"I confess... and many others could undoubtedly make an equal confession, that I am now more negligent than I was under the Pope: and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among monks and priests" (Walch, IX.1311).This quote is used by Roman Catholics in a variety of ways. First, it sometimes serves as proof Luther admitted his personal life was characterized by sin, or that once he was freed from Romanism, his moral and spiritual life was worse (see below). Second, it's sometimes used as proof that the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not produce good works, and Luther here admitted it. This blog entry uses the quote as an answer to this statement: "...if Sola Fide is correct, the Catholic Church falls, but if it is not right, then Protestantism crumbles. We will start by reading what Luther had to say about himself after leaving the Catholic Church." Another blogger uses the quote as proof Luther had "regrets as to the relative failure of the 'Reformation' " and "the lower state of general morality." Martin Luther regretted the Reformation? No, he didn't.
Polemical Secondary Sources
If you search around on the Internet for this quote, you'll probably not find any of Rome's current defenders producing a primary context. What you'll typically find is the reference "Walch IX 1311." I doubt any of Rome's current defenders actually have, or have read this source. Most of them couldn't tell you if this statement was from a treatise, letter, sermon, or Table Talk. Their "deep into history" triumphalism is often abandoned when Luther is the subject. Where did Luther say it? What's the context? These basic questions should be asked by anyone thinking of using this quote.
My best guess is this quote was popularized by Father Patrick O'Hare's The Facts About Luther. On page 131 (page 125, 1987 Tan version) O'Hare stares:
The new Gospel did not even make Luther himself better. He said: "I confess . . . that I am more negligent than I was under the Pope and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among monks and priests." (Walch, IX. 1311.)A similar interpretation and citation can also be found in Henry O'Connor's Luther's Own Statements. It appears Father O'Hare plagiarized O'Connor (it is a source he used). On page 56 O'Connor states exactly,
The new Gospel did not even make Luther himself better. He writes: "I confess that I am much more negligent, than I was under the Pope, and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among Monks and Priests." (Walch IX.1311)
A similar version of the same quote was used by Hartmann Grisar in Luther 3. On page 206, Grisar states:
"I confess of myself," he says in a sermon in 1532, "and doubtless others must admit the same [of themselves], that I lack the diligence and earnestness of which really I ought to have much more than formerly; that I am much more careless than I was under the Papacy; and that now, under the Evangel, there is nowhere the same zeal to be found as before." This he declares to be due to the devil and to people's carelessness, but not to his teaching. (Werke, Erl. ed., 18 2 , p. 353).
O'Hare and O'Connor cite Walch, IX. 1311. "Walch" refers to a set of Luther's works published 1740-1753 by Johann Georg Walch. The set was revised from 1885-1910 (in St. Louis), and may not match up with the earlier set. It appears O'Connor used the 18th Century edition. Here is volume IX, 1311 from the old set. Grisar refers to "Werke, Erl. ed., 18 2 , p. 353." This volume is also available. Page 353 can be found here.
The writing in question is a lengthy sermon on 1 john 4 16-21. It can be found in WA 36:416 - 477, with the quote being found on page 469. To my knowledge, this sermon has not been translated into English. In fact, in Lenker's multi-volume set of Luther's sermons, he's probably alluding to this sermon when he mentions a number of sermons were too long to include [Complete Sermons of Martin Luther 4 (2) (Baker Books, 2000) p. 40].
Even though not translated in English, a cogent and concise overview of this sermon by a leading Luther scholar is available. Paul Althaus devoted a few pages to it in The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966). The context has nothing to do with Luther admitting the failure of the Reformation or admitting how sinful his life was. Rather, the sermon is on love: the love God and the love of neighbor. Before tackling the quote, here is part of the overview from Althaus (pp. 450-455):
In 1532, five years later, Luther again interprets I John 4:17 in a series of sermons on I John 4:16 This later interpretation is quite different from that of 1527. It also differs from his interpretation of the corresponding passage, I John 3:19. He now recognizes that perfect love includes the love which Christians have. This corresponds to his exegesis of I John 3:19f. in the lectures. However, the confidence or joy which love gives is no longer understood in terms of man's relationship to God. Luther rather distinguishes a twofold joy (or "courage" or "boast") and correspondingly a twofold fear which is overcome by the Christian's joyfulness. This victory results in a corresponding increase in joy. On the one hand, the Christian on the day of judgment stands before God the Lord as his judge and must fear his wrath. This is the "fear which falls down from above."
Before God, every man is lost because he is guilty when judged by the high standards of God's commandments. "I am a sinner in your sight"' On the other hand, however, when death and the day of judgment come—yes, even before this, in life itself--Satan, death, the world, and the neighbor against whom I have become guilty, so very guilty, rise up to accuse me. They accuse me of lacking good works and transgressing God's commandments. And this, too, I must fear. This is the fear which comes from below, that is, from the world.
