[The following sermon is taken from volume VIII of,
The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids,
MI). It was originally published in 1909 in English by The Luther Press
(Minneapolis, MN), in a series titled Luther's Epistle Sermons, vol. 3.
This e-text was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink
(see website); it is in the public domain and it may be copied and distributed
without restriction. ]
GOSPEL TRANSCENDS LAW
1. This epistle lesson sounds altogether strange and wonderful to individuals
unaccustomed to Scripture language, particularly to that of Paul. To the
inexperienced ear and heart it is not intelligible. In popedom thus far
it has remained quite unapprehended, although reading of the words has
2. That we may understand it, we must first get an idea of Paul's theme.
Briefly, he would oppose the vain boasting of false apostles and preachers
concerning their possession of the spirit and their peculiar skill and
gifts, by praising and glorifying the office of a preacher of the Gospel
with which he is intrusted. For he found that, especially in the Church
at Corinth, which he had converted by the words of his own lips and brought
to faith in Christ, soon after his departure the devil introduced his heresies
whereby the people were turned from the truth and betrayed into other ways.
Since it became his duty to make an attack upon such heresies, he devoted
both his epistles to the purpose of keeping the Corinthians in the right
way, so that they might retain the pure doctrine received from him, and
beware of false spirits. The main thing which moved him to write this second
epistle was his desire to emphasize to them his apostolic office of a preacher
of the Gospel, in order to put to shame the glory of those other teachers--the
glory they boasted with many words and great pretense.
3. He starts in on this theme just before he reaches our text. And this
is how it is he comes to speak in high terms of praise of the ministration
of the Gospel and to contrast and compare the twofold ministration or message
which may be proclaimed in the Church, provided, of course, that God's
Word is to be preached and not the nonsense of human falsehood and the
doctrine of the devil. One is that of the Old Testament, the other of the
New; in other words, the office of Moses, or the Law, and the office of
the Gospel of Christ. He contrasts the glory and power of the latter with
those of the former, which, it is true, is also the Word of God. In this
manner he endeavors to defeat the teachings and pretensions of those seductive
spirits who, as he but lately foretold, pervert God"s Word, in that they
greatly extol the Law of God, yet at best do not teach its right use, but,
instead of making it tributary to faith in Christ, misuse it to teach work-righteousness.
4. Since the words before us are in reality a continuation of those
with which the chapter opens, the latter must be considered in this connection.
"Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? or need we, as do some,
epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written
in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are
an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with
the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that
are hearts of flesh."
"We, my fellow-apostles and co-laborers and I," he says, "do not ask
for letters and seals from others commending us to you, or from you commending
us to others, in order to seduce people after gaining their good will in
your church and in others as well. Such is the practice of the false apostles,
and many even now present letters and certificates from honest preachers
and Churches, and make them the means whereby their unrighteous plotting
may be received in good faith. Such letters, thank God, we stand not in
need of, and you need not fear we shall use such means of deception. For
you are yourselves the letter we have written and wherein we may pride
ourselves and which we present everywhere. For it is a matter of common
knowledge that you have been taught by us, and brought to Christ through
PAUL'S CONVERTS LIVING EPISTLES
5. Inasmuch as his activity among them is his testimonial, and they
themselves are aware that through his ministerial office he has constituted
them a church, he calls them an epistle written by himself; not with ink
and in paragraphs, not on paper or wood, nor engraved upon hard rock as
the Ten Commandments written upon tables of stone, which Moses placed before
the people, but written by the Holy Spirit upon fleshly tables--hearts
of tender flesh. The Spirit is the ink or the inscription, yes, even the
writer himself; but the pencil or pen and the hand of the writer is the
ministry of Paul.
6. This figure of a written epistle is, however, in accord with Scripture
usage. Moses commands (Deut 6:6-9; 11, 18) that the Israelites write the
Ten Commandments in all places where they walked or stood upon the posts
of their houses, and upon their gates, and ever have them before their
eyes and in their hearts. Again (Prov 7:2-3), Solomon says: "Keep my commandments
and...my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers; write
them upon the tablet of thy heart." He speaks as a father to his child
when giving the child an earnest charge to remember a certain thing--"Dear
child, remember this; forget it not; keep it in thy heart." Likewise, God
says in the book of Jeremiah the prophet (ch. 31, 33), "I will put my law
in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it." Here man's
heart is represented as a sheet, or slate, or page, whereon is written
the preached Word; for the heart is to receive and securely keep the Word.
In this sense Paul says: "We have, by our ministry, written a booklet or
letter upon your heart, which witnesses that you believe in God the Father,
Son and Holy Ghost and have the assurance that through Christ you are redeemed
and saved. This testimony is what is written on your heart. The letters
are not characters traced with ink or crayon, but the living thoughts,
the fire and force of the heart.
