Trinity College of Biblical Studies
Trinity College of Biblical Studies
A STUDY OF THE BOOK OF ROMANS
1. Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.
The chief purpose of this letter is to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all the works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works. No matter whether these works are done with a sincere heart and mind, this letter is to affirm and state and magnify1 sin, no matter how much someone insists that it does not exist, or that it was believed not to exist. Therefore blessed Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 7, says: The apostle Paul “fights hard against the proud2 and the conceited and against those who are arrogant on the basis of their works, etc.… In the Letter to the Romans this question is treated so persistently and almost to the exclusion of all others that it may really weary the attention of the reader. But it is a profitable and salutary wearying.”3 For there are, and have been, among the Gentiles and the Jews many who believed that it was sufficient if they possessed virtue and knowledge not in order to make a good impression on people or to please them but to possess these qualities in their innermost hearts. This has been the case with many philosophers. But even though they did not parade their righteousness before men and did not boast of it but followed it from a real love of virtue and wisdom, as happened among those who were the purest and the best among them (of whom we know only a few beside Socrates), they could not refrain from being pleased with themselves in their innermost hearts and from glorying only in themselves—at least in their hearts—as righteous and good men. Of these people the apostle here says (Rom. 1:22): “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, etc.”
But here the opposite is to be taught. For in the church we should not merely teach that our righteousness and wisdom are nothing and that therefore we should not exalt them in our boasting or celebrate them in a false imagination, even though the Gospel teaches (Matt. 5:15): “Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house,” and (Matt. 5:14): “A city set on a hill cannot be hid”; I say, we should not teach this but rather that our righteousness and wisdom be broken down and plucked up in our hearts and in our inner self-satisfaction before our very eyes. For when we consider them base in our own eyes, it will be easy for us not to worry about the criticism and praise of others, as God tells us through Jeremiah (Jer. 1:10): “To pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow,” namely, everything that is within us (that is, everything that pleases us because it comes from ourselves and lies within us), “to build and to plant,” namely, everything that is outside of us and is in Christ. This is also the vision of Daniel concerning the stone that shattered the statue.4 God does not want to redeem us through our own, but through external, righteousness and wisdom; not through one that comes from us and grows in us, but through one that comes to us from the outside; not through one that originates here on earth, but through one that comes from heaven. Therefore, we must be taught a righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign. And therefore our own righteousness that is born in us must first be plucked up. Thus we read in Ps. 45:10: “Forget your people and your father’s house, etc.” Abraham, too, was ordered to leave his father’s house in this way (Gen. 12:1). Thus we read also in the Song of Solomon (Song of Sol. 4:8): “Come from Lebanon, my spouse, and you shall be crowned.” Also, the whole exodus of the people of Israel formerly symbolized that exodus which they interpret as one from faults to virtues. But it would be better to understand it as an exodus from virtues to the grace of Christ, because virtues of that kind are often greater or worse faults the less they are accepted as such and the more powerfully they subordinate to themselves every human emotion at the expense of all other good qualities. Thus the right side of Jordan was more afraid than the left side.5 But now Christ wants our whole disposition to be so stripped down6 that we are not only unafraid of being embarrassed for our faults and also do not delight in the glory and vain joys of our virtues but that we do not feel called upon to glory before men even in that external righteousness which comes to us from Christ. Nor should we be cast down by sufferings and evils which are inflicted on us for His sake. A true Christian must have no glory of his own and must to such an extent be stripped of everything he calls his own that in honor and in dishonor he can always remain the same in the knowledge that the honor that has been bestowed on him has been given not to him but to Christ, whose righteousness and gifts are shining in him, and that the dishonor inflicted on him is inflicted both on him and on Christ. But to obtain such perfection we need much practice, to say nothing of the special gift of grace. Even though a person with all his natural and spiritual gifts may be wise before men and righteous and good, God will not on that account look upon him as such, especially if he regards himself so. Therefore we must in all these things keep ourselves so humble7 as if we still had nothing of our own. We must wait for the naked mercy of God, who will reckon us righteous and wise. This God will do if we have been humble and have not anticipated God by justifying ourselves and by thinking that we are something, as we read in 1 Cor. 4:3–5: “I do not even judge myself.… It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, etc.” To be sure, there are many who for God’s sake consider the goods of the left hand,8 that is, temporal goods, of no value and gladly give them up, as the Jews and the heretics are doing. But there are few who for the sake of obtaining the righteousness of Christ consider the goods of the right hand, the spiritual goods and righteous works, worth nothing. This is something the Jews and heretics cannot do. And yet, nobody will be saved unless this takes place. For people always wish and hope that their own works will be accepted and rewarded by God. But this statement stands firm (Rom. 9:16): “It depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.”
But let us now turn to the letter. I cannot believe9 that those to whom the apostle writes this letter, whom he calls the beloved of God, the called, and saints, were of such a type that it was necessary for him to step in on account of their discord and to come to the conclusion that they were all sinners. No, if they were Christians, they knew this on the basis of their faith. I prefer to believe that he wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to write to the faithful so that they would have the witness of a great apostle for their faith and doctrine in their fight against the Jews and Gentiles of Rome who still did not believe and boasted of their flesh and opposed the humble wisdom of the faithful. The believers in Rome were forced to live in the midst of them and had to hear and say things that could not be reconciled, as he also wrote in 2 Cor. 5:12: “We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who pride themselves on a man’s position and not on his heart.” Now let us look at the text up to the passage which reads: “For the Gospel is the power of God, etc.” (Rom. 1:16). It contains practical rather than abstract teachings, for the apostle teaches first through his own example how a pastor should act toward those who are entrusted to him.
It is fitting for a wise servant of God to hold his office in high honor and in respect among those who are entrusted to him.
A faithful servant of God, however, is in duty bound not to exceed the authority of his office and not to abuse it for the sake of his own pride but to administer it only for the benefit of those who are entrusted to him.
A servant of God should be a “wise and faithful servant” (Matt. 24:45). If he does not pay attention to the former qualification (wisdom), he will become a mere specter10 and slothful and unworthy of such honor. Thus in those people who in foolish humility try to get along with everybody everywhere and to be popular with their charges the influence of authority is necessarily lost, and familiarity breeds contempt. How gravely do they sin! They allow the things that belong to God and that have been entrusted to them to be trampled underfoot. They should have seen to it that these things were honored. On the other hand, if he does not pay attention to the latter qualification (faithfulness), he will become a tyrant who always frightens people with his power. He wants to be considered grim. Instead of striving to make their authority as fruitful as possible for others, such people try to make it as frightful as possible, even though according to the apostle that power was given not to destroy but to edify. But let us call these two faults by name: softness and harshness. Concerning the former, Zech. 11:17 says: “O shepherd and idol,11 you who desert the flock.” Concerning the latter, Ezek. 34:4 says: “With force and harshness you have ruled them.” These are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors12 come. No wonder! For softness is rooted in evil desires, and harshness in uncontrolled wrath. These two faults are responsible for everything that is evil, as everybody knows. Therefore, it is difficult to accept an office unless these two beasts are first slain. They would do even more harm, should the power to cause harm be available to them. Throughout the prolog, or preface, of this letter the apostle presents his own person as a most beautiful example of opposition to these two monsters. For first of all, to prevent his being despised as unfit and soft by those entrusted to him, he shows his office in all its glory. In the second place, in order not to be considered a tyrant and a violent man, he wins the love of his charges with every expression of good will in order to prepare them for the reception of the Gospel and the grace of God by a mixture of fear and love. Accordingly, every pastor in the church, following the example of the apostle, should, like an animal that parts the hoof and is clean,13 first of all distinguish with a sharp eye between himself and his office, that is, between “the form of God” and “the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6–7) and, considering himself always the lowliest of all servants, should administer his office with a mixture of fear and love. He should do only those things that are good and profitable for his charges, so that, knowing that the whole office exists for the benefit of his charges, he should rather resign from the office if his experience should show that the welfare and the good of his charges does not follow or that it is being hindered by him personally. Surely, this is the chief sin of a pastor, when through one or the other of these faults, or through both of them, he hinders the success of his ministry, and he will give a most difficult account of his stewardship.
Therefore he says: A servant of Jesus Christ. Both majesty and humility are comprehended in this word: Humility insofar as he does not appoint himself lord and founder, as is the way of tyrants and of the proud, who abuse their power in such a way that they think of nothing but that they have power, as if their power had its origin in themselves and as if they had not received it from someone else. Therefore, they cannot enjoy the blessings which such power gives to them, but they merely enjoy the use of this power. Majesty, however, is implied when he rapturously boasts that he is the servant of such a great Lord. If it is fatal not to honor and to receive the servant of an emperor, what will happen to those who do not honor and receive the servants of God? Thus this word, A servant of Jesus Christ, is a terrifying and powerful word. And I believe that the word servant in this passage is an expression used for the office and the dignity and not for his own service to, and subjection under, God. Thus the apostle is not, I believe, by this word trying to magnify his own personal works by which he alone and in a very special way is serving God. That would be an indication of arrogance. For who would have the courage to claim definitely and conclusively, “I am a servant of God,” when he does not know whether he really has done everything that the Lord expects of him, as he himself says14 1 Cor. 4:3: “I do not even judge myself.” For all judgment is with God and all decisions whether a person is a servant or an enemy. But he expressly calls himself a servant, as has been said, because he wants to confess that he has received his office from God above others, as if he wanted to say: “Yes, I preach the Gospel and teach the church, and I baptize and do all the other works which are the works of God alone, but I do these things not as a master who has been placed over you but as a servant to whom such service among you has been entrusted. And I am a servant in this way, for you; and my service has no other purpose but to do what I am indebted to do for you.” This the other service, by which we are all called to render service to God, does not do. That service applies to God alone. To put it briefly: The “servant of God” in the moral and tropological sense is every person by himself and for himself. The “servant of God” in the allegorical sense is a person for others and over others and for the sake of others. For this reason the latter sense signifies dignity and honor, the former complete subordination and humility. Therefore the latter sense has certainty and should inspire confidence, but this is in no way true in the case of the former. In the same way the latter helps others and is adjusted to their needs, but the former benefits only the individual himself. Again, the latter is the special gift of some people, the former should be common to all. The latter has definite tasks and specific boundaries, the former includes all the things a person can do. The latter can exist without grace, the former cannot. Therefore the latter is worth more, but the former15 is more salutary. The latter is manifest to men in glory, the former is not sufficiently known even to the individual, as I have stated above.
Called to be an apostle. This means, to express it more clearly: “Called as an apostle,” or “Called to the office of apostleship.” With this statement he expresses even more clearly his service, or his ministry. For there are many servants and ministers of Jesus Christ, but they are not all apostles. But all apostles are also servants vants, that is, ministers, that is, people who do the work of the Lord over others and for others, in the place and stead of the Lord. With the first word he strikes three types of people who are not called to offices of honor. The first are the false apostles, who at that time were present in great numbers, whom the devil sowed like weeds (Matt. 13:25) and whom he sent from the north like the boiling pot of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:13). The second are those who enter office with ambitious thoughts. They may not be false apostles or false servants, because they are teaching what is right and true and because they are leading others in a good catholic way. At the same time, however, since they are not called to an office, they stand accused by the word “called.” Though they may not be “thieves and robbers” (John 10:1) like the former, they are still hirelings who are thinking of their own interests and not the interests of Jesus Christ. They are interested in their sheep only insofar as they see in them the opportunity to gain honor, gold, and pleasure. Of such people we have an unusual number in the church today. It is true that they are not accused and condemned in Holy Scriptures in the same way as the false prophets and false apostles, that is, the heretics, the schismatics, and the godless people, concerning whom it is written that they run without being sent and talk without commission (Jer. 23:21) and that they seek after lies, etc. (Ps. 4:2). Yet they are not considered acceptable by God, because they take and seek an office for themselves not from free inclination but from mercenary greed. To these the third group is similar, those who enter office by force or are installed by force through others, even if their presence is not desired by their subjects. These people are worse than the second group but not as bad as the first. But since the holy offices are so sublime, one must be on guard against entering these offices without a divine call, yes, more than against all the dangers of this world and the next, for they are absolutely the greatest of all dangers. But alas, how unfeelingly hard many are today; they see all these things but do not give them a moment’s thought. Not even the people who are called by God are secure,16 and those other people, where shall they appear?17 Judas, the apostle, was ruined, Saul fell, and so did David, the chosen one, and yet they had been called and anointed in a special way. Woe, to those other unfortunate ones!
With the second word, apostle, he emphasizes the dignity of his office and inspires greater reverence for his office in his charges and hearers. For if one should receive every servant of God with reverence and love as a person who is doing God’s work among us, how much more reverently should one receive an apostle! He is the highest messenger and the highest angel of the Lord of Hosts, that is, of Jesus Christ.
Truly, among the other benefits which God has given to us in such great numbers we should with praise and our most humble thanks recognize also this benefit, that in His great faithfulness He has given to man such power, lest we be frightened too much and our salvation and the work of the Lord be hampered in us through our excessive fear if He should do this work among us Himself or through angels. But like a faithful physician who is concerned about our weakness, He has chosen people who are like us and familiar to us, that is, creatures of whom we do not have to be afraid in the least. In this way His work is to prosper among us in a fruitful and profitable way, for the fright, which in times of old the prophets would suffer whenever they received a message from God or from an angel, has been taken away. Even Moses could not endure this fright. Because the Word had not yet become flesh, we were not yet able to grasp it on account of its sublimity and our weakness. But now it has been made benign to us and has taken on the form of flesh and is being proclaimed to us by flesh-and-blood people. But this does not imply that we should fear and love it less. It is still the same Word as formerly, even if it does not frighten us but inspires love in us. But the time will come when it will be all the more frightening to those who now refuse to honor and love it.
Set apart for the Gospel of God. This sentence can be understood in a twofold way.
First, it can be understood according to the words written in Acts 13:2: “The Holy Spirit said to them, ‘Set apart for Me Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them.’ ”18 In this case the meaning is that he himself has separately been appointed to the apostleship to the Gentiles, just as Peter and the other apostles have been called to the ministry to the circumcision and the Jews. With this phrase he explains his office in greater detail, for he is not only a servant and an apostle of God but also one who has been separated from the others to be sent particularly to the Gentiles.
But in the second place, it can be interpreted according to the word in Gal. 1:15–16: “But when He who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles.” In this case the meaning would be: Already in his mother’s womb he was ordained by God above other Jews to become an apostle to the Gentiles. Jeremiah prefigured this, for he was told (Jer. 1:5): “Before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But Paul fulfilled these words in real truth. The words “sanctify,”19 “separate,” and “set apart” describe almost one and the same thing in Scriptures. But it is more unpretentious and more modest to call himself “separated” rather than “sanctified,” lest he speak boastfully of himself. For what is holy and dedicated to God is also set apart and separated, and therefore sanctified, obviously from the union with unholy things. In any case, “Sanctify yourselves” means as much as “Separate yourselves from things of this world.” This is the holy will of God, that, in the allegorical sense, you separate yourself from evil people and, in the moral sense, from sin. Thus set apart for the Gospel of God is the same thing, that is, “Taken away from preoccupation with other things, I have been dedicated to, initiated in, and sanctified for, this one office, that I teach the Gospel, just as a priest is set apart and separated to offer the sacrifice.” This meaning appeals to me more than the first meaning.
Finally, in writing thus he rebukes those who in spite of their separation for the divine ministry and in spite of the fact that they belong to the Lord get involved in other, worldly affairs as if they were of the world. Accordingly, the apostle serves notice that he is separated not for any type of work but for the special work of proclaiming the Gospel. It is as if he were saying: “My chief work consists in preaching the Gospel, as I say in 1 Cor. 1:17: ‘For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel.’ Even though other apostles may have other tasks, I have been set apart for the preaching of the Gospel.”
2. Which He promised beforehand. He says this so that we should not think that this gift has been received on account of our merits or that it is the result of human wisdom. This is the greatest power and the proof of the Gospel, that it has the witness of the old Law and Prophets that it would be so in the future. For the Gospel proclaims only what prophecy has said it would proclaim, so that we may say that it has been ordained by God’s previous decision to be so before it should happen, and thus God alone should receive the glory for this doctrine and not our own merits and endeavors, obviously because this Gospel was ordained before we existed, as it says itself (Prov. 8:23): “Ages ago I was set up, at the first,” that is, in the form of the Law, “before the beginning of the earth,” that is, the church, which was of course created by it [wisdom]. For the Gospel, which is the wisdom and the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24), has established the church and does everything that wisdom in that passage says about itself for its own glory and praise. Thus we read in Amos 3:7: “Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants, the prophets.” And Is. 48:5 says: “I declared them to you from of old,” that is, in the old law, “before they came to pass, I announced them to you, lest you should say, ‘My idols,’ ” that is, the imaginings of my wisdom, “did them, and my molten images commanded them. You have heard,” namely, at the time of the Law and the Prophets; “now see all this,” namely, in the time of grace, etc.
Through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures. He says this to indicate distinction from the promise given before all times, about which he says in Titus 1:2: “Which God, who never lies, promised ages ago.” For this promise is the predestination from eternity of all things to come. But through the prophets the promise is given in time and in human speech. This is a wonderful proof of the grace of God, that above and beyond the eternal promises He gives the promise also in human words, not only in spoken words but also in written ones. All this has been done so that when the promise of God has been fulfilled, it should in these words be apparent that it was His plan to act thus, so that we might recognize that the Christian religion20 is not the result of a blind accident or of a fate determined by stars, as many empty-headed people have arrogantly assumed,21 but that it was by God’s definite plan and deliberate predetermination that it should turn out so. And very fittingly he adds, for another reason, in the Holy Scriptures. For if he wanted to say only through His prophets, this could have been interpreted maliciously as if he were claiming the authority of dead people, who, with their words, no longer exist. But in this way he refers expressly to their writings, which are still extant.
3–4. Concerning His Son, who was made for Him of the seed of David according to the flesh and predestined the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of sanctification by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This passage has, as far as I know, never been explained correctly or sufficiently by anyone. The exegetes of the ancient church were hindered by an inadequate explanation, and the more recent exegetes were lacking in Spirit. And yet, aided by the efforts of others, we venture to try our minds at it without doing violence to the piety of our faith. I think the meaning of the apostle is the following: The contents, or object, of the Gospel, or—as others22 say—its subject, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the seed of David according to the flesh and now appointed King and Lord over all things in power, and this according to the Holy Spirit, who has raised Him from the dead. Here the Greek text is very helpful, which reads as follows: “Concerning His Son, made of the seed of David, who was chosen,23 or designated, declared, ordained, etc., to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of sanctification by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Now let us look at the individual expressions. Concerning His Son. This is the Gospel, which deals not merely with the Son of God in general but with Him who has become incarnate and is of the seed of David. In effect he says: “He has emptied Himself and has become weak. He who was before all and created everything now has a beginning Himself and has been made.” But the Gospel speaks not only of the humiliation of the Son of God, by which He emptied Himself, but also of His glory and the power which after His humiliation He received from God in His humanity. In other words, just as the Son of God became the Son of David by humbling and emptying Himself in the weakness of the flesh, so on the other hand the Son of David, though weak according to the flesh, has now in turn been established and designated the Son of God in all power and glory. And as according to His divine form He emptied Himself (Phil. 2:7) to the point of the nothingness of the flesh by being born into the world, so in the form of a servant He has brought Himself to completion to the point of fullness of divine essence by ascending into heaven. Observe the fitting expression of the apostle. He does not say: “He who was made the Son of God in power,” in the same way as he says: “He who was made according to the flesh.” For from the very beginning of Christ’s conception, on account of the union of the two natures, it has been correct to say: “This God is the Son of David, and this Man is the Son of God.” The first is correct because His Godhead was emptied and hidden in the flesh. The second is correct because His humanity has been completed and translated to divine being. But even though it is true that He was not made the Son of God, but only the Son of Man, nevertheless, one and the same Person has always been the Son and is the Son of God even then.
But this fact was not chosen, declared, and ordained so far as men were concerned. He had already received power over all things and was the Son of God, but as yet He was not exercising that power and was not recognized as that Son of God. This was brought about only through the Spirit of sanctification. The Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified. “He will glorify Me,” He says (John 16:14). It was through the apostles that the Holy Spirit designated and declared that He was now the Son of God with power over all things, that all things were subject to Him, and that God the Father had made Him Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). That is the point which the expression predestined the Son of God wants to make. This Man, the Son of David according to the flesh, is now publicly declared the Son of God in power, that is, over all things. For as the Son of David He was weak and subject to all things. All this was done according to the Spirit of sanctification. To Him is attributed the glorification of Christ, as stated above. But the Holy Spirit did this only after the resurrection of Christ. Therefore he adds by the resurrection from the dead, because the Spirit was not given before the resurrection of Christ. From this statement it is clear that the text has been poorly translated with predestined, because the Greek original text reads ὁρισθέντος, that is, “designated,” from which we derive “designation” and “determination.” By derivation the schools use ὁρισμός for the definition, delineation, and determination of something about which it is declared, set forth, and indicated that it is to be held and believed. For a “designation” is an announcement and declaration of something. Thus also this passage must be understood in this way: Christ is declared in the Gospel by the Holy Spirit and manifested as the Son of God in power over all things. Before the resurrection this was not revealed and manifested but hidden in the flesh of Christ. And when it says the Spirit of sanctification instead of “the Holy Spirit,” that does not change matters much. In view of His effect, the same Spirit is called “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of sanctification.” Also when the text says in power, it must be understood of the power over all things, according to the prophecy in Ps. 8:6 and in Heb. 1:2: “Whom He appointed the heir of all things.”
Let us summarize: The Gospel deals with His Son, who was born of the seed of David but now has been manifested as the Son of God with power over all things through the Holy Spirit, given from the resurrection of the dead, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. See, there you have it: The Gospel is the message concerning Christ, the Son of God, who was first humbled and then glorified through the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the genitive of Jesus Christ, our Lord is ambiguous. It can be taken either as a genitive or an ablative, because the Greek text cannot be determined with certainty. If genitive,24 it must be combined with the word resurrection in this way: by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. If ablative, it belongs to the words concerning His Son, who was born. And if our translation25 reads “of the dead,” it obscures the meaning, although it leaves it much the same. Therefore we think that it is better to translate sense for sense rather than word for word: from the dead.
The Gospel is not only what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have written. This is clear enough from this passage. For it states expressly that the Gospel is the Word concerning the Son of God, who became flesh, suffered, and was glorified. Therefore, no matter who writes and teaches it, whether Matthew or Thomas, and no matter in what words or tongues, it is the same Gospel of God. It does not make any difference how many books and writers teach it, because it is all the same thing that all are teaching. Therefore the remarks of the apostle concerning a certain disciple, “whose praise is in the Gospel through all the churches” (2 Cor. 8:18), are not necessarily to be interpreted as referring to the Gospel of St. Luke but rather in this way, that his reputation was in the proclamation of the Gospel, that is, the Word of God. Thus also Apollos26 and others were esteemed in a similar way, that is, because they knew how to proclaim Christ in eloquent and thoughtful words.
In the same way also the expression “according to my Gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8) does not have to be understood as referring to the Gospel of St. Luke, as if Luke had written down what Paul preached or as if what the former had written down the latter preached. But he says “my Gospel” because he himself preached the message that was the Word of God concerning His Son, as he says here.
16. For it is the power of God. It should be noted that the word virtus here is understood as “strength,” or “power,” as Möglichkeit in the colloquial sense, “possibility.” And power of God is understood not as the power by which according to His essence He is powerful but the power by virtue of which He makes powerful and strong. As one says “the gift of God,” “the creature of God,” or “the things of God,” so one also says the power of God, that is, the power that comes from God, as we read in Acts 4:33: “And with great power the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ”; and in Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” And in the last chapter of Luke (24:49) we read: “Until you are clothed with power from on high”; also in Luke 1:35: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
In the second place, we should note that it says the power of God in distinction from “the power of men.” The latter is the power by which man gains strength and health according to the flesh and by which he is able to do the things which are of the flesh. But this power God completely canceled by the cross of Christ in order to give His own power, by which the spirit becomes strong and is saved and by which one is able to do the things of the spirit, Ps. 60:11–12: “Vain is the help of man. With God we shall do valiantly.” And Ps. 32:16 f.: “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his own great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory; and by its great might it cannot be saved.” It is the same to say: “The Gospel is the power of God,” that is, the Gospel is the power of the Spirit, or the riches, weapons, adornments, and every good thing of the Spirit, from whom it has all its power, and this from God. It is as the saying goes: Riches, weapons, gold, silver, kingdoms, and other things of this kind are the power of men, by which they manage to do what they do and without which they cannot do anything. But all this, as I said, must completely come to naught, at least as far as the desire of it is concerned. Otherwise the power of God will not be in us. For the rich and the powerful do not receive the Gospel. Therefore they do not receive the power of God, for it is written: “To the poor the Gospel is preached” (Luke 7:22), and, as Ps. 49:6 has it: “Men who trust in their own strength and boast of the abundance of their riches.”
