1. The theme of this Gospel is the great and important article
of faith, called "the forgiveness of sins", which, when rightly understood,
makes an honest Christian, and gives eternal life. Therefore it is necessary
in the Christian Church to teach this article diligently and unceasingly,
so that we may learn to understand it clearly and distinctly. For this
is the one great and difficult art of a Christian, where he will have enough
to learn as long as he lives, so that he need not look for anything new,
higher or better.
2. But that we may rightly understand this, we must thoroughly know
how to distinguish two powers or kinds of piety. One here upon earth, which
God has also ordained and has included under the second table of the ten
commandments. This is called the righteousness of the world or of man,
and serves to the end that we may live together on earth and enjoy the
gifts God has given us. For it is his wish that his present life be kept
under proper restraint and passed in peace, quietude and harmony, each
one attending to his own affairs and not interfering with the business,
property or person of another. For this reason God has also added a special
blessing, Lev. 18, 5, "Which if a man do, he shall live in them", that
is, whosoever upon earth is honest in the sight of all men shall enjoy
life; it shall be well with him, and he shall live long.
3. But if on the other hand man is unwilling to do this, he has ordained
that the sword, the gallows, the rack, fire, water, and the like be used,
with which to restrain and check those who will not be pious. Where such
punishment is not administered and the whole country becomes so utterly
bad and perverted, that the officers of the law can no longer restrain,
God sends pestilence, famine, war, or other terrible plagues, in order
to subvert the land, and destroy the wicked, as has happened to the Jews,
the Greeks, the Romans, and others. From this we may learn his will, namely,
that such piety be exercised and maintained; and know that he will provide
what is necessary; but if such piety is not practiced he will in turn take
away and destroy everything.
4. This is in short the sense and the whole substance of this piety
on earth. But it is further necessary to urge it and to admonish people
that every man diligently, zealously and voluntarily exercise himself in
it, and that he be not driven to it by force and punishment. This admonition
consists in setting forth God's commandments and in applying them to every
station of life on earth, as God has ordered and highly honored; we should
find pleasure in them and heartily do what is required in the different
spheres of life. When God says, "Honor thy father and thy mother," every
child, man-servant, maid-servant, citizen, and the like, should receive
the Word with joy, have no greater treasure on earth, and not imagine if
he do this he is already halfway or altogether in paradise. And this should
be solely done, that every heart may be assured without a doubt and say:
Now I know, that such work, life, or position is right and proper and is
assuredly well pleasing to God; for I have his Word and command as a sure
witness, which never deceives nor fails me.
5. For do not let this be the least grace upon earth, when you have
come to this decision in your heart and your conscience rests upon it.
We owe this assurance to the blessed Gospel alone, in which we should delight
and which we must reverence, even if we receive no other benefit or use
from it than this, that it quiets our conscience and positively teaches
us how to live and in what relation we stand to God.
In what error and blindness we were aforetime, when not even a spark
of such teaching enlightened us and we allowed ourselves to be led in the
name of the devil by the whims of every lying preacher; we tried all kinds
of works, ran hither and thither, expended and wasted our energies, money
and property; here we established masses and altars, there cloisters and
brotherhoods, and every one was groping for the way in which he might serve
God; yet no one found it, but all remained in darkness. For there was no
God who might say: This is pleasing to me, this I have commanded, etc.
Yes, our blind guides did nothing less than lose sight of God's word, separated
it from good works, and instead of these set up other works everywhere;
in addition to this they discarded and despised the positions in life,
which God had appointed, as though he knew no better, nor even as well
as we, how to manage his affairs.
6. Therefore we must constantly take heed to inculcate this Word of
God, which does not burden us with any special, great and difficult works,
but refers us to the condition in which we live, that we look for nothing
else, but with a cheerful heart remain satisfied in it, and be assured
that by such work more is accomplished than if one had established all
the cloisters and kept all the orders, although it be the most insignificant
domestic work. For hitherto we- have been woefully deceived by the fine
lustre and pomp of works, hoods, bald pates, coarse apparel, by fasts,
wakes, pious looks, playing the devotee, and going barefoot.
Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of
works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard
them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God
has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such
common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs,
so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept,
the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you
do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command
you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How
happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the
work's sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is
greater than heaven and earth.
7. If we would only consider this, and by the power of the Word look
beyond us, and think that it is not man, but God in heaven who wishes and
commands these things, we would run full speed, and in a most faithful
and diligent manner rather do these common, insignificant works, as they
are regarded, than any others. There is no other reason why this is not
done than the simple fact that the works are separated from the Word, and
God's command is not regarded nor respected; we move along in a blind,
drowsy manner, and think the doing of the works is all sufficient. Because
we regard these works as insignificant, we stare and look around for others,
become indolent and fretful, do nothing in love, faithfulness and obedience,
have no scruples on account of our negligence, are faithless to our fellowmen,
injure or vex them, and thus heap upon ourselves all manner of misery,
wrath, and misfortune.
