Volume Twelve — Article 6 part 1 Volume 12 | Home

Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans


This Epistle is in truth the chief part of the New Testament and the purest Gospel. It would be quite proper for a Christian, not only to know it by heart word for word, but also to study it daily, for it is the soul's daily bread. It can never be read or meditated too much and too well. The more thoroughly it is treated, the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.

Accordingly, I, too, shall offer my service and with the ability God has granted me prepare an introduction to it by this preface in order that it may be better understood by everybody. For heretofore it has been miserably darkened by glosses and all sorts of twaddle, while in itself it is a shining light, quite sufficient to illumine the whole Scripture.

PART I: Explanation of Terms Used in This Epistle

In the first place, we must acquaint ourselves with matters of language and understand what Paul means by these words: law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, Spirit, and similar terms; otherwise we shall derive no benefit from reading this epistle.

(a) Law

As regards the term "law" in this epistle, you must not understand it after the fashion of men, as denoting a doctrine that shows us what works we must, and what works we must not, do. That is the meaning of human laws, with which we comply when we do the works commanded, though our heart may have no share in them. God frames His verdict in accordance with the condition of our inmost heart. His law, accordingly, makes demands upon our inmost heart, and is not satisfied with mere works, but brands as hypocrisy and lies all works in which our inmost heart has no share. For this reason all men are called liars, Psalm 116:11, because no one of them keeps, nor can keep, the Law of God from his inmost heart; everyone discovers in himself aversion to what is good and a desire for what is evil. Now, where there is no unconstrained desire for what is good, the inmost heart is not attached to the Law of God. In such a case there is surely also sin and merited wrath of God, although to a superficial observer there may appear many good works and an upright life.

Hence Paul concludes, chapter 2:12, 13, that the Jews are all sinners, and says that only the doers of the Law are justified in the sight of God. He means to say that no one is a doer of the Law by works. This is the way he speaks to them, v. 22: "Thou sayest a man should not commit adultery, and thou committest adultery;" likewise V. 1: "Wherein thou judgest another thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things." As though he were to say: In public you are leading a good life in the works of the Law, and you are passing judgment on those who are not leading such a life. You know how to teach everybody; you behold the mote that is in your brother's eye, but do not consider the beam that is in your own eye. Matt. 7:3.


The Law Demands Willing Obedience

For although you keep the Law outwardly by your works, from fear of punishment or love of reward, still you do everything without a free desire and love of the Law, with loathing and under restraint. You would rather do otherwise if there were no Law. It follows, then, that in your inmost heart you are an enemy of the Law. Your teaching others not to steal — what does it amount to when at heart you are a thief yourself, and would gladly be one publicly if you dared? In the long run, even the manifest work (against the Law) is not omitted by these hypocrites. Thus you are teaching others, but not yourself; nor do you know what you are teaching. You have never yet correctly understood the Law. In fact, in addition to this the Law increases sin, as he says, chap. 5:20, because man's enmity against the Law becomes greater in proportion as the Law makes demands upon him, none of which he can fulfil.

The Law is Spiritual

Therefore he says, chap. 7:14: "The Law is spiritual." What does that mean? If the Law were an affair for the body its demands could be met by works. But since it is spiritual, no one can satisfy its demands except by doing all that he does from the inmost heart. But such a heart is bestowed by no one except the Spirit of God; He makes men to agree with the Law, causing them to conceive a love of the Law from the heart and henceforth to do all, not from fear or constraint, but from a willing heart In that way the Law is spiritual: it wants to be loved and fulfilled from a spiritual heart and requires such a spirit. If He is not in the heart, there abide in the heart sin, loathing, and enmity against the Law, which in itself is good, just, and holy.

