Martin Luther: Preface to Romans

David Bercot

Will the Theologians Please Sit Down


When Christianity was young, the focus was on Jesus Christ and His kingdom—not on theology. But then something happened: Theologians took over the church. Once they took over, the emphasis soon changed from godly fruit to “orthodox” theology. Christianity became Doctrianity. A different look at theologians like Luther and Calvin.

Church History
Martin Luther: Preface to Romans


"This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian�s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses [explanatory notes and comments which accompany a text] and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture. To begin with, we have to become familiar with the vocabulary of the letter and know what St. Paul means by the words law, sin, grace, faith, justice, flesh, spirit, etc. Otherwise there is no use in reading it. You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e.,a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That's the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn't let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart. All human beings are called liars (Psalm 116), since none of them keeps or can keep God's law from the depths of the heart. Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God's law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not. Therefore in chapter 2, St. Paul adds that the Jews are all sinners and says that only the doers of the law are justified in the sight of God. What he is saying is that no one is a doer of the law by works. On the contrary, he says to them, "You teach that one should not commit adultery, and you commit adultery. You judge another in a certain matter and condemn yourselves in that same matter, because you do the very same thing that you judged in another." It is as if he were saying, "Outwardly you live quite properly in the works of the law and judge those who do not live the same way; you know how to teach everybody. You see the speck in another's eye but do not notice the beam in your own."Outwardly you keep the law with works out of fear of punishment or love of gain. Likewise you do everything without free desire and love of the law; you act out of aversion and force. You'd rather act otherwise if the law didn't exist. It follows, then, that you, in the depths of your heart, are an enemy of the law. What do you mean, therefore, by teaching another not to steal, when you, in the depths of your heart, are a thief and would be one outwardly too, if you dared. (Of course, outward work doesn't last long with such hypocrites.) So then, you teach others but not yourself; you don�t even know what you are teaching. You've never understood the law rightly. Furthermore, the law increases sin, as St. Paul says in chapter 5. That is because a person becomes more and more an enemy of the law the more it demands of him what he can't possibly do. In chapter 7, St. Paul says, "The law is spiritual." What does that mean? If the law were physical, then it could be satisfied by works, but since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. But noone can give such a heart except the Spirit of God, who makes the person be like the law, so that he actually conceives a heartfelt longing for the law and henceforward does everything, not through fear or coercion, but from a free heart. Such a law is spiritual since it can only be loved and fulfilled by such a heart and such a spirit. If the Spirit is not in the heart, then there remainsin, aversion and enmity against the law, which in itself is good,just and holy.You must get used to the idea that it is one thing to do the worksof the law and quite another to fulfill it. The works of the laware every thing that a person does or can do of his own free willand by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing suchworks the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, theworks are a total loss and are completely useless. That is whatSt. Paul means in chapter 3 when he says, "No human being isjustified before God through the works of the law." From this youcan see that the schoolmasters [i.e., the scholastic theologians]and sophists are seducers when they teach that you can prepareyourself for grace by means of works. How can anybody preparehimself for good by means of works if he does no good work exceptwith aversion and constraint in his heart? How can such a workplease God, if it proceeds from an averse and unwilling heart?But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly andfreely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live welland in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law orpunishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts sucheagerness of unconstained love into the heart, as Paul says inchapter 5. But the Spirit is given only in, with, and throughfaith in Jesus Christ, as Paul says in his introduction. So, too,faith comes only through the word of God, the Gospel, thatpreaches Christ: how he is both Son of God and man, how he diedand rose for our sake. Paul says all this in chapters 3, 4 and 10.That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law;faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits ofChrist. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, asthe law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself. Thatis what Paul means in chapter 3 when, after he has thrown out theworks of the law, he sounds as though the wants to abolish the lawby faith. No, he says, we uphold the law through faith, i.e. wefulfill it through faith._Sin_ in the Scriptures means not only external works of the bodybut also all those movements within us which bestir themselves andmove us to do the external works, namely, the depth of the heartwith all its powers. Therefore the word _do_ should refer to aperson's completely falling into sin. No external work of sinhappens, after all, unless a person commit himself to itcompletely, body and soul. In particular, the Scriptures see intothe heart, to the root and main source of al sin: unbelief in thedepth of the heart. Thus, even as faith alone makes just andbrings the Spirit and the desire to do good external works, so itis only unbelief which sins and exalts the flesh and brings desireto do evil external works. That's what happened to Adam and Eve inParadise (cf. Genesis 3).That is why only unbelief is called sin by Christ, as he says inJohn, chapter 16, "The Spirit will punish the world because ofsin, because it does not believe in me." Furthermore, before goodor bad works happen, which are the good or bad fruits of theheart, there has to be present in the heart either faith orunbelief, the root, sap and chief power of all sin. That is why,in the Scriptures, unbelief is called the head of the serpent andof the ancient dragon which the offspring of the woman, i.e.Christ, must crush, as was promised to Adam (cf. Genesis 3)._Grace_ and _gift_ differ in that grace actually denotes God'skindness or favor which he has toward us and by which he isdisposed to pour Christ and the Spirit with his gifts into us, asbecomes clear from chapter 5, where Paul says, "Grace and gift arein Christ, etc." The gifts and the Spirit increase daily in us,yet they are not complete, since evil desires and sins remain inus which war against the Spirit, as Paul says in chapter 7, and inGalations, chapter 5. And Genesis, chapter 3, proclaims the enmitybetween the offspring of the woman and that of the serpent. Butgrace does do this much: that we are accounted completely just before God. God's grace is not divided into bits and pieces, asare the gifts, but grace takes us up completely into God's favorfor the sake of Christ, our intercessor and mediator, so that thegifts may begin their work in us. In this way, then, you should understand chapter 7, where St. Paul portrays himself as still a sinner, while in chapter 8 he says that, because of the incomplete gifts and because of the Spirit, there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ. Because our flesh has not been killed, we are still sinners, but because we believe in Christ and have the beginnings of the Spirit, God so shows us his favor and mercy, that he neither notices nor judges such sins. Rather he deals with us according to our belief in Christ until sin is killed.