The first fear, the "basic fear before God," cannot be overcome in any other way; and my joyfulness and my confidence before God cannot be established in any other way than with Christ and with God's work of salvation in him, that is, by faith in Christ. The fear which we feel toward God because of our sins "is conquered only through faith." Faith works the "most important joyfulness," and our "chief glory." The fear which "falls down from above" cannot be overcome "except through baptism and the gospel. This gives great courage that we cannot find in ourselves but only in Christ."
But the fear which I feel because Satan, death, the world, and my neighbor accuse me, must be overcome in another way. And my joyfulness in the face of it must have another foundation. This is given by good works and love. Before God we always have a bad conscience. But in relationship to demonic powers and to men we should, like Paul (I Cor. 4:4; II Cor. 1:12; II Tim. 4:7), have a good conscience because of the manifest love for our neighbor toward whom we in our calling have fulfilled the Ten Commandments. This love is definitely not perfect before God. And the Apostle John does not intend to say that when he says that love is perfect. Love is perfect when it has content and is not a mere empty husk, not false, and not "only a rattling of our teeth" with "nothing behind it." In view of Paul's statement, Luther asserts that it is possible for a Christian to have love that is perfect in this sense, that is, it is possible that the Christian has fulfilled his obligation to his neighbor. Thus "through firmly grasping right works" love silences the accusations of the others and no longer needs to fear. I can fully and faithfully fulfill my calling in an orderly fashion; and in every case that is a service of love. Luther personally asserts that he has fulfilled the office of the ministry in this way. For this reason the glorying and courage of a good conscience does have a place.
Under no circumstances, however, does it mean adequacy before God. The Christian standing before God and under God's observation may, in opposition to accusations made by demonic powers and men, well boast that he has faithfully fulfilled his calling in love, but he may never do this in order to establish his relationship to God" For no man can stand under the commandments as God himself interprets them. Luther thus sharply distinguishes a twofold oughtness in God's commandments: on the one hand, that which God expects of me and, on the other hand, that which my neighbor and the world can expect of me. God the Lord demands more than my neighbor and the world can demand. There is all the difference in the world between having to answer to God and to my neighbors and the men and the powers who accuse me. "I will not come to terms with God in any other way than through Christ" "I must speak differently with God," that is, than with men and powers. I can only speak to God in such a way that I point to Christ and hold fast to him.
Thus I can insist that I have acted in love only when I speak with men and demonic powers but never when I speak with God. I neither can nor may think that I have been saved by acting in love or have created my own salvation. Luther never tires of emphasizing this. Two completely different dimensions are involved. And Luther says that his opponents are constantly confusing the two. That fear which produced Psalm 6 ("Rebuke me not in thy anger, nor chasten me in thy wrath") is cast out not by our love but only by Christ and by faith in him."
On the other side, however, living and working in love and the joy which it gives on the day of judgment is of great significance for the Christian when he confronts his accusers—even though it does not establish his salvation. To have to appear on that day without works of love would mean to be afraid and, according to I John 4:18, fear has to do with punishment. For the accusations of men and of other authorities do strike our conscience. "Whoever is terrified feels great agony for the conscience is the greatest cross on earth." If we have no works, our heart becomes fearful and trembles under the accusations of Satan and of men. "It pains a man to have to admit: 'I have not done right. I have despised authority and have not honored my teacher and my spouse." "That hurts" is Luther's translation of John's "fear has to do with punishment" (RSV). And this is in addition to the fear of God's wrath which every man must have. How can a man get rid of this double burden? "If you want to take the sting out of what your neighbor and the devil say and out of God's wrath you have a doubly difficult task. Yes, dear fellow, it is more than you can do." Luther can say, "I must also bring that glory [which comes from works of love] with me or God will not treat me in a friendly way.""He can also say that it "damages" faith to have no work. It must be exercised "and kept moving." "It is difficult for a Christian to believe in the hour of death if he has no experience or signs of faith. "It is difficult to hang only on the mere grace of God." This is how far Luther goes in urging that faith be exercised in love and its works. Faith is in trouble when it has not been tested in life and when it lacks the "signs" which such testing produces.
This may be also put positively. Entering into judgment with works of love does not bring anyone salvation. Salvation comes only from God's forgiving grace. These works of love are, however, the "crown" of which the Apostle Paul speaks in II Timothy 4:8, "Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day." Although the Christian is and remains a sinner before God, God will give the crown to him because he has tirelessly continued to serve the world in spite of its unthankfulness. Luther thus distinguishes between blessedness and salvation on the one hand and the crown or the praise, the honor, the glory on the other.
This glorying in view of one's works of love is admittedly a very minor sort of glory when it is compared with faith's glorying for the sake of Christ. The confidence which it brings is of a lower grade and yet we must have it so that the world cannot accuse us before God.
