs and steals from his neighbor; and in short he is a man who with his sinful life is a public and known example; as the Pharisee also informs him, that he is depraved and godless, his conscience is depraved, and there is no good to hope from him.

Now how does it happen so contrary, that the Pharisee is condemned of God and the publican is justified? Will God now speak and decide against his own law, which justly prefers those who live according to it, to those who live opposed to it in open sin? Or does God delight in those who do no good and are nothing but robbers, adulterers and unjust? By no means, but we have here quite another and higher law than the world or flesh and blood understand, which looks deeper into the hearts of both these persons, and finds in the Pharisee a great evil principle which destroys all that otherwise might be called good, which the Evangelist calls, to trust in self and despise others.

Such is the reproach of this fine man and rogue, who is great before the world. Would to God that this one were the only one, and he had not left so many children and heirs. For the whole world with the best there is in it, is altogether drowned in this vice; it will not and cannot forsake it. Where it knows of any good it possesses, it exalts itself, and despises others who have it not, and exalts itself above God and man; and even though they pretend to keep God’s commandments they transgress them, as Paul says of his Jews, Romans 9:31, that they truly, in striving after the law of righteousness, have not attained to righteousness.

What a wonderful thing it is, that those who diligently hold to the law, and worship God to a great extent, are not those who keep the law, as Paul in Galatians 6:13 says: “For not even they who receive circumcision do themselves keep the law,” etc. Those are strange saints indeed, who even in doing according to the law, do not keep it but violate it. Who then are those who keep it?

This Pharisee and those like him, with their fine discipline and honor, which is truly an excellent, glorious and beautiful gift, which must be praised and esteemed in the world above everything else as the greatest gift of God, more beautiful than all other beauty and ornament, gold and silver, yea, than even the light of the sun. Of him, I say, the sentence is spoken, that before God he is worse than a robber, a murderer and an adulterer.

Whither shall we now go with this doctrine among the great multitude of this world, whom we ourselves condemn on account of their public contempt of God and all wickedness against God and the people, which also cries to heaven and drowns everything that the earth can scarcely bear it? Well, I said before, that the Pharisee is neither censured nor condemned because he does the works of the law, or else we would have to condemn God’s gift and his law, and praise the contrary. Yet this I say, that here the person is placed before the judgment seat of God, and finds it different there than before the judgment of this world, that although he has indeed some beautiful, praiseworthy gifts, yet a great blot of shame cleaves to them, because he misuses these gifts, and in God’s sight is entirely destroyed by them.

For with these gifts he is here accused of transgressing against both God and man, against both tables of the law. For in the first commandment especially and in the highest terms, presumption is forbidden, that a man should not trust in himself or in his own gifts, or take pleasure in himself; as this work righteous person does, who struts forth and is tickled with the gifts he has received from God, and makes an idol of them and worships himself, as though he were the excellent holy man, whom alone God is bound to respect and honor.

This is already the great sin and vice where he runs counter against God himself, of course blind and hardened, like an unbelieving heathen or Turk, who knows nothing of God, is without repentance, and on account of his great holiness will know nothing of sin, and fears not the wrath of God. He presumes to stand firm by his own works, and does not see that he and all men, even the true saints themselves with all their own righteousness and life, cannot stand before God; but are guilty of his wrath and condemnation, as David testifies in Psalm 130:3: “If thou, Jehovah, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” And Psalm 143:2: “Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight no man living is righteous.” Therefore he does not seek either grace or forgiveness of sins, nor does it occur to him that he stands in need of them.

Now since he sins so monstrously against the first and highest commandment, in shameful and horrible idolatry, presumption and defiance, depending on his own holiness, and as there is here no fear of God, neither trust nor love, but he seeks only his own honor and praise, we must conclude that he does not honestly and from the heart observe any of the other commandments, and all is false and lies that he pretends with his prayers and worship, and thereby in the highest degree misuses and disgraces the name of God to adorn his lies, and thereby only brings down upon himself God’s wrath and severe condemnation; as God has declared that whoever taketh his name in vain shall not go unpunished.

For what-else is it, but to blaspheme and defy the lofty majesty of God, when he prays and says: I thank thee, God, that I am so holy and good, that I never need thy grace; but I find so much in myself, that I have kept the law, and you cannot accuse me of anything, and i have deserved so much, that you are bound to repay and reward me again for it in time and in eternity, if you would keep your own honor, and be a just and truthful God.

In like manner see how he rumbles and blusters also in the second table of the law against his neighbor; for neither is there here any Christian love or faithfulness by which one could trace that he sought and favored his neighbor’s honor and salvation; but he basely goes to work and tramples him under his feet by his shameful contempt, and does not consider him worthy to be regarded as a human being; yea, when he should help and serve his neighbor, so that no wrong or harm be done him, he himself does him the greatest wrong. For when he sees and knows that his neighbor sins against God, he does not think how he can convert and save him from the wrath of God and condemnation, that he may reform; he has no mercy or sympathy in t, is heart for the distress and affliction of a poor sinner, and thinks that he is rightly and justly served, in that he is left in his condemnation and destruction, and withdraws from him all the duties of love and service God has commanded him to perform, that above all things he might bring his neighbor from his sins and condemnation into the kingdom of God by teaching, admonition, rebuke and reformation, etc. ; and what is the worst of all, he is glad and of good courage, because his neighbor is under the power of sin and the wrath of God. Thus one can indeed trace what desire and love he has for God’s law, and how much of an enemy he is to vice.

For of what use can such a man be in the kingdom of God, who can still rejoice, yea, laugh and be heartily pleased at the sins and disobedience of the whole world against God; and who would be sorry if anyone were good at heart and observed God’s commandments, and even if able he would be unwilling to help him in the least to this, or prevent the evil and condemnation of his neighbor? What good should we seek or hope for in him who is so wicked as not to desire the salvation of his neighbor?

The heathen themselves know of no greater wickedness, or how to paint a more wicked man, than he who is so hateful and envious, as only to delight and rejoice when his neighbor meets adversity. Like some who are so wicked that they willingly suffer harm themselves, if only another thereby suffer greater injury. Such devilish, hellish wickedness cannot be greater in anyone than in such false saints, who alone want all honor before God and the world and wish to be pure and holy, and all others to be obnoxious and filthy. If in bodily ills it be said of a physician who claims to be an honorable and good man, who when he visits a person sick unto death, instead of giving him good advice and helping to restore him to health, does nothing but laugh and make fun of the wretched man; who would not take him for the most desperate villain that walks the earth, in that he not only withdraws his assistance from an unfortunate person in his greatest distress, but even laughs at his sufferings and wreaks out his anger upon him? How much greater villainy is that of a false saint, who sees his neighbor’s soul in danger and in the fear of eternal condemnation, whose duty it would be to risk his body and life to save him; but he refuses not only to do this when he could save him only with one word or a sigh of sympathy, but instead casts it up against him and as much as he is able gladly plunges him still deeper into condemnation.

What should such a man do or wish to him who is his enemy, or who has done him some wrong, whom nevertheless he is in duty bound to love and assist as far as he permits him. How would he in this case burst out with anger, curses, blows, so that he would not consider murder as a sin but as holiness, especially in him who would not admit that he was good and holy, like the good brother murderer Cain did with his brother Abel, and his children at all times still do, as Christ himself says of such, John 16:2: “The hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God.”