8. This then is one part of our discourse, that this external righteousness
be urged both in admonitions and in threatenings, and not be considered
as of no importance. For whosoever despises it, despises God and his Word.
9. Therefore let every man look to himself what he is or what he has
to do, and what God demands of him, whether it be to rule, to command and
order, or on the contrary to obey, serve and labor, that he may attend
to the duties of his office with all faithfulness for God's sake. Let him
be assured that God has more respect for such faithfulness than for all
the work and piety of the monks, who never yet have attained to this outward
righteousness; nor are they able to extol all their works and doings as
heartily as a child or servant girl performing their duties according to
0, what a blessed world we would have, if people believed this, and
every man remained at his post, always keeping in mind God's will and command.
Then there would shower from heaven all kinds of blessings and gifts instead
of the many vexations and heart-aches, which we now have, are looking for,
10. Above this external piety there is another, which does not belong
to this temporal life on earth but which avails only before God and which
leads us to the life beyond and keeps us in it. The former piety consists
in works, which this present life requires to be done among men, whether
they be our superiors or inferiors, our neighbors, or our kindred. It has
its reward here upon earth, also ends with this life, and they who do not
practice it shorten their days. But this latter piety moves and soars far
above everything that is upon earth, and has nothing to do with works.
For how can it have works, since all that this body can perform and that
is called works, is already included in the former piety.
This piety is now called the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins,
of which Christ speaks in this and other gospels, and which is not an earthly
but heavenly righteousness; it does not come of our work and ability but
is the work and gift of God. For that human piety may well shield us against
punishment and the hangman, and permit us to enjoy temporal gifts; but
it cannot attain for us God's grace and the forgiveness of sin. Therefore,
even though we may have this external piety, we must nevertheless have
a much higher one, which alone avails before God, frees us from sin and
an evil conscience, and leads us out of death into eternal life.
11. This is, furthermore, the only part or article and doctrine, by
believing which we become and are called Christians, and which separates
and divorces us from all other saints on earth; for they all have a different
foundation and nature of their saintliness, peculiar exercises, and rigorous
life. It separates us also from the works of those holding positions and
offices approved by the Word of God, which are indeed much higher and better
than all the self- chosen ecclesiasticism of the monks. These also constitute
a holy calling, so that they are called pious and deserve praise of all
men because they do their duty. But all this makes no one a Christian.
He alone is a Christian who receives this article in faith, and is assured
that he is in the kingdom of grace, in which Christ protects him, and daily
forgives him his sins. But he who looks for something else or wishes to
deal otherwise with God, must know that he is no Christian, but is rejected
and condemned by God.
12. For this reason the greatest skill and intelligence is needed to
grasp and understand this righteousness, and in our hearts and before God
rightly to distinguish it from the above mentioned outward righteousness.
For this is, as has been said, the skill and the wisdom of the Christian,
but it is so high and great that even all the beloved Apostles could not
speak enough of it; and yet it meets the painful misfortune that no art
is mastered as soon as this.
There is no greater theme for a preacher than the grace of God and the
forgiveness of sin, yet we are such wicked people, that, when we have once
heard or read it, we think we know it, are immediately masters and doctors,
keep looking for something greater, as though we had done everything, and
thus we made new factions and division.
13. I have now been teaching and studying this subject with all diligence
for many years (more than any one of those who imagine they know it all),
in preaching, writing and reading, yet I cannot boast of having mastered
it and am glad that I still remain a pupil with those who are just beginning
to learn. For this reason I must admonish and warn all such as want to
be Christians, both teachers and pupils, that they guard themselves against
such shameful delusion and surfeit, and understand that this subject is
most difficult and the greatest art that can be found upon earth; so that
even Paul had to confess and say (2 Cor. 9, 15) that it is an unspeakable
gift, that is, one which cannot be described among men with words so that
they may regard it as highly and dearly as it really is in itself.
14. The reason for this is, that man's understanding cannot get beyond
this external piety of works, and cannot comprehend the righteousness of
faith; but, the greater and more skillful this understanding is, the more
it confines itself to works and rests upon them. It is not possible for
man in times of temptation and distress, when his conscience smites him,
to cease from groping around for works on which to stand and rest. Then
we seek and enumerate the many good deeds, which we would like to do, or
have done, and because we find none, the heart begins to doubt and despair.