Therefore it must be noted in the third place that he who does not truly believe is even today not merely ashamed of the Gospel, but he also contradicts it, at least in his heart and in his action. The reason for this is the following. He who finds pleasure and enjoyment in the things that are of the flesh and of the world cannot have a taste or pleasure for the things that are of the Spirit of God. Therefore he is not only ashamed to proclaim the Gospel to others, but he fights against it and does not want it to be spoken to him. He hates the light and loves the darkness. For this reason he does not suffer the salutary truth to be spoken to him. Moreover, to be ashamed of the Gospel is a fault of cowardice in pastors, but to contradict it and not to listen to it is a fault of stupidity in church members. This is obvious when the preacher is afraid of the power, influence, and number of his hearers and is silent concerning the essential truth and when the unresponsive hearer despises the lowliness and humble appearance of the Word. Thus it becomes foolishness to him and an insane thing, as I Cor. 2:14 says: “The natural man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God. For they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them,” and Rom. 8:7: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot.” Thus we arrive at the conclusion: He who believes in the Gospel must become weak and foolish before men so that he may be strong and wise in the power and wisdom of God, as I Cor. 1:27, 25 tells us: “The weak and foolish things of the world God chose that He might confound the strong and wise. The weakness and foolishness of God is stronger and wiser than men.” Therefore, when you hear that the power of God is soon rejected, you must recognize this as a manifestation of the power of men, or of the world and the flesh. Thus all power and wisdom and righteousness must be hidden and buried and not apparent, altogether according to the image and likeness of Christ, who emptied Himself so that He might completely hide His power, wisdom, and goodness and instead put on weakness, foolishness, and hardship. In the same way he who is powerful, wise, and attractive must have these things as if he did not have them. For this reason the life of the princes of this world, of lawyers, and of all those who have to maintain their position by power and wisdom is threatened by the gravest dangers. For when these advantages do not become apparent and are hidden even to the smallest extent, the people themselves count for nothing. But when they are present, then “there is death in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40), especially if they enjoy it in their hearts that these things are on display before men and are esteemed by them. For it is difficult to hide from your own heart and to despise what is apparent to everyone else and is highly esteemed.
17. The righteousness of God is revealed. In human teachings the righteousness of man is revealed and taught, that is, who is and becomes righteous before himself and before other people and how this takes place. Only in the Gospel is the righteousness of God27 revealed (that is, who is and becomes righteous before God and how this takes place) by faith alone, by which the Word of God is believed, as it is written in the last chapter of Mark (16:16): “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” For the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation. And here again, by the righteousness of God we must not understand the righteousness by which He is righteous in Himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God. This happens through faith in the Gospel. Therefore blessed Augustine writes in chapter 11 of On the Spirit and the Letter: “It is called the righteousness of God because by imparting it He makes righteous people, just as ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord’28 refers to that by which He delivers.”29 Augustine says the same thing in chapter 9 of the same book. The righteousness of God is so named to distinguish it from the righteousness of man, which comes from works, as Aristotle describes it very clearly in Book III of his Ethics.30 According to him, righteousness follows upon actions and originates in them. But according to God, righteousness precedes works, and thus works are the result of righteousness, just as no person can do the works of a bishop or priest unless he is first consecrated and has been set apart for this. Righteous works of people who are not yet righteous are like the works of a person who performs the functions of a priest and bishop without being a priest; in other words, such works are foolish and tricky and are to be compared with the antics of hucksters in the marketplace.
Second, we must note that what is said here, from faith to faith, is interpreted in different ways. Lyra wants it understood thus: “From unformed faith to formed faith.”31 But this won’t work, because no righteous person lives from an “unformed faith,” neither does the righteousness of God come from it. Yet he says both of these things in this passage. It could be that he wants to understand the “unformed faith” as the faith of a beginner and the “formed faith” as the faith of a perfect believer. But the “unformed faith” is no faith at all but rather the object of faith. I do not believe that a person can believe with an “unformed faith.” But this he can do well: He can see what must be believed and thus remain in suspense.32
Others interpret it in this way: “From the faith of the fathers of the old law to the faith of the new law.”33 This exegesis may be acceptable, even though it may obviously be attacked and contradicted by the argument that the righteous person does not live by the faith of past generations, even though he says: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” The fathers believed the same as we do. There is only one faith, even though it may have been less clear then; just as educated people now believe the same things as the uneducated, but more clearly. Therefore, the meaning of this passage seems to be: The righteousness of God is completely from faith, but in such a way that through its development it does not make its appearance but becomes a clearer faith according to that expression in 2 Cor. 3:18: “We are being changed … from one degree of glory to another,” and also in Ps. 84:8: “They go from strength to strength.” So also “from faith to faith,” by growing more and more, so that “he that is righteous, let him be made righteous still” (Rev. 22:11). In other words, no one should be of the opinion that he has already obtained (Phil. 3:12) and thus stops growing, that is, starts declining. Blessed Augustine says in chapter 11 of his On the Spirit and the Letter: “From the faith of those who confess with their mouth to the faith of those who are obedient.”34 Paul of Burgos says: “From the faith of the synagog (as a starting point) to the faith of the church (as a goal).”35 But the apostle says that righteousness comes from faith, yet the heathen had no faith from which they could have been led to another faith in order to be justified.
19. What is known about God. This is a Greek way of expressing what might be better translated in our language in an abstract way; “the known things of God,” that is, “the knowledge of God,”36 just as we read in 1 Cor. 1:25: “The weak things of God are stronger than men, and the foolish things of God are wiser than men,” that is, the weakness and foolishness of God is stronger, more powerful, and wiser than the strength and the power and the wisdom of men. All of this is said of God not because it is in Him but because it comes to us from Him and is in us. Thus the foolishness and weakness of God is the same as the life according to the Gospel, by which God makes us appear foolish and weak before men in our external being. But the wisdom and the power of God is the life according to the Gospel, or the very rule of the life of the Gospel, by which He makes us wise and strong before Himself and looks upon us as such in our inner man. Thus the whole matter shows an exchange. The weakness and foolishness of God before men is wisdom and power before God, and vice versa, the wisdom and power of the world is weakness and foolishness and even death before God, as chapter 6 below tells us.
18. For the wrath of God is revealed. The apostle directs his chief attack against the powerful and the wise of the world because if they have been humbled, their followers and the uneducated will also easily be humbled, but also because they have opposed the Gospel and the word and the life of the cross of Christ and have incited others against it. Therefore he imputes guilt and sin to them as if they were the only ones who are guilty and announces the wrath of God upon them.
To no one does the preaching of the cross appear so foolish as to philosophers and men of power because it is completely contrary to them and their sensitivities.
20. From the creation. Some people (and, if I am not mistaken, also the writer of the Sentences, Book I, Distinction II)37 interpret this to mean: “By the creature of the world,” that is, by man, “God’s invisible things are seen.” But this can easily be rejected on the basis of the Greek text, where we read: “Ever since the creation of the world,” or as Matt. 25:34 has it: “From the foundation of the world.” Or this way: “From the creation of the world” (that is “ever since creation of the world,” not only from the present time on) it has always been true that God’s invisible nature is seen and recognized in His works, as will be seen below.38 Therefore the meaning is: Even if the wise of this world did not perceive the creation of the world, they could have recognized the invisible things of God from the works of the created world, namely, by taking as Word and Scripture those works that testify of God. 1 Cor. 1:21 tells us: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” This seems to be contradicted here by the statement that they have come to know God. But this apparent contradiction is immediately resolved farther on: Even though they knew God, “they did not see fit to acknowledge God,” that is, by their actions they gave the appearance of not knowing Him.
To gain a clearer understanding, we should note that the apostle with these words does not rebuke the Romans only, as many believe. He rebukes not individuals but all people, Gentiles and Romans alike. This can be seen very clearly from the words of the apostle later in Rom. 3:9: “We have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” He does not exempt anyone, since he says “all.” Therefore we must interpret this passage to mean that the apostle, as he writes, sees before his eyes the whole world as one body. The members of this body have not individually done all the sins that the apostle charges them with here, because they are individually different. But all the members have done all these things, some this, some that, so that he shows that all the faults mentioned here were present in that body and not in the head only. Without a doubt, not all the Romans did all these things, neither did all the Gentiles, but because they were people living outside of Christ, they were members of that body and are thus rebuked together with all the others. This is the way of Scripture according to the second and fourth rule of interpretation of Scripture, that is, it proceeds from a part to the whole, and, vice versa, from the species to the genus.39 Scripture speaks in one breath about the good and the evil and does it in the same way. It accuses the former harshly and punishes them together with the evil. On the other hand it blesses and nurtures the evil together with the good. This rule everyone must observe who speaks to a community in which certainly not all men are burdened with the same guilt or are equally praiseworthy, as experience obviously shows. But he rebukes the Romans and the educated people more harshly because they are, and have been, the leaders of the world on the basis of their leadership, power, and knowledge. Therefore he begins with them at the head (in analogy to the order of Baptism) and gradually goes down to the others until he finally includes all when he says (Rom. 1:29): “Filled with all manner of wickedness, etc.”
Moral Rule.40 According to this, he teaches that preachers of the Gospel should rebuke first and foremost the leaders of the people. To be sure, this must not be done in their own words, which they invent in sick and disturbed minds, but in the words of the Gospel, that is, by showing how and where they live and act contrary to the Gospel. But there are nowadays only few such faithful workers. So John the Baptist is believed to have poured water on our Lord from the head down, not water which he himself had procured, but the water of the Jordan. Take note of this mystery, that you may not proclaim the Gospel in a fit of anger.
Thus the letter of Paul (as it ought to be with all preaching of the Word of God) is like a stream that flows from Paradise and is like the Nile, which inundates all of Egypt. But this inundation must have its source somewhere. Thus the flood which the Lord creates through the apostle Paul covers the whole world and all people. But it begins to enter from the head and the higher authorities of this world and gradually flows on to others. This must be carefully noted. Otherwise, if we follow Lyra and his school, this letter will be very difficult, and there will be no connection between what follows below and what has been said above. For Lyra states that in the first chapter only the Romans are being rebuked (the position supported also by his prolog), and yet in what follows it is necessary to think that all nations are meant, yes, the whole mass of lost humanity. But the apostle is interested in revealing Christ as the Savior of all men, not only as the Savior of the Romans and of the Jews living in Rome, though it is true that he wants to reveal Him primarily to them, but with them also to others.
19. Because God has shown it to them. With these words Paul makes it clear that also all gifts of nature must be credited to God as the Giver. The fact that he is speaking here of the natural knowledge of God is clear from the following addition, in which he shows how God has manifested Himself to men, namely, thus (v. 20): For the invisible things of Him ever since the creation of the world are clearly seen in the things that have been made (these things are recognized in a natural way by their effects), that is, from the beginning of the world it has always been true that the “invisible things of God, etc.” He states this so no one should quibble and say that only in our time could God be known. He could be, and can be, known from the beginning of the world.
But in order that the apostle might be understood more clearly in these arguments, I shall try to present for my fellow spectators a playlet according to my understanding and then await either their approval or their criticism.
That to all people, and especially to idolaters, clear knowledge of God was available, as he says here, so that they are without excuse and it can be proved that they had known the invisible things of God, His divinity, likewise His eternal being and power, becomes apparent from the following: All those who set up idols and worship them and call them “gods,” or even “God,” believing that God is immortal, that is, eternal, powerful, and able to render help, clearly indicate that they have a knowledge of divinity in their hearts. For with what reason could they call an image or any other created thing God, or how could they believe that it resembled Him if they did not know at all what God is and what pertains to Him? How could they attribute such qualities to a rock or to Him whom they thought to be like a rock, if they did not believe that these qualities were really suitable for Him? When they now hold that divinity is invisible (a quality to be sure, which they have assigned to many gods) and that he who possesses it is invisible, immortal, powerful, wise, just, and gracious to those who call upon him, when they hold fast to this idea so that they confess it also by works, by calling upon him, worshiping and adoring him of whom they think that divinity resides in him, then it follows most surely that they had a knowledge or notion of divinity which undoubtedly came to them from God, as our text tells us. This was their error, that they did not worship this divinity untouched but changed and adjusted it to their desires and needs. Everyone wanted to see the divinity in the one who appealed to him, and so they changed the truth of God into a lie. Thus they knew that the nature of divinity, or of God, is that He is powerful, invisible, just, immortal, and good. They knew the invisible things of God, His eternal power and divinity. This major premise of the “practical syllogism,”41 this theological “insight of the conscience,” is in all men and cannot be obscured. But in the minor premise they erred when they said and claimed: “Now, this one,” that is, Jupiter or any other who is like this image, “is of this type, etc.” This is where the error began and produced idolatry, for everyone wanted to subsume according to his own interests. If they had stayed with this feeling and had said: “Look, we know this: Whoever this God, or this Divinity, may be whose nature is to be immortal and powerful and able to hear those who call upon Him, let us worship and adore Him, let us not call Him Jupiter and say that He is like this or that image, but let us simply worship Him, no matter who He is (for He must have being),” then without a doubt they would have been saved, even though they had not recognized Him as the Creator of heaven and earth or taken note of any other specific work of His hands. You see, this is the meaning of the words “The things that are known of God are manifest in them.” But where and how? Answer: The invisible things of God are clearly seen in the things that have been made. One can see how one man helps another, one animal another, yes, how one thing helps and assists another, according as it has superior power and ability. At all times the higher and the more privileged one helps or suppresses the lower and less privileged one. Therefore, there must be that in the universe which is above all and helps all. People measure God by the blessings they receive. This is also the reason why people in ancient times made gods of those who showed them benevolence. In this way they wanted to thank them, as Pliny says.42
21. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, etc. If they did not honor Him as God, or as if He were God, did they honor Him in a different way than as God? Apparently the apostle wants to say this, and the following passage agrees with this meaning:
23. And exchanged the glory, etc. That means: They worshiped Him not as God but in the likeness of an image, and so they worshiped not God but a figment of their own imagination. I should be glad to agree with this interpretation, because even the Children of Israel were charged with having worshiped Baal and calves, even though it is clear that with these images and symbols they wanted to worship the true God, but this they were forbidden to do.
But how many people are there even today who worship God not as God but as something that they have imagined in their own hearts! Just look at all our strange, superstitious practices, products of utter vanity. Or is it not exchanging the glory of God into the likeness of an image and fanciful figure if you refuse to do the things which it is your duty to do and if you honor Him with a work which you have chosen yourself and in so doing you imagine God is the kind who has regard for you and your ways, as if He were different from the way He has revealed Himself to you by giving you commandments? Thus even today many people are being given up to their own base mind,43 as we see and hear.
We can also simply say: “They did not honor Him as God,” that is, they did not honor Him as it was fitting for them to render to Him honor and thanks. The word “not” denies the act of honoring Him as it would have been fitting. But if “not” negates the adverb “as,” then according to the first interpretation the act of glorifying is admitted and the manner that would have been proper is denied. What follows can be applied conveniently to both interpretations.
Now look at the order and the various levels of perdition. The first level is ingratitude, or the omission of gratitude. Thus Lucifer was ungrateful to his Creator before his fall.44 Self-satisfaction is responsible for this, for it takes pleasure in things received as though they were not received at all, and it leaves the Giver out of consideration. The second level is vanity. One feasts on oneself and on all of creation and enjoys the things that bring profit. Thus one becomes of necessity vain “in his thoughts,” that is, in his plans, endeavors, and ambitions. For whatever one seeks in and through these gifts is completely vain. One seeks only himself, that is, one’s own glory, delight, and advantage. The third level is blindness. Bereft of truth and given over to vanity, a person becomes necessarily blind in his whole heart and in all his thoughts, because he has turned completely away from God. Since he is then lodged in darkness, what else can he do except the things for which an erring man or a fool strives ? For a blind man errs very easily, yes, he errs all the time. And so the fourth level is the error over against God. This is the worst. It leads directly to idolatry. To have arrived at this point means to have arrived at the abyss. For when a person has lost God, nothing remains except that he be given over to every type of turpitude according to the will of the devil. The result is that deluge of evils and blood-letting of which the apostle goes on to speak in the following passages.
By the same steps people also today arrive at spiritual idolatry of a more refined type, which at present is widespread. Here they worship God not as He is but as they imagine and think Him to be. Lack of gratitude and love of vanity (that is, a notion of their own importance and righteousness, or, as it is also called, “pious intentions”) blind people to such an extent that they are incorrigible and therefore are unable to believe anything but that they are doing extremely well and that they are pleasing to God. And for this reason they fashion a gracious God for themselves, although He is not so. Thus they worship the figment of their imagination more truly than the true God, for they believe that the latter is like the product of their imagination. And therefore “they change Him into a likeness of their imagination,” the offspring of a heart that is carnally wise and corruptible. See what great evil this lack of gratitude is! It brings along a love of vanity, which produces blindness; this in turn results in idolatry, and idolatry leads to a whirlpool of vices. On the other hand, gratitude retains the love for God, and thus the heart remains directed toward God. It therefore becomes enlightened, and once enlightened, it worships only the true God, and to this worship of God the whole chorus of virtues45 is then added.
24. Therefore God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts. This “giving up” is not only a permission but a commission and order of God. This is made clear in the last chapter of First Kings (1 Kings 22:22), where the Lord says to the lying spirit that he should entice Ahab, the king of Israel: “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.” Then follows the word of the prophet addressed to the same king: “Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets.” Similarly, in 2 Sam. 16:10–11 David said of him who cursed him: “The Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David,’ … Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him.” In the same way the Lord also commands the devil and the flesh to tempt and overwhelm the man who has deserved it in the eyes of the Lord because of his wickedness. If someone should object that God prohibits evil and therefore does not surrender anyone to evil, that is, that He does not raise up evil to let it reign and triumph and never commands that this should happen, the answer is: This is indeed true when God acts in goodness, but when He punishes in severity, He makes those who are evil sin even more against His commandments in order to punish them all the more. To bring these two statements into harmony with each other, the “giving up” here on the part of the man who is being “given up” is a matter of permission, for God withdraws His helping hand from him and deserts him. Then the devil, who is constantly waiting for such an occasion, receives, or thinks he has received, God’s authority and command. In this sense it is an order from God. It is certainly not correct to accuse God of ordering man to do evil; but He deserts him so that he is no longer able to resist the devil, who for this purpose has the command and will of God on his side. Whatever we may say about this, it is God’s will that that man be overwhelmed by sin. But it is also the will of His good pleasure because He ordains that the man should be overwhelmed by the very thing that God hates most. He makes him a slave to that which He means to punish most harshly. For it is the greatest severity to surrender someone into the hands of him whom you hate most. From this it does not follow that God wills sin, even though He wills that it be done, but it follows that He does not will it at all and that He hates it. For He wills that it be done in order to subject man to what He hates most, so that man may recognize how great the wrath of God’s severity is that is hanging over his head, that God would rather let that be done which He hates most, just to punish him. For there is nothing worse than sin. Therefore in order to subject to it a man who is already in the worst way, God permits that to be done which He always forbids. Therefore God wills that sin be done not for its own sake but for the sake of penalty and punishment. Just as a sinner does not want to sin for sin’s sake—he would prefer that sin did not exist at all—but for the sake of the good that seems to be in it, so God does not will sin for sin’s sake—for He, too, does not will it and hates all that is sin—but for the sake of punishment and of the evil that is contained in it. He is more interested in the punishment than in sin.
But to will such things is God’s prerogative alone. He is not forced not to will that there be sin, although by nature He can neither will it nor love it, but He can will and love it not as sin but as punishment. So a father detests dirt and stain on his son, yet when his son gives serious offense, he chooses the dirt, not to please himself but openly to disgrace his son with it. Therefore the conclusion of those who claim that God loves and wills evil is an oversimplification. Still more stupid are those who deny that God wills evil only so that no one can force them to admit that He sins.
God is indeed measuring with just measure when He chooses the evil that is inherent in sin to punish man with it, for thus He chooses what is good in sin. But the punishment is (not, as Lyra thinks, the sin itself per accidens [“incidentally”] but) the vileness of the sin. It hurts to be, or to have been, subjected to such vile sins. This the apostle states clearly when he says (Rom. 1:24): “Therefore God gave them up to sin to dishonor their own bodies.” For there is no shameful punishment at all if it is not what happens when one is thrust into sin. It is more shameful to lie in vile sin than in any other kind of punishment whatsoever. Therefore it is not correct, as Lyra says, that the sin is per accidens the punishment of sin for this reason, that the withdrawal of the grace of God presumably is the punishment and on that account the man commits sin. Not so! Not so! But sin, or rather the shame which is connected with sin, is itself the punishment of God, not the withdrawal of God’s grace. This is what God intends. It is true, He hates sin, yet because He cannot bring about the shame He wills unless sin is committed, He wills that man should commit sin so that that shame may come over him. If it were somehow possible that such shame could become a reality without sin, God would make use of this possibility and prohibit the sin. But this possibility does not exist.
This sentence is correct: God wills evil, or sins. Also that other sentence is correct: God knows the meaning of evil, or sins.46 But people say in surprise: “The whole Scripture says that God does not will evil and that He hates evildoers. You have a contradiction here.”47 Answer: That God wills evil is understood in a dual sense (that is, that evil springs from His own will in the same way in which man wills evil—this is impossible with God). He wills evil in a different way. It remains outside of Him, and a creature commits it, either a man or a demon. This is true. If God did not want it to happen, it would not happen.48 And vice versa, He does not will the good because, while He wills that all of us should be bound to His laws, yet He does not will that all fulfill them. Therefore all these statements are true: God wills evil, God wills the good; God does not will evil, and God does not will the good. But here they loudly object49 that a free will is involved in guilt. This objection means nothing to theology in depth.50 It is true that these statements contain the most subtle secrets of theology, such as ought not to be treated in the presence of simple and unlearned people but only among experts. For the former can receive only milk and not this very strong wine, or else they could fall into the abyss of blasphemous thoughts. How these two statements agree and according to which judgment they are correct, namely, that God wills that I and all others should be under obligation and yet gives grace only to whom He wills, and gives it not to all but reserves for Himself an election among them—this, I say, we shall see in the life to come. But for the present it is for us to believe that this is just, for faith is the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). At the same time it is true that God never wills any sin merely for the sake of sin. But it is rather this way: some He does not will nor like to justify, so that through them He may show forth so much greater glory in the elect. Thus also sin He wills for the sake of something else, that is, for the sake of His glory and for the sake of the elect. This becomes clear below, when he states that God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart in order to show forth His power in him (cf. Rom. 9:17). Again He says: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Rom. 9:15; Ex. 33:19). Thus also through the fall of the Jews salvation came to the Gentiles. In order to show His mercy to the Gentiles more clearly, God caused them to fall (cf. Rom. 11:11). For how could they be evil and do evil unless He permitted it? And how could He permit it unless He willed it? He does not do this against His will. He permits it willingly. He wills it so that the opposite good may shine forth so much more brightly. Now they growl51 that these people are condemned without guilt because they are bound to laws which they cannot fulfill, or because they are required to do the impossible. The apostle answers: “O man, who are you to answer back to God?” (cf. Rom. 9:20). For if your argument holds water, then it follows that there is no need to preach, pray, exhort, yes, even for Christ to die. But this is not the way in which God has predestined the elect to be saved; He has done so through all these means (cf. Rom. 8:29, 33–34). But more about this later.
From this text we may therefore deduce that if someone surrenders to these passions, it is a sure sign that he has left the worship of God and has worshiped an idol, or he has turned the truth of God into a lie (cf. Rom. 1:25). Those who do not “see fit to acknowledge God” (Rom. 1:28) are branded in this way, that they are permitted to fall into all kinds of vices. And if such terrible portents are in abundant evidence at the present time, it is a sure sign that idolatry is rampant, on a spiritual level, I mean. It is bad enough to change the glory of God into the likeness of an image. This is the sin of blindness, of lack of knowledge, or of an erring heart. But it is still worse if one does not only err in this way but in the perversion of one’s heart also worships those images and adores a creature. But it is less serious “not to acknowledge God.” Therefore the apostle distinguishes between these three types of people who have been given up: The first have been given up to uncleanness (Rom. 1:24 f.), the second to unnatural lusts (Rom. 1:28 f.), and the third to “improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28), or what is not right. In the case of the persons belonging to the third type their perversion is not surprising. For where there is no interest in having the knowledge of God, there also the fear of God is of necessity lacking. And where that is lacking, there is an inclination toward all kinds of sins. But as far as the first and second groups are concerned, the question arises why just this penalty should be imposed for their type of sin. The answer is: Just as those who worship God and look to Him are credited with the highest purity of the heart—for this is required if they want to know God and worship Him—so it is only fair conversely that those who do not acknowledge God, or do not want to acknowledge Him, should be catapulted into the lowest and the worst uncleanness, that they have not only an unclean heart (which is the result of their idolatry) but also an unclean body, that those who in their hearts do not want to be clean should also be unclean in their bodies. For as the soul is in relation to God so the flesh ought also to be in relation to the soul, uncleanness to uncleanness, cleanness to cleanness. And as they have not glorified God, neither in their hearts nor in their actions, but have instead transferred His glory to something else and have thus become filled with shame in their hearts, so it is only fair that they should also bring shame upon their own bodies and likewise upon others on their bodies [so those who do not give glory to God must bring shame upon themselves, both upon their own person and upon one another].52 Thus in the place of glory they must receive shame for two reasons: first, because they put God on their own level and changed Him to their likeness, they had to suffer the shame of uncleanness; second, because they transferred their worship of God to something else, they had to suffer shame in their external bodies, one against another. For what is more just than that those who do not want the glory of God should suffer shame, not only in their hearts (for this is idolatry) but also in their bodies?
However, it must be noted that the sense of the apostle’s statement is not that all who are guilty of idolatry have done these monstrous acts but, as he stated repeatedly, that many of them have. Some have done this and others that. But all the acts together became objects of God’s vengeance against them. Without a doubt there were many (such as certain Roman consuls) who were not given up to such monstrous vices, since many of them have a reputation for admirable chastity and virtue, and yet they were idolaters.
We should also not think that the apostle wants the three ways of being “given up” which he delineates understood as necessarily being done in different persons. On the contrary, it could happen that some people were given up to all three vices, some to only one, others to two, each according to the judgment of God. For the apostle is interested to show that all were sinners and needed the grace of Christ. Even if the individuals did not commit all the vices, yet, because they individually were idolaters, they were (at least in the eyes of God) the accomplices and equals of all the others who had been given up in the worst condemnation. Against them also the beginning of the second chapter seems to be directed, as if they had been sitting in judgment against the others and yet had done exactly the same things, though not all of them.
To uncleanness to the dishonoring of their own bodies among themselves. From the apostle this vice gets the name uncleanness and effeminacy. Thus we read in 1 Cor. 6:9: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, … nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor homosexuals, etc., will inherit the kingdom of God”; and in Eph. 5:3: “All uncleanness, or covetousness, must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints”; and in 2 Cor. 12:21: “They have not repented of the uncleanness, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced.” He also calls this a dishonor, or shame; for as the nobility of the body (at least in this respect) consists in chastity and continence, or at least in the proper use of the body, so its shame is in its unnatural misuse. As it adds to the splendor of a golden vessel when it is used for exquisite wine, but it contributes to its inelegance when it is used as a container for dirt and refuse, so also our body (in this respect) is ordained either for an honorable marriage or for an even more honorable chastity. But it is dishonored in the most shameful way when it not only violates marriage and chastity but also soils itself with that disgrace which is even worse.
The uncleanness, or effeminacy, is every intentional and individual pollution that can be brought about in various ways: through excessive passion from shameful thoughts, through rubbing with hands, through fondling of another’s body, especially a woman’s, through indecent movements, etc. I have called it “intentional” in order to differentiate it from the pollution that takes place during the night and sometimes during the day and the waking hours, but which happens to many people involuntarily. Such things are not intended. I have called it “individual,” for when it becomes heterosexual or homosexual intercourse, it has a different name.
Rule: When a young person has no spark of reverence for God in his heart but goes his way without a thought about God, I can hardly believe that he is chaste. For as he must live either by the flesh or by the spirit, either his flesh or his spirit must be afire. There is no better victory over the burning of the flesh than to have the heart flee and turn away from it in devout prayer. Where the flame of the spirit is burning, the flesh soon cools off and becomes cold, and vice versa.
25. And worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. The reason for the second “being given up”53 is the idolatry in works, as the reason for the first was spiritual idolatry in which people equated God with images. The punishment for this is so much greater, because the guilt is greater. For the shame is greater as it is passed on also to others, so that one defiles one’s body not merely in himself but also in another person’s body. Therefore also the guilt is greater, for now the error of idolatry and of an empty valuation of God is not only in the mind but also in hand and deed, an example, a temptation, and an offense for others. If these people, so far as they are concerned, disgrace God (regardless of their reverence for His majesty) by thinking thoughts about Him that are less worthy than He is, it is right and proper that this should fall back on their own heads and that they should think, and also act, less worthily concerning themselves than is proper. But alas, even now very many people think in an unworthy way about God and claim in bold and impudent treatises that God is this way or that way. Not one of them is willing to give to God so much honor that he puts His exceedingly great majesty above his own judgment and understanding. Instead they so raise their own opinion to the skies that they judge God with no more trouble or fear than a poor cobbler judges his leather. They presumptuously assure us that in God, in His righteousness, and in His mercy things are exactly as they imagine them, and although they completely lack the Spirit that searches even the depths of God,54 they act as if they were filled to the point of intoxication. These are the heretics, the Jews, men of conceit, and all those who are outside the grace of God, for no one can think correctly about God unless God’s Spirit is within him. Without Him he teaches and judges falsely, whether it concerns the righteousness and mercy of God or whether he makes a statement about himself or about others, for God’s Spirit must give testimony to our spirit.55
The third way of “being given up” (which in comparison to the other is less shameful) has its basis in the lack of understanding of God, for
28. They did not see fit to acknowledge God. On account of this guilt men have been given up to various vices, that is, various and many are the vices to which, or to some of which, God has given all of them or some of them up. For they were not all murderers or involved in all the other vices, for God does not give up all people in the same way in order to punish them, even though they have sinned in the same way. The reason for this is God’s hidden judgment and the fact that one man does some good at the same time and the other does nothing or less than nothing. God wants to silence every impudent mouth so that no one immediately presumes to give God a rule according to which He ought to punish a given sin or reward a good deed. Therefore God permits people to sin and yet has mercy on one person and pardons him, while He hardens the heart of the other and condemns him. By the same token He lets some people do good deeds and live a good life, and yet He rejects and casts out one person and takes in another person and crowns him.
29. Filled with all unrighteousness. This is the way the Greek text reads, and not “filled with all iniquity.”56 In Holy Scriptures, however, there is (if one were to pay attention to the agreement of our translation57 with the Hebrew) the following difference between “unrighteousness” and “iniquity.” Unrighteousness is the sin of unbelief, the lack of the righteousness that comes from faith, for as we read in Rom. 1:17, Mark 16:16, and in many other passages, he who believes is righteous, he who does not believe is unrighteous. Thus a man who does not believe also does not obey, and he who does not obey is unrighteous. For disobedience is the essence of unrighteousness and the essence of sin, according to the statement of Ambrose, “Sin is disobedience to the heavenly commandments.”58 “Iniquity,” however, means the sin of self-righteousness, which man chooses for himself in his foolish zeal. Concerning it Matt. 7:23 says: “Depart from me, you that work iniquity,” although in the same place the great deeds which they have done in the name of Christ are mentioned. Therefore we can simply say that iniquity consists in neglecting the duty to which you have been bound and instead doing what you think is right. Uprightness, on the contrary, consists in neglecting the things which seem right to you and doing what you ought to do. This is different with lawyers. Iniquity is therefore considered a more relative term or a term of comparison, especially when compared with true righteousness on the one hand and self-righteousness on the other.
Malice. This is the perverse inclination of the mind according to which man tends to do evil and from which he is not recalled even by the good which he has received. More than that, he abuses for evil works all the good gifts which he has received from God or man.
On the other hand, goodness is the inclination of the mind to do good, even though it may be hindered and kept back by wrongs inflicted on it; it uses the evil for the purposes of the good. For not that person is good in spiritual goodness who does good as long as he prospers and nobody opposes him, a practice the goodness of the world is incapable of. In German the precise meaning of bonus is fromm, and that of malus is bose. Therefore we read in Matt. 7:18, “A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” This passage is directed against those fools who try to pass their guilt on to others and say, “I could well be good if I could live in good company, or if I could be relieved of the evil people who molest me.”
Thus also the terms benignitas and malignitas are opposites. Benignitas is a loving disposition and the ability to get along with other people, a kind attitude, that is, a cordial desire of the mind to do good to others and to be indulgent towards them. It is twofold. The first is the perfect Christian type, which remains one and the same in dealing with those who are grateful and with those who are ungrateful. The other is the human, or worldly, type, that is, the imperfect type, which endures only as long as it finds an echo and ceases over against evil and ungrateful people. We read in Matt. 5:48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and in Luke 6:35: “And you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” Malignitas, on the other hand, is the perverted and bitter inclination to take vengeance on others and to do evil to them. This, too, is twofold. The first type is the opposite of the heroic, catholic, Christian kindness; from perverseness of heart it inflicts harm even on good and kind people, not only on evil ones. It does not stop doing so even in dealing with benefactors. This is a brutish type of malice. The other is the opposite of our human imperfect benignitas, which seeks revenge and harms others but stops doing so over against those who do good to them. From these considerations we can understand what the apostle writes in Gal. 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is goodness and kindness.”
Wickedness. This in essence is the perversion of the mind which happens when a person has opportunity to do good to his fellowman and to ward off evil from him but intentionally does not do it. For thus it seems to be described by blessed Augustine in his book On Order,59 where he states that the word nequitia (“wickedness”) is derived from the word nequire (“to be unable”), in the sense that such a person is “unable” to do good, namely, because of iii will. Some people behave this way from envy, others from an overdose of insolence.
31. Dissolute. These are the people who are coarse in word, behavior, and dress and who live in dissolute license and do whatever comes to their minds.
Whisperer (v. 29) and detractor (v. 30) differ in that the detractor undermines the good reputation of another person, but the whisperer sows discord among those who live in harmony by secretly informing one man of one thing and another man of another thing. Every whisperer is double-tongued, but not every detractor is. See Ecclus. 28:15.60
1. Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are.
This text is interpreted in a threefold way. First, it is applied to those who hold the public office of a judge and who on the basis of their office condemn and punish people whom they themselves resemble in evildoing. In this way some want to twist this passage of the apostle to apply to the Romans, insofar as they judged all evildoers the world over, although they themselves suffered from the sin of idolatry and other vices. They say these are the people singled out by the apostle for rebuke, because they were so haughty and relied on their judicial power and were not worried and concerned about the multitude of their own sins.
But I have stated clearly enough above that the apostle means not only the Romans. Therefore this idea is not very convincing, especially since it is forced. I must admit that the apostle’s text can be interpreted as an injunction against those who have been placed into office and that it can be used in the manner of an ordinary proclamation in our churches. But it can be more strikingly directed against those who hold offices in our times, who with a strange madness exercise severe judgment against those who are their subjects, and yet they themselves with impunity perpetrate not lesser crimes but much worse ones. These people the apostle calls and tries to awaken from their deep blindness. Just consider1 whether both our secular and spiritual leaders are not haughty, seekers of pleasure, adulterers, and, worse than that, thieves, disobedient to God and men, and originators of unjust wars, that is, mass murderers. And yet they continue to punish these crimes most severely in their subjects. But because they have no judge among men, they are careless about themselves. But they will not escape the judgment of God, as the apostle clearly states. Therefore I shall speak more clearly and avail myself of this opportunity to preach about this material and to state the apostle’s ideas.
On the basis of what authority do secular princes and secular leaders act when they keep for themselves all the animals and the fowl so that no one besides them may hunt them? By what right? If anyone of the common people would do that, he would justly be called thief, robber, or swindler, because he would take away from common use what does not belong to him. But because the ones who do these things are powerful, therefore they cannot be thieves. Or is it really true that, imitating Demodocus,2 we can say that princes and the powerful lords are of course not thieves and robbers but that they nevertheless do the things that thieves and robbers do? The vice of Nimrod, the first powerful and strong hunter before the Lord,3 is so deeply ingrained in them that they cannot rule without also oppressing people and hunting vigorously, that is, violently, which means seizing for themselves things that do not belong to them. Thus blessed Augustine in his book, On the City of God, says: “What are the great empires but great dens of thieves?”4 And he adds the following story: “When Alexander the Great asked a pirate who had become his prisoner of war what business he had to make the sea unsafe, the pirate in boldest defiance answered, ‘What business do you have to make the whole world unsafe? To be sure, I do this with a small boat, and I am called a robber; but you do it with a huge fleet and are called an emperor for it.’ ” He who wants to use this word of the apostle against those thieves should apply it to them about as follows: They are hanging the thieves and executing the robbers, and thus the big thieves act as judges of the little thieves. Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (v. 3).
Along the same lines they exact taxes from the people without urgent reason and exploit them by changing and devaluating the money, but they fine their subjects for greed and avarice. What is this but stealing and robbing those things which do not belong to us? Indeed, who will finally absolve of theft people who collect regular tribute and rightful compensation and yet do not fulfill their duties owed to the people by giving them protection, health, and justice? For their eyes are only on tyranny, on collecting riches, and on boasting with empty show of the possessions which they have acquired and kept.
With what profound blindness our spiritual princes do the same and worse deeds even the children in the streets know. Luxury, ambition, ostentation, envy, greed, eating and drinking and a general unfaithfulness to God—all these do not seem to deserve judgment. They are in these things up to their necks. Any diminution of their privileges or income or any reduction of their pensions, as may sometimes occur among their subjects, they consider reason for the harshest judgment and penalty. What kind of thoughts, I ask you, could God—no, not God but an Orestes or someone even worse—have when he sees an ambitious, greedy, immoderate bishop belabor his layman with all the thunderbolts of excommunication for a half florin? Must he not judge him to be twice or seven times an Orestes? Will he not tell him, “Do you suppose, O man, who judge those who do such things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” And yet these things are now so common that because of their number they are thought pardonable. What a terrible punishment and wrath of God hangs over us today that He has willed that we live under such conditions so that we see this unfortunate desecration of the holy church and this destruction and ruin that is worse than any inflicted by an enemy.
In the second place, this must also be understood as applying to those who secretly in their hearts are judging others. Yes, they also judge them with their mouth when they denounce them, and yet they are in every respect exactly like those whom they judge. We call it shameless when a conceited person criticizes another conceited person, when one glutton rebukes another, or one miser snaps at another. This shamelessness is so obvious that it looks stupid and ridiculous even to fools, yet there is a strange blindness about it, so that very many people suffer from this plague. The less conceited criticizes the more conceited, and the more conceited the less conceited, the less greedy berates the greater miser, and so forth. To such people we must apply the words, “Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those, etc.” For they are necessarily judging themselves when they judge those who are like them. They are therefore convicted by their own words, “Judge not that you may not be judged” (Matt. 7:1), that is, so you do not bring the same judgment upon yourselves that you bring upon others. But we are blind to our own mistakes, yet regular Arguses5 over against those of others.
In the third place, this passage speaks about those people who think that they are holy and, as I said, are affected by sin that is different from the one they are judging. They act as if they were righteous because they do not do quite all the things other people are doing, and not rather as if they were unrighteous because they are doing some of the things which others are doing. They make so great a to-do about the good things they are doing that on account of them they cannot see their mistakes. It is of those people that the apostle is particularly speaking here. To teach that type of people and to correct them is an extremely difficult task, for we should not call them shameless if they merely judge those faults of which in part at least they are free. And yet they do not understand or do not notice that they are unrighteous because they are doing what they are judging. This is well expressed by blessed Augustine in the eighth chapter of On the Spirit and the Letter, where he says: “They do the works of the Law according to the letter without the Spirit, that is, from fear of punishment and not from love of righteousness. With their will they would want to do something different if they could get by with it without punishment, but they do so with a guilty will. What advantage can external works have when before God the will is sinful, even though the hand may be righteous before men?”6 In other words, they are doing the same things that they are judging. They are doing in their minds what others are doing through their actions, and they would do them in their actions too if it were permitted. This is the perversion of the synagog and the reason for its repudiation. In this weakness we are all on the same level. Therefore no one has a right to judge another person unless he wants to judge himself. The apostle wants to call them back to understand themselves, and he begins to teach them that no one who is outside of Christ should be excepted from those sinners, no matter how good he may be and no matter how he sits in judgment over them, he always remains among them, even though he does not see it. He is always doing the same things that he is condemning, even if he does not believe that to be true.
The apostle now calls attention to three good gifts of God to all sinners, namely, goodness, patience, and long-suffering, or all the riches, that is, the fullness and the greatness, of His goodness, patience, and long-suffering.
The riches of His goodness consist in the abundant fullness both in physical and spiritual gifts, such as the gifts of body and soul, the use and service of everything created, the protection of the angels, etc. The riches of His patience (that is, His forbearance and tolerance; this is the meaning of the Greek7 and below in Rom. 3:25: in sustentatione Dei, “in His divine forbearance”) are seen in the immense forbearance with which He bears their ingratitude for all His gifts and on top of it all their evil deeds against Him in the multitude and magnitude of their sins, by which (as far as they can) they insult God, who has dealt kindly with them, and by which they repay Him with evil. They soil His glory and desecrate His name (that is, they do not hallow it), and they desecrate and blaspheme everything that is related to God, as is stated below (vv. 23 f.).
The riches of God’s long-suffering appear in His extremely kind delay of the punishment and retribution for such a lack of gratitude and His willingness to wait for their improvement, as if He seemed to hope that they would improve. But the more abundantly God shows His long-suffering, the more severely will He execute judgment if His long-suffering has been in vain. Therefore the statement follows: You are storing up wrath for yourself (v. 5). The apostle does not say, “you deserve wrath,” but he says, “You are storing up,” that is, “a vast and heaped-up wrath is what you deserve!” Thus Valerius Maximus, although he was a pagan, said: “Divine wrath compensates for slowness of vengeance by means of severity of punishment.”8
From this passage we can deduce what a hardened heart is, namely one that despises the goodness, patience, and long-suffering of God. It receives many good gifts and commits many evil acts. It does not resolve to become better. There are two types of these people. The one type does these things because of the desire and lust of their external personality. The other type does them because of their own understanding and wisdom and because of stubborn insistence on their own holiness. They include Jews, heretics, schismatics, and other lovers of individuality.9 Therefore blessed Bernard says in chapter 1 of De consideratione: “A heart is called hardened because it cannot be softened by well-doing, frightened by threats, corrected by punishment, or moved by promises.”10 But many of these of the second type are more stubborn and unrepentant on account of their own conceit and their “holiness,” and they do not realize that this is only a double foolishness and unrighteousness. Prov. 26:12 reads: “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
4. Do you not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? So great is the blindness of the sinner that he abuses to his own harm the things that have been given to him for his own benefit. On the other hand, the light is so bright in a righteous and pious person that he uses for his own benefit the things meant to hurt him. Thus the ungodly person does not know that the kindness of God leads him to repentance. The righteous person, however, understands that even the severity of God is good for his salvation, for it breaks him down and heals him. “The Lord kills and brings to life” (1 Sam. 2:6).
5. On the day11 of wrath and of the revelation of the just judgment of God. The Last Day is called the day of wrath and of mercy, the day of trouble and of peace, the day of destruction and of glory. On that day the godless will be punished and will be brought to shame; the godly, however, will be rewarded and glorified. In the same way also the spiritual day, which rules in the hearts of the faithful through the light of faith, is called both the day of wrath and the day of grace, the day of perdition and the day of salvation. In Ps. 110:5 we read: “The Lord is at your right hand; He has shattered kings on the day of His wrath,” that is, on the day and in the time of mercy, which is now, and in Zeph. 1:14–16: “The sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the mighty man (that is, the powerful and proud man) will suffer tribulation there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of tribulation and distress, a day of calamity and misery, a day of darkness and obscurity, a day of clouds and whirlwinds, a day of the trumpet and alarm, etc.”
7. By patience in well-doing. So necessary is patience that no work can be good when patience is lacking, for the world is so perverted and the devil so wicked that he cannot pass a good work by without challenging it, but it is through this challenge that God in His wonderful good judgment tests the good work that pleases Him. Let us therefore keep the following canonical and practical rule: As long as we are doing good and do not experience as a result of it opposition, hatred, trouble, or harm, so long we have reason to worry that our work has not pleased God as yet, for trial and patience have not been applied as yet, and God has not yet approved it, because He has not yet tested it. For He does not approve what He has not tested before. But if our work is immediately attacked, then let us be of good cheer and firmly trust that it is well-pleasing to God, that is, believe that it is of God Himself, for what is of God must be crucified in the world. So long as it does not lead to the cross (that is, to shameful suffering), it is not recognized as a work that comes from God, inasmuch as the only-begotten Son was not protected against this experience but rather was appointed the example of it. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:10). “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
Those who complain and are impatient when they suffer while doing good deeds show that their good deeds are not of God but have been done on the basis of human righteousness, a righteousness in which a man for his own sake does good things because he seeks to be esteemed and to be honored for it and because he flees and hates being attacked, slandered, and hated on account of it. Thus it is as clear as daylight that he does not do his good deed out of love and humility for God’s sake but that he does it for his own sake and for the sake of his own reputation, from a hidden conceit and love of self. For he who wants to do good works on the basis of love and humility for God’s sake will say to himself, when he is praised for it: “I did not begin it for your sake, dear praise, therefore I shall not complete it for your sake.” And when he is rebuked, he will say: “I did not begin it for your sake, O rebuke, and I shall not stop it for your sake.” He will happily continue what he has begun for the love of God, protected on the right and the left. Therefore James 1:4 states: “Let patience have its perfect work.” That is, another virtue can bring about a good work, but only patience can bring about a perfect work, that is, one that is not infected by any vice nor begun in a desire for glory and in self-love nor left undone in fear of rebuke but carried out all the way in the love of God. We read in Heb. 10:36: “For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.”
The pagan word from the mouth of Cicero, “Virtue grows when it is praised,”12 is rightly scorned and rejected by the church of Christ, for the apostle says the exact opposite (2 Cor. 12:9): “Virtue is made perfect in weakness,” that is, good works become perfect through patience, for “when I am weak (when I suffer), then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). So it is human virtue that grows through praise, because it looks for praise, but the virtue of Christians grows when it is reproached and when it suffers, and it comes to naught when it is praised (when it takes delight in praise). We read in Ps. 53:5: “God will scatter the bones (that is, the virtues) of those who pleased men; they have been confounded because God has despised them.” Now if human virtue grows only when it is praised, what does it do when it is reproached? Does it decrease? Yes, certainly, for it turns into wrath and despair. In short, also those whom Paul here calls contentious (v. 8) on account of their lack of patience have undoubtedly done good deeds. But because they did not know patience and wanted to be honored for those deeds, therefore they have become unfaithful towards the truth and have gone away to their wisdom, declaring good what really is evil; that is, by declaring that the thing in which they sought pleasure in themselves and glory among the people is righteousness. Therefore, he threatens them with His wrath and indignation.
7. Glory and honor, that is, glorious honor. “Glory,” Augustine states, commenting on John 17, “as defined in the old Latin classics, is the constant mention of a person with praise.”13 And he writes in the fifth book of On the City of God, chapter 12: “Glory is the judgment of men who have a good opinion concerning men.”14 Therefore it is usually called glory and glorification15 in Holy Scripture, and in accordance with that, being glorified and being transfigured. Honor, however, according to Aristotle,16 is the high esteem one shows to someone to recognize his ability, or it is the high esteem shown to anyone in word, act, or sign on account of his abilities. Thus it is clear that there is a difference between glory and honor. Glory radiates from one person to another; honor, however, comes from other persons to or into a person. Glory radiates and turns to the outside; honor flows towards us and goes into us. Thus the former takes place in the manner of an exit, but the latter in the manner of an entrance.
8. Wrath and indignation. I understand by this the wrath of indignation or the wrath of anger with which God is inflamed against body and soul. It is a wrath of severity. But He is also strict with the righteous as these passages say: “Thou hast been angry and hast had mercy on us” (Ps. 60:1), and again, “When Thou art angry, Thou wilt remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2). This is the wrath of His goodness, the rod of the Father. Thus the psalmist prays (Ps. 6:2), “O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy anger,” which means, “You accuse me, this is Your wrath; but do not apply this in anger, but in mercy, so that You may destroy the old man but save the new one.”
9. Tribulation and distress. This is to be the explanation of the expression wrath and indignation. I take these words as belonging together and meaning the same thing. This does not refer to any kind of tribulation but to a tribulation that is connected with anguish, that is, one from which there is no way out nor hope of a way out, where comfort is lacking in tribulation. To be sure, also the faithful are suffering tribulation, but they are consoled in it, as we read in Ps. 4:2: “Thou hast given me room when I was in distress,” and in 2 Cor. 1:4: “Who comforts us in all our tribulation.” This comfort hope and trust in God have given us. But the ungodly are tortured by anguish in tribulation through despair. They do not have hope and reliance on anything, because they do not place their hope in God, that they might sometime be freed. Just as joy is a certain freedom of the heart, even in tribulation, so distress represents a certain narrowing and constriction in tribulation.
God permits also His own from time to time to experience both temporarily, as we read in Ps. 116:3, “I suffered tribulation and anguish,” that is, “distress,” as the Hebrew text reads. But God lets the ungodly linger in this double distress forever. He indicates this with the words for every soul. He does not say “only in their body,” as is the case with the elect.
12. They will perish without the Law. The Law in this passage, that is, in this entire chapter, means the complete law of Moses, where both the Ten Commandments and also the love of God and of neighbor are enjoined. How is it possible that they will perish without this law and that they have sinned without it? Without it there can be neither sin nor merit, and therefore no punishment or reward.
The answer is as follows. The apostle means it this way: Without the Law, namely, without the orally transmitted or the written law (they will perish), even though they may know it in a different way, as he states below (v. 15), “They show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts,” or without the Law could mean “without the cooperation of the Law,” or “without the Law’s giving an opportunity for sinning.” For a law that is not there is also not an opportunity for sinning. But the law of Moses had not been given among the Gentiles. To be sure, the Gentiles have not received the rites and orders of the law of Moses, nor have these been transmitted to them. Therefore they were neither bound to them, nor have they sinned by not following them, like the Jews, who have accepted the Law, made a covenant through it with God, and received the promise of Christ in it. Nevertheless, they have received a spiritual law which the rites and ceremonies indicated in the moral sense (quite apart from the fact that they symbolized Christ). This law is impressed upon all people, Jews and Gentiles, and to this law all people are bound. Therefore the Lord says in Matt. 7:12: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.” You see, the whole transmitted law is nothing but the natural law, which cannot be unknown to anyone and on account of which no one can be excused. The opinion of the apostle therefore is, as it is most clearly stated, they will perish without the Law, that is, “they will perish without having received the Law.” It means they have not sinned because they have not received the Law and have not observed it as Jews, and they will not perish because they have not kept the Law. But there is another reason. The same law which they have not received they have learned to know in a different way, and yet they have not kept it. The Jews will be judged according to whether they have kept the Law or not, as Stephen tells them expressly in Acts 7:53, “You who received the Law and did not keep it.” They will perish without the Law means that it is not the Law that is handed down and received that will condemn them, therefore they will perish without a law of that kind, although not without a law which is the same as that, except that it has not been handed down to them in a written code and has not been contained or represented in it.
One could ask the question whether the Gentiles, who live outside of Christ but still fulfill the Law naturally and according to conscience, are saved, especially since original sin is not taken away without Christ and no commandment is fulfilled without grace (even though they may have the substance of such a deed on their side), and salvation is given through Christ alone. To be sure, the apostle seems to make the point here that some of the Gentiles have done and are doing the things of the Law by nature. But it can arouse one’s suspicion that the apostle does not say that they fulfill the Law but that they are observing some certain elements taken from the Law. He says (v. 14): those things which are of the Law, that is, something of the Law, although not everything that belongs to the Law. Thus they are all still under sin because of other things that they have not done, as he says below in chapter 3. If one wants to understand the apostle in this way, that they are doing everything that the Law demands, then one must, it seems, answer the above question with “yes,” but if one brings up against that the matter concerning Christ, original sin, and grace, then the answer is: “Whoever fulfills the Law is in Christ, and he receives grace because as much as he is able he has prepared himself for it.”17 Original sin God could forgive them (even though they may not have recognized it and confessed it) on account of some act of humility towards God as the highest being that they know. Neither were they bound to the Gospel and to Christ as specifically recognized, as the Jews were not either. Or one can say that all people of this type have been given so much light and grace by an act of prevenient mercy of God as is sufficient for their salvation in their situation, as in the case of Job, Naaman, Jethro, and others. But the first interpretation, according to which they have not done all the works of the Law, does not suit me because the apostle says below (v. 27): “Then that which by nature is uncircumcision, keeping the Law, will judge you.” Look at this. Here he says that the “uncircumcision,” that is, the Gentile, is fulfilling the Law, and in the same place he says (v. 26): “If the uncircumcision keeps the precepts of the Law, will not this uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” They have therefore fulfilled the Law. Whatever was lacking (and for this lack they are excused on account of their invincible ignorance) God in His forbearance without doubt supplied so that it might be made perfect through Christ in the future. This is not different from what He did for the children who were uncircumcised and killed for His sake (cf. Matt. 2:16). He does the same thing today for our children.