7. Note further, that it is his ministry to which Paul ascribes the
preparation of their heart thereon and the inscription which constitutes
them "living epistles of Christ." He contrasts his ministry with the blind
fancies of those fanatics who seek to receive, and dream of having, the
Holy Spirit without the oral word; who, perchance, creep into a corner
and grasp the Spirit through dreams, directing the people away from the
preached Word and visible ministry. But Paul says that the Spirit, through
his preaching, has wrought in the hearts of his Corinthians, to the end
that Christ lives and is mighty in them. After such statement he bursts
into praise of the ministerial office, comparing the message, or preaching,
of Moses with that of himself and the apostles. He says:
"Such confidence have we through Christ to Godward: not that we are
sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our
sufficiency is from God.
TRUE PREACHERS COMMISSIONED BY GOD
8. These words are blows and thrusts for the false apostles and preachers.
Paul is mortal enemy to the blockheads who make great boast, pretending
to what they do not possess and to what they cannot do; who boast of having
the Spirit in great measure; who are ready to counsel and aid the whole
world; who pride themselves on the ability to invent something new. It
is to be a surpassingly precious and heavenly thing they are to spin out
of their heads, as the dreams of pope and monks have been in time past.
"We do not so," says Paul. "We rely not upon ourselves or our wisdom
and ability. We preach not what we have ourselves invented. But this is
our boast and trust in Christ before God, that we have made of you a divine
epistle; have written upon your hearts, not our thoughts, but the Word
of God. We are not, however, glorifying our own power, but the works and
the power of him who has called and equipped us for such an office; from
whom proceeds all you have heard and believed.
9. It is a glory which every preacher may claim, to be able to say with
full confidence of heart: "This trust have I toward God in Christ, that
what I teach and preach is truly the Word of God." Likewise, when he performs
other official duties in the Church--baptizes a child, absolves and comforts
a sinner--it must be done in the same firm conviction that such is the
command of Christ.
10. He who would teach and exercise authority in the Church without
this glory, "it is profitable for him," as Christ says (Mt. 18:6), "that
a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be
sunk in the depths of the sea." For the devil's lies he preaches, and death
is what he effects. Our Papists, in time past, after much and long-continued
teaching, after many inventions and works whereby they hoped to be saved,
nevertheless always doubted in heart and mind whether or no they had pleased
God. The teaching and works of all heretics and seditious spirits certainly
do not bespeak for them trust in Christ; their own glory is the object
of their teaching, and the homage and praise of the people is the goal
of their desire.
"Not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from
11. As said before, this is spoken in denunciation of the false spirits
who believe that by reason of eminent equipment of special creation and
election, they are called to come to the rescue of the people, expecting
wonders from whatever they say and do.
HUMAN DOCTRINE NO PLACE IN THE CHURCH
12. Now, we know ourselves to be of the same clay whereof they are made;
indeed, we perhaps have the greater call from God: yet we cannot boast
of being capable of ourselves to advise or aid men. We cannot even originate
an idea calculated to give help. And when it comes to the knowledge of
how one may stand before God and attain to eternal life, that is truly
not to be achieved by our work or power, nor to originate in our brain.
In other things, those pertaining to this temporal life, you may glory
in what You know, you may advance the teachings of reason, you may invent
ideas of your own; for example: how to make shoes or clothes, how to govern
a household, how to manage a herd. In such things exercise your mind to
the best of your ability. Cloth or leather of this sort will permit itself
to be stretched and cut according to the good pleasure of the tailor or
shoemaker. But in spiritual matters, human reasoning certainly is not in
order; other intelligence, other skill and power, are requisite here--something
to be granted by God himself and revealed through his Word.
13. What mortal has ever discovered or fathomed the truth that the three
persons in the eternal divine essence are one God; that the second person,
the Son of God, was obliged to become man, born of a virgin; and that no
way of life could be opened for us, save through his crucifixion? Such
truth never would have been heard nor preached, would never in all eternity
have been published, learned and believed, had not God himself revealed
14. For this season they are blind fools of first magnitude and dangerous
characters who would boast of their grand performances, and think that
the people are served when they preach their own fancies and inventions.
It has been the practice in the Church for anyone to introduce any teaching
he saw fit; for example, the monks and priests have daily produced new
saints, pilgrimages, special prayers, works and sacrifices in the effort
to blot out sin, redeem souls from purgatory, and so on. They who make
up things of this kind are not such as put their trust in God through Christ,
but rather such as defy God and Christ. Into the hearts of men, where Christ
alone should be, they shove the filth and write the lies of the devil.
Yet they think themselves, and themselves only, qualified for all essential
teaching and work, self-grown doctors that they are, saints all-powerful
without the help of God and Christ.
"But our sufficiency is from God."
15. Of ourselves--in our own wisdom and strength--we cannot effect,
discover nor teach any counsel or help for man, whether for ourselves or
others. Any good work we perform among you, any doctrine we write upon
your heart that is God's own work. He puts into our heart and mouth what
we should say, and impresses it upon your heart through the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we cannot ascribe to ourselves any honor therein, cannot seek
our own glory as the self-instructed and proud spirits do; we must give
to God alone the honor, and must glory in the fact that by his grace and
power he works in you unto Salvation, through the office committed unto
16. Now, Paul's thought here is that nothing should be taught and practiced
in the Church but what is unquestionably God's Word. It will not do to
introduce or perform anything whatever upon the strength of man's judgment.
