May 22, 2022

Martin Luther (1483–1546) on Psalm 51:1; Being A Strong Encouragement to Prayer

Note: This is so good as an encouragement for us sinners to pray, I had to blog it, even though it does not pertain to the usual subject matter of my blog.
1. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

David mentions God and makes no reference to Christ. Here at the very beginning you should be reminded of something so that you do not think that David is talking about God like a Mohammedan or like some other Gentile. David is talking with the God of his fathers, with the God who promised. The people of Israel did not have a God who was viewed “absolutely,” to use the expression, the way the inexperienced monks rise into heaven with their speculations and think about God as He is in Himself. From this absolute God everyone should flee who does not want to perish, because human nature and the absolute God—for the sake of teaching we use this familiar term—are the bitterest of enemies. Human weakness cannot help being crushed by such majesty, as Scripture reminds us over and over. Let no one, therefore, interpret David as speaking with the absolute God. He is speaking with God as He is dressed and clothed in His Word and promises, so that from the name “God” we cannot exclude Christ, whom God promised to Adam and the other patriarchs. We must take hold of this God, not naked but clothed and revealed in His Word; otherwise certain despair will crush us. This distinction must always be made between the Prophets who speak with God, and the Gentiles. The Gentiles speak with God outside His Word and promises, according to the thoughts of their own hearts; but the Prophets speak with God as He is clothed and revealed in His promises and Word. This God, clothed in such a kind appearance and, so to speak, in such a pleasant mask, that is to say, dressed in His promises—this God we can grasp and look at with joy and trust. The absolute God, on the other hand, is like an iron wall, against which we cannot bump without destroying ourselves. Therefore Satan is busy day and night, making us run to the naked God so that we forget His promises and blessings shown in Christ and think about God and the judgment of God. When this happens, we perish utterly and fall into despair.

David is not speaking this way with the absolute God. He is speaking with the God of his fathers, with the God whose promises he knows and whose mercy and grace he has felt. Therefore when a Turk, a hypocrite, or a monk says, “Have mercy on me, O God,” this is as though he had said nothing. He does not take hold of the God he names as He is veiled in the sort of mask or face that is suited to us; but he takes hold of God and invades Him in His absolute power, where despair, and Lucifer’s fall from heaven into hell, must necessarily follow (Is. 14:12). This is the reason why the Prophets depended so upon God’s promises in their prayers, because the promises include Christ and make God not our judge or enemy, but a God who is kind and well disposed to us, who wants to restore to life and save the condemned.

I wanted to mention this first because of other passages in the Prophets. Now we must consider whether it is appropriate for him to say, “Have mercy on me.” If you look at the persons dealing with each other here, God and the sinner David, their great dissimilarity and an insoluble contradiction will appear. Is it not the feeling of all nature and a judgment of all men that God hates sin? As the blind man says (John 9:31), “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to him.” In the Decalog it says (Ex. 20:5), “I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God.” Yes, throughout Moses there is almost nothing but sheer threats against the wicked and disobedient, and the feeling of nature agrees with the Law of Moses, a feeling we cannot eradicate in any way. All men judge this way: “You are a sinner, but God is righteous. Therefore He hates you, therefore He inflicts punishments upon you, therefore He does not hear you.” Nothing in our nature can deny this conclusion. Hence almost all the holy fathers who wrote about the psalms expounded “the righteous God” to mean that He righteously avenges and punishes, not that He justifies. So it happened to me when I was a young man that I hated this name for God, and from this deep habit I still shudder today when I hear someone say, “the righteous God.” So great is the power of wicked teaching if the mind is imbued with it from childhood. Yet almost all the early theologians expound it this way. But if God is righteous in such a way that He righteously punishes according to deserts, who can stand before this righteous God? For we are all sinners and bring before God a righteous reason for Him to inflict punishment. Out of here with such a righteousness and such a righteous God! He will devour us all like a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24). Because God sent Christ as Savior, He certainly does not want to be righteous in punishing according to deserts. He wants to be righteous and to be called righteous in justifying and having mercy on those who acknowledge their sins.

Therefore when David the sinner says, “Have mercy on me, O God,” it sounds as though he were speaking against the whole Decalog, in which God commands you not to be a sinner and threatens sinners with punishment. What harmony can there be between a sinner and God, who is righteous and truthful, the enemy and foe of sinners, who by His very nature cannot stand sins? Yet David, who later says (v. 3), “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” this David, I say, calls on God and says, “Have mercy on me.” This is really what they call the conjunction of two things that are incompatible. So at the very beginning David shows an art and a wisdom that is above the wisdom of the Decalog, a truly heavenly wisdom, which is neither taught by the Law nor imagined or understood by reason without the Holy Spirit.

Nature always thinks this way, and it says to itself: “I dare not lift my eyes to heaven; I am afraid of the sight of God. I know both that I am a sinner and that God hates sins. So what shall I pray?” Here a very hard battle begins. Either the mind is confused within itself by the consciousness of sin and believes that it should delay praying until it finds some worthiness within itself, so to speak; or it looks around at human counsels and sophistic consolations so that it first thinks about satisfactions that will enable it to come before God with some confidence in its own worthiness and say, “Have mercy on me, O God.” This is the constant belief of our nature, but it is highly dangerous. It encourages our minds to trust in our own righteousness and to think we can please God with our own works. This is a blasphemous presumption of our own merits against the merit of Christ. Since we are born in sins, it follows that we shall never pray unless we pray before we feel that we are pure of all sins.

Therefore we must drive away this blasphemous notion. In the very midst of our sins, or to put it more meaningfully, in the very sea of our sins, we must use the means David uses here, so that we do not put off praying. What does the word “have mercy” accomplish if those who pray are pure and do not need mercy? As I have said, this is a very bitter battle, that in the very feeling of sin a mind can be aroused to cry to God, “Have mercy on me.” From my own example I have sometimes learned that prayer is the most difficult of almost all works, I who teach and command others! Therefore I do not profess to be a master of this work, but rather confess that in great danger I have often repeated the words very coldly, “Have mercy on me, O God,” because I was offended by my unworthiness. Still the Holy Spirit won out by telling me: “Whatever you may be, surely you must pray! God wants you to pray and to be heard because of His mercy, not because of your worthiness.”

For a proper understanding of the fact that God hates sinners and loves the righteous, we must distinguish between the sinner who feels his sins and the sinner who does not feel his sins. God does not want the prayer of a sinner who does not feel his sins, because he neither understands nor wants what he is praying for. Thus a monk living in superstition often sings and mumbles, “Have mercy on me, O God.” But because he lives with trust in his own righteousness and does not feel the uncleanness of his own heart, he is merely reciting syllables and neither understands nor wants the thing itself. Besides, he adds things that contradict his prayer. He prays for forgiveness, he prays for mercy; meanwhile, by this means or that he is looking for expiation of his sin and for satisfaction. Is not this really an open mockery of God? It is just as though a beggar were constantly crying out for alms and when someone offered him some, he would begin to brag about his riches, that is, his poverty, and thus clearly show that he does not need the alms.

Thus the enemies of the Gospel count words. Not only do they fail to understand this, but they do things that contradict it, when they undertake various acts of worship, when they look for the forgiveness of sins by wicked Masses, pilgrimages, invocation of the saints, and the like. Such sinners, who are sinners but do not feel that they are sinners, who go along with stubborn brow and justify themselves, who persecute the Word of God—such people, I say, should be kept far away from all mercy. Before them you should set sayings of wrath, in which God does not offer mercy but eternal punishments, as in the First Commandment (Ex. 20:5): “I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” To them you should set forth examples of divine wrath, the destruction of Sodom, the coming of the Flood over all flesh, the scattering of the holy people, and whatever other fearful spectacles of the judgment and wrath of God there may be in the Scriptures. Thus the callous and impenitent sinners will be brought to a knowledge of themselves, and they will begin a serious plea for mercy. These are the ones of whom it is said, “God hates the sinners; God does not hear the sinners.”