This weakness adheres so firmly to our nature, that even those who have
faith and recognize the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, cannot
overcome it with all their efforts and exertions, and must daily contend
against it. In short it is entirely beyond human knowledge and understanding,
ability and power, to ascend above this earthly righteousness, and to transfer
oneself into this article of faith; and although one hears much about it
and is conversant with it, there continues nevertheless the old delusion
and inborn corruption which would bring its own works before God and make
them the foundation of salvation. Such is the case, I say, with those who
are Christians and fight against this work-righteousness; others, critics
and inexperienced souls are even lost in it.
15. Therefore this doctrine, that our piety before God consists entirely
in the forgiveness of sins, must be rightly comprehended and firmly maintained.
We must therefore get beyond ourselves and ascend higher than our reason,
which keeps us in conflict with ourselves and which reminds us both of
sin and good works; and we must soar so high as to see neither sin nor
good works, but be rooted and grounded in this article and see and know
nothing besides. Therefore let grace or forgiveness be pitted not only
against sin, but also against good works, and let all human righteousness
and holiness be excluded. Thus there are in man two conflicting powers:
Externally in this life he is to be pious, do good works, and the like,
But if he aims beyond this life and wishes to deal with God, he must know
that here neither his sin nor his piety avails anything. And though he
may feel his sins which disturb his conscience, and although the law demands
good works, he will not listen nor give heed to them, but will boldly reply;
If I have sin, Christ has forgiveness; yea, I am seated on a throne to
which sin cannot attain.
16. Therefore we are to regard the kingdom of Christ as a large, beautiful
arch or vault which is everywhere over us, and covers and protects us against
the wrath of God; yea, as a great, extended firmament which pure grace
and forgiveness illuminate and so fill the world and all things, that all
sin will hardly appear as a spark in comparison with the great, extended
sea of light; and although sin may oppress, it cannot injure, but must
disappear and vanish before grace. They who understand this, may well be
called masters, but we will all have to humble ourselves and not be ashamed
to keep on learning this lesson as long as we live.
17. For wherever our nature succeeds in finding sin, it tries to make
an unbearable burden of it. Satan fans the spark and blows up a great fire
which fills heaven and earth. Here the leaf must be turned and we must
firmly conclude: If the sin were ever so great or burdensome, this article
of faith is nevertheless much higher, wider and greater, which has been
recommended and established not by man's wisdom, but by him who has comprehended
heaven and earth and holds them in the hollow of his hand. Is. 40, 12.
My sin and piety must remain here on earth as far as they concern my life
and conduct. But in heaven above I have another treasure, greater than
either of these; there Christ is seated and holds me in his arms, covers
me with his wings and overshadows me with his grace.
18. You may say: How is this, since I daily feel sin and my conscience
condemns me and threatens me with God's wrath? I answer: For this reason,
I say, one must understand that the righteousness of a Christian is nothing
that can be named or imagined but the forgiveness of sin, that is, it is
a kingdom of power which deals only with sin and with such abundant grace
as takes away all wrath.
It is called the forgiveness of sin for the reason that we are truly
sinners before God; yes, everything in us is sin, even though we may have
all human righteousness. For where God speaks of sin, there must be real
and great sin; so also forgiveness is no jest, but real earnestness. When
you, therefore, consider this article you have both. Sin takes away all
your holiness, no matter how pious you are on earth; again, forgiveness
takes away all sin and wrath. Therefore your sin cannot cast you into hell,
nor can your piety elevate you into heaven.
19. Therefore, when the devil disturbs your conscience, and tries to
bring despair to your heart by saying: "Have you not learned that one must
be pious?" then answer courageously and say: Yes, you are right; I am a
sinner, that I have known before; for this article, called the forgiveness
of sins, has taught me this long ago. I am to be pious and do what I can
before the world; but before God I am willing to be a sinner, and to be
called nothing else, that this article may remain true, else there would
not be forgiveness or grace; but it must needs be called a crown of righteousness
and of merits. Therefore, although I feel nothing but many and great sins,
yet they are no longer sins; for I have for them a precious panacea and
drug which takes away the power and poison of sin and wholly destroys it.
It is this word, "Forgiveness," before which sin disappears like stubbles
before the fire. Without it no work, suffering, or martyrdom avails against
the smallest sin. For without forgiveness sin is and remains pure sin,
which condemns us.
20. Therefore only confess this article heartily and boldly and say:
Before the world I may be pious and do everything that is required, but
before God it is only sin according to this article. Therefore I am a sinner,
but a sinner who now has forgiveness and who sits at the throne where grace
rules supreme, Ps. 116. If this were not so I would be a sinner like Judas,
who saw only his sin, but no forgiveness. But Christians, no matter how
much sin they feel in themselves, in that word forgiveness see much more
abundant grace presented to them, and poured out over them.
