Martin Luther’s “Declaration” from His Commentary on Galatians
I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound this Epistle
of St. Paul to the Galatians: not because I desire to teach new things, or such as
you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest
danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church
again the doctrine of works and men's traditions.
The devil, our adversary, who continually seeks to devour us, is not dead; likewise
our flesh and old man is yet alive. Besides this, all kinds of temptations vex and
oppress us. on every side. So this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated
enough. If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of truth, life
and salvation lost. If this doctrine flourish, then all good things flourish.
The Argument of the Epistle to the Galatians
First of all, we speak of the argument of this epistle: in it Paul is seeking to
establish the doctrine of faith, grace, forgiveness of sins, or Christian righteousness
in order that we may know the difference between Christian righteousness and all
other kinds of righteousness. There are many sorts of righteousness. There is a civil
or political righteousness, which kings, princes of the world, magistrates and lawyers
deal with. There is also a ceremonial righteousness, which the traditions of men
teach. Besides these, there is another righteousness, called the righteousness of
the law, or the Ten Commandments.
Above all these, there is yet another righteousness: the righteousness of faith or
Christian righteousness, which we must diligently discern from the others. The others
are quite contrary to this righteousness, both because they flow out of the laws
of kings and rulers, religious traditions, and the commandments of God; and because
they consist in our works, and may be wrought by us either by our natural strength,
or else by the gift of God. These kinds of righteousness are also the gift of God,
like all other good things which we enjoy.
But the most excellent righteousness of faith, which God through Christ, without
any works, imputes to us, is neither political, nor ceremonial, nor the righteousness
of God's law, nor consists of works, but is contrary to these; that is to say, it
is a mere passive righteousness, as the others are active. For in the righteousness
of faith, we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer
another to work in us, that is to say, God. This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery,
which the world does not know. Indeed, Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand
it, and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore it must be diligently
taught, and continually practiced.
The troubled conscience, in view of God's judgment, has no remedy against desperation
and eternal death, unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by grace, freely
offered in Christ Jesus, which if it can apprehend, it may then be at rest. Then
it can boldly say: I seek not active or working righteousness, for if I had it, I
could not trust it, neither dare I set it against the judgment of God. Then I abandon
myself from all active righteousness, both of my own and of God's law, and embrace
only that passive righteousness, which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and
forgiveness of sins. I rest only upon that righteousness, which is the righteousness
of Christ and of the Holy Ghost. The highest wisdom of Christians is not to know
the law and to be ignorant of works, especially when the conscience is wrestling
with God. But among those who are not God's people, the greatest wisdom is to know
the law and the active righteousness. Unless the Christian is ignorant of the law
and is assuredly persuaded in his heart that there is now no law, nor wrath of God,
but only grace and mercy for Christ's sake, he cannot be saved; for by the law comes
the knowledge of sin. Contrariwise, works and the keeping of the law is strictly
required in the world, as if there were no promise, or grace.
A wise and faithful disposer of the Word of God must so moderate the law that it
may be kept within its bounds. He that teaches that men are justified before God
by the observation of the law, passes the bounds of the law, and confounds these
two kinds of righteousness, active and passive. Contrariwise, he that sets forth
the law and works to the old man, and the promise and forgiveness of sins and God's
mercy to the new man, divides the Word well. For the flesh or the old man must be
coupled with the law and works; the spirit or the new man must be joined with the
promise of God and His mercy.
When I see a man oppressed with the law, terrified with sin, and thirsting for comfort,
it is time that I remove out of his sight the law and active righteousness, and set
before him, by the gospel, the Christian or passive righteousness, which offers the
promise made in Christ, who came for the afflicted and sinners.
We teach the difference between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive,
to the end that manners and faith, works and grace, policy and religion, should not
be confounded, or taken the one for the other. Both are necessary; but each must
be kept within its bounds: Christian righteousness pertains to the new man, and the
righteousness of the law pertains to the old man, which is born of flesh and blood.