The other sinners are those who feel their sins and the wrath of God and who are afraid before the face of God. These people apply to themselves the threats set forth in the Word of God, and the fearful examples of divine wrath so depress them that they are afraid of the very same punishments because of their sins. When, amid these terrors, the mind has thus been crushed by the hammer of the Law and the judgment of God, this is really the place, time, and occasion to grasp this divine wisdom. Then the heart consoles itself and is sure that when God is wrathful against sinners, He is wrathful only against those who are hard and callous. About those who feel the burden of their sins, it is said (Ps. 147:11): “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him.” Then the Law has done enough, the lightning flashes of the wrathful God should stop, and in their place should shine the lights of mercy set forth in the Word of God: that the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him; that God does not despise a contrite and humble heart (Ps. 51:17); that His ears are open (Ps. 10:17) and His eyes attentive to the needy to lift him from the ash heap (Ps. 113:7); that He helps the bruised reed and restores the dimly burning wick (Is. 42:3). Such people are “the most tender little worm”—as Jerome’s translation says of David in 2 Samuel 23:8, though it is not in the Hebrew—and the tender flower, which is moved and shaken by even the slightest breeze of divine threatening. The others, the callous, meanwhile stand unmoved by any preaching of repentance, like iron mountains in a great storm. Amid these terrors of conscience, therefore, you must see to it that these terrified minds do not judge according to their nature and sense, since this would plunge them into despair. Just as sicknesses that are different in nature have different remedies, so those who are terrified should be strengthened with words of grace, while those who are hard should be smashed with a rod of iron. In such dangers of conscience the pope with his theologians cannot give sound advice, as I experienced for myself. They all judge according to nature, which says, “I am a sinner, but God is righteous; therefore the same punishment awaits me as awaits other sinners.” Here nature shrinks back and cannot see the rays of mercy in the clouds of divine wrath. But here comes our true theology and teaches that when minds are terrified this way, then one part of theology is finished, the part that uses the Law and its threats. Thus the sinner begins to know himself and casts out the smugness in which we all naturally live before this revelation of wrath. We must not stop here, but go on to the knowledge of the other part of theology, the part that fulfills the whole of theological knowledge: that God gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). Those threats and horrible examples apply to the hardened and smug sinners; to them God is jealous and a devouring fire (Deut. 4:24). The contrite and fearful are the people of grace, whose wounds the good Shepherd wants to bind up and heal, the Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Such people should not give in to the thoughts of their hearts, which persuade them that because of their sins they ought not to pray or hope for grace. With David they should cry out, “Have mercy on me, O God,” for such people are well pleasing to God. The theology of this psalm is unknown to the schools of the papists. Look at David here. With his mouth open he breaks out in the words “Have mercy on me, O God.” Thus he combines things that by nature are dissimilar, God and himself the sinner, the Righteous and the unrighteous. That gigantic mountain of divine wrath that so separates God and David, he crosses by trust in mercy and joins himself to God. This is really what our theology adds to the Law. To call on God and to say, “Have mercy,” is not a great deal of work. But to add the particle “on me”—this is really what the Gospel inculcates so earnestly, and yet we experience how hard it is for us to do it. This “on me” hinders almost all our prayers, when it ought to be the only reason and highest occasion for praying.

Therefore we must first study David’s example so that we may rightly look at the pronoun “on me” and be sure that it means a sinner, as he clearly points out later when he says (v. 5), “I was conceived in sin.” There he confesses that this “me” is the greatest of sinners. Let us also learn this so that the crowd of thoughts that seek to hinder us might rather urge us on even more to cry out to God, as we read of the blind man in the Gospel that when he was rebuked, “he cried out all the more” (Mark 10:48). In ourselves we experience this crowd of thoughts upbraiding us: “Why do you want to pray? Do you not know what you are and what God is?” This crowd of thoughts is very burdensome for the spirit, and it hinders very many. We must despise it and pray for the very reason that seems to call us away from prayer, so that somehow we break through that crowd to Christ and ask for mercy. Those who do this pray rightly, but a truly great struggle of spirit is necessary. I have learned from my own experience that these thoughts often drove prayer away from me. Nevertheless, by the grace of God I came to the knowledge that I must not surrender to Satan as he attacked me with his arrows, but tearing them from him by the power of the Spirit I turned the weapons against the enemy himself and said: “You frighten me away from prayer because I am a sinner. But I see that I must pray most of all because of this one reason, that I am a very great sinner and have need of mercy.”

The same must be done in the very heat of temptation, when the mind is tempted with thoughts of lust or vengeance. If someone is urged to pray under these circumstances, the mind immediately protests that it is impure, as though among these dirty thoughts there could be no room for prayer. Here you should insist on the contrary that we must not expect temptation to end or thoughts of lust or other vice to disappear completely from the mind. In the very moment in which you feel that the temptation is strongest and that you are least prepared for prayer, go off into a solitary place (Matt. 6:6), and pray the Lord’s Prayer or whatever you can say against Satan and his temptation. Then you will feel the temptation subsiding and Satan turning tail. If anyone thinks that prayer should be put off until the mind is clean of impure thoughts, he is doing nothing but using his wisdom and strength to help Satan, who is already more than strong enough. This is really heathen and sophistic religion, the very teaching of Satan. Against it we must maintain the example and teaching of this psalm, where we see that David, viewing his total impurity and his special sin of the flesh, does not flee from God, the way Peter foolishly said in the ship (Luke 5:8), “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” But with trust in mercy he breaks out in prayer and says, “Lord, if I am a sinner, just as I am, have mercy on me.” Just because our hearts really feel sin, we ought to come to God through prayer all the more. Formerly we had to flee and be afraid of God, when there was danger that we might fall into sin. Since the Fall we ought to hope for forgiveness and ask for it instead of remaining in thoughts of wrath and fear. Now Satan is trying to turn that order around, so that in committing sins we are smug and without the fear of God, and after they have been committed, we remain in fear, without hope or trust in mercy.

Look at David, as I said, clearly taking refuge in mercy and saying, “Have mercy on me, O God.” It is as though he were saying: “I know that I am evil and a sinner, and that Thou art righteous. That I arise and dare to pray, all this I do with trust in Thy Word and promises. I know that Thou art not the god of the Mohammedans or the monks, but the God of our fathers, who hast promised that Thou wilt redeem sinners—not simply sinners but such sinners as know and feel that they are sinners.” Therefore let us also dare to say: “Have mercy on me, O God. I am a sinner, tempted by flesh and blood, anger and hate. But my hope is in Thy mercy and goodness, which Thou hast promised to those who thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6).” This cannot be adequately expressed in words, but our own experience is necessary in addition. This teaches what hard work it is to climb over the mountain of our own unworthiness and sins standing between God and us as we are about to pray. Although it is here that we feel the weakness of faith most, still we ought to hold to the consolation that we are not alone in saying, “Have mercy on me, O God.” The Spirit is saying and praying the same thing with us in our hearts, “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). As we do not see or fully understand these sighs, so God, who is also a spirit, sees them most clearly and understands them most fully. Struggling in the midst of conflict or of temptation, therefore, we ought to resist Satan with trust in this Intercessor and say: “If I am a sinner, so what? God is merciful. If I am unfit for prayer because of my sins, well and good. I do not want to become more fit. For, alas to God, I am more than fit for prayer, because I am an exceedingly great sinner.”

It is the teaching of this passage that conscious sinners—I call them this for instruction’s sake—should have courage, and that God the Righteous and man the sinner should be reconciled, so that in our sins we are not afraid of God but sing with David, “Have mercy.” To keep the pronoun “on me” and the name “God” from hindering us, let us put between them the verb “have mercy,” by which God and man the sinner are reconciled. Unless this happens, we shall not only be unable to sing this psalm properly, but we shall also be unable to pray the Lord’s Prayer correctly, because in this life it will never happen that we are pure of all sins. Even though “actual sins,” as they are called, may be absent—and this is very rare—still original sin will not be absent. Since we are continually in sin, we must also continually pray, as the reverent hearts of Christians pray every moment, because every moment they see their unworthiness and want it forgiven. These constant sighs of the Christian heart are disturbed and covered by thoughts, and sometimes by duties, so that we do not always see them. Therefore it is really a theological virtue to cover our sin with prayer this way, and when we feel our weakness, to take refuge in this song: “Have mercy on me, O God.”

But after we have said how God the Righteous and man the sinner are to be reconciled, we must also remember to look properly at the word “Have mercy.” If we considered it more carefully, we should have to declare that our whole life is enclosed and established in the bosom of the mercy of God. Since we are all the “me” here, that is, sinners, the conclusion follows clearly and necessarily that whatever we are and live is all by sheer grace, not by our righteousness or merit. “What then,” you say, “ought not the Ten Commandments to be kept? And if they are kept, is not that righteousness?” I answer: We want to keep and observe the Ten Commandments, but with a large, that is, truly evangelical dispensation or distinction. We have received only the first fruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23), and the sighs of the Spirit remain in our hearts. Our flesh with its lusts and desires remains, too, the whole tree with its fruits. This is the reason why the Ten Commandments can never be kept fully. Otherwise, if the Ten Commandments could be kept in their entirety, what need would there be of the righteousness for which David prays in the word “Have mercy”? What need would there be of imputation? Now, since even in the saints there are still remnants of sin that have not yet been completely mortified, two things happen: Through the Spirit dwelling in us we resist sin and obey the Ten Commandments; and yet, driven to sin by flesh and Satan, we hope for the forgiveness of sins.