Just as little will you find that such a person observes in his heart any other commandment; for just as little would he try to prevent the disgrace of his neighbor’s wife or child, or assist to preserve their honor; yea, when it is lost he would be glad of it and laugh in his sleeves, or had he an opportunity he would do it himself, or even lend a hand. That he avoids such public evil work, is not out of his love to virtue or to obedience to God; for if he does not try to prevent the loss and distress of his neighbor’s soul, how can you expect him to protect his honor or the honor of his family? Much less would he lament or think to prevent harm to his neighbor’s goods, that they be not robbed, stolen, or otherwise destroyed, but would rather rejoice over it and say: It served him right. I will say nothing of his duty to help him in his poverty with his own property, or gratuitously aid him with money. He will neither guard his neighbor’s good name when he hears it slandered and belied, nor try with his own honor to cover and adorn his dishonor; but will rather rejoice and help to belie him and make him out the worst, as such saints especially are accustomed to do, as this one here before God and other people belie this poor publican, whom he in truth cannot accuse of anything.

Now see, what a disgraceful, monstrous devil is in such a beautiful saint, who can cover himself with a thin appearance of a few works which he performs before the eyes of the people, and what he does in his worship, thanks and prayers, whereby he blasphemes and dishonors the high majesty with outrage and defiance in the open public, that he dares to boast before God of such scandalous vices, and be so brave as though God were bound to treat him as a model saint, and as a debt and duty give him heaven and everything he might ask.

Or if he knew that God would not do it, and accept the poor publican in preference to himself, he would be so enraged with anger and hatred against God, as to publicly take the word out of God’s mouth and say, that he is not God but the devil from hell, and would gladly if he could, thrust him down from his throne red usurp his seat. And in all this he will not suffer himself to be punished by any one and will claim he did just right; whereas he deserves more than all other blasphemers, that God should at once open the earth and devour him alive.

Here you see what a man is and does, who is moved by his own free will or by the power of nature. For this Pharisee is set up by Christ as the highest example of what a man eau do by his own strength according to the law. And it is certain that all men are by nature and from Adam no better, and just such vices manifest themselves in them, when before God they want to be holy and better than other people; and that there is nothing but a mischievous contempt for God and all mankind, and are filled with joy and pleasure when men sin against God. Such are twofold:, yea, manifold worse than the publican and open sinners like him, because they do not only not keep God’s law, but they do not want anyone else to keep it; they do not only not help anyone or do good, but rejoice over their destruction and condemnation; and above all this they adorn themselves and pretend to be exceedingly holy, and with a condemned conscience dare to blaspheme and lie before God’s majesty, that they are not like other men, and have kept God’s law, so that heaven itself might fall to pieces before them.

But now see in contrast this publican, who also comes into the temple to pray, but with quite other thoughts and with a different prayer than those of the Pharisee. For in the first place he has the advantage in that he confesses himself a poor sinner, convinced by his own conscience and condemned, in that he has nothing of which he can boast or be proud before God or the world, but must be ashamed of himself; for the law has so smitten his heart that he feels his misery and distress, and is terrified and filled with anguish at the judgment and wrath of God, and sighs from his heart to be delivered, but finds no comfort anywhere for his evil plight, and can bring nothing before God but mere sin and shame. With this he is so burdened and oppressed that he dare not even lift up his eyes; for he understands and feels that he has deserved nothing else than hell and eternal death, and must condemn himself before God, as he shows and confesses this before God by smiting his breast.

In short, there is truly nothing here but sins and condemnation, as much so before God as those of the Pharisee; except that the Pharisee does not confess his filthiness, but will make purity out of it, while the publican so feels his sins that he cannot stand before them, but must confess that he daily offends God with his disgraceful unthankfulness, contempt and disobedience for all his mercies and goodness, and that he has permitted him to live to this hour. Therefore he cannot trust in himself for comfort himself in his own works, but must wholly and entirely despair in himself, if he find not grace and mercy with God.

Nor can he despise any one or exalt himself above his fellow; for he feels that he alone is most deeply condemned, and regards all others as happier and better, especially this Pharisee, who in spite of this is full of pollution before God. To sum up all, you see here already the beginning of true repentance in such a person, who is heartily penitent and sorrowful over his sins, and heartily desires deliverance from them, and seeks grace and mercy from God, and besides resolves in his heart to lead a better life.

But mark how the publican’s word and prayer harmonize when he says: “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner!” Where did he learn to speak thus to God, or how dare he conceive, arrange and express such words? For according to reason and human judgment they do not agree, and no man can force such a prayer out of his own heart and thoughts, short as it is. The words of the Pharisee: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust,” etc., are what a pious man can truly say, and should say.

For no one dare be such a liar that his conscience does not accuse him of being a robber, adulterer, etc.; but must say the truth, and not allow the reputation of a good conscience to be taken from him, and he must be a pious man, who says this in truth. On the other hand, a villain can of course also speak these words: “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner!” as they are oftener spoken by rogues than by the truly penitent, pious people. Yet, who else would speak them but a sinful and condemned person? Nevertheless the sentence here changes and threatens to become false on both sides, you may turn and shift it as you please.

But taken in a fundamental sense it is a speech and example that belongs to the schools and to the theology of Christians, which the world calls heretical. For as I said, no reason can harmonize it, nor can any man, be he as high, wise and learned as he may, harmonize what this publican has here put together, to form and construct a prayer from words entirely opposed to each other: “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner?’ Yes, surely, this is the art of a great master, which is wholly and entirely foreign, high and far above human understanding.

For there never were such words uttered since God in the beginning permitted his voice to be heard, and he spoke unto man. The Scriptures say that in Paradise God said to man, Genesis 2:17: “For in the day thou eatest thereof (of the forbidden fruit, that is, the day in which you sin against my commandment), thou shalt surely die.” On Mount Sinai when God gave the law it read as follows, Exodus 20:5: “I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God,” that is, an angry God, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me.” In short that man should know that sin is condemned, and God’s wrath and punishment are declared against it.

With this it does not at all agree or harmonize that such a sinner and condemned person dare come before God and pray: “Be thou merciful to me a sinner?’ For these two, sin and mercy, are opposed to each other, like fire and water. Mercy does not belong where sin abounds, but wrath and punishment. How then does this man discover the art to unite the two and harmonize them, and how dare he desire and call for grace to cover his sins? To this belongs more than to know the law and Ten Commandments, which the Pharisee also knew, and it is a different art, of which the Pharisee knew nothing at all, and all men of themselves know nothing.

This is preaching the precious Gospel of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, which is published and offered to condemned sinners without any merit of their own. This publican must have heard of this also, and the Holy Spirit must have touched and moved his heart with it, as he feels his sins through the law, that he comes before God and offers this prayer, that he certainly believes and holds as he has heard from the Word of God, that God will forgive sins and be merciful, that is, turn away from them his wrath and eternal death for the sake of his Son, the promised Messiah.

Such faith united and bound together in this prayer these two contrary elements.

