Friday, November 26, 2010

Luther: All the Commandments are Impossible to Us

The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "The Commandments":

“Thou shalt not covet,’is a commandment which proves us all to be sinners; since it is not in man’s power not to covet, and the same is the drift of all the commandments, for they are all equally impossible to us” [De Liv. Chris. Tom. 4:2].

Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of 'reformation' in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ said keep the commandments, while Luther says the opposite: the commandments can't be kept.

This quote may have been taken from this secondary source: Verbum the newsletter of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Ridgefield, CT, Spring 1985. Note the similarities:

Luther, Exposing the Myth originally cited "De Liv. Chris. Tom. 4:2", but later removed this reference. In current versions no documentation is given. A few years back I pointed out this reference didn't make any sense. I've since uncovered the quote was taken from this source, which documents the quote correctly as "De Lib. Chris. Tom. 4:2." This reference is to the first collected publication of Luther's writings, The Wittenberg Edition (1539-1559). Some years back I speculated the quote appeared to be a condensed version of a section from Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian." "De Lib. Chris" is an abbreviated title of this treatise in Latin: De Libertate Christiana. In context, the quote is not as it appears as presented by Luther, Exposing the Myth, it is condensed. Note the sentence breaks in similar citations of this quote from the 1800's:
" 'Thou "shalt not covet,' is a commandment.... it is not in any "man's power not to covet; and the same is the drift of " all the commandments, for they are all equally impossible to us."—(Luther, de lib. Chris., tom. iv., 2.). 
Whoever originally put this quote together was careful to point out it was condensed from a larger context. Luther, Exposing the Myth took no such care.  Here is the page this reference is citing:

The quote in question can be found in the three paragraphs that occur after the large letter "Q" in black type. There are two primary versions of this treatise, a German and Latin.  The more precise version is the Latin version (WA 7:49-73).  In a more clearer font, the specific Latin text from which this quote comes from can also be found in WA 7:52,

This Latin text has been translated into English: The Freedom of a Christian (1520) [LW 31:327-376; PE 2: 312-348], otherwise known as Concerning Christian Liberty [part one, part two].

Should you ask how it happens that faith alone justifies and offers us such a treasure of great benefits without works in view of the fact that so many works, ceremonies, and laws are prescribed in the Scriptures, I answer: First of all, remember what has been said, namely, that faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves; we shall make this clearer later on. Here we must point out that the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments and promises. Although the commandments teach things that are good, the things taught are not done as soon as they are taught, for the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability. That is why they are called the Old Testament and constitute the Old Testament. For example, the commandment, “You shall not covet” [Exod. 20:17], is a command which proves us all to be sinners, for no one can avoid coveting no matter how much he may struggle against it. Therefore, in order not to covet and to fulfill the commandment, a man is compelled to despair of himself, to seek the help which he does not find in himself elsewhere and from someone else, as stated in Hosea [13:9]: “Destruction is your own, O Israel: your help is only in me.” As we fare with respect to one commandment, so we fare with all, for it is equally impossible for us to keep any one of them" [LW 31:348].

Luther, Exposing the Myth's usage of this Luther quote implies they have an underlying Pelagianism. They seem to be implying that mankind with God's grace has the ability to keep the commandments. In context, Luther is saying what Jesus did in Matthew 19. No one as a member of sin-filled humanity can keep the commandments and knowledge of that inability leads to despair and drives one to Christ. Christ is the one has done the work of the law perfectly, and faith in he and his work becomes our by faith.  Once in the arms of Christ, Luther goes on a few sections later to point out that a Christian is the only one who can now do good works. A faith-filled Christian does works to the glory of God. In other words, Christians are those who seek to lead godly lives, and not covet, or break the other commandments. They also strive to serve their neighbors. Luther states:
From this you once more see that much is ascribed to faith, namely, that it alone can fulfill the law and justify without works. You see that the First Commandment, which says, “You shall worship one God,” is fulfilled by faith alone. Though you were nothing but good works from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head, you would still not be righteous or worship God or fulfill the First Commandment, since God cannot be worshiped unless you ascribe to him the glory of truthfulness and all goodness which is due him. This cannot be done by works but only by the faith of the heart. Not by the doing of works but by believing do we glorify God and acknowledge that he is truthful. Therefore faith alone is the righteousness of a Christian and the fulfilling of all the commandments, for he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest.
But works, being inanimate things, cannot glorify God, although they can, if faith is present, be done to the glory of God. Here, however, we are not inquiring what works and what kind of works are done, but who it is that does them, who glorifies God and brings forth the works. This is done by faith which dwells in the heart and is the source and substance of all our righteousness. Therefore it is a blind and dangerous doctrine which teaches that the commandments must be fulfilled by works. The commandments must be fulfilled before any works can be done, and the works proceed from the fulfillment of the commandments [Rom. 13:10], as we shall hear [LW 31:352-353].
Although, as I have said, a man is abundantly and sufficiently justified by faith inwardly, in his spirit, and so has all that he needs, except insofar as this faith and these riches must grow from day to day even to the future life; yet he remains in this mortal life on earth. In this life he must control his own body and have dealings with men. Here the works begin; here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do if it is not held in check. The inner man, who by faith is created in the image of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in whom so many benefits are conferred upon him; and therefore it is his one occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in love that is not constrained (LW 31:358-359).
We do not, therefore, reject good works; on the contrary, we cherish and teach them as much as possible. We do not condemn them for their own sake but on account of this godless addition to them and the perverse idea that righteousness is to be sought through them; for that makes them appear good outwardly, when in truth they are not good. They deceive men and lead them to deceive one another like ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing [Matt. 7:15] [LW 31:363].
Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor [LW 31:365].
Accordingly Paul, after teaching the Philippians how rich they were made through faith in Christ, in which they obtained all things, thereafter teaches them, saying, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” [Phil. 2:1–4]. Here we see clearly that the Apostle has prescribed this rule for the life of Christians, namely, that we should devote all our works to the welfare of others, since each has such abundant riches in his faith that all his other works and his whole life are a surplus with which he can by voluntary benevolence serve and do good to his neighbor [LW 31:365-366].
Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss. For a man does not serve that he may put men under obligations. He does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward. As his Father does, distributing all things to all men richly and freely, making “his sun rise on the evil and on the good” [Matt. 5:45], so also the son does all things and suffers all things with that freely bestowing joy which is his delight when through Christ he sees it in God, the dispenser of such great benefits [LW 31:367].

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.


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