Thus sacrifice was a form of obedience under the Law, and yet the prophet says (v. 16): “Thou hast not wanted sacrifice and burnt offering.” They were sacrifices, but in the sense that they did not do away with mercy. In the same way we keep the Law through the Holy Spirit, and yet the word “Have mercy” remains; that is, we remain sinners and have need of the free forgiveness of sins through the merit of Christ. Thus mercy is our whole life even until death; yet Christians yield obedience to the Law, but imperfect obedience because of the sin dwelling in us. For this reason let us learn to extend the word “Have mercy” not only to our actual sins but to all the blessings of God as well: that we are righteous by the merit of another; that we have God as our Father; that God the Father loves sinners who feel their sins—in short, that all our life is by mercy because all our life is sin and cannot be set against the judgment and wrath of God.

Therefore David does not merely say, “Have mercy on me, O God,” but he adds, “according to Thy steadfast love,” and he simply keeps quiet about any merit or any righteousness of works. He does not say, as did that man in the Gospel (Luke 18:12), “I fast twice a week.” He does not say, “Have mercy on me according to the merit of condignity or congruity.” What do these things have to do with mercy? It is for the monks, not for David, to brag about merit and other things. The story is told that in the hour of death the brother of a certain king said to God, “Grant me what Thou hast promised, for I have given Thee what Thou hast commanded.” I would not want this to be my voice in the hour of death! We must speak differently (Ps. 143:2): “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant”; and again (Ps. 51:9): “Blot out my iniquity.” Of what merit can we boast that deserved even this seemingly minor blessing, that God has preserved our eyesight? David is silent about his own righteousness and merit; he wants God to deal according to His great mercy. In this way he disentangles himself not only from his own righteousness but also from the wrath of God, and he holds no picture before his eyes but that of the merciful, rejoicing, and laughing God. For he declares that God has great mercy, because of which He neither wants nor thinks anything but forgiveness and blessing.

This picture of a gracious and merciful God is a picture that gives life. By it he shields the pronoun “on me,” throws wrath into the corner, and says, “God is gracious.” This is not the theology of reason, which counsels despair in the midst of sin. David feels sin and the wrath of God, and yet he says, “Have mercy on me, O God.” Reason does not know this teaching, but the Holy Scriptures teach it, as you see in the first verse of this psalm. The individual words are purely and chastely placed, but they are the words of the Spirit which have life. From them spiritual men learn to distinguish between sinner and sinner, between God and God, and learn to reconcile the wrath of God or the wrathful God with man the sinner.

You will say, “It does not happen this way, that I am taught by your word and thus learn to think the same for myself.” We must assert that as you believe, so it will happen to you, because this faith is not taken from your judgment but drawn from the Word of God. Therefore if you can grasp this and believe that God is well pleased with those who fear Him (Ps. 147:11), then it will happen this way to you. If you do not grasp it, you are not under His pleasure but under His wrath, according to Christ’s saying (Matt. 8:13), “As you have believed, so be it done for you.” The thought of God’s wrath is false even of itself, because God promises mercy; yet this false thought becomes true because you believe it to be true. However, the other thought, that God is gracious to sinners who feel their sins, is simply true and remains so. You should not suppose that it will be this way because you believe this way. Rather be assured that a thing which is sure and true of itself becomes more sure and true when you believe it. On the other hand, if you believe that God is wrathful, you will certainly have Him wrathful and hostile to you. But this will be a demonic, idolatrous, and perverse thought, because God is served if you fear Him and grasp Christ as the object of mercy.

This is true theology about the true God and the true worship of God. It is false theology that God is wrathful to those who acknowledge their sins. Such a God is not in heaven or anywhere else, but is the idol of a perverse heart. The true God says (Ezek. 33:11): “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he might turn from his way and live.” This is proved also by the present example of David and his prayer. At the outset we reminded you that we should not only look at the example of David here, but should change the psalm into a general teaching that applies to all men without exception. Thus the Epistle to the Romans (3:4) quotes as a general statement the words (Ps. 116:11) that all men are liars, and also says (Rom. 11:32): “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all.” In the same way we said about David that he includes the death and life of the whole human race, not merely his own sin. Therefore God is the same sort of God to all men that He was to David, namely, one who forgives sins and has mercy upon all who ask for mercy and acknowledge their sins.

Also pertinent here is his use of repetition or rather amplification, when he adds: “According to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgression.” He asked previously that God in mercy should turn His eyes away from his sins; in this phrase he does the same, but with greater agitation and spirit. He takes hold of God the Promiser and turns the whole vision of his heart upon His mercy. He could not do this if he had not taken hold of God the Promiser with the help of the Spirit and known that in God there remained a hope of forgiveness for sinners, as he says in another psalm (Ps. 130:4), “There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared.” He is not looking for satisfaction, nor for a corner where he can prepare for grace, but by a direct course he steers for the countenance of God and His mercy. This he knows not from his own heart nor from the dictates of right reason—for in sin, reason flees from God, and the conscience cannot raise itself to the light by which it believes that God has mercy, grace, and favor left for sinners—but from the promises which he sees broadcast everywhere, even in the Law and the Decalog. Even though God threatens sinners here, He still keeps the name “a God merciful” (Ex. 34:6). The promises to Adam, to Abraham, and to others testify to the same thing. In our temptations we must do likewise. Whenever we are stung and vexed in our conscience because of sins, let us simply turn our attention from sin and wrap ourselves in the bosom of the God who is called Grace and Mercy, not doubting at all that He wants to show grace and mercy to miserable and afflicted sinners, just as He wants to show wrath and judgment to hardened sinners. This is true theology, which this verse of the psalm also manifests when it says, “According to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

The word רַב is used for a set and continuous quantity, as in German we also say grosz gelt for much money and for money in great quantity. The word חֶסֶד is also familiar. Paul often renders it with blessing or εὐεργεσία, as in 1 Timothy 6:2, where he says to slaves that they should honor their masters, and then gives the reason: “Because,” he says, “they are partakers of the benefit” of the Gospel. Sometimes he also translates it as “love.” The Greek translator made it “steadfast love,” as in that passage in Hosea 6:6: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” that is, that you should love one another and bless others. So he translates here: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love.” The other word, רֶחֶם, means to have clemency, not to want to look at the sin of another, but to forget and overlook it, as in the passage (Ex. 33:19): “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” that is, I will forget and forgive his sins. From this there comes the noun רַחֲמִים, which our translator renders with “abundant mercy.” This is Hebrew grammar, and those who do not know it should be urged to learn it.

Now look how beautifully David combines these two things: first, that God is merciful, that is, that He freely blesses us undeserving ones; second, that He gives us the forgiveness of sins, which we accept by faith through the Holy Spirit and His promises. If God did not freely forgive, we should have no satisfaction and no remedy left. Not by our fasting nor by other works, not by angels nor by any other creature, is there salvation. Our only salvation is if we flee to the mercy of God and seek blessing and forgiveness from God, asking Him not to look at our sins and transgressions, but to close His eyes and to deal with us according to His steadfast love and abundant mercy. Unless God does this, we are not worthy of being granted one hour of life or one morsel of bread.

Here, too, we experience that it is a great and difficult art to combine these two things and to fix our eyes only on the steadfast love of God and His abundant mercy. For these words are not born in our house, but are brought down from heaven by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, these thorns are born in our hearts: “I am a sinner, and God is righteous and angry at me the sinner.” The conscience cannot pluck out these thorns; it cannot put the sinner before a gracious and forgiving God. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit, not of our free will or strength. When men are without the Spirit of God, either their hearts are hardened in sins or they despair; but both are contrary to the will of God. Therefore by the Holy Spirit David navigates between this satanic Scylla and Charybdis and throws himself securely on the abundant and endless mercy of God, saying: “Many and great are Thy abundant mercies, O Lord. But I am a sinner. I have lived badly, I am living badly, and I shall live badly as long as I live. If I want to come before Thee, I must bring other thoughts than those which my heart grants me. Therefore I confess my sins before Thee, for they are many (as he says in Psalm 32:5). But I confess my sin in such a way that at the same time I confess Thy steadfast love and Thy abundant mercies, immensely greater than my sin; as well as Thy righteousness, by which Thou dost justify sinners, infinitely more abundant than that I should despair over it.” Hence he says “abundant mercy.” By saying that the mercies are abundant, he simply denies and rejects any holiness, whether his own or other people’s. What connection could there be between abundant mercy and human holiness? If mercy is this abundant, then there is no holiness in us. Then it is a fictitious expression to speak of a “holy man,” just as it is a fictitious expression to speak of God’s falling into sin; for by the nature of things, this cannot be.