Now, this preaching the Gospel is indeed heard by many, and it appears an easy matter to say this; but it is not as common as men think, that everyone knows it; and no one better understands how difficult it is, than the few who study and exercise themselves in it, that they also might believe and pray like the publican. The reason of this is, because the pious rogue and hypocrite, the Pharisee, is still within us, who hinders and prevents us from thus uniting them. Yea, this must also not be according to our external, worldly nature and its piety, for here we must say and teach nothing else than that grace is not for a sinner, but wrath and punishment, etc. , otherwise no one could live on earth; and God could not defend his majesty, if he would not insist that sin must be punished and good works rewarded; for then everyone would soon say: let us only boldly commit sin, for then we will receive more grace! But here in his spiritual kingdom it is altogether different, so that he who is a rogue receives grace and is declared righteous, and he who is called good is a rogue and is condemned.

This takes place here since God’s judgment and the judgment of the world are different, and as far apart as heaven and earth. Before the world it must be thus: If you are good, you shall enjoy it; are you a thief, you are hanged on the gallows; if you commit murder, you are beheaded. Upon this government God himself must insist, otherwise there would be no peace on the earth. But in his own government where he alone is Lord and Judge without any mediating agents, he is merciful only to poor sinners; for here there is nothing except sin, and before him no one is innocent, as the Scriptures say.

Yet it is also true, that sinners are not all alike, so that we must here further distinguish and picture forth those under judgment, and those under grace. For there are some gross and bold sinners, robbers, murderers, thieves, knaves, whoremongers, who act so grossly and are drunk with sin, always rush ahead and never think or ask how they may obtain mercy with God, and go about without any care, as though they were in no danger. To these Paul preaches, 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” And Christ says, Luke 13:3-5: “I tell you nay; but except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish.” For such are not like this publican, because they are entirely without repentance and live wickedly, and do not yet belong to God’s gracious government, but to the government of this world.

Besides there are other rogues who try to imitate this publican, and who use the Lord’s Prayer; they have heard the words that God will be merciful to poor sinners, and have learned to repeat these words and smite their breasts, and can present themselves so humble and penitent in words and questions, that a man could swear, and they themselves would swear, that they are just like this publican, and yet it is all false and a delusion. For they are no better than the Pharisee, and God will be as merciful to them as to him, so that they do not feel his wrath, and he does not strike with his rod among them to punish them, but lets them continue in their wicked state.

These are false Christians and disturbers, false brethren, of whom there is also a great multitude in our communion, who can say the words, and can greatly praise the Gospel and God’s grace, and confess they are poor sinners; but when it comes to the test and they are attacked and rebuked, they will neither hear nor suffer it, but begin to be angry and say: their honor is offended and their conscience is troubled, or if they can do no more they will practice all kinds of bad tricks against the Gospel.

In words and show these may pretend to be like the publican, but in reality they are like the wicked rogue and hypocrite. For they speak and present themselves thus for the reason alone, that men may be obliged to regard them as pious, and that no one dare call them anything else, until God lays hold of them only a little either by the devil, the world, or by his Word; then they are so tender that they cannot stand anything at all, and cry out against violence and injustice. And in brief, as they were previously poor sinners, they are now perfect saints, and so proud, that no one can get along with their sanctity.

Of such the world everywhere is to-day full, especially of the great and powerful noblemen, and the learned sophists. Even the common citizen and the farmer who learned this from our Gospel, that they wish to accept and comfort themselves with the thought that God is merciful to sinners, and yet they refuse to be rebuked and censured as sinners; while they still insist that God’s Word cannot remain silent about sin; they apply the Word of God which rebukes sin to others, and say just like this Pharisee: I am not like the rest, and whoever says so is unkind to me. And when one begins to remind them of the wrong they do, they pretend that he speaks against the government, and gives occasion to great dissension. And in brief, one must preach only what they like to hear; if not, it shall no longer be called preaching the Gospel. And such people are like all the false, hypocritical saints, who can indeed say they are poor sinners, but do not want anyone to regard it as true; for when others say it, they are offended.

Only these two factions can, and that very easily, harmonize these two utterances; I am a sinner, and, God be merciful unto me. But there is still a third class, who should and gladly would say it in truth, for whom it is the most difficult of all to say these two sentences at the same time from the heart and unite together such a confession and such an absolution. For, they find in themselves two great hindrances. On the one hand there is still too much in us, as I have said, of the old rogue, the Pharisee, that before God we are anxious to be good and righteous, and better than others; this would sooth the heart and be the sweetest joy for him who can bring it to pass. We all would like to have God approve what we have done and be pleased with it; and in words also thank him and confess that this is his divine gift. But there is a hindrance introduced that blocks the way, like the angel with the fiery sword at the entrance of paradise, that no one may come near and boast before God.

On the other hand, where the publican must come before God with only sin and shame, stripped of all his praise and full of nothing but corruption, here is anxiety and worry, so that he grasps hold and appropriates the words to himself: “Be thou merciful to me!” But here again both his own modesty and all human wisdom prevents and hinders him still more; yea, the devil himself by the law of God on which he here insists and enforces, as he ought not, to bring mankind into distress and despair. Hence it is indeed an art above all human art, yea, the most wonderful thing on earth, that a man may have the grace truly to know himself as a sinner, and yet again turn round and cast away all thoughts of God’s wrath and hold to mere grace. For the heart that truly feels sin, cannot otherwise think or conclude, that God is unmerciful and angry at him. As Judas when he saw that he had betrayed Jesus unto death, immediately began to censure himself, and with heart and reason convicted himself worthy of God’s eternal wrath and condemnation. No human heart is able to escape this, for God’s command and law stand in the way, which condemn to death, while the devil drives and chases you to perdition. How is it possible to unite such words of the publican in the face of the law, of your own reason and feelings, which represent nothing else to your heart but wrath and shame. Nor can it enter any heart to confess sin, unless the Ten Commandments show it what sin is and why it is sin. Hence there are these two parts and they are at the same time opposed to each other; namely, to hear the Ten Commandments which condemn to death and to hell, and then again to lose them and struggle free from their grasp, and thus ascend from hell to heaven.

Therefore let him who can, learn by this high wisdom, and become a scholar of this publican, in order that he too may be able to distinguish these two parts from each other, so that wrath may not abide and cleave to sin, but lay hold of reconciliation and forgiveness; that is, that he judge not of this according to human reason or the law, but grasp by faith the comfort and doctrine of the Gospel of Christ, who alone teaches this wonderful unity, so that man can unite the two opposing words, that are farther apart than heaven and hell. For what else do the words, I am a sinner, mean than that God is my enemy and condemns me, and I have merited nothing but eternal wrath, the curse and condemnation.

When therefore you feel that, which you cannot force out of you by smiting on the breast and with your own good works, for it will come of itself if the law really does its work in you, this will indeed teach you how to smite the breast and to humiliate yourself. When you can do nothing else but say: O, I am a sinner! Then you are lost, for the Ten Commandments force and plunge you straight into perdition, that your heart must say: you belong to the devil and God does not want you, and you begin to flee from him, and if you could you would run through a hundred worlds, only to escape. Then it is time in such a flight and terror to stop in your career, turn and say: My precious Gospel teaches me and the good publican, that before God the highest wisdom is to know and believe that God is so minded, and has founded such a kingdom through Christ, that he will be gracious to help poor, condemned sinners. And thus you can unite the two in one word and confession: I am indeed a sinner, but still God is gracious to me; I am God’s enemy, but he is now my friend; I should justly be condemned, yet I know that he does not desire to condemn me, but to save me as an heir of heaven. This is his will, which he has had preached to me, and commanded me to believe for the sake of his dear Son, whom he has given for me.