21. Thus learn then to magnify this article and spread it as far as
Christ reaches and rules, that you may elevate it far above everything
in heaven and on earth. For as the Word soars over all this, so must also
faith, which comprehends the Word and keeps the heart steadfast in it,
overcome sin, conscience, death and the devil.
22. Consider now what kind of a person a Christian is, who lords it
over death and the devil, and before whom all sin is as a withered leaf.
Now examine yourself and see how far you have learned this lesson, and
whether it is such an insignificant and easy matter as some inexperienced
souls think. For if you have learned and believed it, all misfortune, death,
and the devil will be as nothing. But since you are still so vexed with
sin, and since you are still frightened and in despair on account of death,
hell and God's judgment, humble yourself, give honor to the Word and confess
that you have never yet understood this matter.
In short let every man examine his own heart, and he will find a false
Christian who imagines that he knows all about this subject before he has
learned the first principles of it. The words are soon heard, read and
repeated, but to carry out the principle in practice and in character,
so that it may live within us, and our conscience may be founded upon it
and rest in it, is not in the art of man. Therefore I say and admonish,
that those who wish to be Christians may always keep it in mind, assimilate
it, practice it, and chastise themselves with it, that we may at least
have a taste of it, and as James says, 1, 18, be a kind of first fruits
of his creatures. For we shall never advance so far in this life as to
come to a perfect understanding of it; nor did even the blessed Apostles
full of the Spirit and of faith, advance so far.
23. Thus far I have explained the first part, what Christian righteousness
is and in what it consists. But if you ask further, whence it comes, or
how it has been brought about or gained, I answer: Jesus Christ, the Son
of God, has come from heaven and has been made man, has suffered and died
for our sins. This is the cause, the means, and the treasure, through which
we obtain the forgiveness of sin and for the sake of which the grace of
God is bestowed upon us; for such a treasure does not come to us without
means or merit. But since all of us are born in sin and are the enemies
of God, we have deserved only eternal wrath and punishment. All that we
are and have is condemned, and there is no help or way out of it. For sin
is so grievous that no creature can quench it, the wrath so great that
no man can appease and conciliate it. Therefore another man must take our
place, namely Jesus Christ, God and man, and through his suffering and
death make satisfaction for our sins and pay for them. This is the price
that has been set, and has been expended for us, by which sin has been
quenched and the wrath of God appeased, the Father has been reconciled
and made our friend.
24. Christians alone know this and believe it, and are in this respect
different from those of every other faith and worship on earth. For the
Jews, Turks, false Christians, and those who would be righteous by works,
also boast that God is merciful; and there is no man on earth but knows
something of the grace of God, and yet all of them fail to obtain it, or
in other words, they do not have the treasure in which it lies and from
which it flows. They continue in their blindness and imagine they can acquire
it by their works, rigid life, and their own holiness, with which they
only make the wrath and displeasure of God the more grievous.
25. Therefore it is necessary that we rightly learn to know this treasure,
and seek forgiveness where it may be found; that is, that we thoroughly
learn to know, comprehend, and keep the Lord Jesus Christ. For it is ordained
that no one shall come into God's presence, find grace, nor obtain forgiveness
of the least sin except through Christ. Because you are a sinner, and will
always remain one, your conscience is ever present, condemns and threatens
you with God's wrath and punishment, so that you cannot see the grace of
With reference to the forgiveness of sins let me say, that you will
not find anything in your heart with which you can pay them off, nor raise
any funds for which God might recognize you and cancel the debt in the
ledger. But if you seize Christ as the one who has become your substitute,
who has taken your sin upon himself, and who has given himself with all
his merit and worthiness for you, no sin can avail anything against you.
If I am a sinner, he is holy, and is Lord over sin, death, satan and hell,
so that no sin can harm me, because he has been given me as my righteousness
26. Therefore we have, indeed, pure grace and forgiveness of all sins,
but nowhere except in and through Christ alone, and in him only it must
be sought and obtained.
Therefore whoever will come before God with any kind of work, that God
shall recognize and regard as meritorious for obtaining grace, will be
disappointed and undeceived, yea, instead of grace he will heap wrath upon
himself. Thus you see that all other ways and means are condemned as the
doctrines of devils; by which men are led and directed to their own works,
or to the holiness and merits of others, as for example, of the saints
who have led ascetic lives and followed the rules of their orders, and
have suffered and expiated a great deal; or as those have done who have
comforted people in the throes of death and have admonished them to suffer
death willingly for their sins. Whoever dares to offer anything else for
sin or to atone for it himself does nothing else than deny the Lord Jesus
Christ, yea, disgrace and slander him, as if the blood of Christ were of
no more consequence than our repentance and satisfaction, or as if his
blood were not sufficient to take away all the sins of the earth.