For this reason we must reject those very ancient and deep-rooted errors by which in monastic fashion we speak of Jerome or Paul as “holy.” In themselves they are sinners, and only God is holy, as the church sings [A quotation from the Gloria in Excelsis of the Mass; not, as the Weimar edition has it, from Is. 6:3]. Those whom we call “holy” are made holy by an alien holiness, through Christ, by the holiness of free mercy. In this holiness the whole church of the faithful is the same, there is no difference. As Peter is holy, so I am holy. As I am holy, so the thief on Christ’s right hand is holy. It does not matter that Peter and Paul did greater things than you or I. On both sides we are sinners by nature, and we have need of steadfast love and abundant mercy. Although the Apostles had fewer outward sins, still in their hearts they often felt presumption, loathing, thoughts of despair, denial of God, and similar defects of human weakness. So you see nothing holy, nothing good in man, as the psalm says (Ps. 53:2, 3), “God looks down from heaven upon the sons of men … There is none that does good, no, not one.” If there are not good people among the sons of men, where else could they be? Therefore let us keep quiet about holiness and holy people. We know that those have been made holy who have become conscious sinners instead of unconscious sinners. They do not presume to have any righteousness of their own—for it is nonexistent—but begin to have an enlightened heart. Thus they know themselves and God. They know that everything that is ours is evil before God and is forgiven by the free forgiveness of mercy. We and all “saints” must take refuge in this bosom, or we must be damned. God sent His Son to reveal these abundant mercies to the world and to make known this teaching, which the human heart and reason do not know. David presents it to us here when he confesses his sins and yet confesses that mercy is greater. Let all men sing this verse with David and acknowledge that they are sinners but that God is righteous, that is, merciful. This confession is a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God, and David invites us to it. He wants this to be a teaching for the whole world. When the devil or our conscience accuses us because of our sins, we can freely confess that our sins are many and great, but not despair because of them. For though our sins are many and great, nevertheless we are taught here that the mercies of God are also many and great. With this argument all the saints have defended themselves against Satan, that though they were sinners, yet they are made holy by this knowledge, according to Isaiah 53:11: “The knowledge of Christ will justify many.”

When we have once heard this, we suppose that it is easy and can be learned quickly, but it takes effort and work to hold on to this in temptation. This is no quibble about trifles [Horace, Epistolae, I, 18, 18]. The danger of eternal death is involved, and we are struggling over the salvation of our souls. We also experience not only our conscience crying out, but Satan inspiring thoughts of death because of the sins of which we are conscious. Therefore it is completely a divine power to be able to say that I am a sinner and yet not to despair. We do not come to it, as do our adversaries, by minimizing sin. Rather we should do it this way: As by its nature sin is very great and serious, so we believe that grace or mercy, is immense and inexhaustible. Thus David confesses here with a loud voice, “According to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is also the import of the word “blot out,” which the prophet uses here. Paul speaks in Colossians 2:14 of Christ as “having canceled the bond which stood against us”; and Peter says in Acts 3:19: “Repent and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.” The word “blot out” means that sins are written in our conscience with the pen of the Law. The prophet wants the memory of sin to be abolished in his heart and in the eyes of God, the way writing is erased from a tablet. Yet this should not happen in such a way that grace or gratitude disappears because guilt is thus forgiven, or that we forget grace, as Peter says (2 Peter 1:9) about those who forget the forgiveness of their old sins and by their unfaithfulness and ingratitude pile up new sins. So also today we see that the world is full of contempt for the Gospel and all sorts of licentiousness. In such people sin is not forgiven, but buried even deeper. Therefore David includes both, that sin be abolished and that the Holy Spirit be given, through whom he can resist sin. Because he asks only for the “blotting out,” it is clear how we become righteous, namely, by the mere imputation of righteousness, when sins are blotted out by grace and we are accepted into grace for Christ’s sake. But if you compare this with the dreams of the sophists and scholastics, you will see how awkwardly they taught about the forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
Martin Luther, “Psalm 51—The Psalm Miserere,” trans. J. J. Pelikan, in Luther’s Works, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 12:312–326; Vol. 12: Selected Psalms I, Psalm 51:1.


May 8, 2022

John Calvin (1509–1564) on John 12:47

The Pringle translation:
47. If any man hear my words. After having spoken concerning his grace, and exhorted his disciples to steady faith, he now begins to strike the rebellious, though even here he mitigates the severity due to the wickedness of those who deliberately—as it were—reject God; for he delays to pronounce judgment on them, because, on the contrary, he has come for the salvation of all. In the first place, we ought to understand that he does not speak here of all unbelievers without distinction, but of those who, knowingly and willingly, reject the doctrine of the Gospel which has been exhibited to them. Why then does Christ not choose to condemn them? It is because he lays aside for a time the office of a judge, and offers salvation to all without reserve, and stretches out his arms to embrace all, that all may be the more encouraged to repent. And yet there is a circumstance of no small moment, by which he points out the aggravation of the crime, if they reject an invitation so kind and gracious, for it is as if he had said, “Lo, I am here to invite all, and, forgetting the character of a judge, I have this as my single object, to persuade all, and to rescue from destruction those who are already twice ruined.” No man, therefore, is condemned on account of having despised the Gospel, except he who, disdaining the lovely message of salvation, has chosen of his own accord to draw down destruction on himself.

The word judge, as is evident from the word save, which is contrasted with it, here signifies to condemn. Now this ought to be understood as referring to the office which properly and naturally belongs to Christ; for that unbelievers are not more severely condemned on account of the Gospel is accidental, and does not arise from its nature, as we have said on former occasions.
John Calvin, “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” in Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols., trans. W. Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 18:50–51; emphasis original. Also in John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 2, trans. W. Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 50–51.

The Parker translation:
47. If any man hear my sayings. When He had spoken of His grace and exhorted His disciples to steadfast faith, He now began to pierce the rebels. Yet even here He softened the severity deserved by the ungodliness of those who, as it were, set themselves to reject God. For He delayed pronouncing judgment on them, because He had come rather for the salvation of all. We might understand that He was not speaking here of unbelievers in general but of those who wittingly or voluntarily reject the preaching of the Gospel exhibited to them. Why then did Christ not wish to condemn them? Because He had temporarily laid aside the office of judge and offers salvation to all indiscriminately and stretches out His arms to embrace all, that all may be the more encouraged to repent. And yet He heightens by an important detail the crime of rejecting an invitation so kind and gracious; for it is as if He had said: ‘See, I have come to call all; and forgetting the role of judge, my one aim is to attract and rescue from destruction those who already seem doubly ruined.’ Hence no man is condemned for despising the Gospel save he who spurns the lovely news of salvation and deliberately decides to bring destruction on himself.

The word judge, as is clear from its antithesis save, is here put for ‘condemn’. Now this should be referred to the proper and genuine office of Christ. For that unbelievers are the more severely condemned on account of the Gospel is accidental (accidentale) and does not spring from its nature, as we have said elsewhere.
John Calvin, “The Gospel According to St John 11–21 and the First Epistle of John,” in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12 vols., ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 5:52–53.

The Latin can be read here (click).

Jean Calvin, Harmonia Ex tribus Euangelistis composita, Matthaeo, Marco & Luca: adiuncto seorsum Johanne, quòd pauca cum aliis communia habeat ([Genevae]: Oliua Roberti Stephanus, 1555), 157–58.


May 1, 2022

Selections from Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity on Mark 7:31–37

1. Just as everywhere the Gospels depict our Lord Christ as a merciful and gracious man who is ready to help everyone with words and works in body and soul, so also this Gospel reading depicts for us how willingly He helped this poor man, who was mute and deaf.
Martin Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, James L. Langebartels, and Christopher Boyd Brown, vol. 79 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2016), 37.
Second, every Christian should also act toward friend and enemy the way he sees that Christ is so willing to help everyone. Whoever does this is a Christian. Whoever does not do this, however, may be called a Christian but is not one. These two cannot be separated; the fruit of faith must follow, or the faith is not real.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:37.
…we must not consider Christ so narrowly, as if He looked only at one person; we must look at Him better than if He took an interest only in this man. All of Holy Scripture, especially the Prophets and Psalms, tells us that He was sent to take a sincere interest in all the distress of the whole human race.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:38.
5. The Lord Christ is to be painted in such a way that He is the only person who takes on Himself the misfortune not of one city or of one land, but of the whole world. St. John also christens Him: “Look, this is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. However, if He bears the sin, it follows that He must also have carried everything which belongs to sin and results from sin, such as the devil, death, and hell.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:38.
6. The reason He sighs here [in Mark 7:34] is that He is the person who was to do this, of whom the prophets long before had announced that He would take sincere pity on all the hurts of the whole human race. He was concerned not only about the one tongue and ears of this poor man, but it was a general sighing over all tongues and ears—yes, over every heart, body, soul, and all people from Adam to the last human being who is yet to be born. Therefore, He does not sigh mainly because this man would still in the future commit many sins, but the main reason is that He saw how the devil had brought the whole mass of flesh and blood into mortal harm in Paradise, made people mute and deaf, and thus put them into death and hellfire. Christ had this view before His eyes and saw what great harm the devil had caused through one man’s fall in Paradise [Rom. 5:12]. He looks not only at two ears, but at the whole crowd descended from Adam and still to come. Thus this Gospel reading paints Christ as the one who takes an interest in you and me and all of us in the way we ought to take an interest in ourselves, as if He were stuck in the sins and harm in which we are stuck; He sighs about the devil who has brought about this harm.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:38–39.
Yet in His person He stood in the place of all people and at the same time took an interest in the infirmities of this man and of all people.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:39.
Christ, our Lord God, had to be distressed and suffer not only for one man’s sin but, as Revelation [13:8] says, for all sins which were committed “from the beginning of the world,” from Adam to us to the last person who is to be born before the Last Day.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:40.
10. The dear Lord Christ has such a kind heart that it grieves Him when someone commits sin. He certainly knows that sin cannot remain unpunished. This is why He even wept over the city of Jerusalem, for He saw that her sin must be punished [Luke 19:41]. He has such a kind and loving heart that He has no pleasure in evil.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:40.
18. Christ sighs here not only because He took on Himself all the infirmities of nature from the beginning of the world but also because He lamented that after the Gospel [was preached] His kingdom would receive such harm through those whom He had helped, and that His kingdom should be so buffeted and rent, which would never have happened if people had not first been helped by Him. Well, He has to endure it, and we also have to endure it, but He will not for this reason have sighed in vain.
Luther, “Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31–37),” in Luther’s Works: Church Postil V, 79:42.


Martin Luther (1483–1546) on John 3:16

“God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him would not be lost, but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]

8. With these words He leads us directly up into the Father’s heart so that we would see and know that this is the high, wonderful plan of God, decreed from eternity: that we would be helped through this Son. This also had to be fulfilled in this way to establish God’s truth, since He had promised it previously in Scripture. From this we should plainly see and know that God does not intend to throw us away and condemn us because of our sins. Rather, when we are frightened of God’s wrath because of our sins, He wants us to consider this eternal, divine will and fervently believe that we obtain God’s eternal grace and eternal life for the sake of this Savior and Mediator.

9. Let us look at what kind of rich, comforting words these are which present to us, in every circumstance and all kinds of ways, this great, excellent work of God and His inexpressible treasure, which is offered and given to us here. First, the person of the Giver is not a man, an emperor, or a king, or even an angel, but the high, eternal Majesty, God Himself, compared to whom all people—no matter how rich, powerful, and great they are—are nothing but dust and ashes (Isaiah 40 [:6–7]). What more can we say about Him? He is incomprehensible, immeasurable, inexhaustible.

10. He is no longer a driver who only demands from us and, as Moses calls Him, a consuming and “devouring fire” [Deut. 4:24; 9:3], but a rich, gushing, eternal fountain of all grace and gifts. He really should be called the true Giver.3 What are all emperors and kings with their gifts, gold, silver, land, and people compared to Him? Here our hearts should swell and grow with desiring, wishing, and expecting what this Lord and God will give. It must certainly be something great and excellent, suitable for this high Majesty and rich Lord. Everything in heaven and on earth must be small and insignificant compared to this Giver and His gifts.

11. Second, what is the reason for His giving, and what moves Him to do this? It is nothing other than pure, inexpressible love. He does not give out of debt or obligation or because someone had asked or entreated for this. Rather, He is moved by His own goodness as a Lord who gladly gives, whose desire and joy is to give completely free of charge, without anyone seeking it.

12. Just as there is no greater giver than God, so there is no greater virtue (either in God or man) than love. We pawn and spend everything, even body and life, for what we love. In comparison, patience, humility, and all other virtues are nothing or are included in this one, which is everything. When I love someone, I certainly will not be angry with him nor wrong him nor quarrel with him nor be insufferable toward him, but I will be ready to serve, aid, and help him wherever I see that he needs me. In summary, he has me with my body, goods, and all my possessions.

13. Therefore, here again our hearts should grow and become big against all sorrow, because such riches of the boundless love of God are set before us. He gives them in such a way that they flow from the fatherly heart, and thus gush up from the highest virtue, which is the fountain of all goodness. This makes the gift valuable and precious, just as the proverb praises the person who regards an insignificant gift as valuable and says, “It comes from a loving hand.” Where there is love and friendship, one does not look so much at the gift as at the heart, which brings great importance to the gift. If God had given me only one eye, hand, or foot, and I knew that He did this out of fatherly love, it would be much dearer to me than many thousand worlds. When He gives us the dear Baptism, His Word, Absolution, and the Sacrament, they should be our daily paradise and kingdom of heaven, not with regard to the gift’s appearance, which is not great before the world, but because of the great love from which it was given.

14. Third, look at the gift itself. Without a doubt, it must be something excellent and inexpressibly great which such a rich Giver gives us out of sincere, great love. What does He give? Not great kingdoms, not one or more worlds full of silver and gold, not heaven and earth with all that is in them, not the entire creation, but His Son, who is as great as He Himself is. This is an eternal, incomprehensible gift (just as the Giver and His love are also incomprehensible). It is the fountain and source of all grace, goodness, and kindness—yes, the possessions and property of the eternal goods and treasures of God. This is a love not with words but with deeds and in the highest degree, proven with the most precious benefit and work that God Himself has and can do.

15. What more should or can He do and give? Because He gives the Son, what does He retain that He is not giving? By doing this, He even gives Himself completely, as Paul says, “If He did not spare His only-begotten Son, how shall He not with Him have given us all things?” (Romans 8 [:32]). Obviously, everything must have been given with this one who is His only-begotten, dearest Son, the Heir and Lord of all creation; and all creatures must have been subject to us: angels, devils, death, life, heaven and earth, sin, righteousness, the present and the future, as again St. Paul says, “All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3 [:22–23]), for in this Son it is all and all.

16. Fourth, how and in what way is the Son given? Look at what He does and suffers! For our sake He becomes a man under the Law, that is, under God’s wrath (on account of our sins), and was put to death, even the most disgraceful death—lifted up on the wood and hanging in the air, condemned (as Christ says just before this [John 3:14]). He had to take on Himself the devil’s and all of hell’s rage and fury and contend with them. That means that He was offered up in the highest way. Nevertheless, He did all this in such a way that He tramples underfoot the devil, sin, death, and hell; He rules over them through His resurrection and ascension; He gives us all this to be our own, so that we have both Him and all that He did. He gives all of this in such a way that He does not count the gift as a reward or merit—nor is it loaned, borrowed, or to be repaid—but it is freely given and granted out of purely tender grace. The receiver should and can do nothing more than open his hand and hold it out and accept whatever is given to him by God—which he certainly needs—with love and thanksgiving.

17. Fifth, the receiver, to whom this is given, is also depicted here. He is, in a word, the “world.” This is, first, a strange and unusual loving and giving. This is a very strange antitype: the one loved compared to the one loving. How does this love of God for the world make sense? What does He find in it that causes Him to pour Himself out so much for it? If it were said that He loved the angels, they at least are glorious, noble creatures, worthy of love. But what, on the other hand, is the world other than a great mass of people who do not fear, trust, or love, praise or thank God, who misuse all creatures, slander His name, and despise His Word? Moreover, they are disobedient, murderers, adulterers, thieves, scoundrels, liars, betrayers, full of unfaithfulness and all evil tricks. In short, they are transgressors of all commandments, insubordinate and refractory in every point, adhering to God’s enemy, the devil.

To this tender, sweet fruit, this dear and beautiful bride and daughter, He gives His dear Son and with Him everything. Yet He would have more than enough reason (if He only heard “the world” mentioned) instantly to smash her altogether to powder with His thunder and lightning and throw her into the abyss of hell. The word “world” sounds exceedingly shameful before God, and they are very rarely put together. “God loves the world” sounds like two highly contradictory things, almost as if someone said, “God loves death and hell and is the friend of His bitter, eternal enemy, the accursed devil.”

18. This love is demonstrated beyond measure, and the gift is made inexpressibly great, when we compare both the Giver and the one to whom it is given. God pours out His heart so very much toward the unlovely, hostile figure, whom He really should abandon to only wrath, vengeance, and damnation. He pays no attention to the fact that the world is so full of despising God, slander, disobedience, and utter ingratitude for all the gifts He previously bestowed on it, but swallows at once all its vices and sins. Even if the Giver were so great and full of goodness, the great wickedness and vices of the world, which are excessive and innumerable and great, ought to stop and restrain Him. What man can even count and sufficiently weigh his own sin and disobedience? Yet this great love overcomes Him so that He takes away from it each and every sin and transgression, so that they are forgotten eternally, dead, and gone, and instead He grants His Son and everything with Him.

19. Thus this article, for which St. Paul and the doctrine of faith contend, is sufficiently and undeniably proven and attested, namely, that we have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life without any of our merit and worthiness (gratis), out of pure grace, only for the sake of His beloved Son, in whom God has loved us so highly that this love takes away and blots out all our sins and the world’s sins. With us there is nothing but sin, for which He gives us His love and forgiveness. The prophet Isaiah (chapter 40 [:2]) says how the Gospel will be preached: “Her sin is forgiven, and she has received double from the hand of the Lord for all her sins.”

20. Thus this gift and grace is much greater, more boundless, and mightier than all sins on earth, so that the unworthiness of any man and of all of them together—even the deserved eternal wrath and damnation—cannot be so great that the greatness of this love and grace or forgiveness does not outweigh and even inundate them in height, depth, breadth, and width [Eph. 3:18], as St. Paul says, “Grace abounds more than sin” (Romans 5 [:20]). Psalm 103 [:11] says, “As high as the heaven is above the earth,” so far He takes all our sins away from us. What else can it be than the forgiveness of sin when He loves the world, while it is still stuck in all its sins, abominations, and slander? If He can love the world, which is His enemy and slanderer, in such a way and to such an extent that He gives Himself for it, how, then, can He be angry with you (if you seek and desire grace) or not want to forgive your sins?

21. What heart would not cheerfully expect all good from Him when He shows such love that He sent His dear Son to the evil, damnable people (that is, the whole world, which is all people), who never did anything good, but every hour acted against His Commandments? First of all, they should [not] have such great love and unspeakable good as a reward. What did I do and live previously in my life in the monastery, when I crucified Christ daily for fifteen years and practiced all idolatry! And besides all that with which I so highly angered Him, He loved me in such a way that He forgets all my evil and reveals to me His Son and Himself with all grace. This can truly be called an incredible richness of boundless love.

22. Lord God, how can the world not take to heart such excellent, great things? Should we not all be happy at heart here? We have lived to see the time when we can hear such things, love and praise this God, and in thanks not only gladly serve Him but also gladly suffer everything. Should we not even laugh if we have to die for the sake of His Word and obedience, and let this maggot sack be put to death through fire, sword, and all torment? However, thanks to the shameful, abominable unbelief and the great, blind darkness (about which Christ Himself later complains)—with which hearts are possessed—they are so obstinate and dead that we can hear such things and yet not believe!

23. Sixth, we next have the causa finalis, [that is,] why and to what purpose He does all this, and what His intention is. He obviously gives it not so that I can have something to eat and drink from it, or some ordinary worldly benefit, riches, honor, or power. Similarly, He does not want to give it as harm or poison, just as He has not given His Word, Baptism, and the Sacrament as poison, but so that we should have the highest, best benefit from it. He gives them for the purpose (He says) “that man would not be lost, but have eternal life” [John 3:16]. What this means is not that I would get many golden crowns and kingdoms from it, and yet still have to remain in sin and death, but that I would be free from hell and death and not lost eternally. What this gift will effect is that hell is obliterated for me, the devil is thrown under my feet, and thus my frightened, distressed, deadened heart becomes a cheerful, living heart; and, in summary, that I have eternal, imperishable life instead of eternal destruction and death.

24. This must certainly follow such an excellently high gift, when the Son of God is rightly known and grasped with the heart. Where He is, there must also be everything good, conquest over all evil and redemption from it, eternal freedom, glory, and joy—not, however, deserved by us. Rather, we are delivered by the great, eternal love with which God has mercy on our misery and distress and gave His Son. Otherwise, we would have to be and remain lost forever, irrespective of all our holiness from works and worship, and could never obtain eternal life.

25. Whoever can enlarge his heart has enough reason here to do so. What thing more glorious and better could you wish to say to a heart than that eternal life has been given and presented to it, so that death will never again be seen, and there will be no want, need, sorrow, and temptation forever? Rather, it will feel only joy and the full riches of all treasures, and be certain that we have a gracious God and that all creatures cheerfully smile on us. It can easily be seen from this that God does not have in mind or intend to slay and trouble the people, as the devil portrays it to timid hearts through the Law and by showing them their unworthiness. Rather, He wants to give life, the life that is called “eternal life” and “joy.” He gives His own Son as a pledge and token of this. He certainly would not do that if He did not love us but wanted to be angry and condemn us.

26. This and similar glorious and comforting passages should really be worth more to a Christian than the treasures of all the world, for they are the kind of words that no one can thoroughly investigate or exhaust. Yes, if they are rightly believed, they would make a good theologian or, even more, a strong, cheerful Christian who can speak and teach rightly about Christ, judge all other doctrines, advise and comfort anyone, and suffer everything that comes his way.

27. However, we must pray that the Holy Spirit would impress this on our hearts, and we must daily think this over, so that we fall asleep and wake up with these words. Now, however, as we regard them, so they take root, so that they cannot produce the fruit they should. Rather, we must bewail the world’s ingratitude, which lets [these words] pass by ears and hearts, while it seeks perishable goods, honor, and glory. As a result, it loses this eternal treasure, for which it must condemn and curse itself in hell forever.

28. Seventh and last, what is the way by which we are to grasp this treasure and gift, or what is the bag or chest in which we are to put it? It is faith alone (as Christ says here, “So that all who believe in Him will not be lost” [John 3:16], etc.). Faith opens its hands and pocket and simply lets good be done to it. Just as God, the Giver, grants this through His love, so we are the receivers through faith, which does nothing except receive the gift. It is not our doing, and it cannot be merited through our works. It has already been given and offered, but you are to open your mouth—or, rather, your heart—keep quiet, and be filled [cf. Ps. 81:10]. This can happen in no other way than by believing these words, since you hear that He requires faith here, which ascribes this treasure completely to it.

29. Here you also see what faith is and means: it is not a mere empty thought about Christ, that He was born of the Virgin, suffered, was crucified, rose, and ascended into heaven. Rather, faith is a heart that includes and contains the Son of God in itself, as these words read, and holds with certainty that God has offered up His only-begotten Son for us and loved us so much that for His sake we shall not be lost but have eternal life.

That is why He plainly says “all who believe in Him” [John 3:16]. This is a faith that does not look at its works, nor at the strength and worthiness of its faith, nor at what kind of qualitas—a created or infused virtue—lies in its heart, about which the blind sophists dream and delude themselves. Rather, apart from itself it clings to Christ and includes Him as its own, certain that it is loved by God for His sake, not because of its own works, worthiness, or merit; for all of that is not the treasure given by God, which is Christ, God’s Son, in whom we are to believe.

30. What other benefit would there be in the present or gift—which is faith itself—if it were nothing more than an unused tool and if people did not look at it and take comfort from what it grasps and contains? This alone is what makes it precious, so that people can say, “Faith may be a small and insignificant monstrance or box, but in it there is a gem, pearl, or emerald so precious that heaven and earth cannot contain it.”

31. Therefore, we teach from Scripture that we are justified and please God through faith alone, because it alone grasps and contains this treasure, the Son of God. If I weigh and compare this gift and my works with each other, then the scales are greatly tipped and overflow, so that all people’s holiness is nothing compared to a drop of the blood that He offered up and poured out for us, to say nothing about all that He has done and suffered. Therefore, I cannot at all rely on my own virtue or worthiness.