See, thus you have in this publican a beautiful example of true Christian repentance and faith, and an excellent masterpiece of high spiritual wisdom or theology, of which the Pharisee and those like him have never received a taste or smell. Besides you see here the proper fruits that follow faith, that he is now a different man, with a different mind, thoughts, words and works than formerly; he gives honor and praise to God alone for his divine grace; he calls and prays to him from the heart and in true confidence in his Word and promise; otherwise he could not have either thought or prayed these words; and thus he performs unto God the true and acceptable worship, and observes the true Sabbath. And now he also has a heart which is an enemy to sin and disobedience. He does not rejoice but is sorry that he has lived in violation of God’s commandments, and now he earnestly and from his whole heart seeks to forsake his evil ways, not to offend, deceive, belie, nor treat anyone unjustly or with violence, and anxiously desires that even thus everyone should live in the same way.

This is the picture of to-day’s Gospel, of the two kinds of persons among those called God’s people. One kind is the great faction of the false church, who nevertheless bear the appearance and the name as though they alone were the most pious and sanctified servants of God; the other, the little flock of those who are true members of the church and true children of God, although they have not praise and great reputation before the world. The difference between them is, that each party is known by its characteristics and fruits, by which the appearance and name should be distinguished from their true nature, of which you have sufficiently heard.

Therefore see to it, that you properly follow this publican, and become like him. Namely, in the first place, that you be not a false but a real sinner; not only in words but in reality and from the heart acknowledge yourself worthy before God of his wrath and eternal punishment, and bring before him in truth these words, “me a poor sinner;” but in the same flight lay hold of the other words: “Be thou merciful to me,” by which words you take away the point and edge of the law and thus cast and turn from you the judgment and condemnation the law seeks to force upon you.

From this distinction in the two kinds of sinners you are able to form a correct estimate of both sides. God is indeed unmerciful and an enemy to sinners, to those who do not want to be sinners, that is, those who do not fear the wrath of God, but who yet continue in their security and do not wish to be punished. Again, God will be merciful to poor sinners, who feel their sins, and confess that they are condemned before the judgment of God. Thus here all is turned about according to the word and judgment of God, just as the persons are; so that the Ten Commandments gain this interpretation, and they pass sentence upon those who wish to be holy, or do not want to be accused as sinners, and never think that such judgment strikes them. But the Gospel and sentence of grace and comfort pass upon those lying in the terror and fear of death.

Again, you must be like the publican in this, that you henceforth forsake sin, for it is not said of him that he continued as he was before, but went forth and applied grace to his own heart, so that God declared him righteous, as the text says: “This man went down to his house justified.”

These words do not conclude that he remained in his sin, as he did not go into the temple and pray for that; for whoever desires to continue in sin cannot pray for grace and forgiveness, but he who prays thus thinks, wishes and desires to be just and entirely free from sin. This you must know so that you do not deceive yourself. For there are many who only consider that the publican as a sinner receives grace and forgiveness, and do not think that God requires that they should forsake sin, and let the grace received be henceforth powerful in their lives. But some want to understand it as though God saves sinners in a way that they may still remain in sin and unrighteousness.

Hence it is necessary that Christians contend on both sides against the devil and their own flesh. For when they begin to repent and would gladly become different people, then they first feel the devil’s influence, how he excites, hinders and controls them, so that they make no progress, but remain in their old state, etc. Again, if they cannot prevent this, and in spite of the devil turn to God and call upon him, he will attack them with weak courage and cowardice. First, he makes sin so very small, and puts them so far beyond the reach of the eyes and hearts of men, that men may despise them and not desire grace, or they put off repentance. Then on the contrary, he makes sin really too great, as he can blow a fire from a spark greater than heaven and earth, so that it will again be difficult to lay hold of forgiveness, or to bring into his heart the words: “God be thou merciful to me”’ Thus indeed it is and will continue to be a great art, and we may well take this publican as our example, our teacher and doctor, and learn of him, and call upon God that we may also obtain the end of our faith.

Two Kinds of Righteousness

Written by, Martin Luther


Brethren, “have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”
–Philippians 2:5-6

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds.

1   The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith, as it is written in I Corinthians 1:30:  “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”  In John 11:25-26, Christ himself states:  “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me…..shall never die.”  Later he adds in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  This righteousness, then, is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant.  Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say:  “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”  Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his—for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh –Genesis 2:24 —so Christ and the church are one spirit –Ephesians 5:29-32.  Thus the blessed God and Father of mercies has, according to Peter, granted to us very great and precious gifts in Christ –II Peter 1:4.  Paul writes in II Corinthians 1:3; “Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

2   This inexpressible grace and blessing was long ago promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:3; “And in thy seed (that is in Christ) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”  Isaiah 9:6 says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” “To us,” it says, because he is entirely ours with all his benefits if we believe in him, as we read in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?”  Therefore everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy, although we have rather deserved wrath and condemnation, and hell also.  Even Christ himself, therefore, who says he came to do the most sacred will of his Father –John 6:38, became obedient to him; and whatever he did, he did it for us and desired it to be ours, saying, “I am among you as one who serves” –Luke 22:27.  He also states, “This is my body, which is given for you” –Luke 22:19.  Isaiah 43:24 says, “You have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities.”

3   Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.  Therefore the Apostle calls it “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. For in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed…; as it is written, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Finally, in the same epistle, chapter 3:28, such a faith is called “the righteousness of God”:  “We hold that a man is justified by faith.”  This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ.  On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.  It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him.  This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam.  It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more.

4   It is in this sense that we are to understand the prayer in Psalm 30: “in thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in thy righteousness deliver me!”  It does not say “in my” but “in thy righteousness,” that is, in the righteousness of Christ my God which becomes ours through faith and by the grace and mercy of god.  In many passages of the Psalter, faith is called “the work of the Lord,” “confession,” “power of God,” “mercy,” “truth,” “righteousness.”  All these are names for faith in Christ, rather, for the righteousness which is in Christ.  The Apostle therefore dares to say in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  He further states in Ephesians 3:14-17:  “I bow my knee before the Father . . . that . . . he may grant . . . that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

5   Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone.  Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow.  For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.

6   The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness.  This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Galatians 5:24, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear towards God.  The Apostle is full of references to these, as is all the rest of Scripture.  He briefly summarizes everything, however, in Titus 2:12, “In this world let us live soberly (pertaining to crucifying one’s own flesh), justly (referring to one’s neighbor), and devoutly (relating to God).”

7   This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence, for we read in Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”  For because the works mentioned are works of men, it is obvious that in this passage a spiritual man is called “spirit.”  In John 3:6 we read, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.  For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh.  Because it seeks the good of another, it works love.  Thus in each sphere it does God’s will living soberly with self, justly with neighbor, devoutly toward God.