27. Therefore, would you be freed from your sins, cease to seek works
and satisfaction, and to bring them before God; but simply creep under
the wings and into the bosom of Christ, as the one who has taken away your
sins, and has laid them upon himself. Thus you need not chastise yourself
with them, nor have anything to do with them! For he is the Lamb of God,
says John 1, 29, which taketh away the sins of the world; and Peter says,
Acts 4, 12, There is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby
we must be saved. The reason we are Christians is because we have Christ
with all His merit and worthiness, not because of our efforts and works,
which indeed make a St. Carthusius, a St. Francis, or an Augustinian monk,
an obedient servant and extremist as they are called; but such works can
never make a Christian. Behold, this is the second part which belongs to
the sermon on this article.
28. The third thought is how and by what means we may appropriate such
righteousness, so that we may receive the treasure acquired by Christ.
Here also we need to give heed that we take the right way, and not make
the mistake, which certain heretics have made in times past, and many erroneous
minds still set forth, who think that God ought to do something special
with them. These imagine that God will deal separately with each one by
some special internal light and mysterious revelation, and give him the
Holy Ghost, as though there was no need of the written Word or the external
sermon. Consequently we are to know that God has ordained that no one shall
come to the knowledge of Christ, nor obtain the forgiveness acquired by
him, nor receive the Holy Ghost, without the use of external and public
means; but God has embraced this treasure in the oral word or public ministry,
and will not perform his work in a corner or mysteriously in the heart,
but will have it heralded and distributed openly among the people, even
as Christ commands, Mark 16, 15: Go ye into all the world and preach the
Gospel to every creature, etc.
29. He does this in order that we may know how and where to seek and
expect his grace, so that in all Christendom there may be the same custom
and order, and not every man follow his own mind and act according to his
own notions, and so deceive himself and others, which would certainly happen.
As we cannot look into the heart of any man, each one might boast of having
the Holy Ghost and set forth his own thoughts as divine revelation which
God had inspired and taught him in a special manner; as a result, no one
would know whom or what to believe.
30. Therefore this part also, namely the external word or preaching,
belongs to Christianity as a channel or means through which we attain unto
the forgiveness of sins, or the righteousness of Christ, with which Christ
reveals and offers us his grace or lays it into our bosom, and without
which no one would ever come to a knowledge of this treasure. For whence
should any man know, or in what man's heart would it ever come, that Christ,
the Son of God, came from heaven for our sake, died for us, and rose from
the dead, acquired the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and offers
the same to us, without publicly having it announced and preached? And
although he acquired this treasure for us through his suffering and death,
no one could obtain or receive it, if Christ did not have it offered, presented,
and applied. And all that he had done and suffered would be to no purpose,
but would be like some great and precious treasure buried in the earth,
which no one could find or make use of.
31. Therefore I have always taught that the oral word must precede every
thing else, must be comprehended with the ears, if the Holy Ghost is to
enter the heart, who through the Word enlightens it and works faith. Consequently
faith does not come except through the hearing and oral preaching of the
Gospel, in which it has its beginning, growth and strength. For this reason
the Word must not be despised, but held in honor. We must familiarize and
acquaint ourselves with it, and constantly practice it, so that it never
ceases to bear fruit; for it can never be understood and learned too well.
Let every man beware of the shameless fellows who have no more respect
for the Word than if it were unnecessary for faith; or of those who think
they know it all, become tired of it, eventually fall from it, and retain
nothing of faith or of Christ.
32. Behold, here you have all that belongs to this article of the righteousness
of Christ. It consists in the forgiveness of sins, offered to us through
Christ, and received by faith in and through the Word, purely and simply
without any works on our part. Yet I do not mean that Christians should
not and must not do good works, but that they are not to be mingled and
entwined in the doctrine of faith, and decorated with the shameless delusion
that they avail before God as righteousness, whereby both the doctrine
of works and of faith are besmirched and destroyed. For everything possible
must be done to keep this article pure, unadulterated and separate from
all our own doings. But after we have this righteousness by faith, works
are to follow and continue here on earth, so that there may be civil righteousness,
and that both be maintained, each in its proper place, but separate in
their nature and efficacy,--the former before God in faith over and above
all works, the latter works in love to our neighbor, as we said plainly
enough above and always taught.