Upon this old man, as upon an ass, there must be laid a burden that may press him
down, and he must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit of grace, except he first put
upon him the new man, by faith in Christ. Then may he enjoy the kingdom and inestimable
gift of grace. This I say, so that no man should think we reject or forbid good works.
We imagine two worlds, the one heavenly, the other earthly. In these we place these
two kinds of righteousness, the one far separate from the other. The righteousness
of the law is earthly and deals with earthly things. But Christian righteousness
is heavenly, which we have not of ourselves, but receive from heaven; we work not
for it, but by grace it is wrought in us, and is apprehended by faith.
Do we then do nothing? Do we do nothing at all for the obtaining of this righteousness?
I answer, Nothing at all. For this is perfect righteousness, to do nothing, to hear
nothing, to know nothing of the law, or of works, but to know and believe this only,
that Christ is gone to the Father, and is not now seen; that He sits in heaven at
the right hand of His Father, not as judge, but made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness,
holiness and redemption-briefly, that He is our high priest entreating for us, and
reigning over us, and in us, by grace. In this heavenly righteousness sin can have
no place, for there is no law; and where no law is, there can be no transgression
(Romans 4: IS). Seeing then that sin has here no place, there can be no anguish of
conscience, no fear, no heaviness. Therefore John says (l John 5: 18): "He that is
born of God cannot sin."
But if there is any fear, or grief of conscience, it is a token that this righteousness
is withdrawn, that grace is hidden, and that Christ is darkened and out of sight.
But where Christ is truly seen, there must be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with
peace of conscience, which thinks this way: Although I am a sinner by the law and
under condemnation of the law, yet I despair not, yet I die not, because Christ lives,
who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life. In that righteousness and life
I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no care of death. I am indeed a sinner
as touching this present life, and the righteousness thereof, as a child of Adam.
But I have another righteousness and life, above this life, which is Christ the Son
of God, who knows no sin, no death, but is righteousness and life eternal; by whom
this my body, being dead and brought to dust, shall be raised up again, and delivered
from the bondage of the law and sin, and shall be sanctified together with my spirit.
So both these continue while we live here. The flesh is accused, exercised with temptations,
oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by the active righteousness of the law;
but the spirit reigns, rejoices, and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness,
because it knows that it has a Lord in Heaven, at the right hand of His Father, who
has abolished the law, sin, death, and has trodden under His feet all evils, led
them captive, and triumphed over them in Himself (Colossians 2:15).
St. Paul, in this epistle, goes about diligently to instruct us, to comfort us, to
hold us in the perfect knowledge of this most Christian and excellent righteousness.
For if the article of justification is lost, then all true Christian doctrine is
lost. He who strays from Christian righteousness falls into the righteousness of
the law; that is, when he loses Christ, he falls into the confidence of his own works.
Therefore we also earnestly set forth, and so often repeat the doctrine of' “faith,”
or Christian righteousness, that by this means it may be kept in continual exercise,
and may be plainly discerned from the active righteousness of the law.
Let us diligently learn to judge between these two kinds of righteousness. We have
said before that, in a Christian, the law ought not to pass its bounds, but ought
to have dominion only over the flesh, which is in subjection to it, and remains under
it. But if it creeps into the conscience, play the cunning logician, and make the
true division. Say: "0 law, you would climb up into the kingdom of my conscience,
and there reprove it of sin, and take from me the joy of my heart, which I have by
faith in Christ, and drive me to desperation that I may be without hope, and utterly
perish. Keep within your bounds, and exercise your power upon the flesh: for by the
gospel I am called to the partaking of righteousness and everlasting life."
When I have Christian righteousness reigning in my heart, I descend from heaven as
the rain makes fruitful the earth; that is to say, I do good works, how and wheresoever
the occasion arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the brokenhearted,
I administer the sacraments. If I am a householder, I govern my house and family
well, and in the fear of God. If I am a servant, I do my master's business faithfully.
To conclude, whoever is assuredly persuaded that Christ alone is his righteousness,
does not only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation, but also submits himself
through love to the rulers and to their laws, yea, though they be severe, and, if
necessity should require, to all manner of burdens, and to all dangers of the present
life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases