Testimony of a Former Catholic Monk
Translators Note: The terms "just, justice, justify" in the following reading are synonymous
with the terms "righteous, righteousness, make righteous." Both sets of English words are
common translations of the Latin "justus" and related words. A similar situation exists with
the word "faith"; it is synonymous with "belief." Both words can be used to translate Latin
"fides." Thus, "We are justified by faith" translates the same original Latin sentence as does
"We are made righteous by belief."
Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once
again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in
university courses with St. Paul's Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the
Letter to the Hebrews.
I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to
the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around
my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: "The justice of God is
revealed in it."
I hated that word, "justice of God," which, by the use and custom of all my
teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or
active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he
punishes sinners and the unjust.
But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an
extremely troubled conscience. I couldn't be sure that God was appeased by my
satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners.
In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got
angry at God. I said, "Isn't it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity
because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten
Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the
Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?" This was how I was raging with
wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in
Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid
attention to their context: "The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The
just person lives by faith.’”
I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just
person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse
means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive
justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The
just person lives by faith.”
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through
open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran
through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous
meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of
God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us
wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
I exalted this sweetest word of mine, "the justice of God," with as much love as
before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of
Afterward I read Augustine's "On the Spirit and the Letter," in which I found what I
had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted "the justice of God"
in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us.
Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God
imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which
we are justified.
An excerpt from Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther
(1483-1546). Translated by Andrew Thornton, OSB, from the "Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina
der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545" in vol. 4 of _Luthers Werke in Auswahl_, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed.,
(Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428. Translated for the Saint Anselm College Humanities
Program. (c)1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey.
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