Man's achievements, man's reasoning and power, are of no avail save in
so far as they come from God. As Peter says in his first epistle (ch. 4:11):
"If any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; if any man ministereth,
ministering as of the strength which God supplieth." In short, let him
who would be wise, who would boast of great skill, talents and power, confine
himself to things other than spiritual; with respect to spiritual matters,
let him keep his place and refrain from boasting and pretense. For it is
of no moment that men observe your greatness and ability; the important
thing is that poor souls may rest assured of being presented with God's
Word and works, whereby they may be saved.
"Who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of
the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth
THE NEW COVENANT
17. Paul here proceeds to exalt the office and power of the Gospel over
the glorying of the false apostles, and to elevate the power of the Word
above that of all other doctrine, even of the Law of God. Truly we are
not sufficient of ourselves and have nothing to boast of so far as human
activity is considered. For that is without merit or power, however strenuous
the effort may be to fulfil God's Law. We have, however, something infinitely
better to boast of, something not grounded in our own activity: by God
we have been made sufficient for a noble ministry, termed the ministry
"of a New Covenant." This ministry is not only exalted far above any teaching
to be evolved by human wisdom, skill and power, but is more glorious than
the ministry termed the "Old Covenant," which in time past was delivered
to the Jews through Moses. While this ministry clings, in common with other
doctrine, to the Word given by revelation, it is the agency whereby the
Holy Spirit works in the heart. Therefore, Paul says it is not a ministration
of the letter, but ""of the spirit."
"SPIRIT" & "LETTER"
18. This passage relative to spirit and letter has in the past been
wholly strange language to us. Indeed, to such extent has man's nonsensical
interpretation perverted and weakened it that I, through a learned doctor
of the holy Scriptures, failed to understand it altogether, and I could
find no one to teach me. And to this day it is unintelligible to all popedom.
In fact, even the old teachers--Origen, Jerome and others--have not caught
Paul's thought. And no wonder, truly! For it is essentially a doctrine
far beyond the power of man's intelligence to comprehend. When human reason
meddles with it, it becomes perplexed. The doctrine is wholly unintelligible
to it, for human thought goes no farther than the Law and the Ten Commandments.
Laying hold upon these it confines itself to them. It does not attempt
to do more, being governed by the principle that unto him who fulfils the
demands of the Law, or commandments, God is gracious. Reason knows nothing
about the wretchedness of depraved nature. It does not recognize the fact
that no man is able to keep God's commandments; that all are under sin
and condemnation; and that the only way whereby help could be received
was for God to give his Son for the world, ordaining another ministration,
one through which grace and reconciliation might be proclaimed to us. Now,
he who does not understand the sublime subject of which Paul speaks cannot
but miss the true meaning of his words. How much more did we invite this
fate when we threw the Scriptures and Saint Paul's epistles under the bench,
and, like swine in husks, wallowed in man's nonsense! Therefore, we must
submit to correction and learn to understand the apostle's utterance aright.
19. "Letter" and "spirit" have been understood to mean, according to
Origen and Jerome, the obvious sense of the written word. St. Augustine,
it must be admitted, has gotten an inkling of the truth. Now, the position
of the former teachers would perhaps not be quite incorrect did they correctly
explain the words. By "literary sense" they signify the meaning of a Scripture
narrative according to the ordinary interpretation of the words. By "spiritual
sense" they signify the secondary, hidden sense found in the words.
For instance: The Scripture narrative in Genesis third records how the
serpent persuaded the woman to eat of the forbidden fruit and to give to
her husband, who also ate. This narrative in its simplest meaning represents
what they understand by "letter." "Spirit," however, they understand to
mean the spiritual interpretation, which is thus: The serpent signifies
the evil temptation which lures to sin. The woman represents the sensual
state, or the sphere in which such enticements and temptations make themselves
felt. Adam, the man, stands for reason, which is called man's highest endowment.
Now, when reason does not yield to the allurements of external sense, all
is well; but when it permits itself to waver and consent, the fall has
20. Origen was the first to trifle thus with the holy Scriptures, and
many others followed, until now it is thought to be the sign of great cleverness
for the Church to be filled with such quibblings. The aim is to imitate
Paul, who (Gal 4;22-24) figuratively interprets the story of Abraham's
two sons, the one by the free woman, or the mistress of the house, and
the other by the hand-maid. The two women, Paul says, represent the two
covenants: one covenant makes only bondservants, which is just what he
in our text terms the ministration of the letter; the other leads to liberty,
or, as he says here, the ministration of the spirit, which gives life.
And the two sons are the two peoples, one of which does not go farther
than the Law, while the other accepts in faith the Gospel.
True, this is an interpretation not directly suggested by the narrative
and the text. Paul himself calls it an allegory; that is, a mystic narrative,
or a story with a hidden meaning. But he does not say that the literal
text is necessarily the letter that killeth, and the allegory, or hidden
meaning, the spirit. But the false teachers assert of all Scripture that
the text, or record itself, is but a dead "letter," its interpretation
being "the spirit." Yet they have not pushed interpretation farther than
the teaching of the Law; and it is precisely the Law which Paul means when
he speaks of "the letter."