32. Why would we want to boast anymore about our deeds when we hear that our situation is such that we would altogether have to be lost forever, if this treasure had not been offered up for us? This takes the glory away not only from all human works but also from the entire Law of God, so that, even if someone has all of it and does it according to his ability, he still has not reached the point that he will not be lost. Otherwise, what other need would there be for these words: “so that all who believe in Him will not be lost,” etc.? Thus He shows that neither Moses nor the holiness of all people can redeem them from death or give life. It all depends only on this one Son of God.

33. Now you see what great and excellent things are combined in this passage. The Giver, who is so great and mighty, the Creator of all creatures, not only says, “Good morning,” or kindly smiles at us, but loves us—and loves us so heartily that He gives us not only a beggar’s portion of perishable goods but also His highest, dearest treasure, His Son, who is also Lord of heaven and earth. He shows this love not to His friends, but to those who are His enemies, and no creature (with the exception of the devil himself) is less worthy of that love. Thus He offers Himself up for them so that they are snatched out of death and hell and made certain of eternal life. What greater and higher thing could be said or thought, in every point?

34. No matter how great and inexpressible all of this is, it is in comparison much greater and more amazing that a human heart can believe all of this. It must be a heart that can grasp more than heaven and earth can contain. We must see what an excellent, divine power and work faith is. It can do what is impossible for nature and all the world and is no less miraculous than all God’s miracles and works, even greater than that God became man, born of a virgin (as St. Bernard [1090–1153] says [in Sermons on the Eve of the Lord’s Birth 3.7–10]). The greatness of the things we are hearing about are too wide and far from each other to be compared, namely, the love of Him who gives and of Him who is given, and the unworthiness of the one given to. Everything is so very large, and the human heart is so very small, narrow, and weak that it must be startled and frightened at such greatness.

35. If it was said to me that God had endowed me above all people such that I should live on earth several thousand years, have peace and prosperity, and all that my heart desires, then I would say: “That cannot be God’s Word! It is too much and too great. Who am I that God should give me such things?” How much less does it enter the human heart that God should give this treasure, His Son, and with Him eternal life and salvation? Who can express how great it is? How precious and noble this merely bodily life is! Who would give it up for all the kingdoms, money, and goods on earth? But compared to eternal life and treasures, it is much less than a moment. In summary, it cannot be imagined, unless we might take away a little from it and so consider by comparison the harm and misery which is called “being lost forever.”

36. Nevertheless, a Christian must reach the point that he does God and the Lord Christ the honor of believing that His Word is the truth and of regarding his own unbelief as a liar. Where this happens, the Holy Spirit has already begun His power and work of faith, and the heart is so wide open that it can take hold of this treasure, which is greater than heaven and earth. Even so, this happens in great weakness, and on earth it can never attain to perceiving faith as it should, but it always remains in the longing and sighing of the Spirit, which is also inexpressible for man himself, so that his heart says: “If only that were true!” and “Who could believe it?” etc.

37. Nevertheless, this sighing and spark of faith does so much that God counts it as complete faith and says, “As you believe, so may it be to you.” Because you believe this, you will surely be saved, for this Word is a power and might stronger than all fright of sin and damnation. This gift is so great that it swallows sin, death, and hell, just as when a little drop of water falls into a glowing oven or when a little spark on a straw falls into the deep ocean. If only the heart could remember these words in temptation, then no devil or hell could frighten it, and it would cheerfully have to say: “Of what will I be afraid? I have God’s Son, given to me by the Father. Of this He gives me the Word as witness, which I know is His Word. It will not lie to me, as little as He can lie and deceive, even though I, unfortunately, cannot believe strongly enough.”

38. “Yes,” you say, “I would gladly believe if I were like St. Peter, Paul, and others who are righteous and holy, but I am too great a sinner. Who knows whether I am elect?” Answer: Look at the words! Look at how and about whom He is speaking: “God so loved the world” and “so that all who believe in Him” [John 3:16]. Now, “the world” does not mean only St. Peter and Paul, but the entire human race together, and here no one is excluded. God’s Son was given for all, all are to believe this, and all who believe will not be lost, etc. Look at yourself in the face, or look in your bosom, to see whether or not you are also a human being (that is, a part of the world) and in the number which the word “all” includes, as well as others. If I and you do not accept this, then these words must also have been spoken falsely and in vain.

39. This was surely not preached—much less given and granted—to cows and geese. Therefore, beware of excluding yourself by permitting thoughts such as: “Who knows whether it has also been given to me?” That would be calling God a liar in His Word. Rather, make a cross before yourself and repeat these words: “Even if I am not St. Peter or Paul, I am still a part of the world. If He had wanted to give it only to the worthy, then He would have had to send this preaching only to the angels, who are pure and without sin. Yes, He would even have had to withhold it from St. Peter, David, and Paul, for they were sinners as well as I am. No matter who I am, I know that God’s Word is true, and if I do not accept it, then, on top of all other sins, I am also committing this one, that I regard God’s Word and truth as lies and am slandering them.”
Martin Luther, “Gospel for Pentecost Monday (John 3:16–21),” in Luther’s Works, ed. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, James L. Langebartels, and Christopher Boyd Brown, vol. 77 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 367–376. This sermon is found in WA 21:479–97 (Aland Po 246; Cruciger’s edition of the Summer Postil, 1544). See also E 12:350–73; StL 11:1092–115, from which: Lenker 3:350–71. The textual basis for this sermon cannot be determined (cf. WA 22:xxiii).

In other sections of this sermon, Luther also added:
He wants to have us pinned and bound to this [Word], so that in faith we escape the judgment and are saved. The others, however, are justly damned, not because they have had sin, but because they despised the Son and did not want to believe in this name, which was proclaimed to them for salvation and blessedness. All creatures, sin, and death should and must yield to this name (wherever it is preached and believed); the devil and all the gates of hell must be frightened and flee from it.
Luther, “Gospel for Pentecost Monday (John 3:16–21),” in Luther’s Works, 77:378.
Well, He has done enough for the world, everything He should do, in letting His light shine, offering and declaring His love and eternal life in Christ. What more can they now plead for why they should not justly, even according to their own verdict and for their own guilt, be damned?
Luther, “Gospel for Pentecost Monday (John 3:16–21),” in Luther’s Works, 77:380.
It becomes obvious when they, without any reason, persecute Christ, who wants to deliver them and all the world; when they slander and push away God’s Word, which brings them all grace and salvation; when they banish and murder good, innocent people, who confess the Word and love Christ.
Luther, “Gospel for Pentecost Monday (John 3:16–21),” in Luther’s Works, 77:381.


December 6, 2021

William G. T. Shedd (1820–1894) on Preterition, and its Compatibility with the Infinite Compassion of God; or With His Common Grace, Universal Love, Christ’s Expiation for All, and God’s Desire for the Salvation of All Men

What is preterition? It is God’s passing by a sinner in the bestowment of regenerating, not of common grace. All men are blessed with common grace. There is no election or reprobation in this reference. God’s mercy in this form and degree of it is universal and indiscriminate. But common grace fails to save the sinner, because of his love of sin, his aversion to holiness, and his unbelief. The martyr Stephen’s words are applicable to every man in respect to common grace: “Ye stiff-necked, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts vii, 51). Consequently, in order to save any sinner whatsoever requires a still higher grade of grace which, in the phrase of the Larger Catechism (67), “powerfully determines” his will by regenerating it. Here is where the Divine discrimination comes in. It is with reference to this kind and degree of grace that God says : “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Ex. xxxiii, 19; Rom. ix, 15). And this is the Scripture truth which is now on trial in the Presbyterian Church. This is the particular doctrine which excites animosity in some minds, and which it is contended must be cut out of the Confession like cancerous matter that is killing the body. Let us consider the objections that are made to it.

1. It is objected that preterition is inconsistent with the infinite compassion of God for the souls of all men, and cannot be squared with such assertions as, “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die. God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.”

The first reply to this is, that these and many similar affirmations of the Divine pity for the sinful soul and the Divine desire for its salvation, are written in the same inspired volume that contains such assertions as the following: “Many shall seek to enter in and shall not be able. He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, that they should not see with their eyes, and be converted, and I should heal them. The Son of Man goeth as it was determined; but woe unto that man by whom He is betrayed. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. The children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand not of works but of him that calleth, it was said, The elder shall serve the younger. The disobedient stumble at the word, whereunto also they were appointed.” Since both classes of passages come from God, He must see that they are consistent with each other whether man can or not. Both, then, must be accepted as eternal truth by an act of faith, by every one who believes in the inspiration of the Bible. They must be presumed to be self-consistent, whether it can be shown or not.

