How to Measure the True Christian
The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), translated by Haroldo Camacho (1517 Publishing, 2018).
Against these empty bubbles and cherished illusions (as I have noted), we teach faith and we give the true measure of faith. First, man should learn from the law to know himself. He needs to say with the prophet, “All have sinned and are in dire need of the glory of God.” “They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3). Further, “Only against you have I sinned” (Psalm 51:6). On the opposite side, we warn all men to flee from congruous merit and condign merit. Thus when someone has been humbled by the law and has been taught who he really is, that’s when true repentance follows. True repentance begins with the fear of God’s judgment. In such a way, man realizes how great a sinner he is and that it’s impossible to free himself from his sins through his own strength, works, or merits. That’s when he can see what Paul described as “I am sold as a slave to sin.” Also, “God has locked up all people in disobedience.” He realizes that together with the whole world he is guilty before God. He can see that the entirety of the papal scholars’ theology regarding congruous and condign merit is nothing but foolish and empty talk and bringing the papacy to total failure.
At this, he begins to moan, saying, “Who can possibly come to my rescue?” Because he has been frightened by the law and has lost all hope, because he has no strength of his own, he looks around sighing for a mediator and savior. That is when the healing word of the Gospel comes, saying, “My child, your sins are forgiven.” Believe that Jesus Christ was crucified for your sins. If you feel your sins and their heavy burden, don’t let that sink you into despair. Remember that they have been transferred and placed on Christ, by whose wounds you have been healed (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). Here’s where salvation begins. This is how we are delivered from sin, justified, and made heirs of eternal life. It is not due to our own merits and works but through faith by which we hold on to Christ. We also recognize there is a quality and a shaped righteousness of the heart. It is not love (as the papal scholars affirm), but faith. This faith is only such faith that fixes its eyes and holds only on to Christ the Savior. Here, it’s necessary for you to know the true definition of Christ. The papal scholars have made out of Christ a judge and a despot as a means to invent their foolish notions of congruous and condign merit!
However, Christ, according to His rightful definition, is no Lawgiver but the One who offers the sacrifice for your sins and a Savior. Faith takes hold of this, and without doubt, it believes that He has done abundant works and obtained congruous and condign merits before and after grace. He could have wiped out the sins of the world with just one drop of His blood. But now, He has shed His blood to overflowing and provided more than enough satisfaction. “He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood” (Hebrews 9:3), and “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). Thus it is a great thing to take hold of Christ, who bears the sins of the world, by faith. This faith alone is counted as righteousness (Romans 3; 4).
Note that these three things, faith, Christ, and acceptance, or imputation, should be joined together. Faith takes hold of Christ and fastens on to Him without letting go, as the ring holds the precious stone. Everyone who is found with this trust fastened to his heart, God counts as righteous. This is the means, and this is the merit by which we obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness. “Because you have believed in me,” says the Lord, “and your faith has fastened on to Christ, who I freely gave to be your mediator and high priest: I declare you righteous!” Thus God does accept and count us as righteous by faith alone in Christ.
This acceptance or imputation is extremely necessary, first, because we are not yet perfectly righteous, but as long as we live in this life, sin remains in our flesh, and God cleanses us from this residue of sin. What’s more, sometimes the Holy Spirit is withdrawn from us, and we fall into sins like Peter, David, and other saintly people. Even so, we can always count on this premise: “That our sins have been covered and that God will not count them against us” (Psalm 32; Romans 4). It’s not that sin is not within us (as the papal scholars have taught us, saying that we should keep on striving until there is no fault at all within us), since sin will always be in us and the most pious will feel its power. However, sin has been snatched away, and on Christ’s behalf, God does not count it against us. So once we fasten on to Him, all our sins now are no longer sins. However, where there is neither Christ nor faith, sins are neither forgiven nor taken away. The only thing that remains is the accounting of sins and condemnation. That is how God glorifies His Son, and through Him, He will be glorified in us.
When we have taught faith in Christ in this manner, then we also teach good works. Since you have now taken hold of Christ by faith and by Him you are now righteous, now begin to do good works. You love God and neighbor, call upon Him, come before Him with thanksgiving, preach, worship Him, and confess Him. You help and serve your neighbor, and you are responsible in your duties. Indeed, these are good works that flow from this faith and from this joy born from the heart, since Christ has freely given us the remission of sins.
Every cross and affliction that will come our way will be carried easily and suffered with joy “because the yoke that Christ places on us is easy and His burden is light.” When sin has been forgiven, and the conscience is freed from the burden and the sting of sin, then the Christian will be able to carry all things easily. He will feel that all things in themselves are sweet and pleasant; therefore, he tolerates all things with goodwill. But when people walk in their own righteousness, everything they do is arduous and tedious because they do it unwillingly.
Thus we define a Christian in the following way. A Christian is not someone without sin but anyone to whom God does not impute sin through faith in Christ. This doctrine greatly comforts the conscience when it feels miserable and deeply stressed by profound and internal fears. Therefore, with good reason, we so often hammer home into the mind the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness on account of Christ. In the same way, we insist that the Christian will not have anything to do with the law and sin, especially in the moment of temptation. Since he is already a Christian, he is above the law and sin, for he already has Christ, the Lord of the law, present and safeguarded in the heart (as I’ve said before), as the ring safeguards the jewel or precious stone within its circle. That is why when the law accuses him and sin hounds him, he fixes his eyes on Christ, whom he has grasped by faith. He will realize that he already has present with him the conqueror of the law, sin, death, and the devil. Christ reigns and governs over these evils so that they can no longer hurt the Christian.
Therefore, the Christian is correctly defined as someone who is free from all laws and who is no longer under submission to anything or anyone, internally or externally. That person is distinctively a Christian, even before you think of that person as a man or a woman. In other words, it is because that person’s conscience has been adorned and beautied by this faith, with this great and priceless treasure, as Paul said, with this “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15). We cannot exalt or praise this gift enough, for it makes us children and heirs of God. In this way, the Christian is greater than the entire world. He has such a gift such a treasure in the heart, that although it may seem small, it is greater than heaven and earth because Christ, the gift, is greater than all!