21. Paul employs the word "letter" in such contemptuous sense in reference
to the Law--though the Law is, nevertheless, the Word of God--when he compares
it with the ministry of the Gospel. The letter is to him the doctrine of
the Ten Commandments, which teach how we should obey God, honor parents,
love our neighbor, and so on--the very best doctrine to be found in all
books, sermons and schools.
The word "letter" is to the apostle Paul everything which may take the
form of doctrine, of literary arrangement, of record, so long as it remains
something spoken or written. Also thoughts which may be pictured or expressed
by word or writing, but it is not that which is written in the heart, to
become its life. "Letter" is the whole Law of Moses, or the Ten Commandments,
though the supreme authority of such teaching is not denied. It matters
not whether you hear them, read them, or reproduce them mentally. For instance,
when I sit down to meditate upon the first commandment: "Thou shalt have
no other gods before me," or the second, or the third, and so forth, I
have something which I can read, write, discuss, and aim to fulfil with
all my might. The process is quite similar when the emperor or prince gives
a command and says: "This you shall do, that you shall eschew." This is
what the apostle calls "the letter," or, as we have called it on another
occasion, the written sense.
22. Now, as opposed to "the letter," there is another doctrine or message,
which he terms the "ministration of a New Covenant" and "of the Spirit."
This doctrine does not teach what works are required of man, for that man
has already heard; but it makes known to him what God would do for him
and bestow upon him, indeed what he has already done: he has given his
Son Christ for us; because, for our disobedience to the Law, which no man
fulfils, we were under God's wrath and condemnation. Christ made satisfaction
for our sins, effected a reconciliation with God and gave to us his own
righteousness. Nothing is said in this ministration of man's deeds; it
tells rather of the works of Christ, who is unique in that he was born
of a virgin, died for sin and rose from the dead, something no other man
has been able to do. This doctrine is revealed through none but the Holy
Spirit, and none other confers the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in
the hearts of them who hear and accept the doctrine. Therefore, this ministration
is termed a ministration "of the Spirit."
23. The apostle employs the words "letter" and "spirit," to contrast
the two doctrines; to emphasize his office and show its advantage over
all others, however eminent the teachers whom they boast, and however great
the spiritual unction which they vaunt. It is of design that he does not
term the two dispensations "Law" and "Gospel," but names them according
to the respective effects produced. He honors the Gospel with a superior
term--"ministration of the spirit." Of the Law, on the contrary, he speaks
almost contemptuously, as if he would not honor it with the title of God's
commandment, which in reality it is, according to his own admission later
on that its deliverance to Moses and its injunction upon the children of
Israel was an occasion of surpassing glory.
24. Why does Paul choose this method? Is it right for one to despise
or dishonor God's Law? Is not a chaste and honorable life a matter of beauty
and godliness? Such facts, it may be contended, are implanted by God in
reason itself, and all books teach them; they are the governing force in
the world. I reply: Paul's chief concern is to defeat the vainglory and
pretensions of false preachers, and to teach them the right conception
and appreciation of the Gospel which he proclaimed. What Paul means is
this: When the Jews vaunt their Law of Moses, which was received as Law
from God and recorded upon two tables of stone; when they vaunt their learned
and saintly preachers of the Law and its exponents, and hold their deeds
and manner of life up to admiration, what is all that compared to the Gospel
message? The claim may be well made: a fine sermon, a splendid exposition;
but, after all, nothing more comes of it than precepts, expositions, written
comments. The precept, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and thy neighbor as thyself," remains a mere array of words. When much
time and effort have been spent in conforming one's life to it, nothing
has been accomplished. You have pods without peas, husks without kernels.
25. For it is impossible to keep the Law without Christ, though man
may, for the sake of honor or property, or from fear of punishment, feign
outward holiness. The heart which does not discern God's grace in Christ
cannot turn to God nor trust in him; it cannot love his commandments and
delight in them, but rather resists them. For nature rebels at compulsion.
No man likes to be a captive in chains. One does not voluntarily bow to
the rod of punishment or submit to the executioner's sword; rather, because
of these things, his anger against the Law is but increased, and he ever
thinks: "Would that I might unhindered steal, rob, hoard, gratify my lust,
and so on!" And when restrained by force, he would there were no Law and
no God. And this is the case where conduct shows some effects of discipline,
in that the outer man has been subjected to the teaching of the Law.
26. But in a far more appalling degree does inward rebellion ensue when
the heart feels the full force of the Law; when, standing before God's
judgment, it feels the sentence of condemnation; as we shall presently
hear, for the apostle says "the letter killeth." Then the truly hard knots
appear. Human nature fumes and rages against the Law; offenses appear in
the heart, the fruit of hate and enmity against the Law; and presently
human nature flees before God and is incensed at God's judgment. It begins
to question the equity of his dealings, to ask if he is a just God. Influenced
by such thoughts, it falls ever deeper into doubt, it murmurs and chafes,
until finally, unless the Gospel comes to the rescue, it utterly despairs,
as did Judas, and Saul, and perhaps pass out of this life with God and
creation. This is what Paul means when he says (Rom 7:8-9) that the Law
works sin in the heart of man, and sin works death, or kills.