On the other hand that is not yet the final word. Luther's pastoral theology must also speak a word to those who, because of their lack of works, are so terrified by the accusations of men and of the authorities that they completely collapse in despair. God does not want that to happen. The fear which arises from a lack of love in our lives admittedly causes agony. But Luther constantly emphasizes that the Christian still should not collapse in despair. For God has commanded us to believe and to be joyful in him. "Faith and not fear should be in control"; even though, as we have already heard, faith is "weakened" when it is not tested in love and through sins against the commandments. But Luther's reference does not imply that a man will be damned because of such weakness. Whoever does not have works should really not despair; he too can be saved through faith in God's grace. Luther in his lectures on I John 3:19 f. in 1527 had said that we should certainly be concerned to have the good conscience that comes from living in love. But even if we have no works or if our works against love accuse us, that is, if we cannot achieve that living love described in vs. 19 which "reassures our heart before God," we are still not left without comfort. Rather, we should remind ourselves that God not only advises but expressly commands us to hope in him. Therefore whatever may happen we should not despair. For the highest commandment, the sum total of the gospel, is that we should in faith grasp the grace which is offered to us; and this makes us worthy before God.
Thus the dialectic of the relationship between faith and love is adequately treated on all sides. We are saved only through faith in that grace offered to us in the gospel and through nothing else. True faith, however, demonstrates itself in love. If it is missing, then it is difficult for faith to be faith and to overcome the accusation of a bad conscience with the joyful certainty of salvation. Yet we cannot tell anyone in such a situation to do anything else than to believe. If you have no works, then do not be without faith.
The Quote in Context
Brigitte translated the surrounding context of this quote:
This is what St. Paul meant when he preached about love, 1. Cor. 13 (verse 1): if I speak in tongues of angels; similarly (verse 2): if I had all faith so that I could move mountains, but have not love, so I would be nothing, etc. Because when a person goes along in security with the illusion that he has faith but never experiences it, it must decay and dry up, and nothing is found when it comes to the point in time when some is supposed to be found.Alternate translation (ht: Rhology):
The dear apostles understood this quite well; and we experience it, too. Because the world always remains this way, that it praises itself falsely because of its faith, or otherwise it wants to be seen as quite holy without faith.
But if a person preaches regarding faith and grace, nobody wants to perform works; and if a person urges works, then nobody seeks faith. Those people are quite rare who can hold to the right middle of the road; yes, it becomes difficult even for the pious Christian.
I confess even of myself, and no doubt so will many others also, that I, too, lack the diligence and earnestness, which I should now have in greater measure than before, but rather am more slack than I was under the papacy, and nowadays there hardly is such earnestness under the gospel as one used to see previously under the monks and priests, when there was a great deal of donating and building, and none was so poor, that he did not desire to give something.
But now, no town which can support a preacher, and nothing except robbing and stealing is going on among the people with no one there to stop them.
From where comes such a plague? There are those who scream that it is due to the teaching that one should not build upon and trust in works. But no, it is the pesky devil who blames this condition falsely on the salutary doctrine; also it is our old Adam who wants to always break out to the side onto the wrong path, and believes that it does not matter whether or not we do many good works; and thus we become quickly lazy and careless, persisting in this way until we lose the sap and strength of faith altogether.
The world invariably offers one of the two following options/aspects: either we boast falsely of a faith that we really don't have, or we pretend to sanctify ourselves without faith. Either way, we lack faith. Whether we preach faith and grace, each one believes that he is doing his own works and we neglect faith. Nothing is stranger, even among people who are truly pious, than those who know how to choose the middle road.Conclusion
I confess for my own part, and many other people could no doubt say the same, that I am much more negligent than when I was under Papism and that I lack also the discipline and the zeal that, today more than ever, I should have. There is nowhere in the Gospel the ardor and the zeal that one demonstrated once in the priests and monks, whereas everywhere we used to see pious foundations laid at great cost, and no one was so poor as not to desire to contribute for something. There is no town today that does not, instead, demonstrate its ill will when it comes to providing for their pastors' living. Theft and banditry are those things for which we demonstrate zeal. So to what shall we attribute this shameful complaint? "To doctrine", say the shouters, "to the doctrine that teaches us that we must not place our trust in works". But no, it is only Satan who can blame such things on pure and salvific doctrine.
Ripped from its context, one can make a quote say whatever one wants to.
Luther's goal in this statement is balance. The entire sermon is an exposition on faith and works, and achieving that balance. Does the quote serve as proof that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was to blame for a lack of works? Luther says no: " ...it is only Satan who can blame such things on pure and salvific doctrine." To place the blame on the doctrine of faith would be to admit works are to be trusted in for salvation.
Luther was not admitting his "new Gospel did not even make himself better" (O'Hare and O'Connor). For under the papacy in Luther's day, works were stressed over faith. It was an unbalance. I could just as easily picture an ex-Jehovah's Witness state "When I was under the Watchtower, I excelled in works, now under the Gospel, I struggle to maintain a healthy balance."
Note also what Luther links his admission to in regard to his hearers: donating and building. Under the papacy, there was a works oriented zeal to give to the church. Luther's statement is a preaching exhortation to both himself and his hearers- that faith should produce fruit. That fruit though is not salvific, it is done out of heartfelt gratitude to what God has done through Christ.
Oh, and today is the anniversary of Luther's birthday.