8   This righteousness follows the example of Christ in this respect and is transformed into his likeness.  It is precisely this that Christ requires.  Just as he himself did all things for us, not seeking his own good but ours only—and in this he was most obedient to God the Father—so he desires that we also should set the same example for our neighbors.

9   We read in Romans 6:19 that this righteousness is set opposite our own actual sin:  “For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.”  Therefore through the first righteousness arises the voice of the bridegroom who says to the soul, “I am yours,” but through the second comes the voice of the bride who answers, “I am yours.”  Then the marriage is consummated; it becomes strong and complete in accordance with the Song of Solomon 2:16, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”  Then the soul no longer seeks to be righteous in and for itself, but it has Christ as its righteousness and therefore seeks only the welfare of others.  Therefore the Lord of the Synagogue threatens through the  prophet “And I will make to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” –Jeremiah 7:34.

10   This is what the text we are now considering says:  “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” –Philippians 2:5.  This means you should be as inclined and disposed toward one another as you see Christ was disposed toward you.  How?  Thus, surely, that “though he was in the form of God, –he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of servant” –Philippians 2:6-7.  The term “form of God” here does not mean the “essence of God” because Christ never emptied himself of this.  Neither can the phrase “form of a servant” be said to mean “human essence.”  But the “form of God” is wisdom, power, righteousness, goodness—and freedom too; for Christ was a free, powerful, wise man, subject to none of the vices or sins to which all other men are subject.  He was pre-eminent in such attributes as are particularly proper to the form of God.  Yet he was not haughty in that form; he did not please himself; nor did he disdain and despise those who were enslaved and subjected to various evils.

11   He was not like the Pharisee who said, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men” –Luke 18:11, for that man was delighted that others were wretched; at any rate he was unwilling that they should be like him.  This is the type of robbery by which a man usurps things for himself—rather, he keeps what he has and does not clearly ascribe to God the things that are God’s, nor does he serve others with them that he may become like other men.  Men of this kind wish to be like god, sufficient in themselves, pleasing themselves, glorying in themselves, under obligation to no one, and so on.  Not thus, however, did Christ think; not of this stamp was his wisdom.  He relinquished that form to God the Father and emptied himself, unwilling to use his rank against us, unwilling to be different from us.  Moreover, for our sakes he became as one of us and took the form of a servant, that is, he subjected himself to all evils.  And although he was free, as the Apostle says of himself also, he made himself servant of all, living as if all the evils which were ours were actually his own.

12   Accordingly he took upon himself our sin and our punishment, and although it was for us that he was conquering those things, he acted as though he were conquering them for himself.  Although as far as his relationship to us was concerned, he had the power to be our God and Lord, yet he did not will it so, but rather desired to become our servant, as it is written in Romans 15:1-3, “We…ought…not to please ourselves…For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”  The quotation from the Psalmist has the same meaning as the citation from Paul.

 . . . . The Apostle means that each individual Christian shall become the servant of another in accordance with the example of Christ.  If one has wisdom, righteousness, or power with which one can excel others and boast in the “form of God,” so to speak, one should not keep all this to himself, but surrender it to God and become altogether as if he did not possess it –II Corinthians 6:10, as one of those who lack it.

13   Paul’s meaning is that when each person has forgotten himself and emptied himself of God’s gifts, he should conduct himself as if his neighbor’s weakness, sin, and foolishness were his very own.  He should not boast or get puffed up.  Nor should he despise or triumph over his neighbor as if he were his god or equal to God.  Since God’s prerogatives ought to be left to God alone, it becomes robbery when a man in haughty foolhardiness ignores this fact.  It is in this way, then that one takes the form of a servant, and that command of the Apostle in Galatians 5:13 is fulfilled:  “Through love be servants of one another.”  Through the figure of the members of the body Paul teaches in Romans 12:4-5 and I Corinthians 12:12-27 how the strong, honorable, healthy members do not glory over those that are weak, less honorable, and sick as if they were their masters and gods; but on the contrary they serve them the more, forgetting their own honor, health, and power.  For thus no member of the body serves itself; nor does it seek its own welfare but that of the other.  And the weaker, the sicker, the less honorable a member is, the more the other members serve it “that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another,” to use Paul’s words –I Corinthians 12:25.  From this it is now evident how one must conduct himself with his neighbor in each situation.

14  . . . . Whenever we, on the ground of our righteousness, wisdom, or power, are haughty or angry with those who are unrighteous, foolish, or less powerful than we . . . —and this is the greatest perversion—righteousness works against righteousness, wisdom against wisdom, power against power.  For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them.  You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself would wish to be taught.  You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge, and punish.  For this is Christ’s example for us, as he says, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).  He further says in Luke 9:55-56, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”

15   But the carnal nature of man violently rebels, for it greatly delights in punishment, in boasting of its own righteousness, and in its neighbor’s shame and embarrassment at his unrighteousness.  Therefore it pleads its own case and it rejoices that this is better that its neighbor’s.  But it opposes the case of its neighbor and wants it to appear mean.  This perversity is wholly evil, contrary to love, which does not seek its own good, but that of another.  It ought to be distressed that the condition of its neighbor is not better than its own.  It ought to wish that its neighbor’s condition were better than its own, and if its neighbor’s condition is the better, it ought to rejoice no less than it rejoices when its own is the better.  “For this is the law and the prophets” –Matthew 7:12.

16   But you say, “Is it not permissible to chasten evil man?  Is it not proper to punish sin?  Who is not obliged to defend righteousness?  To do otherwise would give occasion for lawlessness.”  I answer:  A single solution to this problem cannot be given.  Therefore one must distinguish among men.  For men can be classified either as public or private individuals.  The things which have been said do not pertain at all to public individuals, that is to those who have been placed in a responsible office by God.  It is their necessary function to punish and judge evil men, to vindicate and defend the oppressed, because it is not they but God who does this.  They are his servants in this very matter, as the Apostle shows at some length in Romans 13:4, “He does not bear the sword in vain, etc.”  But this must be understood as pertaining to the cases of other men, not to one’s own.  For no man acts in God’s place for the sake of himself and his own things, but for the sake of others.  If, however, a public official has a case of his own, let him ask for someone other than himself to be God’s representative, for in that case he is not a judge, but one of the parties.  But on these matters let others speak at other times, for it is too broad a subject to cover now.

17   Private individuals with their own cases are of three kinds.  First, there are those who seek vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God, and of these there is now a very great number.  Paul tolerates such people, but he does not approve of them when he says in I Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.”  Rather he says in the same chapter, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you.”  But yet to avoid a greater evil he tolerates this lesser one lest they should vindicate themselves and one should use force on the other, returning evil for evil, demanding their own advantages.  Nevertheless such will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless they have changed for the better by forsaking things that are merely lawful and pursuing those that are helpful.  For that passion for one’s own advantage must be destroyed.