27. You see, then, why the Law is called "the letter": though noble
doctrine, it remains on the surface; it does not enter the heart as a vital
force which begets obedience. Such is the baseness of human nature, it
will not and cannot conform to the Law; and so corrupt is mankind, there
is no individual who does not violate all God's commandments in spite of
daily hearing the preached Word and having held up to view God's wrath
and eternal condemnation. Indeed, the harder pressed man is, the more furiously
he storms against the Law.
28. The substance of the matter is this: When all the commandments have
been put together, when their message receives every particle of praise
to which it is entitled, it is still a mere letter. That is, teaching not
put into practice. By "letter" is signified all manner of law, doctrine
and message, which goes no farther than the oral or written word, which
consists only of the powerless letter. To illustrate: A law promulgated
by a prince or the authorities of a city, if not enforced, remains merely
an open letter, which makes a demand indeed, but ineffectually. Similarly,
God's Law, although a teaching of supreme authority and the eternal will
of God, must suffer itself to become a mere empty letter or husk. Without
a quickening heart, and devoid of fruit, the Law is powerless to effect
life and salvation. It may well be called a veritable table of omissions
(Lass-tafel); that is, it is a written enumeration, not of duties performed
but of duties cast aside. In the languages of the world, it is a royal
edict which remains unobserved and unperformed. In this light St. Augustine
understood the Law. He says, commenting on Psalm 17, "What is Law without
grace but a letter without spirit?" Human nature, without the aid of Christ
and his grace, cannot keep it.
29. Again, Paul in terming the Gospel a "ministration of the spirit"
would call attention to its power to produce in the hearts of men an effect
wholly different from that of the Law: it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit
and it creates a new heart. Man, driven into fear and anxiety by the preaching
of the Law, hears this Gospel message, which, instead of reminding him
of God's demands, tells him what God has done for him. It points not to
man's works, but to the works of Christ, and bids him confidently believe
that for the sake of his Son God will forgive his sins and accept him as
his child. And this message, when received in faith, immediately cheers
and comforts the heart. The heart will no longer flee from God; rather
it turns to him. Finding grace with God and experiencing his mercy, the
heart feels drawn to him. It commences to call upon him and to treat and
revere him as its beloved God. In proportion as such faith and solace grow,
also love for the commandments will grow and obedience to them will be
man's delight. Therefore, God would have his Gospel message urged unceasingly
as the means of awakening man's heart to discern his state and recall the
great grace and lovingkindness of God, with the result that the power of
the Holy Spirit is increased constantly. Note, no influence of the Law,
no work of man is present here. The force is a new and heavenly one--the
power of the Holy Spirit. He impresses upon the heart Christ and his works,
making of it a true book which does not consist in the tracery of mere
letters and words, but in true life and action.
30. God promised of old, in Joel 2:28 and other passages, to give the
Spirit through the new message, the Gospel. And he has verified his promise
by public manifestations in connection with the preaching of that Gospel,
as on the day of Pentecost and again later. When the apostles, Peter and
others, began to preach, the Holy Spirit descended visibly from heaven
upon their hearts. Acts 8:17; 10:44. Up to that time, throughout the period
the Law was preached, no one had heard or seen such manifestation. The
fact could not but be grasped that this was a vastly different message
from that of the Law when such mighty results followed in its train. And
yet its substance was no more than what Paul declared (Acts 13:38-39):
"Through this man is proclaimed unto you remission of sins: and by him
every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could
not be justified by the law of Moses."
31. In this teaching you see no more the empty letters, the valueless
husks or shells of the Law, which unceasingly enjoins., "This thou shalt
do and observe," and ever in vain. You see instead the true kernel and
power which confers Christ and the fullness of His Spirit. In consequence,
men heartily believe the message of the Gospel and enjoy its riches. They
are accounted as having fulfilled the Ten Commandments. John says (Jn 1:16-17):
"Of his fullness we all received, and grace for grace. For the Law was
given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John's
thought is: The Law has indeed been given by Moses, but what avails that
fact? To be sure, it is a noble doctrine and portrays a beautiful and instructive
picture of man's duty to God and all mankind; it is really excellent as
to the letter. Yet it remains empty; it does not enter into the heart.
Therefore it is called "law," nor can it become aught else, so long as
nothing more is given.
CHRIST SUPERSEDES MOSES
Before there can be fulfilment, another than Moses must come, bringing
another doctrine. Instead of a law enjoined, there must be grace and truth
revealed. For to enjoin a command and to embody the truth are two different
things; just as teaching and doing differ. Moses, it is true, teaches the
doctrine of the Law, so far as exposition is concerned, but he can neither
fulfil it himself nor give others the ability to do so. That it might be
fulfilled, God's Son had to come with his fullness; he has fulfilled the
Law for himself and it is he who communicates to our empty heart the power
to attain to the same fullness.