11. For there is no respect of persons with God. He says these words primarily against the conceit of the Jews, who boasted about their reception of the Law and bragged that they were its hearers and disciples. Therefore they were angry that the Gentiles were placed on the same level with them as far as good deeds were concerned and that they were placed on the same level with the Gentiles as far as evil deeds were concerned, for Paul had said, “The Jew first and also the Greek” (v. 9), and also, “Everyone, the Jew first and also the Greek” (v. 10). The Jews wanted God to act in such a way that He would bestow the good on the Jews only and the evil on the Gentiles only, as if because they were the seed of Abraham, they should automatically be like Abraham in merits. Thus the Jews always strive to make of God a judge who considers the persons. Their foolishness is imitated today by the heretics and by all spiritually conceited people, who presume that because they have chosen themselves before all other people because of their holy lives or their wisdom and because they are pleased with themselves, therefore God will elect them and find pleasure in them. They do not understand that God elects and has pleasure only in a soul that is worthy of contempt and confesses that it is rejected in the presence of God, a soul that rejects itself, gives preference to others, and finds pleasure in them. Then Paul similarly pricks the pride of the Gentiles who inflated themselves with the excuse that since they did not know the Law, they did not deserve wrath. He answers, “By no means!” because “They will perish without the Law” just as they are saved without the Law if they have kept their law, the law that is inborn18 and present in creation, not given; found at hand, not handed down to them; alive, not contained in letters.
If we do to others what we want them to do to us, and we do wish for ourselves only what is good, glorious, and great, then let us wish this first for God—a personal will, judgment, glory, and all the other things that are God’s, which we have arrogated to ourselves in alliance with Lucifer. In the second place, let us give them also to our neighbor, whom we generally try to surpass. Let them, too, be our superiors. Then we will have fulfilled total humility both against God and against man, that is, complete and perfect righteousness. What else does all of Scripture teach but humility, in which we are subject not only to God but to every creature?19 For we, too, want everything to be subject to us, though with a perverse will. But be it ever so perverse, let us do to others what we would like for ourselves according to that will. Immediately this is right and of greatest perfection. For what could be more concise and salutary than this little lesson? But how rarely it is understood in such breadth! And yet the Lord stated it rather briefly when He said about men only this (Matt. 7:12): “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” But now you exalt yourself above the sinner, the uneducated, the base, and you desire that they should suffer this at your hands. You must also suffer the same things from them, unless you want to deny that sinful, uneducated, and base people exist.
12. All who have sinned without the Law. We must be careful not to connect without the Law with the verb have sinned or with will perish. But we should understand it in this way: Those who have sinned without the Law, that is, without the Law contributing to their sins, without the Law giving them opportunity to sin. Thus they will perish without the Law. It means that the Law does not bring witness and sentence against them because such a law has not been given to them. They have a different kind of law. For every law gives occasion for sinning except when grace, love, and will attend the Law. The will always remains opposed and would prefer to do something else if it were allowed to, even though it may outwardly do what the Law commands. Indeed, through the rule of the Law it is enticed to sin rather than helped against it. Blessed Augustine in chapter 5 of On the Spirit and the Letter says, “I do not know how it happens that the things which are desired become more enticing when they are forbidden.”20 And the poet says, “We are always intent on forbidden things, and we desire what is denied. So the dam is a threat to the waters impounded.” “What is permitted is unwelcome, but what is not permitted entices so much more.” “That which follows me I flee, and that which flees from me I pursue.”21 Therefore blessed Augustine also aptly says in chapter 8 of On the Spirit and the Letter: “Those who did what the Law commanded without the Spirit of grace did it from fear of punishment and not from love of righteousness. Therefore what was visible before men in the act was not present before God in the will”—and conversely, what was not visible in the external work was nevertheless in the will before God—“and all the more were they held guilty for this reason, that God knew that they would prefer to sin (if that were possible without punishment).”22 That the Jews were such people is obvious from the Gospel, Matt. 5:20, 23 where the Lord says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, etc.” For these people used to say that being angry in heart was not a sin, but that only actual killing was. Therefore Ps. 1:2 says: “But his delight is in the law of the Lord.” But this the Lord gives only by grace through the Holy Spirit. Otherwise sin always takes occasion through the Law and kills through it. No matter how much works may be done, the will still lies dead, as we read in 1 Cor. 15:56 f.: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
13. But the doers of the Law will be justified. This passage is interpreted in a twofold way by blessed Augustine in chapter 26 of On the Spirit and the Letter.24 First in this way: The doers of the Law will be justified means that through justification they will become, or be made, what they were not before, doers. Second, and in a better way, will be justified means that they will be looked upon and thought of as righteous, as stated in the gloss.25 It is sufficiently clear from the preceding (v. 13), “For not the hearers of the Law are righteous before God,” that, if you should ask who else is righteous before God except the hearers, the answer would be: “The doers will be righteous, that is, they will be justified and looked upon as righteous.” Thus Ps. 143:2 says, “For no man living is righteous before Thee,” that is, he is not looked upon as righteous. And below, in Rom. 3:20, we read: “No human being will be justified in His sight by works of the Law.” And in Luke 10:29: “And he, desiring to justify himself” (that is, he wanted to declare or to state that he was righteous, and he wanted to absolve himself of sin, as though he did not know who was his neighbor whom he was commanded to love), and similarly in many other places.
14. The Gentiles do by nature those things which are of the Law. This again blessed Augustine interprets in a twofold way, as he did above in chapter 26. First, by Gentiles he understands the believers from among the Gentiles who are justified by the grace of Christ, in contrast to the unbelieving Jews who boast of the Law and of righteousness. From this he interprets the word by nature (that is, by the Spirit of the grace of Christ restored from a nature that had been corrupted by sin): “Not as if grace were negated by nature, but rather nature restored by grace.”26 He is inclined toward this interpretation himself. But second, he says this word can be applied to those who, even though they lead an ungodly life and do not truly and properly worship God, are doing one or the other good thing for which reason we might say of them that they are doing some of the things which are of the Law and that they have an understanding of them.27
Furthermore, their “thoughts excusing them” should be understood as those thoughts with which they excuse themselves in order to obtain a milder punishment, for just as certain sins which are pardonable and without which one cannot live this life do not exclude a righteous man from life eternal, so a few good works, without which the life of even the worst person is hardly ever found, will be of no help to the ungodly to obtain eternal salvation. But this interpretation is opposed to the word that says they do by nature the things which are of the Law, and those who do the Law are righteous. Therefore Paul does not seem to speak of that type of ungodly people. But neither does he speak of the first group, that is, the believers in Christ, for this interpretation of “by nature” is forced, and I cannot see why the apostle wanted to use this particular expression, unless he wanted to hide from his reader what he really intended to say, especially since elsewhere he does not speak in this way. Therefore I prefer to think (as I did above) of the people who are in the middle28 between the ungodly Gentiles and the believing Gentiles, those who through some good action directed toward God as much as they were able earned grace29 which directed them farther, not as though this grace had been given to them because of such merit, because then it would not have been grace, but because they thus prepared their hearts to receive this grace as a gift. Unless one must concede that it is to be understood in a restricted sense that he says: “They do by nature those things (that is, some of those things) which are of the Law.” Then the text is clear, and the statement of blessed Augustine about the second group is most adequate.30 In that case the apostle speaks of these Gentiles as having observed the Law as little as the Jews did, even though they have done some of the good works of the Law, on account of which they will excuse themselves from the major punishment on the Day of Judgment. They nevertheless still need the grace and mercy of Christ, just as it will be of no advantage to the Jews that they have observed the Law externally. Thus both are under sin, no matter how much good they may have done, the Jews according to the inner man because they have observed merely the letter of the Law, the Gentiles in a twofold way, because they have fulfilled the Law only in part and not with their whole heart. I accept this interpretation because the whole tenor of this chapter (as Paul himself says below in Rom. 3:9: “For we have charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin”) is nothing else than a proof that all men, and therefore both of these, are sinners and in need of the mercy of God.
How does this agree with and support the understanding of what the apostle says (v. 15): “The work of the Law is written on their hearts,” especially in view of what the prophet says (Ezek. 11:19; 2 Cor. 3:3), that this understanding would be given only to the believers of the future, that God would write His law not on tables of stone but on their hearts? It seems to me (and I don’t want to discredit a better interpretation) that there is a difference between the statement “The works of the Law are written on their heart” and “The Law is written on their hearts,” for the apostle did not want to say in this place, even if he knew it and could have said it, that they possessed the Law written on their hearts, but he wanted to say only “the works of the Law.” Therefore I believe that the sentence “The law is written on their hearts” is the same as “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). This is, in the real sense, the law of Christ and the fulfillment of the law of Moses. Indeed, it is a law without a law, without measure, without end, without limit, a law reaching far beyond everything that a written law commands or can command. But the words “the work of the Law is written” mean that the knowledge of the work is written, that is, the law that is written in letters concerning the works that have to be done but not the grace to fulfill this law. Therefore until the present they have of necessity remained tied to the letter that kills, for they have had nothing else but the works of the Law written on their hearts.
15. They show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts. How do they show this? First, they show it to others by doing those things which are of the Law. Second, they show it to themselves now and to every man in the Judgment through this, that their conscience gives witness to themselves about themselves. But what kind of a witness does it give to them? It gives a good witness of good deeds that have been done. This is done by the thoughts that excuse and defend them. But their conscience also gives an evil witness about evil deeds. This is done by the thoughts that accuse them and torture their conscience. It is as if he were saying: “This proves that the Law was not unknown to them, but that they had a knowledge of what was good and evil, for when they are tortured in their consciences, they see that they have done evil. But they would not be tortured if they did not recognize the evil they have done. Just as they themselves are judged before themselves by themselves while their conscience testifies and their thoughts accuse them or excuse them, so they will also be judged by God on the evidence of the same witness. For they do not judge themselves on the basis of other people’s judgments of them or on the basis of the words of such as praise or criticize them, but rather on the basis of their innermost thoughts, which are so deep in their hearts that their souls cannot escape from these thoughts and get away from them, nor can they silence them, as they can silence the judgments and words of men. Therefore God, too, will judge all people according to them and will reveal our innermost thoughts, so that there is no possibility to flee further inside and to a more private hiding place. The thoughts will of necessity be revealed and open before the eyes of everyone, as if God wanted to say: “See, it’s not I who am judging you, but I merely agree with your own judgment about yourself and acknowledge this judgment. If you cannot judge differently concerning your very own self, neither can I. Therefore on the basis of the witness of your own thoughts and of your own conscience you are worthy of either heaven or hell.” Thus the Lord says (Matt. 12:37): “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” If this is true about words, it is much more so of thoughts, for they are much more secret and much more reliable witnesses.
And among themselves in turn their thoughts accuse or defend them. To be sure, from our conscience we get only thoughts of accusation, because our works are nothing in the presence of God (unless He Himself by His grace works in us), although it is easy for us to excuse ourselves in our own eyes, because we are easily pleased with ourselves. But what does it profit except that we are thereby convinced that we knew the Law? For any such self-pleasing thoughts testify that we have done good and refrained from evil, but we have not thereby pleased God or fulfilled the Law completely. Whence shall we take thoughts to defend us? Only from Christ, and only in Him will we find them. For if the heart of a believer in Christ accuses him and reprimands him and witnesses against him that he has done evil, he will immediately turn away from evil and will take his refuge in Christ and say, “Christ has done enough for me. He is just. He is my defense. He has died for me. He has made His righteousness my righteousness, and my sin His sin. If He has made my sin to be His sin, then I do not have it, and I am free. If He has made His righteousness my righteousness, then I am righteous now with the same righteousness as He. My sin cannot devour Him, but it is engulfed in the unfathomable depths of His righteousness, for He himself is God, who is blessed forever.” Thus we can say, “God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20). The Defender is greater than the accuser, immeasurably greater. It is God who is my defender. It is my heart that accuses me. Is this the relation? Yes, yes, even so! “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” It is as if he were saying: “No one.” Why? Because “It is God who justifies.” “Who is to condemn?” No one. Why? Because “It is Christ Jesus (who is also God) who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, etc.” Therefore, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:33, 34, 31).
21. You who teach others teach not yourself. How is it possible that a person teaches another person and does not first know something himself or is not taught himself? He who teaches must first know and be taught what he teaches others. But the apostle indicates very clearly that he is speaking here of the spiritual doctrine and instruction in the Law, in which those who are teaching others merely according to the letter are not instructing themselves, I say they do not instruct themselves, to say nothing of others, that the works of the Law must be done with a willing and pure heart. And since the more noble, more important, and more God-pleasing parts of man (that is, heart and will.) are lacking in the effort, therefore they certainly do not fulfill the Law as far as God is concerned, no matter how much they exercise the baser part, the body, in the Law against its wishes and without its own free will. And therefore Paul continues in this spirit (vv. 21–22): You who preach that men should not steal, steal. You who say that one must not commit adultery, you commit adultery. In the same way Paul could also have said: “You who say that one should not kill, you kill, as is apparent in the murder of Christ.” The Lord speaks to the same effect in Matt. 23:2: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice.” How will we recognize that this is true, when these people appear righteous to men in their outward behavior? The Lord Himself says so in the same chapter, and this certainly was not done without works of righteousness. How, therefore, should they not do according to their works, which appear to be good, unless they should, like them, keep the Law only for appearance and according to the letter, without the heart (that is, a resisting heart), as if this were enough. This is the way “they say” (that is, they teach the Law and read it exactly as it is written; for this they are not blamed, and so the apostle does not rebuke them here for teaching the Law to others), but this is what they “do not.” They cannot do the Law they teach unless they do it with a joyful and pure will, that is, with a heart that is circumcised of all evil desires, so that they do or do not keep the Law merely in the outward work but do or do not keep it also with their will and their heart, that is, that they are free of evil works, also of the sinful lust of the heart, not only in the perfection of work, and that they are ready for good works not only from bodily necessity but also willingness of mind. So those people are teaching a correct and complete law, but they are not doing it and accomplishing it, I mean, doing it with their heart and carrying it out with their hands. From this it follows that “they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” These burdens are the commandments of the Law, of which he has said above that they should keep them. But by their literal explanation they become burdens hard to bear, and then they kill and do not make alive. For as long as they teach that the Law is to be fulfilled only with work, even without the fulfillment of the heart, and when they do not show where and how this fulfillment of the Law is to be sought, then they leave those whom they teach in an impossible position, for they cannot fulfill these laws if they do not fulfill them in the heart. But these people are not moving the same laws with a finger, that is, they do not approach them with the slightest attempt of their heart, but they do them only with the external work. Hence they become people who are intent upon receiving empty honors, as the text goes on to say: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men” (Matt. 23:5). See, here Christ says that they are doing works, and yet He has said before that they are not lifting a finger. These apparently contradicting statements still agree with each other, for they are doing the works externally, and to these works attaches a desire of vainglory, but inwardly they do not move them with a finger. Such works of theirs, he has said above, should not be imitated, even though he here admits that they are good. But they are not really good. From this exposition it is clear that in this passage “doing,” and in this chapter “committing adultery,” “stealing,” and “killing,” are understood of the desires of the inner man, for the person who desires such things is before God spoken of as doing them, as is stated below in chapter 7:16, 18: “I do what I do not want,” but “I cannot do what is right.”
Therefore they cannot understand these words nor believe that they are such people as is stated in Acts 5:28 (believing as they do that they have not killed Christ because they had not killed Him with their own hands): “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us,” and in Acts 7:52, when St. Stephen accused them of the same sin with the words, “You are the murderers of this Righteous One,” they “ground their teeth against him” (Acts 7:54). Also in Prov. 30:20 these people are called “an adulteress” (the synagog, which clings to iniquity with its heart and to righteousness with its body only), “who eats” (that is, has devoured Christ by killing Him), “and wiping her mouth” (clearing herself of her sins), “says, ‘I have done no wrong.’ ”31 Therefore because they do not understand (as I have said) the words of the apostle nor believe that they are people who preach that one should not steal and yet steal, therefore the apostle, showing further that he is speaking spiritually about spiritual doing, continues by saying (v. 25), Circumcision indeed is of value, and very clearly later (v. 28), For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical, and again (v. 27), With the letter and circumcision you break the Law. “With the letter,” he says. Therefore you are a thief in spirit, although not according to the letter. Paul mentioned the letter especially because he wanted to indicate that he has been speaking in the spirit, so that they might understand what they should have known.
But somebody may object and say that this circumcision of the heart is brought about only by grace, for our nature, as I said above,32 inclines toward evil, is impotent to do good, abhors rather than loves the Law, which drives toward the good and prohibits from the evil, and so by itself it has no desire for the Law but only displeasure. And thus our nature, unless helped from above, remains captive to evil lusts opposed to the Law and is full of evil desires, no matter how much it may produce works when it is prompted externally by fear of punishment or drawn by the love of things secular. But this is not the voice of nature or the old man (Ps. 119:113): “I hate double-minded men, but I love Thy law,” nor this (Ps. 119:103): “How sweet are Thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth,” nor this (Ps. 19:10): “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” But these words represent the voice of the new and spiritual man, who goes on to say (Ps. 19:11): “For Thy servant has loved them and keeps them.” If these things come about through grace, does the apostle, or even the Lord Himself, accuse and charge the Jews? I answer that the whole task of the apostle and of his Lord is to humiliate the proud and to bring them to a realization of this condition, to teach them that they need grace, to destroy their own righteousness so that in humility they will seek Christ and confess that they are sinners and thus receive grace and be saved. So Paul concludes below in chapter 11:32: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all.” However, they did not want to hear this and take it to heart. When they heard this voice, they hardened their hearts (cf. Ps. 95:8). Therefore Ps. 95:10–11 says that “they have not known” the ways of the Lord and shall not enter into His rest. The expression “they have not known” is understood in this way: “they did not want to know,” just as we say “they have not done it,” that is, “they did not do what they should have.” This is not an excuse but a stronger accusation that they did not know, because they should have known and did not know. Paul also says in Rom. 10:16:33 “But they have not all heeded the Gospel,” which means that they did not want to heed the Gospel as they should have done.
22. You who abhor idols, you commit sacrilege. Sacrilege is robbing and stealing from a holy place. The Jews committed such robbery in a twofold way, first, by diverting their own heart and soul from the truth and the Spirit and subjecting it to their own ideas, second, in a way which applies even more closely to our topic. They removed the letters and words of Scripture, which is not only a holy but a holy of holies, by perverting them and giving to them a false meaning and thus casting and forming a spiritual idol from them. Ezek. 16:17 says: “You also took your fair jewels of My gold and My silver … and made for yourself images of men, etc.” Sacrilege, therefore, it is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem took away gold and silver (that is, that they arbitrarily took over words of Scripture). But worse is the idolatry that they made idols and pictures of them for themselves, that is, stubborn concepts, dead and stiff, which they have set up in the temple of their hearts. According to the letter they abhor idols, but in spirit they not only embrace them but even fashion them for themselves. We read in Hos. 8:4: “With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.” And also in Hos. 6:8, “Gilead is a city of people who are making an idol” (that is, producing false and deceitful doctrine). The apostle calls this sacrilege most of all because it is not so great a sin to invent error as to introduce in the Scriptures a false interpretation, that is, to carry off its sacred character. Therefore this, too, can be understood simply, like the preceding, in this way: You are committing sacrilege in will and desire, even if not in act.
26. So if the uncircumcision keeps the precepts of the Law. Here the apostle speaks of the uncircumcised who believe in Christ. He contrasts them with the Jews who boast of their own righteousness. In no other way would the uncircumcised keep the precepts of the Law. This is also clear from what he says below. Wishing to give a reason why the uncircumcised will condemn the Jew, he makes this distinction (v. 28): “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly.” If “the Jew who is one outwardly” is the one who will be judged by the uncircumcised, then the uncircumcised is not a “Jew outwardly,” and therefore he is in secret, namely, by faith in Christ. Otherwise he would not judge the Jew.
28. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly. We must understand this sentence in this way: Not he who according to outward appearances is a Jew is a real Jew. Neither is that true circumcision which is circumcision outwardly. But he who is a Jew in secret is a true Jew, and the circumcision of the heart is the real circumcision in spirit, not in the letter. This explains what he has said above (v. 25): “Your circumcision becomes uncircumcision,” that is, a circumcision which takes place externally is no circumcision before God.
29. Whose praise is not from men but from God. This is the same thing as the Lord says about the self-righteous in Matt. 23:5: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men.” External righteousness wins praise from people, but rebuke from God. Inner righteousness wins praise from God and rebuke and persecution from people. For the latter looks foolish or even unrighteous to people, but the former is foolish in the eyes of God and a double dose of unrighteousness.
Therefore, the lesson is this: He who has not yet escaped the praise of men and has not suffered shame, rebuke, and persecution in his actions has not yet reached complete righteousness. For this see the explanation above on the passage (Rom. 2:7) “By patience in well-doing.”34
1. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?
Because he had condemned the Jews according to the flesh and the circumcision in the flesh, he seemed to regard it as useless and its practice as vain. But this is not the case. Therefore, in this chapter he shows for what purpose circumcision and Judaism were useful.
1. Its greatest value is that the oracles of God were believed (v. 2), that is, circumcision was useful to this end, that in it the promises of God were believed and thus their fulfillment was awaited, and in this the Jews had an advantage over the Gentiles, to whom God promised nothing, but in pure mercy in the fullness of time He deigned to make them equal with the Jews. However, to the Jews He was not only merciful but also truthful, for He demonstrated that mercy which He had promised. Hence these two concepts are frequently joined together in Scripture, mercy and truthfulness. Thus he says below in chapter 15:8–9, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, etc.”
And note that it does not say: “The oracles of God were believed by them,” but as the Greek has it: “The oracles of God were believed,” not indicating by whom, because immediately the objection was ready which he answers in the following statement that they were not believed by all. Thus the meaning is: The important point is that circumcision does not profit for itself only but for the whole world, because in it the oracles of God are believed, that is, people are found who believe the oracles of God, and thus the promises of the mercy and grace of God are received, which are now given also to the Gentiles. But if the oracles of God had not been believed there, they would nowhere have been believed, and thus the promise of mercy would not have been received. Therefore circumcision was useful in every way for the coming righteousness, although it did not itself justify. Then he answers the objection that the oracles of God were not believed at all there, because not all believed, and therefore the Jew had no advantage and the circumcision was of no value. His reply is: For what if some of them were unfaithful? Has their faithlessness nullified the faithfulness of God? (v. 3), that is, since the oracles of God were believed there, the promise surely stands. God has obligated Himself and because He is truthful, the fulfillment of His promise is expected. But if the promise stands because of their belief, then the unbelief of some can in no way nullify the faithfulness and truthfulness of God. Therefore circumcision profited wonderfully because through it the promise of God was initiated and confirmed, and thus the fulfillment could be expected with the greatest assurance because of God’s truthfulness. Thus our Lord in John 4:22 says, “Salvation is from the Jews,” although even the Jews themselves may not be saved; for in His promise God has greater concern for His own truthfulness because of the belief of a few than for the multitude of unbelievers, that He would nullify His promise. For God does not lie, but He is truthful.
2. Or we can understand this passage in the sense of the words of the Gospel, namely, that it was necessary that the Word should be spoken first to the Jews (Acts 13:46) because of the promises of God. And thus it went from the Jews also to the Gentiles. In this way circumcision was marvelously useful, because it was worthy to receive the rule of the Gospel in which the Gentiles also were later made participants. This, therefore, is “the advantage of the Jew,” that they did not receive the oracles of God from the Gentiles, but rather that the Gentiles received them from the Jews. But the first interpretation is preferable. For if it refers to the words of the Gospel, there is not only an advantage for the Jew in having the words, but also the gifts and the graces were first given to them, yes, even the apostles, the leaders and the chief and more noble part of the church, are from the Jews.