18   In the second class are those who do not desire vengeance.  On the other hand, in accordance with the Gospel –Matthew 5:40, to those who would take their coats, they are prepared to give their cloaks as well, and they do not resist any evil.  These are sons of God, brothers of Christ, heirs of future blessings.  In Scripture therefore they are called “fatherless,” “widows,” “desolate”; because they do not avenge themselves, God wishes to be called their “Father” and “Judge” –Psalms 68:5.  Far from avenging themselves, if those in authority should wish to seek revenge in their behalf, they either do not desire it or seek it, or they only permit it.  Or, if they are among the most advanced, they forbid and prevent it, prepared rather to lose their other possessions also.

19   Suppose you say, “Such people are very rare, and who would be able to remain in this world were he to do this?”  I answer:  This is not a discovery of today, that few are saved and that the gate is narrow leads to life and those who find it are few –Matthew 7:14.  But if none were doing this, how would the Scripture stand which calls all the poor, the orphans, and the widows “the people of Christ?”  Therefore those in this second class grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves.  And they do this that they may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered.  Therefore they put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others, praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to evil-doers, prepared to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies that they may be saved –Matthew 5:44.  This is the gospel and the example of Christ –Luke 23:34.

20   In the third class are those who in persuasion are like the second type just mentioned, but are not like them in practice.  They are the ones who demand back their own property or seek punishment to be meted out, not because they seek their own advantage, but through the punishment and restoration of their own things they seek the betterment of the one who has stolen or offended.  They discern that the offender cannot be improved without punishment.  These are called “zealots” and the Scriptures praise them.  But no one ought to attempt this unless he is mature and highly experienced in the second class just mentioned, lest he mistake wrath for zeal and be convicted of doing from anger and impatience that which he believes he is doing from love of justice.  For anger is like zeal, and impatience is like love of justice so that they cannot be sufficiently distinguished except by the most spiritual.  Christ exhibited such zeal when he made a whip and cast out the sellers and buyers from the temple, as related in John 2:14-17.  Paul did likewise when he said, “Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? –I Corinthians 4:21.         


For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Taken and adapted form, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians” (1535)
Written by, Martin Luther
Translated by Theodore Graebner


For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
–Galatians 2:21

Did Christ die, or did He not die? Was His death worthwhile, or was it not?

If His death was worthwhile, it follows that righteousness does not come by the Law. Why was Christ born anyway? Why was He crucified? Why did He suffer? Why did He love me and give Himself for me? It was all done to no purpose if righteousness is to be had by the Law.

Or do you think that God spared not His Son, but delivered Him for us all, for the fun of it? Before I would admit anything like that, I would consign the holiness of the saints and of the angels to hell.

To reject the grace of God is a common sin, of which everybody is guilty who sees any righteousness in himself or in his deeds. And the Pope is the sole author of this iniquity. Not content to spoil the Gospel of Christ, he has filled the world with his cursed traditions, e.g., his bulls and indulgences.

We will always affirm with Paul that either Christ died in vain, or else the Law cannot justify us. But Christ did not suffer and die in vain. Hence, the Law does not justify.

If my salvation was so difficult to accomplish that it necessitated the death of Christ, then all my works, all the righteousness of the Law, are good for nothing. How can I buy for a penny what cost a million dollars? The Law is a penny’s worth when you compare it with Christ. Should I be so stupid as to reject the righteousness of Christ which cost me nothing, and slave like a fool to achieve the righteousness of the Law which God disdains?

Man’s own righteousness is in the last analysis a despising and rejecting of the grace of God. No combination of words can do justice to such an outrage. It is an insult to say that any man died in vain. But to say that Christ died in vain is a deadly insult. To say that Christ died in vain is to make His resurrection, His victory, His glory, His kingdom, heaven, earth, God Himself, of no purpose and benefit whatever.

That is enough to set any person against the righteousness of the Law and all the trimmings of men’s own righteousness, the orders of monks and friars, and their superstitions. Who would not detest his own vows, his cowls, his shaven crown, his bearded traditions, yes, the very Law of Moses, when he hears that for such things he rejected the grace of God and the death of Christ. It seems that such a horrible wickedness could not enter a man’s heart, that he should reject the grace of God, and despise the death of Christ. And yet this atrocity is all too common.

Let us be warned. Everyone who seeks righteousness without Christ, either by works, merits, satisfactions, actions, or by the Law, rejects the grace of God, and despises the death of Christ.

For the sake of argument let us suppose that you could fulfill the Law…

Taken and adapted form, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians” (1535)
Written by, Martin Luther
Translated by Theodore Graebner


Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.
–Galatians 2:16

For the sake of argument let us suppose that you could fulfill the Law…

…in the spirit of the first commandment of God: “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart.” It would do you no good. A person simply is not justified by the works of the Law.

The works of the Law, according to Paul, include the whole Law, judicial, ceremonial, moral. Now, if the performance of the moral law cannot justify, how can circumcision justify, when circumcision is part of the ceremonial law?

The demands of the Law may be fulfilled before and after justification. There were many excellent men among the pagans of old, men who never heard of justification. They lived moral lives. But that fact did not justify them. Peter, Paul, all Christians, live up to the Law. But that fact does not justify them. “For I know nothing by myself,” says Paul, “yet am I not hereby justified.” (I Cor. 4:4.)

The nefarious opinion of the papists, which attributes the merit of grace and the remission of sins to works, must here be emphatically rejected. The papists say that a good work performed before grace has been obtained, is able to secure grace for a person, because it is no more than right that God should reward a good deed. When grace has already been obtained, any good work deserves everlasting life as a due payment and reward for merit. For the first, God is no debtor, they say; but because God is good and just, it is no more than right (they say) that He should reward a good work by granting grace for the service. But when grace has already been obtained, they continue, God is in the position of a debtor, and is in duty bound to reward a good work with the gift of eternal life. This is the wicked teaching of the papacy.

Now, if I could perform any work acceptable to God and deserving of grace, and once having obtained grace my good works would continue to earn for me the right and reward of eternal life, why should I stand in need of the grace of God and the suffering and death of Christ? Christ would be of no benefit to me. Christ’s mercy would be of no use to me.

This shows how little insight the pope and the whole of his religious coterie have into spiritual matters, and how little they concern themselves with the spiritual health of their forlorn flocks. They cannot believe that the flesh is unable to think, speak, or do anything except against God. If they could see evil rooted in the nature of man, they would never entertain such silly dreams about man’s merit or worthiness.

With Paul we absolutely deny the possibility of self-merit. God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit. The opinions of the papists are the intellectual pipe-dreams of idle pates, that serve no other purpose but to draw men away from the true worship of God. The papacy is founded upon hallucinations.

The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing. “Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.” Those who seek to earn the grace of God by their own efforts are trying to please God with sins. They mock God, and provoke His anger. The first step on the way to salvation is to repent.

The second part is this. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we may live through His merit. He was crucified and killed for us. By sacrificing His Son for us God revealed Himself to us as a merciful Father who donates remission of sins, righteousness, and life everlasting for Christ’s sake. God hands out His gifts freely unto all men. That is the praise and glory of His mercy.

The scholastics explain the way of salvation in this manner. When a person happens to perform a good deed, God accepts it and as a reward for the good deed God pours charity into that person. They call it “charity infused.” This charity is supposed to remain in the heart. They get wild when they are told that this quality of the heart cannot justify a person.