You must become used, then, to this mode of speech, viz., that "doing the things contained in the Law" is quite another thing than "fulfilling the Law." The things contained in the Law are all those things which man does, or is able to do, in relation to the Law of his free will and by his natural powers. However, while a person is engaged in such works there remains in his heart a loathing of the Law and a constraint; for this reason all these works are a sheer waste and useless. That is what Paul means when he says, chap. 3:20: "By the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight." From this you see that the wranglers at the universities and the sophists are false guides when they teach men to prepare themselves for grace by works. How can a person prepare himself for what is good by works when he does no work without loathing and a dislike in his heart? How can God be pleased with a work that proceeds from such an unwilling and rebellious heart?

Fulfillment Possible Only Through Faith

However, fulfilling the Law means to do its works with delight and from love, and to lead a godly and good life freely, without the Law's constraint, just as if there were no Law and no punishment. Such a delight of unconstrained love, however, is instilled in the heart by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says, chap. 5:5: But, as he says in his introductory remarks, the Spirit is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ. Hence there is no faith except by the Word of God, or the Gospel, which proclaims Christ, namely, that He is the Son of God and man, that He died and rose again for our sakes, as he states, chap. 3:25;4:25; 10:9.

That is the reason why faith alone justifies and fulfils the Law, for it fetches the Spirit from Christ's merit. The Spirit, however, creates a willing and unconstrained heart, such as the Law requires; and then good works spring directly from faith. That is what he (the apostle) means in chap. 3:31, after he has rejected the works of the Law in terms that might lead one to think he meant to make void the Law through faith. "Nay," he says, "we establish the Law through faith," that is, we fulfil it by faith.

(b) Sin

As regards "sin," by this term Scripture denominates not only the external work of the body, but every movement and incitement to some external work that takes place in the inmost heart and all its powers. The term "commit," accordingly, denotes that a person falls completely and rushes into sin. For no external sinful work is done except a person rushes into it with his whole body and soul. Scripture takes particular notice of the heart and of the root and main source of all sins, which is unbelief in the inmost heart. Accordingly, even as faith alone justifies and obtains the Spirit and willingness for good external works, so unbelief alone sins and rouses the flesh and the desire for evil external works, as happened to Adam and Eve in paradise. Gen. 3:6.

For this reason, Christ calls only unbelief sin, when He says, John 16:8, 9: "The Spirit will reprove the world of sin because they believe not on me." Hence, before good or evil works are done (which are good or evil fruits), there must first be in the heart faith or unbelief, the latter being the root, sap, and main strength of every sin. For this reason it is called in Scripture the serpent's head and the head of the old dragon, which, in accordance with the promise made to Adam, must be bruised by Christ, the woman's Seed. Gen. 3:15.

(c) Grace

The difference between "grace" and "gift" is this: Grace, in the proper sense of the term, denotes God's favour and good will towards us, which He cherishes in Himself, and by reason of which He is inclined to pour into us Christ and the Spirit with His gifts. This is manifest from chap. 5:15, where St. Paul speaks of "the grace of God and the gift of grace, which is by . . . Jesus Christ." Now, the gifts and the Spirit are increased in us daily and are not yet perfect; hence evil lusts and sins still remain in us, which war against the Spirit, as is stated in Rom. 7:14f. 23; Gal. 5:17; Gen. 3:15, where enmity between the woman's Seed and the seed of the serpent is predicted. Notwithstanding this, grace accomplishes so much that we are accounted completely and fully righteous in the sight of God. For the grace of God is not divisible and piecemeal as the gifts are, but receives us altogether into God's favour for the sake of our Advocate and Mediator Christ, and for the reason that there is in us a beginning of the gifts.

Now you will understand the seventh chapter, where Paul still chides himself a sinner, and nevertheless, in chap. 8:1, declares that there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, because of the imperfect gifts and the Spirit. We are still sinners because of the flesh in us that has not yet been mortified. However, since we believe in Christ and have the beginning of the Spirit, God is favourably inclined and gracious to us, so much so that He will not regard nor condemn our sins, but deal with us in accordance with our faith in Christ, until sin is slain.