The sense of the verse is that there is therefore no disadvantage for the Jew or for the circumcision in the fact that some did not believe. It is sufficient that some did believe, and through their faith the promise was fulfilled and received. Thus there was an advantage for them in that they had the oracles of God before the Gentiles did. Thus he says below in chapter 9:6, “But it is not as though the Word of God,” that is, the promise, “had failed” because of the fact that many did not believe. For from this fact He seems to have cast off His people and not fulfilled His promises. But His oracles were not believed, and for this reason the Jews had no advantage over the Gentiles. But “their faithlessness will not nullify the faithfulness of God,” that is, it will not be the reason why anyone should say that God is not truthful, for “He has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). For not all are His people who are so of the flesh, but those who are so of the promise; for them He has fulfilled the promise, because to them alone He made the promise. Therefore, let us reconstruct the statement this way:
2. To begin with (that is, particularly, or chiefly) because the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God, that is, they became eligible to receive the promises in the Law, something which surely was not given to the Gentiles. Hence he says in chapter 15:8–9 that God has made Christ known to the Jews because He is truthful and to the Gentiles because He is merciful. For He did not promise Him to the Gentiles but to the Jews, among whom His oracles were received through faith. But you may raise the objection: If He made His promise to the circumcision or if His oracles were committed to them, then the promise should also have been made manifest to them, so that all who are of the circumcision might obtain it; otherwise He would not seem to have kept His promise and thus would seem to possess neither faithfulness nor truthfulness, indeed, He might seem not even to have made them a promise, for He is truthful and also keeps His promises, and thus the Jew has actually no advantage and God’s oracles have not been entrusted to him. But now the very opposite is the case, for the circumcision has not only not obtained the promise, but the promise has even been given to others, namely, to the Gentiles; since the greater part of the circumcision did not obtain the promise. To this objection Paul replies (v. 3), For what if some of them were unfaithful (that is, have not received faith and the promise)? For there is no guilt except for those who were unwilling to receive the fulfillment of the promise. This does not hinder God, however, from being truthful. For God did not so promise, and His oracles were not so believed by the circumcision that it was necessary, whether they wanted to or not, for them to receive the promises. Because then the truthfulness or the faithfulness of God could not be fulfilled unless He were to bestow it upon even the reluctant and the unwilling, which is an absurdity. And the truthfulness and faithfulness of God would then depend upon man’s will, as if God would be faithful only if they had believed in Him or had been willing to receive Him. Therefore, “their unfaithfulness will not nullify the faithfulness of God,” that is, because they of the circumcision were unwilling to receive the promise, even though He had made the promise to them who were of the circumcision, we must not contend that God is not truthful. It is sufficient that He has fulfilled His promise to the circumcision, that is, to some of them and not to all, but to the elect. For God cannot lie. Hence it follows: Let God be true (v. 4).
But if at this point you insist: whatever He may be, it is still certain that He has made His promise to the Jews, or to the circumcision, but not to the Gentiles; therefore, if He is truthful, the promise should have come to all of them; or else why did He make the promise to the circumcision when He foresaw that He was not going to give them the promise because of their unbelief? He replies to this point in chapters 9 and 11. But at this point he briefly passes over the subject, so as not to be diverted from his main concern, namely, that the promise was not made to all who are the children of Abraham, but to the elect and to those of the circumcision who are to be adopted as the sons of God.
Is. The Greek has: “God shall be” or “let God be truthful,” as a statement in which we express not so much the truthfulness of God as a confession of His truthfulness, so that the meaning is: It is right that all should confess and admit that God is truthful. Therefore, let Him be so, let Him be held to be truthful and regarded as faithful in His oracles, no matter how much people refuse to believe Him. Moreover, that we must take this as an imperative is proved by the authority which he quotes, “that Thou mayest be justified,” that is, “Let it be so, let all confess, let it be known to all, that Thou art just and truthful in Thy words, no matter how much unbelievers attack Thee and judge Thee, that is, condemn Thee ‘in Thy words.’ ”
If indeed, it is one thing to say simply that God “is justified” and quite another to say that God “is justified in His words,” or in His works, so also there is a difference between saying that God “is judged” and He “is judged in His words”; or again between saying that God “overcomes” and “overcomes in His words.” For God in Himself can be justified by no one, since He is righteousness itself; and likewise He can be judged by no one, since He Himself is eternal law and judgment and truthfulness; but He also in Himself conquers all things, and there is no need to wish this for Him or to bespeak it on His behalf. This is the way we also pray that His will may be done, even though it cannot be prevented.
But on the other hand God is justified in His words when we regard and accept His Word as righteous and truthful, and this takes place through faith in His words. But He is also judged in His words when His Word is treated as false and deceitful. This takes place through unbelief and “the pride and imagination of our heart,” as the blessed Virgin sang (Luke 1:51). For our wisdom not only does not believe or accept the words of God, but it does not even think they are the words of God; rather it believes that it has the words of God and presumes that it is itself truthful. Such is the foolishness of Jews, heretics, and all stiff-necked men. But He also overcomes in His words when His words prevail over all who attempt the contrary, as is also the case with the Gospel, which always triumphs and always has been triumphant. For truth conquers all things. Therefore He is justified among those who in humility give up their own notion and trust in Him. But He prevails over those who refuse to believe Him and judge and contradict Him. To the former He is a sign “set for the rising,” to the latter “for the fall,” and “a sign that is spoken against,” (Luke 2:34), that is, they judge Him—but in vain. In the same way we also pray that the will of God may be done, that is, that His Word and His work of every kind, whether favorable or adverse, may be accepted by us graciously and willingly.
Therefore, the fulfillment of His will is actually the fulfillment of our will for which we prayed, namely, that we might will what God wills. For God wills things that are difficult and hard and far exceed our will. Thus also the justification of God in His words is actually our justification; and the judgment or condemnation of Him actually comes upon us, according to the statement, “He who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
And thus the meaning is: Can it be that God is not truthful just because they do not believe, that is, because they judge Him in His oracles and words and try to make Him a liar and themselves truthful? God forbid. Rather He is all the more truthful and they the greater liars, because truth conquers all the more when it is attacked; it becomes more glorious when it is held down. And it is its nature to advance when it is resisted, as is symbolized in the exodus of Israel and the drowning of Pharaoh. Therefore he says: God is indeed truthful, and man a liar, because it is written that this would happen: “that Thou mayest be justified, etc.,” that is, “that Thou mayest come to be regarded as true and mayest show all men to be liars, either in justifying or conquering, that is, in justifying the godly and the believers and in conquering those who judge and those who do not believe.” And thus the objection is removed which someone could raise, suggesting that circumcision seems to have been useless and believing the oracles seems to have been of no profit to the Jews, because many—and what a liar He seemed to them—did not seek this advantage. From this there follows the implied corollary that God did not fulfill His promises, because the greater part of the circumcision did not lay hold on them. Or else it follows that they are wrong in saying that God has not fulfilled His promises, and either they themselves are liars or God is. To this reasonable conclusion the apostle replies: “But what if some of them have not believed?” that is, circumcision was not useless just because they did not believe, because God has still fulfilled His promises to the circumcision, and the faithfulness of God is not nullified because of them, but rather they have thereby shown themselves to be liars, since God is truthful and man is a liar. Because He prevails when He is judged by them. Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? (v. 3), that is, does it follow that because they did not receive the promise, therefore there is no reception of it at all, so that in this respect the Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles? For if this were the case, that they did not have an advantage and did not have the oracles of God entrusted to them because of the fact that many did not believe, it would surely follow that God in His promises would be a liar, for He promised these things to that people. But this conclusion is ridiculous and false. For (as chapters 9 and 11 will more clearly teach on this point) not those who are the sons of the flesh “are the descendents of Abraham” (cf. Rom. 9:7; 11:1), but those who have not believed are the liars, rather than God who has made the promise and fulfilled it, albeit not in all men, but in all the children of the promise.
4. That Thou mayest be justified. This authoritative statement must not be taken here in the sense and context it has in its original use in Ps. 51:4 but only insofar as it is quoted as proof of this statement, that God is truthful in His words. For originally it was written with another purpose. The apostle, to be sure, does not disregard this, for in a passing and incidental manner he does argue from it according to the same meaning that it has in the psalm, saying, “But if our wickedness, etc.” (v. 5). For there (Ps. 51:4)1 we read that God is justified through the confession of our sin. For although He is righteous and truthful in Himself, yet this is not true in us until we confess, “Against Thee only have I sinned, etc.”; for then is He alone acknowledged to be righteous. And thus He is also righteous among us.
5. But if our wickedness. Some people say that the righteousness of God is commended by our unrighteousness when He punishes it, for then He shows Himself to be righteous in not allowing the unrighteous to go unpunished. And this is a true statement. But it does not pertain in any way to what the apostle is discussing at this point, for he is not talking about the righteousness of God by which he himself is righteous. Rather he is actually denying that the righteousness of God is commended by our unrighteousness, or if he affirms this, it is only in the sense of the psalm, which says, “Against Thee only have I sinned etc.” But yet the psalm is not trying to say that our sin justifies God, but rather that confession and acknowledgment of sin humble the proud and righteous man who trusts in his own righteousness and for this reason downgrades the righteousness of God, who alone possesses righteousness along with virtue and wisdom and every good thing. Therefore he who humbly repudiates his own righteousness and confesses that he is a sinner before God truly glorifies God, proclaiming that He alone is righteous. Therefore it is not our unrighteousness, which God forever hates as the enemy of His own glory, but it is the recognition and confession of our own unrighteousness which glorifies God and commends us to Him, for this proves the necessity and saving nature of His righteousness. But others say that our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God incidentally,2 “just as opposites which are placed beside one another shine more brightly,” as shadows and colors in a picture. But the apostle denies entirely that our unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God in any way at all, but it only seems this way to carnal men from the words of the psalm. This is evident from the apostle’s words when he cites the psalm “that Thou mayest be justified,” for from this he infers not the righteousness but the truthfulness of God.
Hence he is not speaking here of the righteousness by which he is righteous himself, but of that by which He who is righteous makes us righteous, and He Himself alone is righteous with respect to us; for our unrighteousness, if it truly has become ours (that is, by being acknowledged and confessed), does commend His righteousness, for it humbles us, makes us bow before our God and seek His righteousness; and when we have received it, we glorify, praise, and love God who has imparted it to us. On the other hand, when our righteousness disparages the righteousness of God, and even destroys and denies it and argues that it is lying and false, as when, for example, we resist the words of God and regard His righteousness as unnecessary and believe in the sufficiency of our own, then we have to say, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned … so that Thou art justified” (that is, “that Thou alone mayest be extolled with praise and glory as our righteous Justifier”) “in Thy sentence” (Ps. 51:4), that is, “as Thou hast promised and testified.”
7. For God’s truthfulness. That is, if we are to understand that the truthfulness of God is glorious while I am a liar, and the righteousness of God is glorious while I commit unrighteousness (for that is what it means to speak in a human way [v. 6], and this is what they thought who said: “Why not do evil?”3), how then does God punish the world and condemn me as a sinner, when He really ought to be putting a crown on my head, since His righteousness and truthfulness and glory increase more and more because of this, which is surely in accord with His will? And therefore in doing evil we do His will. Actually, by a question of this kind the apostle forbids such an interpretation of the matter. It is not as the words sound or “in a human way,” but, as we have said, it is a matter of righteousness and unrighteousness. Therefore the righteousness of God is not commended because I commit unrighteousness but rather because I confess that I have done unrighteousness and cease to do it, and thus embrace the righteousness of God or what comes from God, since even my righteousness is unrighteousness before Him. Thus I have no glory but only shame before God. And thus in the righteousness by which He Himself justifies me He alone is glorified, because He alone is justified (that is, He is acknowledged to be righteous). We must speak the same way about truthfulness, for the truthfulness of God is not glorified because I am a liar but because I recognize that I am a liar and cease being one by embracing the truth which comes from God, so that through it and not through my own truthfulness I may be made truthful, my self-glorification may cease, and only God may be glorified in me, for He alone has rendered, or made, me truthful, because even my truthfulness is a lie before Him.
Now, what we have said here about truthfulness and lying, righteousness and unrighteousness, must be applied to all other perfections and their opposites, for example, strength and weakness, wisdom and foolishness, innocence and sin, etc. For there is an unending controversy about all of these things between God and proud men, especially the Jews, for God in His mercy desires the Jews and all men for the very reason that they are liars, unrighteous, foolish, weak, sinful men to be made truthful, righteous, wise, strong, innocent men through His truthfulness, righteousness, wisdom, strength, and innocence, and thus to be freed from lying, unrighteousness, foolishness, weakness, and sin, in order that His truthfulness, righteousness, wisdom, strength, and innocence may be glorified and commended in them and by them. Then those haughty people, being men who consider themselves truthful, righteous, wise, strong, and innocent by their own powers and of themselves, refuse and speak against God and thus with all their might judge Him and make Him the liar, the unrighteous, foolish, and weak sinner. For they want to establish their own truthfulness, righteousness, wisdom, virtue, and innocence, and they refuse to be looked upon as liars, unrighteous, foolish, weak sinners. Therefore either God or they must be the liars, the unrighteous, and the weak, etc.
This is like the case of the doctor (as Persius4 tells us) who wishes to heal his patient, but finds that he is a man who denies that he is sick, calling the doctor a fool and an even sicker person than himself for presuming to cure a healthy man. And because of the man’s resistance the doctor cannot get around to recommending his skill and his medicine. For he could do so only if the sick man would admit his illness and permit him to cure him by saying, “I certainly am sick in order that you may be praised, that is, be a man of health and be spoken of as such, that is, when you have healed me.”
Thus these ungodly and arrogant men, although they are sick before God, seem most healthy to themselves. Therefore they not only reject God as their physician, but they even regard Him as a fool and a liar and even sicker than themselves for presuming to heal such wonderfully healthy men and treating them as if they were sick. However, they are not reproving God in His absolute sense, in His essence (since no creature can do this, not even a malicious one), but in His words. Hence he correctly adds the expression, “So that Thou art justified in Thy words.” For the words of God which had been sent to them by Him were regarded by them as not from God, but rather as foolish, lying, and stupid. For through His Word He undertook to heal them. They, however, denied that they were sick, considered Him as foolish and sicker than themselves, resisted Him, spoke against Him, judged and condemned Him. But in vain. For His words prevail when they are thus judged, or rather God prevails in words such as those when He is judged by men in them. For because of the fact that they reject Him, it is perfectly clear that they regard Him as foolish and stupid and weak, while they are confessing of themselves that they love nothing but wisdom, virtue, and truth, as if they were saying: “Surely He is not wise, is He, when He thinks that we are foolish? Rather, He is the foolish one, for we possess wisdom for ourselves and follow it. And so it is with all other things. Surely He (that is, God or His Word) is not truthful, righteous, and strong when He contends that we are liars, unrighteous men, and weaklings, whereas we really cling to truthfulness, righteousness, and strength! Actually He Himself is such a person, because He does not know, as we do, where alone these good things are.” Thus in the Gospel, in the same manner, they said of Christ (John 9:24), “We know that this man is a sinner,” and again (John 9:16), “This man is not from God.” Whence also it is said in Ps. 4:6: “Many there are who say, ‘O that we might see some good!’ ” as if to say, “Since we know what is good, anyone who presumes to teach us otherwise must himself be in error, and he will not show us good things.” Thus we read in John 9:40–41, “Are we also blind?” And Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
Therefore we conclude that
Therefore we need humility and faith. What these words seek to establish and maintain is solely this, that inwardly we become nothing, that we empty ourselves of everything, humble ourselves and say with the prophet, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, so that Thou art justified in Thy words.” “In Thy sight I am foolish and weak, so that Thou mayest be wise and powerful in Thy words.” For all creation teaches that “there is no need of a physician except for those who are sick” (cf. Matt. 9:12), that no sheep is sought except the one who is lost (Luke 15:4), that no one is freed except the captive, that no one is enriched except the pauper, that no one is made strong except the weak, that no one is exalted except the man who has been humbled, nothing is filled except that which is empty, that nothing is built except that which has been torn down. As the philosophers say: a thing is not brought into form unless there is first a lack of form or a change of previous form; again, a “potential idea” does not receive a form unless at its inception it has been stripped of all form and is like a tabula rasa.5
Therefore, since every creature proclaims this, it cannot happen that he who is filled with his own righteousness can be filled with the righteousness of God, who fills none but the hungry and the thirsty. Therefore he who is sated with his own truth and wisdom is incapable of receiving the truth and wisdom of God, which can be received only in an empty and destitute heart. Hence, let us say to God: “O how willingly we are empty that Thou mayest dwell in us! How gladly weak that Thy power may dwell in me; gladly a sinner that Thou mayest be justified in me; gladly foolish that Thou mayest be my wisdom; gladly unrighteous that Thou mayest be my righteousness!” Behold, this is the meaning of the statement, “Against Thee have I sinned … so that Thou art justified in Thy words” (Ps. 51:4).
And thus to sum up the matter: God is justified in three ways.
First, when He punishes the unrighteous. For then He shows that He is righteous and His righteousness is manifested and commended through the punishment of our unrighteousness. But this is a moderate commendation, because even the ungodly punish the ungodly.
The second way is incidental, or relative, as when opposites which are placed along side each other shine more brightly than when placed by themselves. In the same way the righteousness of God is the more beautiful, the fouler our unrighteousness is. But at this point the apostle is not referring to these ideas, because this is the internal and formal righteousness of God.
Third, when He justifies the ungodly and pours out His grace upon them, or when it is believed that He is righteous in His words. For through such believing He justifies, that is, He accounts people righteous. Hence this is called the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of God. In the same way a good craftsman is commended in three ways. First, when he criticizes the inexperienced and reproves them when they make mistakes. Second, when in comparison with them he appears better trained than they. Third, when he transmits the perfection of his skill to others who did not yet possess it. And this is the true commendation. For to reprove others or to appear as a craftsman, this is not being a praiseworthy artist, but to cause others to become artists, this is being a truly good artist. In the same way, God is truly praiseworthy for being righteous in us. But just as inexperienced men refuse to be taught, so also proud men do not wish to be justified.
God is justified and shown to be truthful in three ways.
First, when He punishes and condemns the unrighteous, the liar, the fool, etc. For then He shows that He is righteous and truthful, etc. And so also His righteousness and truthfulness are commended and glorified through our unrighteousness and lying, because it is made manifest. But this is a moderate commendation, for even a liar often punishes and criticizes another liar, and an unrighteous man another unrighteous man, and yet he is not therefore immediately honored as completely truthful and righteous.
Second, in a relative way. Just as opposites show themselves to greater advantage when they are placed next to each other than when placed by themselves, so also His righteousness is the more beautiful, the fouler our unrighteousness is. The apostle is not speaking of these two modes, because this is the internal and formal righteousness of God, about which he is not speaking.
Third, in an effective way, that is, when we cannot be justified of ourselves and come to Him, so that He Himself makes us righteous when we confess that we cannot overcome our sin. He does this, when we believe His words; for through such believing He justifies us, that is, He accounts us as righteous. Hence it is called the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of God which works effectively in us.
The apostle is by no means saying here that “our wickedness serves to show the righteousness of God” (v. 5), but rather he is denying it, for it is not true. However, he is asking the question in the name of those people who thought that this followed from the words of the psalm. But it does not follow. For neither the psalm nor the apostle are trying to say that our sin justifies or commends God, but rather it is our acknowledgment and confession of sin. Hence he says, “For I know my transgressions, etc.” (Ps. 51:3), and then follow the words, “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned” (that is, “I recognize that before Thee alone I am a sinner.” For this admission makes the righteousness of God something to be sought after and this confession makes it commendable. For when I acknowledge that I cannot be righteous before God because it is written, “No man living is righteous before Thee” [Ps. 143:2], and in other places there are many similar statements by which God tells us that we are in our sins), then I begin to seek my righteousness from Him. And thus the acknowledgment of my sin convinced me that God is justified in me (that is, that I should believe in Him and thus He would justify me). And the confession of this then commends and glorifies Him, because He alone is just and our justifier. But He is not commended in this way where sin is not confessed or acknowledged, or where His righteousness is not sought by those who are satisfied and pleased with their own.
For this is similar to a good craftsman who can be commended in three ways. First, when he criticizes and rebukes those who do not understand his art. But this is a small and insolent commendation. Second, when in comparison with others (even though he does not criticize them) he shows himself to be more experienced than they. Third, when he bestows the perfection of his art on those who seek it, because they could not possess it of themselves. This is the true commendation. For to blame others and to appear as an artist, this does not make the greatest artist. But to produce artists similar to oneself, this makes a praiseworthy craftsman. For the first way often involves arrogance and pride, the second envy and presumption. But the third way is true kindliness and generosity. So God is righteous by working in us and praiseworthy because He makes us like Himself.
But just as that craftsman cannot pass on his skill to those who do not have confidence in him and those who are well satisfied with their own skill, and just as he cannot draw praise and commendation from them for his art and mastery unless they first recognize their own lack of skill and believe him when he asserts that they are unskillful—but their pride will not let them believe him—so the ungodly do not believe that they are ungodly and thus do not acknowledge the fact. Hence they do not allow God to be justified in them, or to be declared truthful, and thus glorified or commended.
A Brief Summary
Then what advantage have the Jews? (v. 1), that is, the one who is a Jew outwardly and according to the letter. For if he is not regarded as a Jew, he is then equal in every respect to the Gentiles and has no advantage. Or what is the value of circumcision? (v. 1), that is, in the flesh and according to the letter. For if it is not regarded as circumcision, as has been said in the preceding chapter, then has it been useless? Much (v. 2), it is of advantage and very useful. In every way (v. 2). This is either an assertion and a kind of oath, or it expresses the ways in which circumcision is useful, which he enumerates below in chapter 9:4, when he says, “To them belong the sonship, the giving of the Law, the glory, the covenant, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, etc.” To begin with, that is, one of the ways, which I now take up first. The Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God (v. 2). For the Gentiles did not have this, just as they did not have other things, as Ps. 147:20 says, “He has not dealt thus with any other nation.” For this together with other things the Jew alone had as an advantage over the Gentiles, even those who were Jews outwardly and according to the letter. “Entrusted,” that is, received through faith. For all Jews received the promises, although not all received the fulfillment. “Oracles,” that is, the promises, as he calls them below in chapter 9. The apostle does not have the words “to them” in his text, but it can stand and can refer to “Jew” and to “circumcision” in verse 1. In this sense he says below in chapter 15:8, “Christ became a servant to the circumcised,” but not to the Gentiles, “to show God’s truthfulness,” that is, because God had promised this to them and not to the Gentiles.
What if some were unfaithful? (v. 3). This expression “were unfaithful” (non crediderunt) must be taken in an absolute sense and differently from the term “entrusted” used above, for it must not be understood with reference to “oracles.” For all of them received the oracles and promises of God, and to this day they are still awaiting the promises of this kind concerning the sending of Christ. Therefore they did believe, but not in the sense that they became believers in Christ and were faithful to Him. The meaning is this: what does it matter?6 What can we do about it? Who will be harmed by this except them? For surely it will not harm God or us. For it is manifest that neither God’s truth nor our faith will be nullified because of their unbelief.
Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? (v. 3), that is, the truthfulness and fidelity of God. He says all these things because when he has said that the promises have been committed to the circumcision which is in the flesh and to the Jew who is one outwardly, someone could raise the objection: How then did anyone who is a Jew outwardly and according to the letter receive the promise? For if the promises were to the carnal and literal Jew (in which they do excel the Gentiles) and if none of this kind of Jew has received the promise, but they are lacking it to this very day, then it would seem that they did not have the promise or that God did not fulfill it; for the Jew of the flesh should have received the promise, because it was made to the flesh. The apostle meets this objection and in a sense pounds on one nail with another when he says: “Is the truth of God nullified, is His promise done away, and are His words made vain?” This is impossible, and so also is that which follows from it. To be sure, the apostle does not settle this argument here but defers it to chapter 9. And there he shows how the Israel of the flesh, which at the same time is both the Israel of the promise and election and the Israel of the flesh, obtained the fulfillment, but Israel which is only of the flesh and only according to the seed did not obtain it at all. Therefore even their unbelief cannot annul the faithfulness of God. And thus he sets aside this objection and puts it out of sight, but only for the present; and he gives his attention to the truthfulness of God, which he had raised up against the objection, and asserts that He has fulfilled His promises everywhere.
By no means (v. 4). He gives the title “Faithfulness of God” to the promise then fulfilled through Christ, according to the statement in Ps. 85:11, “Faithfulness has sprung up from the ground” (that is, the promised Christ has appeared, being born of the Virgin).7 Therefore the meaning is: God has now fulfilled His promises and is shown to be truthful, and they do not believe Him or receive the promises. Therefore will it be untrue that God has fulfilled His promises, and will this truth which has now been made manifest be taken away, and will it be said that the promise has not been fulfilled, only because they have not believed? By no means. For then the apostles, rather God in the apostles, would be lying when He testifies that He has fulfilled His promises in Christ. But according to my understanding I believe that “faith” (fides) here does not refer to the faithfulness of God but means trust in God, which is the actual fulfillment of the promise, as it is clearly seen in many passages. For it is the righteousness which comes from faith which has been promised, for example, in Rom. 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith.” But this difference does not involve a contradiction. For whatever is said concerning the objective truth of faith in a literal sense, the same is understood in a moral sense concerning our faith in this truth. And thus the meaning is entirely clear, namely, what does it matter that they do not believe? Shall we therefore give up faith in God and follow them by denying the fulfillment of the promise rather than believing God when He asserts that He has fulfilled it? The proper answer follows: By no means. We will not follow them, but will cling to the faithfulness of God. For God is truthful (v. 4), and therefore we must believe Him. Though every man be false (v. 4), and therefore we must not believe or follow him. Or, as the Greek says, “Let God be true” (that is, let us believe God rather than man, for man is a liar). Thus he has removed that objection according to which someone said that fleshly Israel did not receive the promises, and yet they were given to it; therefore they have not been fulfilled as yet. Therefore, do these men speak the truth, and God falsehood? God forbid. They say no, God says yes. The answer is, we must believe God rather than men, because He is truthful. As it is written, that is, we must believe Him, following the Greek text, because to be justified is to believe, as we shall point out below. That Thou mayest be justified in Thy words and prevail when Thou art judged (v. 4). The apostle adduces this authority according to the sense, not according to the reason for the sense, that is, it should be understood in terms of what it points out and not in terms of why it is said, as if one were to say: “Thou wilt be justified in Thy words and Thou wilt prevail when Thou art judged,” although later on he makes a digression and does deal with the causal meaning of this passage. Thus God is justified in His words, that is, when we believe Him in the Gospel concerning the fulfillment of the promise, so that He is regarded as truthful and righteous. For these words of His in which He is justified are the word of the Gospel, when people believe Him, that He speaks the truth in them and that what is prophesied in this Word will come to pass. Not only will He be justified by those who believe, but He will also overcome when He is judged, that is, when He is reproved by those who deny that Christ has been sent and that the promises have been fulfilled. For they judge these words and condemn them and never consider them as righteous, that is, they never believe that these words are righteous and true, indeed, they even judge and condemn God in these words, while others justify Him. But these people shall not prevail. For He prevails and obtains the victory, because no matter how much they resist, this faithfulness of God, this “justification of God in His words” (that is, this trust in His Word) continues. The justification of God and trust in God are the same thing. For He prevails and remains, indeed He always goes forward and increases, while they who do not believe will fail and perish.