But, secondly, there are degrees of mercy. Because God does not show the highest degree of it to a particular sinner, it does not follow that He does not show him any at all. He may grant him the mercy of common grace, and when this is resisted and nullified by his hostile self-will and obstinate love of sin, He may decide not to bestow the mercy of special grace, and yet not be chargeable with destitution of love and compassion towards him. Any degree of love is love; and any degree of compassion is compassion. To contend that the Divine love must be of exactly the same degree towards all creatures alike or else it is not love, is untenable. It is certain that God can feel love and pity towards the souls of all men, as His creatures and as sinners lost by their own fault, and manifest it in that measure of grace which “leads to repentance” (Rom. ii, 4.) and would result in it if it were not resisted, and yet not actually save them all from the consequences of their own action. The Scriptures plainly teach that God so loved the whole world that He gave His only-begotten Son to make expiation for “the sins of the whole world and they just as plainly teach that a part of this world of mankind are sentenced, by God, to eternal death for their sins. The Arminian and the Calvinist both alike deny the doctrine of universal salvation, yet believe that this is compatible with the doctrine of God’s universal benevolence. Both deny the inference that if God does not save every human being, He does not love the soul of every human being; that if He does not do as much for one person as He does for another, He is unmerciful towards him. It is a fallacy to maintain, that unless God does all that He possibly can to save a sinner, He does not do anything towards his salvation; as it would be fallacious to maintain, that unless God bestows upon a person all the temporal blessings that are within His power, He does not show him any benevolence at all. This fallacy lies under the argument against preterition. It is asserted that if God “passes by” a sinner in the bestowment of regenerating grace, He has no love for his soul, no desire for its salvation, and does nothing towards its welfare. But if God really felt no compassion for a sinner, and showed him none, He would immediately punish him for his sin, and the matter would end here. The sinner’s doom would be fixed. Just retribution would follow transgression instantaneously, and forever. And who can impeach justice? “As all men have sinned in Adam, and are obnoxious to eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish, and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin, according to the words of the Apostle: 1 That every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God’” (Dort Canons, I, i). But God does not do this. He suffers long and is forbearing with every sinner without exception. There is not a transgressor on earth, in Christendom or heathendom, who is not treated by his Maker better than he deserves; who does not experience some degree of the Divine love and compassion. God showers down upon all men the blessings of His providence, and bestows upon them all more or less of the common influences and operation of the Holy Spirit. This is mercy to the souls of men universally, and ought to move them to repent of sin and forsake it. This common grace and universal benevolence of God is often spoken of in Scripture. “Despisest thou, O man, the riches of God’s goodness, and forbearance, and long suffering; not knowing [recognizing] that the goodness of God leads [tends to lead] thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath?” (Rom. ii, 4, 5). Here is the common grace of God enjoyed by men universally, and thwarted by their love of sin, and obstinate self-will in sin. But is God unmerciful and destitute of compassion towards this man, if He decides to proceed no further with him, but leave him where he is, and as he is? Is all that God has done for him in the way of long suffering, forbearance, kindness, and inward monitions in his conscience, to count for nothing? If this treatment of the sinner is not benevolence and compassion, what is it? It is mercy in God to reveal to every man the law of God—nay even “the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness”—for by this revelation, the man is warned and urged to turn from sin and live. This is one way in which God says to the sinner, “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die. As I live I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.” It is mercy in God, and is so represented by St. Paul, when He “does not leave Himself without witness, in that He does good, sending rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling men’s hearts with good and gladness, and makes of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and determines the bounds of their habitation, that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us” (Acts xiv, 17 ; xvii, 26, 27). That this gracious and fatherly interest in their souls’ welfare is repelled and nullified by their preference for sin and love of worldly pleasure, and comes to naught, does not alter the nature of it as it lies in the heart of God. It is Divine mercy and love for human souls, notwithstanding its ill success.

Common grace is great and undeserved mercy to a sinner, and would save him if he did not resist and frustrate it. In and by it, “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent,” and whoever repents will find mercy. In and by it, God commands every hearer of the written Word to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and whoever believes shall be saved. The common grace of God consists of the written, or, in the instance of the heathen, the unwritten Word, together with more or less of the convicting operation of the Holy Spirit. Says [Charles] Hodge (ii, 667), “The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom, or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. In this sphere, also, He ‘divideth to every man severally as He will.’” Whoever is in any degree convinced of sin, and is in any degree urged by his conscience to confess and forsake it, is a subject of common grace. And whoever stifles conviction, refuses confession, and “holds down the truth in unrighteousness,” resists common grace. St. Paul charges this sin upon both the heathen and the evangelized. Common grace, we repeat, is great and undeserved mercy to a sinner, and by it God evinces His pity for his soul, and His desire for its salvation. But man universally, unevangelized and evangelized, nullifies this form and degree of the Divine mercy, by his opposition. The opponent of preterition comes in here at this point, and contends that God is bound to go yet further than common grace with sinful man, and subdue his enmity by creating him anew in the spirit of his mind; and that if He “passes him by,” and leaves him where he is, and as he is, He has no love for his soul. The sovereignty of God in this matter of bestowing regenerating grace is denied. To bestow it upon Jacob but not upon Esau, upon some but not upon all, is said to be injustice and partiality.

Scripture denies that God is under obligation to follow up His defeated common grace with His irresistible special grace. It asserts His just liberty to do as He pleases in regard to imparting that measure of grace which produces the new birth, and makes the sinner “willing in the day of God’s power.” The passages have already been cited. And reason teaches the same truth. Mercy from its very nature is free and optional in its exercise. God may manifest great and unmerited compassion to all men in common grace and the outward call, and limit His compassion if He please to some men in special grace and the effectual call. He may call upon all men to repent and believe, and promise salvation to all that do so, and yet not incline all men to do so. No one will say that a man is insincere in offering a gift, if he does not along with it produce the disposition to accept it. And neither should one assert this of God. God sincerely desires that the sinner would hear His outward call, and that His common grace might succeed with him. He sincerely desires that every one who hears the message: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; yea, come buy wine and milk without money,” would come just as he is, and of his own free will, “for all things are ready.” The fact that God does not go further than this with all men and conquer their aversion, is consistent with this desire. No one contends that God is not universally benevolent because He bestows more health, wealth, and intellect, upon some than upon others. And no one should contend that He is not universally merciful, because He bestows more grace upon some than upon others. The omnipotence of God is able to save the whole world of mankind, and to our narrow vision it seems singular that He does not; but be this as it may, it is false to say that if He does not exert the whole of His power, He is an unmerciful being towards those who abuse His common grace. That degree of forbearance and long suffering which God shows towards those who resist it, and that measure of effort which He puts forth to convert them, is real mercy towards their souls. It is the sinner who has thwarted this benevolent approach of God to his sinful heart. Millions of men in all ages are continually beating back God’s mercy in the outward call and nullifying it. “A man who has had common grace, has been the subject of the Divine compassion to this degree. If he resists it, he cannot charge God with unmercifulness, because He does not bestow upon him still greater mercy in the form of regenerating grace. A beggar who contemptuously rejects the five dollars offered by a benevolent man, cannot charge stinginess upon him because after this rejection of the five dollars he does not give him ten. Any sinner who complains of God’s ‘passing him by’ in the bestowment of regenerating grace after his abuse of common grace, virtually says to the high and holy One who inhabits eternity, ‘Thou hast tried once to convert me from sin; now try again, and try harder.’”

God’s desire that a sinner should “turn and live” under common grace, is not incompatible with His purpose to leave him to “eat of the fruit of his own ways, and be filled with his own devices”—which is the same thing as “foreordaining him to everlasting death.” A decree of God may not be indicative of what He desires and loves. He decrees sin, but abhors and forbids it. He decrees the physical agony of millions of men in earthquake, flood and conflagration, but He does not take delight in it. His omnipotence could prevent this suffering in which He has no pleasure, but He decides for adequate reasons not to do so. Similarly, He could prevent the eternal death of every single member of the human family, in which He takes no pleasure, but decides not to do so for reasons that are wise in His sight. The distinction between the revealed will and the secret will of God is a valid one; and the latter of these wills may be no index of the former, but the exact contrary of it. This is particularly the case when evil is the thing decreed.*

*The difference between will as general desire and inclination, and will as a particular volition or decision in a special instance, is seen in human action, and is well understood. For sufficient reasons, a man may decide in a particular case to do by a volition something entirely contrary to his uniform and abiding inclination—say, to have his leg amputated. This decision is his “decree,” and is no index of what he is pleased with.
William G. T. Shedd, “The Meaning and Value of the Doctrine of Decrees,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 1.1 (January 1890): 8–14.