This becomes possible when we receive grace for grace, that is, when
we come to the enjoyment of Christ, and for the sake of him who enjoys
with God fullness of grace, although our own obedience to the Law is still
imperfect. Being possessed of solace and grace, we receive by his power
the Holy Spirit also, so that, instead of harboring mere empty letters
within us, we come to the truth and begin to fulfil God's Law, in such
a way, however, that we draw from his fullness and drink from that as a
CHRIST THE SOURCE OF LIFE GREATER THAN ADAM THE SOURCE OF DEATH
32. Paul gives us the same thought in Romans 5:17-18, where he compares
Adam and Christ. Adam, he says, by his disobedience in Paradise, became
the source of sin and death in the world; by the sin of this one man, condemnation
passed upon all men. But on the other hand, Christ, by his obedience and
righteousness, has become for us the abundant source wherefrom all may
obtain righteousness and the power of obedience. And with respect to the
latter source, it is far richer and more abundant than the former. While
by the single sin of one man, sin and death passed upon all men, to wax
still more powerful with the advent of the Law, of such surpassing strength
and greatness, on the other hand, is the grace and bounty which we have
in Christ that it not only washes away the particular sin of the one man
Adam, which, until Christ came, overwhelmed all men in death, but overwhelms
and blots out all sin whatever. Thus they who receive his fullness of grace
and bounty unto righteousness are, according to Paul, lords of life through
Jesus Christ alone.
THE LAW INEFFECTUAL
33. You see now how the two messages differ, and why Paul exalts the
one, the preaching of the Gospel, and calls it a "ministration of the spirit,"
but terms the other, the Law, a mere empty "letter." His object is to humble
the pride of the false apostles and preachers which they felt in their
Judaism and the law of Moses, telling the people with bold pretensions:
"Beloved, let Paul preach what he will, he cannot overthrow Moses, who
on Mount Sinai received the Law, God's irrevocable command, obedience to
which is ever the only way to salvation."
34. Similarly today, Papists, Anabaptists and other sects make outcry:
"What mean you by preaching so much about faith and Christ? Are the people
thereby made better? Surely works are essential." Arguments of this character
have indeed a semblance of merit, but, when examined by the light of truth,
are mere empty, worthless twaddle. For if deeds, or works, are to be considered,
there are the Ten Commandments; we teach and practice these as well as
they. The Commandments would answer the purpose indeed--if one could preach
them so effectively as to compel their fulfilment.
But the question is, whether what is preached is also practiced. Is
there something more than were words--or letters, as Paul says? Do the
words result in life and spirit? This message we have in common; unquestionably,
one must teach the Ten Commandments, and, what is more, live them. But
we charge that they are not observed. Therefore something else is requisite
in order to render obedience to them possible. When Moses and the Law are
made to say: "You should do thus; God demands this of you," what does it
profit? Ay, beloved Moses, I hear that plainly, and it is certainly a righteous
command; but pray tell me whence shall I obtain ability to do what, alas,
I never have done nor can do? It is not easy to spend money from an empty
pocket, or to drink from an empty can. If I am to pay my debt, or to quench
my thirst, tell me how first to fill pocket or can. But upon this point
such prattlers are silent; they but continue to drive and plague with the
Law, let the people stick to their sins, and make merry of them to their
35. In this light Paul here portrays the false apostles and like pernicious
schismatics, who make great boasts of having a clearer understanding and
of knowing much better what to teach than is the case with true preachers
of the Gospel. And when they do their very best, when they pretend great
things, and do wonders with their preaching, there is naught but the mere
empty "letter." Indeed, their message falls far short of Moses. Moses was
a noble preacher, truly, and wrought greater things than any of them may
do. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Law could do no more than remain
a letter, an Old Testament, and God had to ordain a different doctrine,
a New Testament, which should impart the "spirit."
"It is the letter," says Paul, "which we preach. If any glorying is
to be done, we can glory in better things and make the defiant plea that
they are not the only teachers of what ought to be done, incapable as they
are of carrying out their own precepts. We give direction and power as
to performing and living those precepts. For this reason our message is
not called the Old Testament, or the message of the dead letter, but that
of the New Testament and of the living Spirit."
36. No seditious spirit, it is certain, ever carries out its own precepts,
nor will he ever be capable of doing so, though he may loudly boast the
Spirit alone as his guide. Of this fact you may rest assured. For such
individuals know nothing more than the doctrine of works--nor can they
rise higher and point you to anything else. They may indeed speak of Christ,
but it is only to hold him up as an example of patience in suffering. In
short, there can be no New Testament preached if the doctrine of faith
in Christ be left out; the spirit cannot enter into the heart, but all
teaching, endeavor, reflection, works and power remain mere "letters,"
devoid of grace, truth, and life. Without Christ the heart remains unchanged
and unrenewed. It has no more power to fulfil the Law than the book in
which the Ten Commandments are written, or the stones upon which engraved.