They also claim that we are able to love God by our own natural strength, to love God above all things, at least to the extent that we deserve grace. And, say the scholastics, because God is not satisfied with a literal performance of the Law, but expects us to fulfill the Law according to the mind of the Lawgiver, therefore we must obtain from above a quality above nature, a quality which they call “formal righteousness.”

We say, faith apprehends Jesus Christ. Christian faith is not an inactive quality in the heart. If it is true faith it will surely take Christ for its object. Christ, apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart, constitutes Christian righteousness, for which God gives eternal life.

In contrast to the doting dreams of the scholastics, we teach this: First a person must learn to know himself from the Law. With the prophet he will then confess: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” And, “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” And, “against thee, thee only, have I sinned.”

Having been humbled by the Law, and having been brought to a right estimate of himself, a man will repent. He finds out that he is so depraved, that no strength, no works, no merits of his own will ever deliver him from his guilt. He will then understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “I am sold under sin”; and “they are all under sin.”

At this state a person begins to lament: “Who is going to help me?” In due time comes the Word of the Gospel, and says: “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins. Remember, your sins have been imposed upon Christ.”

In this way are we delivered from sin. In this way are we justified and made heirs of everlasting life.

In order to have faith you must paint a true portrait of Christ. The scholastics caricature Christ into a judge and tormentor. But Christ is no law giver. He is the Lifegiver. He is the Forgiver of sins. You must believe that Christ might have atoned for the sins of the world with one single drop of His blood. Instead, He shed His blood abundantly in order that He might give abundant satisfaction for our sins.

Here let me say, that these three things, faith, Christ, and imputation of righteousness, are to be joined together. Faith takes hold of Christ. God accounts this faith for righteousness.

This imputation of righteousness we need very much, because we are far from perfect. As long as we have this body, sin will dwell in our flesh. Then, too, we sometimes drive away the Holy Spirit; we fall into sin, like Peter, David, and other holy men. Nevertheless we may always take recourse to this fact, “that our sins are covered,” and that “God will not lay them to our charge.” Sin is not held against us for Christ’s sake. Where Christ and faith are lacking, there is no remission or covering of sins, but only condemnation.

After we have taught faith in Christ, we teach good works.

“Since you have found Christ by faith,” we say, “begin now to work and do well. Love God and your neighbor. Call upon God, give thanks unto Him, praise Him, confess Him. These are good works. Let them flow from a cheerful heart, because you have remission of sin in Christ.”

When crosses and afflictions come our way, we bear them patiently. “For Christ’s yoke is easy, and His burden is light.” When sin has been pardoned, and the conscience has been eased of its dreadful load, a Christian can endure all things in Christ.

To give a short definition of a Christian: A Christian is not somebody that sin is accounted to, because of his faith in Christ. This doctrine brings comfort to consciences in serious trouble. When a person is a Christian he is above law and sin. When the Law accuses him, and sin wants to drive the wits out of him, a Christian looks to Christ. A Christian is free. He has no master except Christ. A Christian is greater than the whole world.

A Tale of God’s Providence: How Luther’s “Table Talk” was Delivered from Oblivion


The Table-talk of the Reformer was jotted down by a number of admirers in a Boswell-like fashion; and the first who translated this book into English was Captain Henry Bell, whose manuscript was examined by Laud, and afterwards discussed by the Westminster Assembly in 1646. The Captain’s story, by Hazlitt, is as follows:

“I, Captain Henry Bell, do hereby declare, both to the present age, and also to posterity, that being employed beyond the seas in state affairs divers years together, both by king James, and also by the late king Charles, in Germany, I did hear and understand, in all places, great bewailing and lamentation made, by reason of the destroying and burning of above four-score thousand of Martin Luther’s books, entitled, ‘His Last Divine Discourses.’

For after such time as God stirred up the spirit of Martin Luther to detect the corruptions and abuses of Popery, and to preach Christ, and clearly to set forth the simplicity of the Gospel, many kings, princes, and states, imperial cities, and Hans-towns, fell from the popish religion, and became Protestants, as their posterities sill are, and remain to this very day.

And for the further advancement of the great work of Reformation then begun, the aforesaid princes and the rest did then order, that the said Divine Discourses of Luther should forthwith be printed; and that every parish should have and receive one of the aforesaid printed books into every church throughout all their principalities and dominions, to be chained up, for the common people to read therein.

Upon which divine work, or Discourses, the Reformation, began before in Germany, was wonderfully promoted and increased, and spread both here in England and other countries besides.

But afterwards it so fell out, that the pope then living, viz., Gregory XIII., understanding what great hurt and prejudice he and his popish religion had already received by reason of the said Luther’s Divine Discourses, and also fearing that the same might bring further contempt and mischief upon himself, and upon the Popish Church, he therefore, to prevent the same, did fiercely stir up and instigate the emperor then in being, viz., Rudolphus II., to make an edict throughout the whole empire, that all the aforesaid printed books should be burnt; and also, that it should be death for any person to have or keep a copy thereof, but also to burn the same; which edict was speedily put in execution accordingly; insomuch that not one of all the said printed books, nor so much as any one copy of the same, could be found out nor heard of in any place.

Yet it pleased God, that, anno 1626, a German gentleman, named Casparus Van Sparr, with whom, in the time of my staying in Germany about king James’s business, I became very familiarly known and acquainted, having occasion to build upon the old foundation of a house, wherein his grandfather dwelt at that time when the said edict was published in Germany for the burning of the aforesaid books, and digging deep into the ground, under the said old foundation, one of the said original books was there happily found, lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with beeswax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.

And at the same time Ferdinandus II., being emperor in Germany, who was a severe enemy and persecutor of the Protestant religion, the aforesaid gentleman, and grandchild to him that had hidden the said books in that obscure hole, fearing that if the said emperor should get knowledge that one of the said books was yet forthcoming, and in his custody, whereby not only himself might be brought into trouble, but also the book in danger to be destroyed, as all the rest were so long before, and also calling me to mind, and knowing that I had the high Dutch tongue very perfect, did send the said original book over hither into England unto me; and therewith did write unto me a letter, wherein he related the passages of the preserving and finding out the said book.

And also he earnestly moved me in his letter, that for the advancement of God’s glory, and of Christ’s Church, I would take the pains to translate the said book, to the end, that that most excellent divine work of Luther might be brought again to light.

Whereupon I took the said book before me, and many times began to translate the same, but always I was hindered therein, being called upon about other business; insomuch that by no possible means I could remain by that work.

Then, about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed with my wife one night, between twelve and one of the clock, she being asleep, but myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle steed, who taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me:

‘Sirrah! Will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both place and time to do it;’ and then he vanished away out of my sight.

Whereupon being much thereby affrighted, I fell into an extreme sweat; insomuch, that my wife awaking, and finding me all over wet, she asked me what I ailed? I told her what I had seen and heard; but I never did heed nor regard visions nor dreams. And so the same fell soon out of my mind.

Then about a fort night after I had seen that vision, on a Sunday, I went to Whitehall to hear the sermon; after which ended, I returned to my lodging, which was then at King-street, at Westminster, and sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant to carry me to the keeper of the Gatehouse, Westminster, there to be safely kept, until further order from the lords of the council; which was done without showing me any cause at all wherefore I was committed. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating of the said book; insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man, in the aforesaid vision, did say unto me, ‘I will shortly provide for you both place and time to translate it.’

Then after I had finished the said translation in the prison, the late archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Laud, understanding that I had translated such a book, called ‘Martin Luther’s Divine Discourses,’ sent unto me his chaplain. Dr. Bray, into the prison, with this message following:

‘Captain Bell, My lord grace of Canterbury hath sent me unto you, to tell you, that his grace hath understood that you have translated a book of Luther’s; touching which book his grace, many years before, did hear of the burning of so many thousands in Germany, by the then emperor. His grace therefore doth desire you, that you would send unto him the said original book in Dutch, and also your translation; which, after his grace hath perused, shall be returned safely unto you.’

Whereupon I told Dr. Bray that I had taken a great deal of pains in translating the said book, and was very loath to part with it out of my hands; and, therefore, I desired him to excuse me to his grace, that I could not part from it; with which answer he at that time returned again to his master.

But the next day after he sent him unto me again, and bid him tell me that, upon his honor, the book should be as safe in his custody, if not safer than in mine own; for he would lock it up in his own cabinet, to the end no man might come unto it, but only himself. Thereupon, I knowing it would be a thing bootless for me to refuse the sending of them, by reason he was then of such great power, that he would have them nolens volens, I sent them both unto him. Then after he had kept them in his custody two months, and had daily read therein, he sent the said doctor unto me, to tell me that I had performed a work worthy of eternal memory, and that he had never read a more excellent divine work; yet saying that some things therein were fitting to be left out, and desired me not to think long, that he did not return them unto me so soon again. The reason was, because that the more he did read therein, the more desire he had to go on therewith; and so presenting me with ten livres in gold, he returned back again.

After which, when he had them in his custody one whole year, and that I understood he had perused it all over, then I sent unto his grace, and humbly desired that his grace would be pleased to return me my books again. Whereupon he sent me word by the said Dr. Bray, that he had not as yet perused them so thoroughly over as he desired to do; then I stayed yet a year longer before I sent to him again.

In which time I heard for certain that it was concluded by the king and council that a parliament should forthwith be called; at which news I did much rejoice. And then I sent unto his grace an humble petition, and therein desired the returning of my book again; otherwise I told him I should be enforced to make it known, and to complain of him to the parliament, which was then coming on. Whereupon he sent unto me again safely both the said original book and my translation, and caused his chaplain, the said doctor, to tell me that he would make it known unto his majesty what an excellent piece of work I had translated, and that he would procure an order from his majesty to have the said translation printed, and to be dispersed throughout the whole kingdom, as it was in Germany, as he had heard thereof; and thereupon he presented me again with forty livres in gold.

And presently after I was set at liberty by warrant from the whole House of Lords, according to his majesty’s direction in that behalf; but shortly afterwards the archbishop fell into his troubles, and was by the parliament sent unto the Tower, and afterwards beheaded. Insomuch that I could never since hear anything touching the printing of my book.

The House of Commons having then notice that I had translated the aforesaid book, they sent for me, and did appoint a committee to see it, and the translation, and diligently to make inquiry whether the translation did agree with the original or no; whereupon they desired me to bring the same before them, sitting then in the Treasury Chamber. And Sir Edward Dearing being chairman, said unto me, that he was acquainted with a learned minister beneficed in Essex, who had lived long in England, but was born in High Germany, in the Palatinate, named Mr. Paul Amiraut, whom the committee sending for, desired him to take both the original and my translation into his custody, and diligently to compare them together, and to make report unto the said committee whether he found that I had rightly and truly translated it according to the original; which report he made accordingly, and they being satisfied therein, referred it to two of the assembly, Mr. Charles Herle and Mr. Edward Corbet, desiring them diligently to peruse the same, and to make report unto them if they thought it fitting to be printed and published.

Whereupon they made report, dated the 10th of November, 1646, that they found it to be an excellent divine work, worthy the light and publishing, especially in regard that Luther, in the said Discourses, did revoke his opinion, which he formerly held, touching Consubstantiation in the Sacrament. Whereupon the House of Commons, the 24th of February, 1646, did give order for the printing thereof.

Thus having been lately desired to set down in writing the relation of the passages above said concerning the said book, as well for the satisfaction of judicious and godly Christians as for the conservation of the perpetual memory of God’s extraordinary providence in the miraculous preservation of the aforesaid Divine Discourses, and now bringing them again to light, I have done the same according to the plain truth thereof, not doubting but they will prove a notable advantage of God’s glory, and the good and edification of the whole Church, and an unspeakable consolation of every particular member of the same.”

Taken from, “Anecdotes of Luther and the Reformation”
Published, 1883
Author, Unknown

A Concise Statement Regarding the Relationship between the Law and the Gospel.

Taken from, Luther’s Table Talk
Written by Martin Luther
Edited for thought and sense


It is no small matter that we should rightly understand what the law is, what it serves, and what is its proper work and office.

We do not reject the law and the works thereof, but we confirm and erect the same, and do teach that we ought to do good works; and we also affirm that the law is very good and profitable, yet so far, that we give him his right, and suffer him to remain within his bounds, that is, by his own proper work and office; namely,

First, that thereby outward sins be withstood and hindered.

Secondly, that inward and spiritual sins may be discovered, confessed, and acknowledged.

Therefore the law is a light which lights everything, it opens and makes everything visible, –but not God’s grace and mercy, nor does it display unto us the imputed righteousness whereby we obtain everlasting life and salvation: oh, no! In no wise: but the law opens and displays unto us our sins, our weakness, death, God’s wrath and judgment.

But the light of the Gospel is far another manner of light; the same enlightens the affrighted, broken, sorrowful, and contrite hearts; it revives, comforts, and refreshes them. For it declares, that God is merciful to unworthy condemned sinners for the sake of Christ, and that a blessing thereby is presented unto them that believe; that is, grace, remission of sins, righteousness, and everlasting life. When seen in this way we distinguish the law and the Gospel, and then we attribute and give to each his right work and offices.

Therefore, I pray and truly admonish all the lovers of godliness and pure religion (especially those who in time are to be teachers of others), that with highest diligence they would learn this message, which I much fear, after our time, ‘will be darkened again, if not altogether extinguished.

We must also respond with the Ten Commandments in due time and place. The ungodly out of the Gospel do suck only carnal freedom, and become worse thereby; therefore not the Gospel, but the law belongs to them. Even as when my little son Hans offends, if then I should not whip him, but call him to the table, and give him sugar and plums; thereby indeed I should make him worse, yea, should quite spoil him.

The Gospel is like a fresh, mild, and cool air in the extreme heat of summer, that is, it is a solace. But we must also realize that as the heat proceeds from the rays of the sun, so likewise a terrified conscience must proceed from the preaching of the law, so that we may understand and know that we have offended against the laws of God.

And when our minds are refreshed again by the cool air of the Gospel, do not be idle, do not lie down and spiritually sleep; even though our consciences are settled in peace, and are quieted and comforted through God’s Spirit, no, this is the time that we must show and prove our faith by such good works as to that which God has commanded.