(d) Faith

"Faith" is not the human notion and dream which some regard as faith. When they see that it is not followed by an improvement of life nor by good works, while they are, nevertheless, able to hear and talk much of faith, they fall into the error of saying: Faith is not sufficient; we must do works if we want to become godly and be saved. The reason is because, when hearing the Gospel, they go to work and by their own power frame up a thought in their heart which says: I believe. That they regard as genuine faith. But, inasmuch as it is a human figment and thought of which the inmost heart is not sensible, it accomplishes nothing and is not accompanied by any improvement.

On the contrary, faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, gives us a new birth out of God, John 1:13, slays the old Adam, makes us altogether different men in heart, affection, mind, and all powers, and brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, energetic, active, mighty thing, this faith. It cannot but do good unceasingly. There is no question asked whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked the works have been done, and there is a continuous doing of them. But any person not doing such works is without faith. He is groping in the dark, looking for faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, although he indulges in a lot of twaddle and flummery concerning faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in the grace of God, of such assurance that it would risk a thousand deaths This confidence and knowledge of divine grace make a person happy, bold, and full of gladness in his relation to God and all creatures. The Holy Ghost is doing this in the believer. Hence it is that a person, without constraint, becomes willing and enthusiastic to do good to everybody, to serve everybody, to suffer all manner of afflictions, from love of God and to the praise of Him who has extended such grace to him. Accordingly, it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as impossible as it is to separate the power to burn and shine from fire. Accordingly, beware of your own false thoughts and of idle talkers, who pretend great wisdom for discerning faith and good works and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that He may create faith in you; otherwise you will be without faith for ever and aye, no matter what you may plan and do.

(e) Righteousness

Now, faith such as I have described is "righteousness," and is called the righteousness of God, or the righteousness that is valid in God's sight, because He bestows it and counts it for righteousness for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. This righteousness causes a person to render to each his due. For through faith man becomes void of sin and conceives a love for the commandments of God. Thus he gives due honour to God and pays Him what he owes. On the other hand, he willingly serves his fellow-man in whatever way he can, and in that way also pays his debts to everybody. Such righteousness human nature, man's free will, and our powers cannot achieve. For just as little as anybody can kindle faith in himself, just as little can he remove his unbelief. How, then, is he to remove one single sin, even of the paltriest kind? Therefore, whatsoever is done without faith or in unbelief, no matter what a splendid appearance it may present, is falsehood, hypocrisy, and sin. Rom. 14:23.

(f) Flesh and Spirit

As regards the term "flesh" and "spirit" in this epistle, you must not understand "flesh" to mean only unchaste matters, nor "spirit" to mean the inward matters of the heart. St. Paul, as well as Christ in John 3:6, calls everything flesh that is born of flesh, hence the entire person with his body and soul, his reason and all his senses, because everything in him lusts after the flesh. Thus you will understand that you must call any person "carnal" who is full of his own imaginations concerning sublime, spiritual matters, teaching and twaddling about them. You can readily gather this from what is said concerning the works of the flesh in Gal. 5:20, where also heresy and hatred are called works of the flesh. Moreover, in Rom. 8:3, the apostle says that the Law is weakened by the flesh. This does not refer to unchastity, but to all sins, chiefly, however, to unbelief, which is the greatest vice affecting the spirit.

On the other hand, you will have to call even that person "spiritual" who is engaged in most obvious work, as, for instance, Christ when He was washing His disciples' feet and Peter when he was rowing his boat and fishing. Accordingly, "flesh" denotes a person who spends his life inwardly and outwardly in serving the interests of his flesh and temporal existence, while "spirit" denotes a person who spends his life inwardly and outwardly in serving the spirit and the interests of the life to come.

Without this understanding of the terms noted you will never grasp this epistle of St. Paul, nor any book of the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, beware of all teachers who employ these words in a different sense, no matter who they are, even if they should happen to be Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Origen, and men like them or still higher than they.

Read Part II