"For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
37. Here is yet stronger condemnation of the glory of the doctrine of
the Law; yet higher exaltation of the Gospel ministry. Is the apostle overbold
in that he dares thus to assail the Law and say: "The Law is not only a
lifeless letter, but qualified merely to kill"? Surely that is not calling
the Law a good and profitable message, but one altogether harmful. Who,
unless he would be a cursed heretic in the eyes of the world and invite
execution as a blasphemer, would dare to speak thus, except Paul himself?
Even Paul must praise the Law, which is God's command, declaring it good
and not to be despised nor in any way modified, but to be confirmed and
fulfilled so completely, as Christ says (Mt 5:18), that not a tittle of
it shall pass away. How, then, does Paul come to speak so disparagingly,
even abusively, of the Law, actually presenting it as veritable death and
poison? Well, his is a sublime doctrine, one that reason does not understand.
The world, particularly they Who would be called holy and godly, cannot
tolerate it at all; for it amounts to nothing short of pronouncing all
our works, however precious, mere death and poison.
38. Paul's purpose is to bring about the complete overthrow of the boast
of the false teachers and hypocrites, and to reveal the weakness of their
doctrine, showing how little it effects even at its best, since it offers
only the Law, Christ remaining unproclaimed and unknown. They say in terms
of vainglorious eloquence that if a man diligently keep the commandments
and do many good works, he shall be saved. But theirs are only vain words,
a pernicious doctrine. This fact is eventually learned by him who, having
heard no other doctrine, trusts in their false one. He finds out that it
holds neither comfort nor power of life, but only doubt and anxiety, followed
by death and destruction.
TERRORS OF THE LAW
39. When man, conscious of his failure to keep God's command, is constantly
urged by the Law to make payment of his debt and confronted with nothing
but the terrible wrath of God and eternal condemnation, he cannot but sink
into despair over his sins. Such is the inevitable consequence where the
Law alone is taught with a view to attaining heaven thereby. The vanity
of such trust in works is illustrated in the case of the noted hermit mentioned
in Vitae Patrum. (Lives of the Fathers). For over seventy years this hermit
had led a life of utmost austerity, and had many followers. When the hour
of death came he began to tremble, and for three days was in a state of
agony. His disciples came to comfort him, exhorting him to die in peace
since he had led so holy a life. But he replied: "Alas, I truly have all
my life served Christ and lived austerely; but God's judgment greatly differs
from that of men."
40. Note, this worthy man, despite the holiness of his life, has no
acquaintance with any article but that of the divine judgment according
to the Law. He knows not the comfort of Christ's Gospel. After a long life
spent in the attempt to keep God's commandments and secure salvation, the
Law now slays him through his own works. He is compelled to exclaim: "Alas,
who knows how God will look upon my efforts? Who may stand before him?"
That means, to forfeit heaven through the verdict of his own conscience.
The work he has wrought and his holiness of life avail nothing. They merely
push him deeper into death, since he is without the solace of the Gospel,
while others, such as the thief on the cross and the publican, grasp the
comfort of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Thus sin is conquered;
they escape the sentence of the Law, and pass through death into life eternal.
EFFICACY OF THE GOSPEL
41. Now the meaning of the contrasting clause, "the spirit giveth life,"
becomes clear. The reference is to naught else but the holy Gospel, a message
of healing and salvation; a precious, comforting word. It comforts and
refreshes the sad heart. It wrests it out of the jaws of death and hell,
as it were, and transports it to the certain hope of eternal life, through
faith in Christ. When the last hour comes to the believer, and death and
God's judgment appear before his eyes, he does not base his comfort upon
his works. Even though he may have lived the holiest life possible, he
says with Paul (1 Cor. 4:4): "I know nothing against myself, yet am I not
42. These words imply being ill pleased with self, with the whole life,
indeed, even the putting to death of self. Though the heart says, "By my
works I am neither made righteous nor saved," which is practically admitting
oneself to be worthy of death and condemnation, the Spirit extricates from
despair, through the Gospel faith, which confesses, as did St. Bernard
in the hour of death: "Dear Lord Jesus, I am aware that my life at its
best has been but worthy of condemnation, but I trust in the fact that
thou hast died for me and hast sprinkled me with blood from thy holy wounds.
For I have been baptized in thy name and have given heed to thy Word whereby
thou hast called me, awarded me grace and life, and bidden me believe.
In this assurance will I pass out of life; not in uncertainty and anxiety,
thinking, 'Who knows what sentence God in heaven will pass upon me?'"
The Christian must not utter such a question. The sentence against his
life and works has long since been passed by the Law. Therefore, he must
confess himself guilty and condemned. But he lives by the gracious judgment
of God declared from heaven, whereby the sentence of the Law is overruled
and reversed. It is this: "He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life"
43. When the consolation of the Gospel has once been received and it
has wrested the heart from death and the terrors of hell, the Spirit's
influence is felt. By its power God's Law begins to live in man's heart;
he loves it, delights in it and enters upon its fulfilment. Thus eternal
life begins here, being continued forever and perfected in the life to
44. Now you see how much more glorious, how much better, is the doctrine
of the apostles--the New Testament--than the doctrine of those who preach
merely great works and holiness without Christ. We should see in this fact
an incentive to hear the Gospel with gladness. We ought joyfully to thank
God for it when we learn how it has power to bring to men life and eternal
salvation, and when it gives us assurance that the Holy Spirit accompanies
it and is imparted to believers.