That “God is justified in His words” (Ps. 51:4) means that He is made just and true in His words or that His words are made just and true. And this takes place in believing them, accepting them, and holding them as true and just. The only thing that can resist this justification is the pride of the human heart through unbelief. For this pride does not justify but condemns and judges. Therefore it does not believe His words, since it does not regard them as true. And it does not regard them as true because it regards its own understanding, which is contrary to them, as true. Hence for God to be judged in His words is the same as that He Himself or His words are condemned and thus become lying and unjust. This takes place through arrogant unbelief and rebellion. For thus it is obvious that this justification and judgment of God are outside of God and His Word, that is, in men. For intrinsically both God and His words are righteous and true. But they have not as yet become such in us until our wisdom yields to them and in faith gives them a place and accepts them. Thus it says in Ps. 51:4: “Against Thee have I sinned,” that is, “I yield my righteousness and my understanding, which resists and condemns Thy words, and I confess that I am a sinner, unrighteous, and lying, in order that Thy words may have a place in me, be justified, be true, and become true,” that they may become in us what they are in themselves, because in themselves they are justified oracles.
Through the fact that “God is justified” we are justified. And this passive justification of God by which He is justified by us is our active justification by God. For He regards that faith which justifies His words as righteousness, as it says in chapter 4:5 and in chapter 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” And on the contrary, the passive justification of God, by which He is judged by unbelievers is their own condemnation. For He rejects as unrighteousness and damnation that unbelief by which they judge and condemn His words. Thus it agrees with the Hebrew, which puts it this way: “Against Thee have I sinned, because Thou wilt justify,”8 that is, Thou wilt bring justification, “in Thy Word and wilt cleanse when Thou art judged.” For He justifies, overcomes, in His Word when He makes us to be like His Word, that is, righteous, true, wise, etc. And He thus changes us into His Word, but not His Word into us. And He makes us such when we believe His Word is such, that is, righteous and true. For then there is a similar form of the Word and the believer, that is, truth and righteousness. Therefore when He is justified, He justifies, and when He justifies, He is justified. And thus the same idea is expressed by an active word in the Hebrew and a passive word in our translation.9 Moreover, God overcomes, that is, He prevails and shows that they all are finally liars and false who do not believe, that is, those who dishonor Him by their judgment, as is manifest in the case of the Jews and will be even more evident at the judgment. Hence, the Hebrew text says, “And Thou wilt cleanse,” that is, Thou wilt make a cleansing, “when Thou art judged,” that is, Thou wilt make Thy Word clean and those who believe in it, and at the same time Thou wilt make Thyself clean in them and wilt gain approbation from the lie which these unbelievers impose upon Thee, and actually Thou wilt defile them, that is, Thou wilt show that they are filthy liars, that is, that their unbelief does not nullify the faithfulness of God.
The passive and active justification of God and the faith or belief in Him are the same thing. For the fact that we declare His words righteous is His gift, and because of the same gift He Himself regards us as righteous, that is, He justifies us. And we do not declare His words righteous unless we believe that they are righteous.
But if our wickedness serves to show the righteousness of God (v. 5). This question arises for two reasons, namely, that the authority of Ps. 51 happens to be cited and that the substance and source of the material itself which is being dealt with are such as they are. For the psalm, because it speaks causally (at least in our translation10 and in the Septuagint) when it says, “that Thou mayest be justified,” can appear to a man to be saying that we have sinned in order that God may be justified, and that for this reason we must sin in order that God may be glorified. But the subject under discussion intends to say that God, or His words, cannot be justified and made truthful unless we are made liars and unrighteous men, since they are contrary to us, and it is in this sense that He is made righteous through our sin.
The solution is that the apostle is speaking in the Spirit, and thus is not understood except by those who are in the Spirit. Hence the solution of Lyra, that sin is capable of an effect on the commendation of God incidentally,11 is not valid, especially if one is thinking of the inner truthfulness of God or of His words, because sin is not capable of an effect on the glory of the truth of God either in its own right12 or incidentally. But in a moral, or tropological, sense, 13 sin in its own right and in a proper sense is capable of an effect on the commendation of the truthfulness of God, that is, the trust by which we believe God when He says that we are in sins, even though our reason may not know it or believe it—this very thing which confirms us as sinners and gives glory to God by our acceptance of His words of grace and truth as necessary for us. For who would receive the grace and righteousness except the person who confesses that he has sin?
The expression “that Thou mayest be justified in Thy words” means the same as the expression “God is truthful though every man be false”; and the clause “that Thou mayest prevail when Thou art judged” has the same meaning as the expression “Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?” as is evident from the words. Thus he is correct in putting between these clauses the term as it is written (v. 4), establishing both points by Scripture.
Likewise, just as it is said that God or His words are justified, when in faith we believe them to be just and truthful (which they are in themselves even without our faith), so also we must understand that we have to become sinners and liars and fools and that all our righteousness, truthfulness, wisdom, and strength have to perish. And this takes place when we believe that we are sinners and liars, etc., and that our virtue and righteousness are absolutely nothing before God. Thus we become inwardly, inside ourselves, what we are outwardly14 (that is, before God), even though inside ourselves we are not this way, that is, even though we do not believe that we are such. For as God alone is truthful and righteous and powerful in Himself, so also He wishes to be such outside Himself, that is, in us, so that He may thus be glorified (for it is the glory of any good thing which is in anyone, that it be poured out of itself upon other people), so He wills that just as every man by himself is a liar, unrighteous, and weak outwardly (that is, before God), so he may become such inwardly, that is, he may confess and acknowledge himself to be such as he actually is. And thus God through His own coming forth causes us to enter into ourselves, and through this understanding of Him He gives to us also an understanding of ourselves. For unless God had first come forth and sought to be truthful in us, we could not have entered into ourselves and be made liars and unrighteous men. For man of himself could not know that he is such a person before God, unless God Himself had revealed it to him. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). Otherwise man would always believe that he is truthful, righteous, and wise, especially because in his own eyes and before his fellowmen he is such. But now God has revealed what He thinks about us and what He judges us to be, namely, that all are in sin. Therefore we have to yield to this His revelation, His words, and believe and thus declare them righteous and true and thereby also confess that we ourselves are sinners according to them (a fact we did not know before). Thus the apostle says (1 Cor. 3:18): “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool, that he may become wise.” Moreover, what he says concerning foolishness must be understood of all other imperfections, so that he who wants to be righteous, truthful, and powerful must become a sinner, a liar, and a weakling. This pathway is spiritual, not physical or natural, that is, our whole self-understanding must be destroyed, for it causes us to misjudge ourselves so badly. Therefore “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Luke 1:51). This is all “the strength He has shown.” Hence it follows that this statement is entirely spiritual when it teaches us to become sinners. However, when the apostle taught it, many took it in a literal and carnal sense as to how he becomes a sinner who previously was righteous, as he says in what follows in this passage.
The same idea also runs through Ps. 51, when it says, “For I know my transgressions” (v. 3). Therefore, the following thought is “against Thee have I sinned” (v. 4), that is, I confess that I am a sinner before Thee, although before men I am righteous. However, I do not for this reason escape being a sinner against Thee, “so that Thou art justified” (v. 4), that is, that it may come to pass that I believe Thy words, whereby I, too, am justified. Later on it speaks of the “uncertain and hidden things of Thy wisdom” (v. 6), that is, Thou hast revealed to me these hidden things, namely, that before Thee we are sinners and had nothing of ourselves. Corollary: The passage “Against Thee only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4), is not satisfactorily explained by certain men15 who understand it as if David had spoken this way, because princes have no one over them except God to whom they can confess and by whom they can be punished. No, he is speaking for his own person as a spiritual man, in the way that all men ought to speak, as in Ps. 32:6, “Therefore (namely, because of the impiety of his sin) let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee,” that is, whoever wishes to be holy will confess that he is a sinner and ungodly, and to those who say, “I will confess to Thee,” “Thou didst forgive the guilt of their sin” (Ps. 32:5). Hence 1 John 1:10, “If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar” (which is a double sin). “But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins” (1 John 1:9). And again, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Therefore let us say with the prophet, “And my mouth shall show forth Thy praise” (Ps. 51:15), not ours. And again, “My tongue will sing aloud of Thy righteousness” (Ps. 51:14), not our own.
Therefore, it has now been sufficiently demonstrated that God alone is truthful and that every man is a liar. Thus “Their faithlessness” should not “nullify the faithfulness of God.” What effect does it have on our faith that they do not believe? Surely we must not on that account give up our faith, and the faithfulness of God has not been removed; but rather they themselves are liars.
Even if we do not recognize any sin in ourselves, it is still necessary to believe that we are sinners. Hence the apostle says, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby justified” (1 Cor. 4:4). For just as through faith the righteousness of God lives in us, so through the same faith sin also lives in us, that is, by faith alone we must believe that we are sinners, for it is not manifest to us, indeed, we often do not seem to ourselves to be aware of the fact. Therefore we have to stand under the judgment of God and believe His words with which He says that we are unrighteous, because He Himself cannot lie. And thus it must be, even though it is not apparent, “For faith is the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), and it is content with the words of God alone. And it has been foretold that the reign of Christ will be in this humility and judgment. For thus “He will execute judgment among the nations” (Ps. 110:6). And “there thrones for judgment were set” (Ps. 122:5), for we must strenuously accuse, judge, and condemn ourselves and confess that we are sinful, so that God may be justified in us. The same faith is described in such words as these, “Clear Thou me from hidden faults. Who can discern his errors?” (Ps. 19:12). Likewise, “Remember not my transgressions” (Ps. 25:7).
But we must also seriously consider the fact that it is not sufficient to confess with the mouth that one is sinner, unrighteous, liar, and fool. For what is easier, especially when you are at peace and live without temptation? But when you have confessed with your mouth that you are such a person, then you must also earnestly feel the same way about yourself in your heart, and you must conduct yourself in this manner in every act and in your entire life. For this reason he is a very rare man who confesses and believes that he is a sinner. For how is he to confess that he is a sinner if he is unwilling to endure even a word of criticism against himself or his actions or his ideas, but immediately rushes into the controversy and does not even confess with his mouth that he is a liar but rather contends that he is truthful and well-intentioned and that he has been wickedly resisted and falsely accused? But if he is compelled to endure something, he becomes furious and wears everyone out by complaining of the injury which he alone of all people has suffered. Look at the hypocrite who confesses that he is a sinner but is willing to do and to suffer nothing which befits a sinner but only that which is proper for a righteous man and a saint.
And thus we are all ready to say: “I am a most wretched sinner.” But seldom if ever does a man want to be a sinner. For what is it to be a sinner if not to be worthy of all punishment and trouble? And to confess with your mouth that you are such a person but to be unwilling to act like a sinner, this is hypocrisy, this is lying. For it befits a righteous man to have peace, glory, honor, and all good things. Therefore, if you deny that you are righteous, you must also deny these good things. And if you confess that you are a sinner, you must take punishments, injuries, and ignominy as your own and your rightful possessions. But you must flee those things as belonging to someone else which belong only to a righteous man. Therefore if shame or an insulting word, if a beating or an injury, if condemnation or disease befall you, and you say: “I do not deserve it, why must I endure it? An injury has been done me; I am innocent,” are you not thereby denying that you are a sinner, are you not resisting God and with your own mouth convicting yourself as a liar? For with all these things (as with His words when “He spoke and it came to be” [Ps. 33:9]) God is proving and asserting that you are a sinner, because He brings to you the things which befit sinners. And He cannot err or lie. But you rise up and contradict Him, resisting and opposing Him, as if God were the one who was acting wickedly, foolishly, and dishonestly. And thus you are like those of whom we spoke above, “for those who are factious and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness” (Rom. 2:8). For you also do not obey the truth (that is, the works of God which have rightly come against you).
But if you say when these things happen: “Indeed, I surely deserve these things, I have been justly treated, I freely admit that I am truly a sinner, so that all these things are just and true; I have certainly sinned against Thee, so that Thy actions and Thy words are justified, and Thou art the truthful and righteous God; Thou art not mistaken concerning me, there is no lying in Thee. For just as in all these things Thou dost show that I am a sinner, so it is true, I am indeed a sinner.” Behold, this is simply saying, “Against Thee have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified in Thy words,” (Ps. 51:4). Likewise in Daniel 3 16 we read “All things that Thou hast brought upon us Thou hast done in true judgment, for we have sinned against Thee, etc.” It is similar to a situation in which two men are fighting over something, and one of them humbly gives in and says, “I freely admit that you are right and truthful. I am willing to be the one who was wrong, I am willing to be the one who did the wrong, that you might be the one who did right and thought right.” Will not the other man say, “I have wronged you. You are right”? For thus they will be of one mind, and otherwise because of their argument they would have remained at odds. Thus it is surely true, “Do not be haughty with one another” (Rom. 12:16).
For this reason I say, how unusual and difficult it is to become a sinner and to speak this verse truly from the heart. For no one is eager to be contradicted in his thinking, reproved in his actions, or despised in his wisdom. However, he who would do this and would say, “Teach me differently, I beg you, and I will gladly do differently,” if he would thus always avoid contention, how blessed he would be! But the arrogance of our mind and will is much too great. No one is entirely free of this plague, particularly when things suddenly go against us.
But we have to say something about the way in which a man must spiritually become a sinner. It is not a natural way. For that way every man does not become a sinner but is one. But all the force necessary to bring about this change lies hidden in our mind or in our self-estimation and our opinion of ourselves. Every statement in Scripture and every action of God has the purpose of changing this mind. For here is the “evil eye” (Matt. 20:15) and the incorrigible pride (humanly speaking). Hence the blessed Virgin says, “He has shown strength with His arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Luke 1:51), that is, in a heart which is pleased to be opposed to God in its thinking and self-estimation. Hence this thinking is called “the counsel of the wicked” in Ps. 1:1 and “the golden calf” (Ex. 32) in the desert, mystically interpreted, or the idol Baal or Moloch, because of which “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (Ps. 1:5). Therefore, to become a sinner is to destroy this way of thinking by which we believe tenaciously that we are living, speaking, and acting in a good, pious, and righteous way, and to adopt another mode of thought (which comes from God) whereby we believe from the heart that we are sinners, that we are acting, speaking, and living wickedly, that we are astray, and thus we come to blame ourselves, to judge, condemn, and hate ourselves. “He who does these things shall never be moved” (Ps. 15:5).
All of the things we have said here must be correctly understood, however, namely, that righteous, good, and holy works must not be understood as being disapproved in the sense that they are to be omitted, but only with respect to the meaning, esteem, and reputation we give them, that is, that we do not trust in them or esteem them or give them such honor as if we had the strength to be sufficiently righteous before God because of them. For it is only this thinking of vanity and this foolish self-esteem that must be driven out by these words. Otherwise good works of this kind should be done with the greatest earnestness and carried out with all seriousness, to the end that through them as through a kind of preparation we can finally become apt for and capable of the righteousness of God; not that they are righteousness, but that they may seek righteousness. For this reason they are now not our righteousness, as long as we do not account them to ourselves for righteousness. For by means of all of these things we must prepare the way of the Lord17 who will come to us. But they are not themselves the way of the Lord. The way of the Lord is the righteousness of God, which the Lord when He is present alone accomplishes in us after them.
God is as changeable18 as possible. This is evident from the fact that He is justified and judged, for we read in Ps. 18:26: “With the pure Thou dost show Thyself pure, and with the crooked Thou dost show Thyself perverse.” For as each person is in himself, so God is to him as an object. If he is righteous, God is righteous; if he is pure, so is God; if he is wicked, God is wicked, etc. Hence to the damned He will forever seem evil, but to the righteous, righteous and as He actually is in Himself. But this changeableness is external, which is surely obvious from the expression “Thou art judged.” For just as God is judged only from outside and by man, so also He is justified. Thus the expression “that Thou mayest be justified” must be said of God outwardly.
9. We have charged. Even though the Jews do excel in those respects which have been mentioned and which will be enumerated below in chapter 9, yet they are not for this reason better before God but under sin equally with the Gentiles. Hence it is clear that the expression which he used above, “The Gentiles do by nature what the Law requires” (Rom. 2:14), did not intend thereby to assert that they are righteous, except with a particular and legal righteousness, but not with the universal, infinite, eternal, and wholly divine righteousness, which is not given to us except in Christ. For it is not sufficient to do the works of the Law outwardly, nor is it sufficient to do them inwardly, unless the justification through Christ is first added. However, if someone must be described as doing the works of the Law inwardly [it is still not enough], since (as Scripture says) from the heart and the mind we are always inclined toward evil (cf. Gen. 8:21) and thus are unwilling to do good things and to obey the Law. Thus we do not do good, as has been sufficiently discussed above.
That all men are under the power of sin. We must understand this entire passage as being spoken in the Spirit, that is, he is not speaking about men as they are in their own eyes and before men, but as they are before God, where all are under sin, namely, both those who even to men are manifestly evil and those who in their own eyes and in the eyes of other men appear to be good.
The explanation is that those who are manifestly evil sin both according to the inner and the outer man and are without any kind of righteousness, even among themselves. But those who appear outwardly good to themselves and to their fellowmen actually sin in the inner man. For although they do good works outwardly, yet they do them out of fear of punishment or of love for money, glory, or some other material consideration, not willingly and joyfully, and thus the outer man, to be sure, is impelled to good works, but the inner man abounds in concupiscence and contrary lusts. For if he were permitted to act with impunity or if he knew that glory and peace would not come to him, he would rather omit doing good and would do evil, just like the others. Therefore what is the qualitative difference between the man who does evil and the man who wants to do evil, granted that he does not do so because he is compelled by fear or lured by the love of some temporal reward? But that man is the worst of all who lets such outward righteousness be sufficient and contends against those who teach an inner righteousness, and who, when accused defends himself and does not think he is meant when he is accused, not because he does no good but because he does not do it out of the simplicity of his heart and because he does not even reform his will, in which he desires to do things which are actually contrary to his actions. In this case his good works are doubly evil, first, because they are not performed out of a good will and thus are evil, second, because they are established and defended as good works by a new pride. Thus Jer. 2:13 reads: “My people have committed two evils, etc.” Therefore, unless through the grace of God (which He promised to believers in Christ and bestows upon them) this willfulness is cleansed, so that we are free and happy toward the works of the Law and seek nothing but to please God and do His will and do our work neither out of fear of punishment or self-love, we are always under sin. Therefore, he says:
10. None is righteous. But here everyone must watch himself and keep his eyes open and pay close attention. For the just man whom the apostle is seeking is very rare. This is the case because we so rarely analyze ourselves deeply enough to recognize this weakness in our will, or rather, this disease. And thus we rarely humble ourselves, rarely seek the grace of God in the right way, for we do not understand, as he says here (v. 11). For this disease is so subtle that it cannot be fully managed even by very spiritual men. Thus those who are truly righteous not only sigh and plead for the grace of God because they see that they have an evil inclination and thus are sinful before God, but also because they see that they can never understand fully how deep is the evil of their will and how far it extends, they believe that they are always sinners, as if the depth of their evil will were infinite. Thus they humble themselves, thus they plead, thus they cry, until at last they are perfectly cleansed—which takes place in death. This, then, is the reason why we are always sinners. “We all make many mistakes” (James 3:2), and, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). For (if I may use an example) who does the good and omits the evil with that will whereby, even if there were no commandment or prohibition, he still would do it or omit it? I believe that if we rightly examine our heart, no one will find himself to be that kind of person except one who is absolutely perfect, but rather, if he had the freedom, he would omit many good works and do many evil works. But this is what it means to be in your sins before God, whom we are compelled to serve freely in the frame of mind which I have mentioned. Therefore we read (Eccl. 7:20) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Hence, the righteous always plead guilty. And Ps. 32:6 says: “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee at a time of distress.” Indeed, who knows or who can know, even if it seems to him that he is doing good and avoiding evil in that frame of mind, whether it really is so, since God alone will be the judge of this and since we cannot judge ourselves in this respect, according to the apostle in 1 Cor. 4:7, “Who sees anything different in you?” Likewise (1 Cor. 4:5), “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, etc.” The fact that some people think they have such a state of mind is a dangerous presumption in which many people are very slyly deceived; since they are confident that they already have the grace of God, they neglect to search the secrets of their own heart, and they daily grow colder and finally literally die. For if they were to inquire as to whether they are moved to do good or avoid evil because of fear of punishment, love of glory, shame, favor, or some other desire, they would discover without doubt that they are moved by the things of which we have just spoken and not solely by the will of God, or at the very least they would discover that they do not know whether they do these things purely because of their love for God. And when they would discover this (as they must), they surely would be afraid, since we are committed to finding in ourselves not that which is better but rather that which is evil, for we of ourselves are by nature evil; they would humble themselves and constantly seek the grace of God with pitiful groans, and thus they would always make progress. That we are commanded to hope surely does not mean that we are commanded to do this in order that we might hope to have done it as we ought, but rather that the merciful Lord who alone can see into this abyss of ours (over the surface of which there are only shadows for us) does not account it to us for sin, as long as we confess it to Him. But it is as Job says (Job 9:21), “Though I am blameless, I regard not myself,” and again (Job 9:28), “I became afraid of all my suffering, etc.,” that is, because he could not know whether he was working with a double heart or whether he was seeking his own advantages with a completely secret greed. Hence the statement of Seneca is full of arrogance and every sin: “Even if I knew that men would not notice it and that the gods would overlook it, I still would be unwilling to sin.”19 First, because it is impossible for a man to have this intention by himself, since he is always inclined toward evil to such an extent that except for the grace of God he could not be moved to anything good. Thus he who presumes to speak this way about himself does not yet understand himself. To be sure, I admit that it is true that a person with this attitude can do and will some good things, but not all of them, for we are so entirely inclined to evil that no portion which is inclined toward the good remains in us, as is clear in the synteresis.20 Second, even if he says he would not want to sin, even if he knew that the gods would overlook it and men would not notice it, does he also dare to say that he would want to do good, even if he knew that neither the gods nor men would care about it? If he dares to say this, he is as arrogant as before, because he would not entirely escape the glory and boasting, at least not in himself, where he is self-satisfied. For man cannot but seek his own advantages and love himself above all things. And this is the sum of all his iniquities. Hence even in good things and virtues men seek themselves, that is, they seek to please themselves and applaud themselves.
None is righteous, because no man of himself is willing to obey the law of God but all are opposed (at least in the heart) to the will of God, since he alone is righteous “whose delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). So also
11. No one understands, because the wisdom of God is hidden, unknown to the world. For “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), and Wisdom was made incarnate and is thus hidden and unapproachable except by understanding, just as Christ cannot be known except by revelation. Therefore those who are wise only in regard to visible things and in the realm of visible things (such as all men are outside of faith who do not know God and the life to come), do not understand, are not wise, that is, they are not intelligent or truly wise but stupid and blind; and although they may seem to be wise in their own eyes, yet they have become fools. For they are wise only with a wisdom which can be found by human means but not in hidden things.
No one seeks for God. This statement pertains both to those who manifestly do not seek God as well as to those who seek Him or rather think they are seeking Him, because they do not seek Him in the way in which He wishes to be sought and discovered, namely, through faith, in humility, and not through their own wisdom and presumption.
Just as the statement “There is none righteous” is to be understood of these two classes of man, namely, those who have strayed to the left and those who have strayed to the right, so also we should interpret the expressions “No one understands” and “No one seeks.” For because they are not righteous, the former do not understand and do not seek for God because of a lack of interest and negligence; the latter are in the same situation, but because of excess and overdoing. For these men are too righteous, too understanding, too much given to seeking, so that they are incorrigible in their minds. As the comic writer says, “Do they not make it out with their knowing that they know nothing?”21 and again, “The highest righteousness is often the highest foolishness,”22 indeed, the highest unrighteousness, when one stubbornly holds to it and refuses to yield to the opposite opinion. Hence we have the popular saying Weiss Leut narrn groblich, “the wiser the man, the worse the madness.”
He says, “No one understands,” before he says, “No one seeks.” For knowing comes before willing and doing; seeking prompts volition and action. But this itself comes after understanding. Therefore the unrighteous on the left side do not understand, because they are blinded in their vanity by their desire for visible things. But those on the right do not understand because they are hindered in their own minds by their wisdom and righteousness. Thus they were their own bolt23 against the divine light.
Therefore, according to these two classes a man is properly called righteous if he is blessed with understanding and seeks God according to that understanding. Otherwise, understanding without seeking is dead, just as faith without works is dead, and neither makes alive nor justifies. On the other hand, a man is unrighteous if he neither understands nor seeks. That is also why he began with the premise “None is righteous.” As a way of explaining what it means not to be righteous, he says that man does not have understanding and does not seek God.
This understanding of which he speaks is faith itself, or the knowledge of the invisible things and the things which must be believed. Therefore it is an understanding in concealment because it deals with those things which a man cannot know of himself, as we read John 14:624: “No one comes to the Father but by Me,” and again (John 6:44): “No one can come to Me unless the Father … draws him,” and to Peter (Matt. 16:17), “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” How, therefore, can those on the left, the ungodly and the sensual, know this, because they regard only visible things? An
3. Abraham believed God
The statement that Abraham believed ought to be understood in an absolute and universal sense, and not only with regard to the passage in Gen. 15:6, so that the meaning is: Abraham was a man who was always prepared to believe God. He always believed. This is obvious from the fact that in Gen. 12 and 13 he also believed God when He called him and ordered him to leave his homeland and to migrate to another. Therefore there, too, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Likewise in Gen. 22 he believed God when He commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the same is the case in other passages. And the apostle clearly shows in Heb. 11 that he did all of these things by faith. Hence also the text here follows the preceding clause without any conjunctive particle, so that we should understand that what follows pertains not only to the preceding statement but is stated in an absolute sense to every reference to Abraham’s faith. For the text reads thus: “So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). And as soon as these words of God have been spoken, there immediately follows without any conjunction the statement “Abraham believed God.” Likewise, note that it does not say that Abraham believed God in this respect, but he believed Him in an absolute manner. Thus the expression “Abraham believed God” is equivalent to saying that he considered God truthful, for “to believe God” means to believe Him always and everywhere. But these things have been said so that some dolt does not slander the apostle for using the example of Abraham to prove a general statement about faith, and so that no one can say that even before this text was written Abraham had pleased God, and yet there was no mention of that fact that “Abraham believed God and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
6. So also David pronounces. This passage must be understood in this way: His faith is reckoned as righteousness. So David also pronounces (that is, asserts) a blessing upon the man (that is, that that man is blessed, or that blessedness is of that man alone) to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works. And the expression “apart from works” must be understood, as we have pointed out above,1 of those works by the doing of which a person thinks he has received righteousness and now possesses it, as if he thereby is made righteous because he has performed those works, or as if God now regards him as a righteous man because he is doing them, although this is not true, because God does not accept a person because of his works but the works because of the person, therefore the person before the works. As it is written, “And the Lord had regard for Abel (first) and (afterwards) for his offering” (Gen. 4:4).2 Hence it becomes obvious that it is not so much the works of that kind as the foolish opinion or estimation of these works which is disapproved. For the righteous do the same works as the unrighteous, but not from the same heart. That is, the righteous perform the works that they may seek and obtain righteousness through them, but the wicked do them that they may make a display of righteousness through them and boast of it as already found. The former are not content with the works they have performed and seek to have their heart justified and cleansed from sinful desires, but the latter care nothing for their inner life and are content with works performed externally. Therefore they are merely pretenders and are hypocrites, that is, they are like the righteous outwardly, but they are not really righteous inwardly. Thus Job 39:13 says, “The wing of the ostrich is like the wings of the heron and of the hawk.”3 It is as if he were saying: “But it cannot fly and seek its prey as the heron and the hawk do.” These people consider themselves righteous, but the others want God to account them as such. The talk and teaching of the former is that he is righteous who has done this or that, but the teaching of the latter is that he is righteous “against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (4:8). The one group knows how much and what one must do in order that he may be righteous. The others, however, do not know when they are righteous, because they are righteous only when God imputes righteousness to them, and no man knows His accounting fully, but one must only seek and hope for it. Therefore the former have a time when they do not think that they are sinners, but the latter always know that they are sinners. Thus in order that we may understand the passage
7. Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, we must remember:
The saints are always sinners in their own sight, and therefore always justified outwardly.
But the hypocrites are always righteous in their own sight, and thus always sinners outwardly.
I use the term “inwardly” (intrinsice) to show how we are in ourselves, in our own eyes, in our own estimation; and the term “outwardly” (extrinsice) to indicate how we are before God and in His reckoning. Therefore we are righteous outwardly when we are righteous solely by the imputation of God and not of ourselves or of our own works. For His imputation is not ours by reason of anything in us or in our own power. Thus our righteousness is not something in us or in our power. As Hos. 13:9 says, “Destruction is your own, O Israel; your help is only in Me,” that is, within yourself there is nothing but destruction, and your deliverance is from outside of you. And Ps. 121:2: “My help comes from the Lord,” which is to say, it is not from myself. But inwardly we are sinners according to the law of mutual relationship.5 For if we are righteous only because God reckons us to be such, then it is not because of our mode of living or our deeds. Thus inwardly and of ourselves we are always unrighteous. Thus we read in Ps. 51:3–4, “My sin is ever before me,” that is, I always have it in my mind that I am a sinner. “Against Thee have I sinned” (that is, I am a sinner), “so that Thou art justified in Thy Word, etc.” And on the contrary, the hypocrites, because they are righteous in their own sight, by force and necessity of this relationship are outwardly unrighteous (that is, in the reckoning of God), as Ps. 95:10 says, “And I said, ‘They are a people who err in heart.’ ” They pervert every word of Scripture, as, for example, this statement, “My sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3), for they say: “My righteousness is always before me” (that is, always in view), and “Blessed are they who work righteousness, etc.” “Before Thee,” they say (not, “I have sinned,” but), “I do righteous works.” Indeed, before themselves they perform such works.
“God is wonderful in His saints” (Ps. 68:35). To Him they are at the same time both righteous and unrighteous.
And God is wonderful in the hypocrites. To Him they are at the same time both unrighteous and righteous.
For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and seek righteousness from God in accord with His mercy, for this very reason they are always also regarded as righteous by God. Thus in their own sight and in truth they are unrighteous, but before God they are righteous because He reckons them so because of their confession of sin. They are actually sinners, but they are righteous by the imputation of a merciful God. They are unknowingly righteous and knowingly unrighteous; they are sinners in fact but righteous in hope. And this is what he is saying here: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Ps. 32:1). Hence, these words follow (v. 5), “I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (that is, I am always conscious of my sin, because I confess it to Thee). Therefore, “Then Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin,” not to me only but to all. Hence these words follow (v. 6): “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee.” Note that every saint is a sinner and prays for his sins. Thus the righteous man is in the first place his own accuser. And again (Ecclus. 39:5), the righteous man “will make supplication for his sins.” And again, Ps. 38:18: “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin.” Therefore, wonderful and sweet is the mercy of God, who at the same time considers us both as sinners and nonsinners. Sin remains and at the same time it does not remain. Therefore, this psalm must be understood according to its title.6 On the other hand, His wrath is also wonderful and severe, for at the same time He regards the ungodly as both righteous and unrighteous. And at the same time He both takes away their sin and does not take it away. Hence
He is speaking not only of sins in deed, word, and thought but also of the tinder,7 as later in Rom. 7:20: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.” And in the same chapter he speaks of “our sinful passions” (Rom. 7:5), that is, the desires, feelings, and inclinations toward sin which he says produce fruit for death. Therefore, act of sin (as it is called by the theologians) is more correctly sin in the sense of the work and fruit of sin, but sin itself is the passion, the tinder, and the concupiscence, or the inclination, toward evil and the difficulty of doing good, as he says below (Rom. 7:7): “I should not have known concupiscence to be sin.” For if these passions “work,” then they are not the works themselves, but they work to bring forth fruit, and thus they are not the fruit. Conversely, just as our righteousness from God is the very turning toward the good and the avoiding of evil which is given to us inwardly through grace, but our works are the fruits of righteousness, so also sin is the actual turning away from good and the inclination toward evil. And the works of sin are the fruits of this sin, as will be seen very clearly later on in chapters 7 and 8. And all the passages previously cited must be understood in the light of this kind of sin. Thus (Rom. 4:7; Ps. 32:1): “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,” and again (Ps. 32:5–6): “I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord… Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee,” and again (Ps. 51:3): “For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me,” and likewise (Ps. 51:4): “Against Thee only have I sinned, etc.” For this is the evil, since it is truly sin, which God forgives through His nonimputation out of His mercy toward all who acknowledge and confess and hate their sin and plead to be cleansed from it. This is the basis for the statement (1 John 1:8): “If we say we have no sin, we are liars.” And the mistake lies in thinking that this evil can be cured through works, since experience bears witness that in whatever good work we perform, this concupiscence toward evil remains, and no one is ever cleansed of it, not even the one-day-old infant. But the mercy of God is that this does remain and yet is not imputed as sin to those who call upon Him and cry out for His deliverance. For such people easily avoid also the error of works, because they so zealously seek to be justified. Thus in ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God’s imputation. For we believe Him who promises to free us, and in the meantime we strive that sin may not rule over us but that we may withstand it until He takes it from us.
It is similar to the case of a sick man who believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s order in the hope of the promised recovery and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him, so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him. Now is this sick man well? The fact is that he is both sick and well at the same time. He is sick in fact, but he is well because of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him; for he has already begun to cure him and no longer reckons to him a sickness unto death. In the same way Christ, our Samaritan, has brought His half-dead man into the inn to be cared for, and He has begun to heal him, having promised him the most complete cure unto eternal life, and He does not impute his sins, that is, his wicked desires, unto death, but in the meantime in the hope of the promised recovery He prohibits him from doing or omitting things by which his cure might be impeded and his sin, that is, his concupiscence, might be increased. Now, is he perfectly righteous? No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until He has completely cured him. And thus he is entirely healthy in hope, but in fact he is still a sinner; but he has the beginning of righteousness, so that he continues more and more always to seek it, yet he realizes that he is always unrighteous. But now if this sick man should like his sickness and refuse every cure for his disease, will he not die? Certainly, for thus it is with those who follow their lusts in this world. Or if a certain sick man does not see that he is sick but thinks he is well and thus rejects the doctor, this is the kind of operation that wants to be justified and made well by its own works.
Since this is the case, either I have never understood, or else the scholastic theologians8 have not spoken sufficiently clearly about sin and grace, for they have been under the delusion that original sin, like actual sin, is entirely removed, as if these were items that can be entirely removed in the twinkling of an eye, as shadows before a light, although the ancient fathers Augustine and Ambrose spoke entirely differently and in the way Scripture does. But those men speak in the manner of Aristotle in his Ethics, 9 when he bases sin and righteousness on works, both their performance or omission. But blessed Augustine says very clearly that “sin, or concupiscence, is forgiven in Baptism, not in the sense that it no longer exists, but in the sense that it is not imputed.”10 And blessed Ambrose says, “I always sin, therefore I always go to Communion.”11 And on the basis of this in my foolishness I could not understand in which way I should regard myself a sinner like other men and thus prefer myself to no one, even though I was contrite and made confession; for I then felt that all my sins had been taken away and entirely removed, even inwardly. For if because of sins that were past, which they say must always be remembered (and here they speak the truth, but not strongly enough), I still had to consider myself a sinner, then I felt that these past sins had not been forgiven. Yet God has promised that they are forgiven to those who confess them. Thus I was at war with myself, not knowing that it was a true forgiveness indeed, but that this is nevertheless not a taking away of sin except in hope, that is, that the taking away is to be done, and that by the gift of grace, which begins to take sin away, so that it is not imputed as sin. For this reason it is plain insanity to say that man of his own powers can love God above all things and can perform the works of the Law according to the substance of the act, even if not according to the intentions of Him who gave the commandment, because he is not in a state of grace.12 O fools, O pig-theologians (Sawtheologen)! By your line of reasoning grace was not necessary except because of some new demand above and beyond the Law. For if the Law can be fulfilled by our powers, as they say, then grace is not necessary for the fulfilling of the Law, but only for the fulfilling of some new exaction imposed by God above the Law. Who can endure these sacrilegious notions? When the apostle says that “the Law works wrath” (v. 15) and that the Law “was weakened by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), it certainly cannot be fulfilled without grace. They could have been made aware of their own foolishness and brought to shame and repentance even by their own experience. For willy-nilly they recognize the evil lusts in themselves. For this reason I say: “Hah! Get busy now, I beg you. Be men! Work with all your might, so that these lusts may no longer be in you. Prove that it is possible by nature to love God, as you say, ‘with all your strength’ (Luke 10:27) and without any grace. If you are without concupiscence, we will believe you. But if you live with and in these lusts, then you are no longer fulfilling the Law.” Does not the Law say, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17), but rather, “You shall love God” (Deut. 6:5)? But when a person desires and loves something else, can he really love God? But this concupiscence is always in us, and therefore the love of God is never in us, unless it is begun by grace, and until the concupiscence which still remains and which keeps us from “loving God with all our heart” (Luke 10:27) is healed and by mercy not imputed to us as sin, and until it is completely removed and the perfect love for God is given to the believers and those who persistently agitate for it to the end.
All of these monstrosities have come from the fact that they did not know what sin is nor forgiveness. For they reduced sin to some very minute activity of the soul, and the same was true of righteousness. For they said that since the will has this synteresis,13 “it is inclined,” albeit weakly, “toward the good.” And this minute motion toward God (which man can perform by nature) they imagine to be an act of loving God above all things! But take a good look at man, entirely filled with evil lusts (notwithstanding that minute motion). The Law commands him to be empty, so that he may be taken completely into God. Thus Isaiah in 41:23 laughs at them and says, “Do good or evil if you can!” This life, then, is a life of being healed from sin, it is not a life of sinlessness, with the cure completed and perfect health attained. The church is the inn and the infirmary for those who are sick and in need of being made well. But heaven is the palace of the healthy and the righteous. As blessed Peter says in his Second Epistle 3:13 that the Lord will build “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Righteousness does not yet dwell here, but it is preparing a dwelling place for itself here in the meantime by healing sin. All the saints have had this understanding of sin, as David prophesied in Ps. 32:5 ff. And thus they all have confessed that they were sinners, as is clear in the books of St. Augustine. Our theologians, however, have deflected the discussion of sin to the matter of good works only and have undertaken to teach only those things by which works might be safeguarded but not how through much agony men should humbly seek healing grace and confess themselves to be sinners. Thus of necessity they make men proud and cause them to think that they are already entirely righteous when they have performed certain outward works. And thus they are not at all concerned about declaring war on their evil lusts through unceasing prayer to the Lord. And the result is that there is now in the church a great deal of falling away after confession. For the people do not realize that they need to be justified but are confident that they have been justified and thus they are ruined through their own sense of security without any effort on the part of the devil. This is certainly a case of basing righteousness upon works. And although they implore the grace of God, they do not do so rightly, but only for the sake of forgiveness for an act of sin. But those who truly belong to Christ have the spirit of Christ and act rightly, even though they do not understand what we have just stated; for they act before they understand, indeed, they understand more from life than from what they have been taught.
There is still one more point which is raised in objection to what we have just said, namely, that the righteousness of God even without works is imputed to those who believe. We read in the stories of many of the saints that certain of their works or prayers were well regarded by God and commended to others for an example. And thus they were justified by works of this kind. I reply: A great argument, for it both sets forth a glaring error and makes clearer a useful understanding of what we have been saying up to this point. The error is committed by those who immediately want to imitate with their presumed powers all of those things which have been well regarded by God and thus want to be so regarded themselves, because they are doing the same things as the saints to whom works have been reckoned as righteous. This is merely seeking a righteousness of works and in no way an imitation of the saints but rather a perversion of their example. For those saints to whom these works were reckoned for righteousness and commended as an example surely did not do them in order that they might be so reckoned; indeed, they were entirely ignorant that they were reckoned righteous by God, but did what they could in their humble faith, always praying that their works might be pleasing to God according to His mercy. Thus after they had first been reckoned as righteous because of the humble prayer of faith, then also their works were so reckoned and approved. But you stupid perverter, you first begin with the works which have been reckoned, ignoring the inner groaning by which you were already reckoned as righteous, just as these saints were. You want to be reckoned as righteous only by your works, that is, you want first “regard for the offering” and then “for Abel,”14 which cannot be. And this insanity now rages everywhere in the pulpits of those who should be preaching the Word of God.
Exposition of the Psalm Verses
Here three distinct terms for sin are used in the Hebrew. In the translation of John Reuchlin15 the passage reads: “Blessed is he who is made free in regard to his offense, who is covered in regard to his sin. Blessed is the man, the Lord will not impute iniquity to him” (Ps. 32:1–2). I do not know the difference between these “sins.” The first, that is, crimen, which is interpreted in various ways, is called פֶּשַׁע in Hebrew. I would understand this as the work of sin. The second, peccatum, which is תֲמָאָה in Hebrew and is almost always translated by “sin,” I would understand as the root sin or the lust toward evil which is in us. The third, iniquitas, which is עָוֹן in Hebrew and is always translated by iniquitas, I would understand as hypocrisy, if it weren’t for the clash with the words “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:2). Here it seems to apply to the same thing that a person is iniquitous (iniquus) because of a turning away and a sinner (peccator) because of a turning toward; in the first case, away from the good, in the second, toward the evil; defiled in the first instance because of an omission and in the second because of a commission, if it is indeed iniquitous (iniquum) to place God below the creature, and evil (malum), or sinful (peccatum), to cling to the creature, where the good is not found which there has iniquitously been underrated.
Therefore he says in the first place, “blessed (that is, it goes well with him) is he who is made free,” that is, who through grace is made free from the burden of his offense, that is, of the sin which he has actually committed. But this is not enough, unless at the same time he “is covered in regard to his sin,” that is, his root evil is not imputed to him as sin. For it is covered when it is still there but not seen, not observed, and not reckoned. That he is freed, rather, that he is made free, means that he is freed not by his own powers, but by God, who acts while he is merely passive himself. For he does not say: “Blessed is he who frees himself by his own merits,” but, “he who is freed.” He is covered, I should add, through Christ who dwells in us, as Ruth in a figurative sense says to Boaz: “Spread your coat over your maidservant, for you are next of kin” (Ruth 3:9). “And she uncovered his feet and lay down” (Ruth 3:7), that is, the soul lays itself down at Christ’s humanity and is covered with His righteousness. Likewise, Ezek. 16:8: “I spread my garment over you and covered your nakedness.” And in Ps. 63:7: “In the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy.” Again in Ps. 45:9: “Daughters of kings are in Thy glory,” that is, in Thy splendor, when they are honored by Thee and Thou in them. And “in your comeliness and your beauty set out, etc.” (Ps. 45:8), that is, the evil work is put away and the residue of sin, that is, the tinder,16 is not imputed until it is healed. Then in the third place it follows that already an ungodly man is justified; for although he is a sinner, he is not ungodly. For that man is called ungodly who is not a worshiper of God but turns away from Him and is without fear or reverence for God. But a person who is justified and whose “sins are covered” is already turned toward God and is a godly man; for he worships God and seeks Him in hope and fear. And for this reason God regards him as a godly and righteous man. Thus it says in the same psalm (32:5): “Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.” What is here called guilt (impietas) is called sin (peccatum) above. For it is one and the same thing to say: “Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin” and “the Lord has not imputed sin.” Thus the meaning is: It is not sufficient that we think ourselves to be godly, for it belongs to the Lord to do the reckoning, and He does so only for those “whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sins are covered.” For to them their ungodliness will not be imputed, but rather their godliness. For inwardly there “is no deceit” (Ps. 32:2) in them, which of necessity is in those who do not attribute guilt to themselves, and whose sins have not been covered by God and whose iniquities have not been forgiven.
It is foolish and absurd to say: God has obligated us to possess grace and thus to the impossible.17 I excuse our most faithful God. He is innocent of this imposture. He has not done this. He has not obligated us to possess grace, but He has obligated us to fulfill the Law, in order that He might give this grace to those of us who have been humbled and who implore His grace. But these people make of grace a matter of indignation and something hateful. For what does it mean when we say that God has obligated us to possess grace and that He does not want to accept the Law as being fulfilled according to the substance of the act if it is not fulfilled also according to the intention of the Lawgiver—what else does this mean than to say: Look, we can fulfill the Law without grace? Is it not sufficient that He has burdened us with the Law, without now also demanding that we have grace as a new exaction? What pride! What ignorance of the Law! When God therefore offers grace to us wretched people because He sees that we cannot fulfill His law, so that because of this grace we may fulfill it, these people are still not humbled and do not yet realize that the Law cannot be fulfilled according to “the substance of the act” (as they themselves put it), unless they take “the substance of the act” to be some outward activity, which they can by no means accomplish, but they understand it also as an inner action. For they think that the substance of the act is an activity which is performed for the sake of God from the heart by an action of our will naturally motivated, all of which things contribute to the substance of the act. But the fools do not realize that the will, if it were permitted, would never do what the Law prescribes. For the will is hostile toward the good and prone toward evil. This they certainly experience in their own lives, and yet they speak so impiously and sacrilegiously. For as long as the will is hostile toward the Law, it is turned away from the Law and thus does not fulfill it. Therefore there is need for grace, which makes it willing and even glad to obey the Law.
Therefore, I was correct when I said that all our good is outside of us, and this good is Christ, as the apostle says (1 Cor. 1:30): “God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” And none of these things are in us except through faith and hope in Him. Hence all the praise of the church in the Song of Solomon belongs to Christ, who dwells in His church through faith, just as all the light of the earth does not belong to the earth but to the sun which sheds its light upon it. Thus in the Song of Solomon the church confesses that she is often naked18 and described as having no other desire than for her Bridegroom, saying (Song of Sol. 1:4): “Draw me after Thee, we will run to the odor of Thine ointments.” Always she seeks, always she desires, always she praises her Bridegroom. And thereby she shows that she herself is empty and poor in herself, and that only outside of herself is her fullness and righteousness. For if the confessions of the saints are to be understood as only of past sins and that in the present they show themselves pure, why then do they confess not only their past but also their present sins? Is it not that they know that there is sin in them but that for the sake of Christ it is covered and is not imputed to them, so that they may declare that all their good is outside of them, in Christ, who yet through faith is also in them? Thus in Ps. 45:1 the prophet says that his heart is uttering a good word, that is, a sweet and comforting word. What is this word? “Thou art the fairest of the sons of men” (v. 2), that is, Christ alone is beautiful, and all the sons of men are ugly. Therefore, “In Thy comeliness and Thy beauty set out, proceed triumphantly, and reign” (v. 4). We are His kingdom, but the beauty in us is not ours but His, and with it He covers our ugliness.
Hence many give themselves up to laziness and security because of trust in the well-known word which St. Augustine is supposed to have spoken: “A large part of righteousness is the will to be righteous.”19 And thus they equate this “wanting” with the most minute action which is produced but soon relapses and amounts to nothing, in which, however, they go their way snoring most smugly. Yet it is true that “wanting” is righteousness, not just a large part but all the righteousness which can be obtained in this life. But this “wanting” is not that of which we have been speaking but that which the apostle mentions later in the epistle (Rom. 7:18): “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” For this entire life is a time of willing to be righteous, but never achieving it, for this happens only in the future life. And thus “to will” is to show with all our powers, our zeal, our prayers, our works, and our emotions that we desire righteousness but do not yet have it perfectly. Concerning these things, see how beautifully and richly blessed Augustine has written in many of his books, especially in his second book Against Julian, where he cites St. Ambrose, Hilary, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Basil, Nazianzen, Irenaeus, Reticius, and Olympius.20 Therefore the mother of hypocrites and the cause of hypocrisy is this very smugness. For God leaves us in this sin, in the tinder,21 in our sinful lusts, in order that He may keep us in His fear22 and humility so that we may always flee to His grace, always in fear of sinning, that is, always praying that He will not impute our sin to us nor let sin have dominion over us. Indeed we sin even by not being afraid of sin. For this evil in us is itself sin, because on account of it we do not succeed in loving God above all things. But it becomes a venial sin 23 and is not imputed to us only when we lament it and ask God not to condemn us on account of it or not to impute it to us, anxiously imploring His mercy and praying that through His grace He would take it from us. And thus by this very act we confess that we are sinners and with tears, penitence, mourning, and weeping we consider ourselves to be sinners. For when this fear and anxiety cease, then very soon smugness takes hold of us, and as soon as this has happened, God’s imputation of sin returns, for God has determined that He will impute sin to no one who mourns and fears his sins and anxiously seeks His mercy. By this most merciful counsel our most blessed God compels us to grow weary of this life and to hope for the future life, to a desire for His grace, to a hatred of sin, to repentance, etc.
For this reason nothing in the Holy Scriptures is so often described as the cause of pride and laid at the door of hypocrites and those who think themselves holy as this smugness, by which they cast aside the fear of God. Prov. 1:29–30 says: “Because they have hated instruction and did not choose the fear of the Lord, and would have none of My counsel, etc.”; Ps. 36:1: “There is no fear of God before their eyes”; and Hos. 10:3: “We fear not the Lord.” This misery follows from the fact that they do not seek to purge out that inner sin but recognize only the sin in deed, word, and thought, and when these have been purged by confession they go their way, smug and in no way anxious to cleanse also this inner sin through crying to God that it might not be imputed to them. Thus we read in Rev. 3:17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered … not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, naked, and poor.” And the apostle says (1 Cor. 5:7), “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” But who of them understands that these two things exist at the same time, that they are unleavened and yet the old leaven must be purged away? This can take place because the one is there in fact but the other because of the humility of faith in fear, in hope and in the nonimputation of God. They have the old leaven, but they grieve because of it and implore grace, and thereby they are unleavened by God’s imputation; for He does not impute the old leaven to them but lets it remain to be purged. Hence he who looks only at his actual sin and is concerned only that it be purged, quickly becomes presumptuous and smug, because through the Sacrament and confession he knows that he is purged, and thus he goes his way without any fear and is no longer aware of any sin in him.
Again, others are extremely fainthearted. They sin in a different way, for they are in a hurry to purge out the old leaven and gain perfect health. They would like to root out entirely their internal sin, but because they cannot do it but fall from time to time, they then become sad and downhearted and finally give up hope. And since grace does not cooperate with their excessive zeal and their impetuous haste, they become anxious to accomplish absolute purity by their good works, and they fall most miserably. These people, to be sure, do not have smugness, but yet they are striving toward that which the other group has already achieved. Thus they are both seeking security and are anxious to escape the fear of God, the former in fact, the latter in desire, and thus neither of them fears God. The latter are too afraid, indeed, they are foolishly afraid, for they think that they would please God only if they were clean; but then they think that they inevitably displease Him if they are not cleansed, unaware of the mercy of God which they should have been imploring, so that He would not impute to them the fact that they are not clean. And thus they, too, lean dangerously on their own powers.
Thus those at the right, having given up their fear of God, sin through their smugness, and those at the left, having turned from the grace of God, sin through their hopelessness, not understanding that this inner sin cannot be taken away in this life—which, however, is what they want. The former do not know that it is imputed precisely to those who do not fear. For both classes of people are ignorant of this sin and do not pay it proper attention, but, as I have said, they believe that only actual sin needs to be purged in order that they may be entirely pure. But since this is not the case, they think that they are lost. But the others, since they think themselves to be pure, believe that they are saved, although it is impossible to be free of all sin as long as that original root sin remains. Therefore the royal road24 and the way of peace in the Spirit is to know sin and to hate it and thus to walk in the fear of God, so that He does not impute it to us and permit it to rule over us; and at the same time to pray for His mercy, that He might free us from it and not impute it to us. Fear excludes the way on the right, mercy the way on the left; the former takes away smugness, the latter hopelessness; the former removes self-satisfaction, the latter despair of God. Thus in order finally to conclude our discussion of these psalm verses, let us consider again these three terms of which we have spoken25 —פֶּשַׁע-, which means offenses, crimes, or sins of commission, violations, and transgressions; תֲמָאָה, which indicates the tinder of sin, root sin, concupiscence, the sinful disease of our nature; and עָוֹן, which describes unrighteousness, that is, the absense of righteousness, or the fact that a person is not righteous before God, even if he does many good and righteous acts. This unrighteousness is imputed to us because of our transgressions or sin. Therefore unrighteousness has to do with God’s imputation, just as also righteousness does, and it is a sin of omission and a failure of worship and piety toward God. Concerning this the apostle says in Rom. 3:10, “None is righteous,” that is, he has unrighteousness, and to have this is to have nothing, or rather, that he is not regarded by God as a righteous man, even though he does good works, because works do not establish this righteousness, just as they do not take away unrighteousness. There is a fourth word in the Hebrew, רֶשַׁע, which means ungodliness. This is the vice of pride, the denial of the truthfulness and righteousness of God, the establishment of one’s own righteousness and the defense of one’s own wisdom, which renders men faithless, heretical, schismatic, full of superstition, individualistic or particularistic.26 Of which the Ps. 80:13 says, “A singular wild beast has devoured it.”27
Therefore, the meaning of the psalm is: Blessed is the man (for in Hebrew the singular is used) whose offense, פֶּשַׁע, is lifted (that is, whose crimes and evil deeds, actual sins, wicked acts, are remitted, which have been caused by the tinder of sin) and whose sins are covered; according to the Hebrew, who, or whose sin, is covered, that is, the very tinder of sin itself, through the nonimputation of God because of28 the humility and the cry of faith for it. Thus the man to whom these two evils are forgiven, behold, he is the man whom God regards as righteous. Hence it follows, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity” (Ps. 32:2). What our text29 calls “iniquity” more accurately ought to be understood as “unrighteousness” to be in agreement with the apostle’s intention. For by the use of this word he is trying to prove that righteousness is given through imputation without works, and that this takes place through the nonimputation of unrighteousness. It is the same thing, whether we say, “to whom God imputes righteousness,” or, “to whom the Lord does not impute sin,” that is, unrighteousness. But He will not refrain from imputing this unrighteousness to anyone, no matter how well he performs works, unless his sin has first been covered (that is, the root sin, original sin, natural sin, which is covered through penitence, Baptism, prayer, and the fear of God) and his iniquities have been forgiven, that is, his crimes, or his evil deeds. Thus in this psalm more than in others there is troublesome confusion of these terms. The verse ought to read as follows: “Blessed are they whose crimes are forgiven and whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom God does not impute unrighteousness.” And a little later when we read: because “I acknowledged my sin to Thee” (v. 5), where we have the word “fault” (delictum), it is the same word which our version30 translated with the term “sin” before. “And I did not hide my unrighteousness” (v. 5). This is correctly and very well translated, for it is the same word which our translator previously translated by “sin” in the phrase “the Lord has not imputed sin” (v. 2), with a poor translation of “sin” in the place of “unrighteousness.” Then in the words: “I said, I will confess against myself my crimes (scelera) to the Lord” (v. 5), where we wrongly have the expression “my unrighteousness” (iniustitia), because above in the first verse he translated with the plural “iniquities” (iniquitates), and now with the singular “unrighteousness” (iniustitia). “And Thou hast forgiven the wickedness (impietas) of my sin” (v. 5), that is, the unrighteousness of my sin. Here also he changes the word, which in the second31 verse he translated as “sin” (peccatum) and in the fifth verse as “unrighteousness” (iniustitia), and only in the latter place correctly, as I have said. For the meaning is: “Thou hast not imputed my unrighteousness to me which is in me because of the deep root sin which I possess.” “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee, etc.” (v. 6), that is, for the unrighteousness of his sin. “Because all will confess that they really are unrighteous before Thee because of this sin. Therefore Thou wilt forgive and not impute to them their unrighteousness, covering their sin.”
And then, “Many are the pangs of the sinner” (v. 10). Here he should have used the word “ungodly” (impii), that is, the man who justifies himself and despises the righteousness of God by establishing his own unrighteousness as a righteousness before God. This is ungodliness and a double sin. These distinctions are very faithfully observed in the Hebrew, but in the translation32 they are all plainly confused. Thus in Ps. 51:1 “according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my iniquity,” that is, “offense” (crimen). Again, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” in place of “unrighteousness” (iniustitia), “and cleanse me from my sin!” (v. 2). “For I know my iniquity” (iniquitas), in place of “my offenses” (scelera) or “crimes” (crimina), “and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3). “Against Thee only have I sinned, etc.” (v. 4). “Behold I was brought forth in iniquities (iniquitas), ” in place of “in unrighteousness (iniustitia), ” and “in sin did my mother conceive me,” that is, in the tinder of sin (v. 5). “Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities (iniquitas), ” in place of “my unrighteousnesses (iniustitia)” (v. 9).
Likewise, “I will teach the unjust (iniquos), ” in place of “offenders” (sceleratos), “Thy ways, and the wicked (impii), ” in place of “sinners” (peccatores), “shall be converted to Thee” (v. 13).
This verse speaks most explicitly of original sin, according to the Hebrew text: “Behold, I was conceived in iniquities,” that is, in unrighteousness (iniustitia), “and in sin did my mother bear me” (Ps. 51:5). For the meaning is that this unrighteousness and sin do not refer to the mother who conceives and bears but to the child who is conceived and brought forth. It is as if he were saying: “Behold when I was conceived, I was in a state of unrighteousness before Thee; I was not righteous because through Adam I had lost this righteousness and thus was conceived without it. For Thou imputest unrighteousness to all those who are conceived because of the sin which is poured out by their parents, even when they do not sin.” And “in sin,” that is, with the tinder of sin, with sinful lust, “did my mother bear me.” Now a mother does not sin by the act of bearing a child, but the son who is born sins, that is, he is a sinner. Surely the psalmist is confessing not someone else’s sins but his own, not only in this verse but also in the preceding verses, where he always uses such terms as “my” and “mine.” But the reason why in this verse he does not speak of “my” or “mine” is that the sin in which he says that he has been conceived is the common possession of all. And the sin which belongs to all, he asserts, has now become his, too. Therefore he introduces the statement by saying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, etc.” (v. 2). And another reason is that this sin is his own and not his own. Therefore he did not say “in my iniquities” but “in iniquities,” as if to say that this iniquity exists whether I perform it or even know about it. I am conceived in it, but I did not do it. It began to rule in me before I began to live. It is simultaneous with me. For if this were only the sin of my parents who conceived me, then surely I would not have been conceived in it, for they would have sinned even before I was conceived. Therefore this iniquity and sin existed and they were not mine; I was conceived in them without my consent. But now they have become mine. For now I understand that I do evil and disobey the Law. The Law commands, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17). And if I do not observe the Law, I am now sinning, and behold, I covet. Therefore the sin is now my own, that is, by my will it has been approved and accepted by my consent, because without grace I have been unable to overcome it in myself; therefore it has overcome me, and I am, because of that same tinder and evil lust, through my work also an actual sinner and not merely under original sin. Therefore I have said, “For I know my transgression, etc.” (Ps. 51:3).
Scripture uses the terms “righteousness” and “unrighteousness” very differently from the philosophers and lawyers. This is obvious, because they consider these things as a quality of the soul.33 But the “righteousness” of Scripture depends upon the imputation of God more than on the essence of a thing itself. For he does not have righteousness who only has a quality, indeed, he is altogether a sinner and an unrighteous man; but he alone has righteousness whom God mercifully regards as righteous because of his confession of his own unrighteousness and because of his prayer for the righteousness of God and whom God wills to be considered righteous before Him. Therefore we are all born in iniquity, that is, in unrighteousness, and we die in it, and we are righteous only by the imputation of a merciful God through faith in His Word.
Therefore, let us collect the pertinent statements of Scripture which assert that we are all in our sins.
First, Moses says in Gen. 8:21: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
Second, he also says in Ex. 34:7: “Lord God, who takest away iniquity and wickedness and sin, and no man of himself is innocent before Thee,” as if to say, from the fact that “Thou art the only one who takes away sins” it follows that “no one is righteous in Thy sight,” etc. (Rom. 3:20).
Third, Solomon says in 1 Kings 8:46 and 2 Chron. 6:36: “For there is no man who does not sin.”
Fourth, he also says in Eccl. 7:20: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
Fifth, Job, who speaks more fully than the others, says in Job 7:20–21: “I have sinned.… Why dost Thou not take away my iniquity”; and later in 9:2: “Truly I know that it is so; for no man will be justified before God,” and in 9:15: “Though I am innocent, I cannot answer Him; I must appeal for mercy to my judge.” He speaks the same way throughout almost all of the book, although in 27:6 he brings in his own righteousness by saying: “My heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” But even the Lord Himself in chapter 1 commended him before Satan.
Sixth, Ps. 32:6: “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to Thee.” And Ps. 143:2: “No man living is righteous before Thee.” Likewise Ps. 130:8: “And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” And Ps. 72:14: “From oppressions and violence He redeems their life.” And there are many similar passages.
Seventh, Is. 64:6: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like the rag of a menstruous woman.”
Eighth (Jer. 30:11)34: “I will chasten you in just measure, that you may not seem to yourself innocent.”
From the New Testament:
Ninth, the apostle says (1 Tim. 1:15): “Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Again, he says in Rom. 7:19: “The evil I do not want is what I do, etc.” Again (Phil. 3:13): “I do not consider that I have made it my own.”
Tenth, James 3:2: “We all make many mistakes.”
Eleventh, 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, etc.” However, farther on he says (1 John 5:18), “Anyone born of God does not sin, etc.”
Twelfth, Rev. 22:11: “Let the righteous still do right.”
Hence, blessed Augustine says in his 29th Epistle, to blessed Jerome35: “Love is the power by which a person loves what he ought to love. In some people this is stronger and in others weaker, and in still others there is none at all; but it is never in its fullest degree, so that it could not be further increased, in any man as long as he lives. But as long as it can be increased, what is less than it ought to be comes from sin. Because of this defect ‘there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins’ (cf. 1 Kings 8:46). And because of this defect ‘no man living is righteous before God’ (Ps. 143:2). Because of this defect, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Also because of this defect, no matter how much we progress, we are forced to say: ‘Forgive us our debts’ (Matt. 6:12), even though in Baptism all our sins of word, deed, and thought have been forgiven.” So far Augustine. But the same relation as for Baptism, indeed, a much stronger one, is in force for penitence and indulgences.
From all of this it is obvious that there is no sin which is venial according to its substance and its nature, but also no merit. For even the good works which are done while the tinder of sin and sensuality are fighting against them are not of such intensity and purity as the Law requires, since they are not done with all of our strength, but only with the spiritual powers which struggle against the powers of the flesh. Thus we sin even when we do good, unless God through Christ covers this imperfection and does not impute it to us. Thus it becomes a venial sin36 through the mercy of God, who does not impute it for the sake of faith and the plea in behalf of this imperfection for the sake of Christ. Therefore, he who thinks that he ought to be regarded as righteous because of his works is very foolish, since if they were offered as a sacrifice to the judgment of God, they still would be found to be sins. As Ps. 36:2 says, “For he has acted deceitfully in His sight, so that his iniquity is found to be for wrath,” that is, before God and within his own spirit there was deceit and not the truth of righteousness, even though before men he makes a display of righteousness in his works. For he could not be righteous within himself without the mercy of God, since he is corrupt because of the tinder of sin. Therefore iniquity will be found in his righteousness, that is, even his good works will be unrighteous and sinful. This iniquity will not be found in believers and those who cry to Him, because Christ has brought them aid from the fullness of his purity and has hidden this imperfection of theirs. For they seek also this and hope for it from Him, but the others do not seek it but presumptuously think they have it.
פֶּשַׁע, “offenses” (scelera), “iniquities” (iniquitates), or “crimes” (crimina), etc., has to do with the acts which are in themselves evil works and sins.
תֲמָאָה, “sin” (peccatum), however, indicates the tinder of sin (fomes) which inclines toward these evil deeds and is the cause of them. Thus it is the tree of those fruits.
עָוֹן, “iniquity” (iniquitas) or “unrighteousness” (iniustitia), those good works which are done in the face of the sin that contends against us, especially if they are set up as righteousness. But they are not good works through the efforts of the runner, but because of the indulgence of our merciful God. Thus in themselves they are iniquities and unrighteousnesses, that is, they are not righteous acts and do not suffice as equal to what is demanded.
רֶשַׁע, “ungodliness” (impietas). This is the very constituting principle of this kind of unrighteousness. It is a denial of sin, so that people do not confess sin and declare that good works are righteousness and abominate only offenses and crimes. Thus it comes about that they are righteous in the eyes of men and unrighteous before God.
You say, “Then why is there so much preaching about the merits of the saints?” I reply, “Because these are not the merits of the saints but the merits of Christ in them, for whose sake God accepts their works, which otherwise He would not accept. Hence the saints themselves never know that they perform and possess meritorious works, but they do all those things only that they might find mercy and escape judgment, praying for forgiveness with loud groaning rather than presumptuously looking for the crown. “God is wonderful in His saints” (Ps. 68:35). He hides them so that although they are saints, yet they see themselves only as common men. Thus through the hope of mercy “their life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Because of their fear of judgment, their death and their sin are manifest with them, before them, and in their consciences. They always judge themselves in fear, because they know that of themselves they cannot be righteous before God. And thus they fear the judgment of God upon all their works, as Job says (Job 9:28): “I became afraid of all my works, for I know that Thou wilt not hold me innocent.” And so that they may nevertheless not despair, they call upon God’s mercy in Christ, and thus they are heard. This is the wisdom which is hidden in a mystery (cf. 1 Cor. 2:7), and it is the truth. For just as God and His counsel are unknown to us, so also is our own righteousness which completely depends upon Him and His counsel. Thus Ps. 51:6 reads: “For behold, Thou hast delighted in truth” (that is, true righteousness in contrast to figurative and legalistic righteousness, which pictures it as a sign but not as the actual thing). But how do I know this? “The uncertain and hidden things of Thy wisdom Thou hast made manifest to me” (Ps. 51:6), that is, I know this because this kind of inner righteousness alone is pleasing to Thee, this Thou lovest, because it is truth and fullness. I know, I say, because Thou hast given me a wisdom which is hidden, in order that I might know. Therefore, because of the fact that we cannot fulfill the law of God and thus are always deservedly unrighteous, nothing remains to us except that we live in perpetual fear of judgment and always pray for the remission of our unrighteousness, or rather, for the nonimputation of it. For it is never remitted entirely, but it remains and needs nonimputation. Thus in Ps. 2:11–12, “Serve the Lord” (which cannot be done except with happiness and joy, but because this cannot be done perfectly, then) “with fear,” serve Him gladly in fear and “rejoice in Him” (because of His mercy) “with trembling” because of your sin which deserves judgment.
13. For not through the Law. Again he proves that righteousness does not come from the Law but from faith, according to the fruit and merit of both. For the Law and faith deserve opposite things. That is, the Law merits wrath and the loss of the promise, but faith deserves grace and the fulfillment of the promise, as if to say, if you do not believe the Scripture and its example, at least believe your own experience. For through the Law you have deserved wrath and desolation, but through faith grace and the possession of the whole world, as is clear in the case of the apostles, who reign with Christ in all the world. Thus also the promise was not given to Abraham through the Law but through faith, and the same will be the case with you who are his seed.
15. For the Law brings wrath. It applies to the Law externally that it works wrath, that is, while it remains standing and is not fulfilled (as it must of necessity stand when faith is absent), those men deserve wrath to whom the Law has been given. Blessed Augustine in chapter 19 of On the Spirit and the Letter says, “For it was not its own fault that the Law was not fulfilled but the fault of the judgment of the flesh. This fault had to be pointed out by the Law and healed by grace.”37 Thus the Law works wrath, that is, when it is not fulfilled, it shows the wrath of God to those who have failed to provide for its fulfillment. Thus the Law is not evil, but they are evil to whom it was given and to whom it works wrath, but to the others (that is, the believers) it works salvation; actually it is not the Law that works this but grace. Therefore, if the promise were through the Law, since it works wrath, it would follow that the promise is not a promise, but rather a threat. And thus the promise would be abolished and through this also faith.
14. For if they who are of the seed, 38 etc. The apostle also show that faith is made void in another way than through the abolition of the promise because of the wrath of the Law, namely, through the seed of the flesh. For if this is sufficient to make a man righteous and worthy of receiving the promise, that he is a son of the flesh, then faith is not necessary. Then why was Abraham justified by faith and regarded as worthy of the promise? Why was he not justified because of his fleshly descent? Then faith is in vain, and everything said about it in Scripture is vain. For those who could be justified by their flesh and through the Law do not need faith, as they themselves actually think. But the contrary is the case, because they are damned through their flesh and through the Law.
13. For not through the Law, that is, through the righteousness and works of the Law. The apostle does not use the term “the righteousness of the Law” but simply the term “the Law” in an absolute sense, because it actually is not righteousness. Yet that he understands “righteousness” by the use of the term “the Law” is clear from the contrasting expression but through the righteousness of faith, since it would have sufficed here if he had said: “but through faith.” But since the righteousness of the Law is nothing, he is correct in using the expression “the Law” all by itself. This text confirms the statement made earlier (4:12), where he said that Abraham possessed the righteousness of faith even in uncircumcision, and that the Gentiles follow him in this faith, as sons follow their father, just as the promise of the future had been made to him. And this promise was surely given to him because of this same faith of his and not through the Law. And because he has here tied together the two elements of Law and seed, he then shows that neither of them suffices to obtain the promise. Hence these two statements:
14. Faith is null, and the promise is void can be understood both conjunctively and separately. Conjunctively they refer to each other and imply each other, as stated in the gloss,39 so that the meaning is: not through the Law, nor through physical descent, etc.; because if it were through seed (note below) and through the Law, etc., then faith and the promise would cease. But the fact that faith would cease through the seed suggests and proves that the promise would cease through the Law, because “the Law works wrath” (v. 15). But in this way the text is corrupted and confused. Thus if put in the proper order, the meaning would be as follows: The promise to Abraham and to his seed that they should be the heirs of the world was not through the Law nor through his seed, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they are heirs through the Law and because of their physical relationship, then faith is done away and the promise annulled. “For the Law works wrath” (4:15). But because it is the same thing to be of the seed and to have the Law, and because it is the same people who are involved, therefore he sometimes uses one expression and sometimes the other.
If we understand these expressions separately, so that the first is related to what precedes and the second to what follows in the text, then the meaning is: If seed and physical generation were enough to justify and to make people worthy of the inheritance, it follows that faith is not necessary for justification and for worthiness of that kind, since he who is righteous and worthy needs neither justification nor worthiness. But now this is so false that the very opposite is the case, for the spiritual generation which comes from faith makes us righteous and worthy of the promise, and this is sufficient without the other. But physical generation does not profit at all, indeed it is null and void, for those who are of faith are the heirs, and those who are of the seed are the disinherited, as we read in Ps. 127:2–3: “When He gives sleep to His beloved, lo, sons are an heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward”; and in John 1:13: “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”; again, John 3:5, 7: “You must be born again of water and the Spirit”; and in Ps. 22:30: “A seed that serves Him shall be declared to the Lord, etc.”; and Ps. 45:16, “Instead of your fathers, sons are born to you, etc.” When this statement is thus proved (that those who are of the seed are not the heirs, but rather that the physical generation is annulled in order that the generation from faith might be established in opposition to those people who seek to annul faith and establish the seed), it follows that the promise would also be abolished by the Law in exactly the same way that faith is abolished by the physical descent. For “the Law works wrath, etc.,” as is evident from the text itself, for where there is no law (v. 15), as if to say that transgression works wrath, but it would not work it if there were no law.
This statement should be understood as giving the occasion. For actually it is the transgression of the Law which works wrath and makes the promise of no effect. But this would not be the case if there were no law. For the Law, as long as it is without faith which fulfills it, makes all people sinners and establishes the fact that they are guilty and thus unworthy of the promise, indeed worthy of wrath and desolation, and in consequence it turns the promise into a threat. At any rate, it is the occasion for all of these things to happen to man and to befall him, that is, that one recognizes that they happen and befall him, as the apostle has said above (3:20), “through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” For he who has the Law without faith and grace will assuredly see that he is a sinner and worthy of wrath and that therefore he is deprived of the promise.
17. The father of many nations. The expression “in the presence of God, etc.,” is not in the Hebrew text, to be sure, but it is elicited from the text, however, if one correctly considers the fact that Abraham is described as the father of many nations. Now I ask, was he their father according to the flesh or according to the spirit? He cannot be so according to the flesh, because there were then and there were going to be nations always who were in no way descended from him. And yet he was given the promise that he would be their father. But if you say that all the nations are going to be destroyed so that only the sons who are descended from him will reign throughout the world, then he will be the father of only one and not many nations. On the other hand, if all the nations will be reduced to slavery and live in servitude, then he will no longer be their father nor these nations his sons, for they will be slaves and he the lord of the nations; in this case fatherhood is eliminated, and oppression and violence are indicated. Yet the Jews blandly promise themselves this rule and oppression and await it in foolish hope. Therefore we must conclude that the promise was that he would be made the father of the nations “in the presence of God” and in God’s sight and in spirit. But again if someone should say that he was going to be the father only in office and name, as Naaman the Syrian was called father by his servants40 and as the princes of the people are called the fathers of their country, this is to reduce the glory of the promise too much, for that is only a temporal and vicarious paternity which can apply to many men and thus not only to Abraham, etc. Nor would it be perpetual, just as these official fathers are fathers only for the time that they are in office. But if this impudence still does not cease and the objector says that Abraham was going to be a father in the same way that he is and was the father of nations through Keturah, his second wife, then the answer is the same as to the first objection, namely, that most nations were different from them and indeed were much more numerous than they were. Thus he would still not be the father of “many” nations on account of these nations, but rather “the father of a few nations.” But not even the Jews themselves understand this promise and await its fulfillment with respect only to these nations. Thus its possession is fulfilled in Christ, who is King and Lord of the nations, which He has obtained by a better victory than the Jews once achieved over the Canaanites. For He kills His enemies spiritually with the sword of the Word by making the ungodly godly and thus ruling over them even in their own land and possession.
Who gives life to the dead. Although this is true historically, yet it should be understood more as a spiritual confirmation of what has just been said; it is as if he were saying: “The nations will be your children, even though they are not so yet and are a long way from becoming your children, yet the Lord has the power to raise them up and call them to become and be your children.” As John the Baptist says in Luke 3:8, “Do not begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” And thus there is a strengthening of Abraham’s faith and a confirmation of God’s promise in the fact that Abraham can become the father of many nations, although not by his own powers but by the power of God, etc.
18. Against hope. In the first place, “hope” signifies a thing which is naturally hoped for, but this hope was not of this kind. In the second place, however, it also signifies something which is supernaturally hoped for. In both instances “hope” must be taken in the sense of a thing to be hoped for and not in the sense of the power of hoping. And this beautifully suggests the difference between the hope of people generally and the hope of Christians. For the hope of people in general is not contrary to hope but according to hope, that is, what can reasonably be expected to happen. For men do not hope where only that which is contrary to their hopes appears, but rather when that appears which is very similar to their hopes or that which has a definite potentiality to occur. Hence this faith is more a negative than a positive thing, that is, they presume that when certain things have begun, then that which was hoped for will come to pass. And then, finally, they hope that there will be no impediment to prevent what they have hoped for. Thus in regard to what is positively hoped for, this hope wants to be certain and to know, but in regard to the negative it is compelled to remain uncertain. By contrast, the hope of Christians is certain about the negative aspects. For it knows that the thing hoped for must come to pass and will not be hindered, as long as it is hoped for. For no one can hinder God. But with respect to the positive side, this faith is very unsure, since it has nothing certain in which it can trust, for all things are too hidden, and everything appears contrary. Thus this hope is more positive than negative. The apostle here speaks of both aspects of hope, first, positively, when he says that Abraham believed and did not consider his own body (v. 19), and second, in the negative sense, that no distrust made him waver, … fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised (20–21). The positive aspects militate outwardly against faith and hope, because they are visible, but the negative aspects militate inwardly, because they are essentially the softness and inconstancy of the heart toward believing, while the affirmative aspects are the things which object to or are contrary to the things which should be believed.
20. He gave glory to God. From this it follows that just as one glorifies God by believing, so through contrary unbelief he dishonors Him, 1 John 5:10, “He who does not believe in His Son, makes God a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to His Son.” Therefore he who believes God makes God truthful and himself a liar. For he discredits his own feelings as false in order that he might trust in the Word of God as true, which, however, is absolutely contrary to his own feelings, as the apostle says above in chapter 3:4: “That Thou mayest be justified in Thy words, etc.” “Let God be truthful, though every man be false,” that is, let him cease to believe in himself and believe in God. And thus let him become a liar, but God truthful. Thus blessed Augustine says that God is worshiped by faith, hope, and love.41 And it is said in a common dictum that God is directly offended by three sins, namely, unbelief, despair, and hatred.
25. Who was delivered up. The death of Christ is the death of sin, and His resurrection is the life of righteousness, because through His death He has made satisfaction for sin, and through His resurrection He has brought us righteousness. And thus His death not only signifies but actually effects the remission of sin as a most sufficient satisfaction. And His resurrection is not only a sign or a sacrament42 of our righteousness, but it also produces it in us, if we believe it, and it is also the cause of it. Of these matters we shall speak in greater detail later. This whole concept the scholastic theologians call one exchange: the expulsion of sin and the infusion of grace.43