"But if the ministration of death, written, and engraven on stones,
came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look stedfastly
upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which glory was passing
away: how shall not rather the ministration of the Spirit be with glory?
For if the ministration of condemnation hath glory, much rather doth the
ministration of righteousness exceed in glory."
GLORY OF THE GOSPEL
45. Paul is in an ecstasy of delight, and his heart overflows in words
of praise for the Gospel. Again he handles the Law severely, calling it
a ministration, or doctrine, of death and condemnation. What term significant
of greater abomination could he apply to God's Law than to call it a doctrine
of death and hell? And again (Gal 2:17), he calls it a "minister (or preacher)
of sin;" and (Gal 3:10) the message which proclaims a curse, saying, "As
many as are of the works of the law are under a curse." Absolute, then,
is the conclusion that Law and works are powerless to justify before God;
for how can a doctrine proclaiming only sin, death and condemnation justify
46. Paul is compelled to speak thus, as we said above because of the
infamous presumption of both teachers and pupils, in that they permit flesh
and blood to coquet with the Law, and make their own works which they bring
before God their boast. Yet, nothing is effected but self-deception and
destruction. For, when the Law is viewed in its true light, when its "glory,"
as Paul has it, is revealed, it is found to do nothing more than to kill
man and sink him into condemnation.
47. Therefore, the Christian will do well to learn this text of Paul
and have an armor against the boasting of false teachers, and the torments
and trials of the devil when he urges the Law and induces men to seek righteousness
in their own works, tormenting their heart with the thought that salvation
is dependent upon the achievements of the individual. The Christian will
do well to learn this text, I say, so that in such conflicts he may take
the devil's own sword, saying: "Why dost thou annoy me with talk of the
Law and my works? What is the Law after all, however much you may preach
it to me, but that which makes me feel the weight of sin, death and condemnation?
Why should I seek therein righteousness before God?"
48. When Paul speaks of the "glory of the Law," of which the Jewish
teachers of work-righteousness boast, he has reference to the things narrated
in the twentieth and thirtyfourth chapters of Exodus--how, when the Law
was given, God descended in majesty and glory from heaven, and there were
thunderings and lightnings, and the mountain was encircled with fire; and
how when Moses returned from the Mountain, bringing the Law, his face shone
with a glory so dazzling that the people could not look upon his face and
he was obliged to veil it.
49. Turning their glory against them, Paul says: "Truly, we do not deny
the glory; splendor and majesty were there: but what does such glory do
but compel souls to flee before God, and drive into death and hell? We
believers, however, boast another glory,--that of our ministration. The
Gospel record tells us (Mt 17:2-4) that Christ clearly revealed such glory
to his disciples when his face shone as the sun, and Moses and Elijah were
present. Before the manifestation of such glory, the disciples did not
flee; they beheld with amazed joy and said: "Lord, it is good for us to
be here. We will make here tabernacles for thee and for Moses," etc.
50. Compare the two scenes and you will understand plainly the import
of Paul's words here. As before said, this is the substance of his meaning:
"The Law produces naught but terror and death when it dazzles the heart
with its glory and stands revealed in its true nature. On the other hand,
the Gospel yields comfort and joy." But to explain in detail the signification
of the veiled face of Moses, and of his shining uncovered face, would take
too long to enter upon here.
51. There is also especial comfort to be derived from Paul's assertion
that the "ministration," or doctrine, of the Law "passeth away"; for otherwise
there would be naught but eternal condemnation. The doctrine of the Law
"passes away" when the preaching of the Gospel of Christ finds place. To
Christ, Moses shall yield, that he alone may hold sway. Moses shall not
terrify the conscience of the believer. When, perceiving the glory of Moses,
the conscience trembles and despairs before God's wrath, then it is time
for Christ's glory to shine with its gracious, comforting light into the
heart. Then can the heart endure Moses and Elijah. For the glory of the
Law, or the unveiled face of Moses, shall shine only until man is humbled
and driven to desire the blessed countenance of Christ. If you come to
Christ, you shall no longer hear Moses to your fright and terror; you shall
hear him as one who remains servant to the Lord Christ, leaving the solace
and the joy of his countenance unobscured. In conclusion:
"For verily that which hath been made glorious hath not been made glorious
in this respect, by reason of the glory that surpasseth."
52. The meaning here is; When the glory and holiness of Christ, revealed
through the preaching of the Gospel, is rightly perceived then the glory
of the Law--which is but a feeble and transitory glory--is seen to be not
really glorious. It is mere dark clouds in contrast to the light of Christ
shining to lead us out of sin, death and hell unto God and eternal life.