BY MARTIN LUTHER
For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. -2 Corinthians 3:6
When man, conscious of his failure to keep God’s command, is constantly urged by the Law to make payment of his debt and confronted with nothing but the terrible wrath of God and eternal condemnation, he cannot but sink into despair over his sins. Such is the inevitable consequence where the Law alone is taught with a view to attaining heaven thereby. The vanity of such trust in works is illustrated in the case of the noted hermit mentioned in Lives of the Fathers. For over seventy years this hermit had led a life of utmost austerity and had many followers. When the hour of death came he began to tremble, and for three days was in a state of agony. His disciples came to comfort him, exhorting him to die in peace since he had led so holy a life. But he replied:
“Alas, I truly have all my life served Christ and lived austerely; but God’s judgment greatly differs from that of men.”
Note, this worthy man, despite the holiness of his life, has no acquaintance with any article but that of the divine judgment according to the Law. He knows not the comfort of Christ’s Gospel. After a long life spent in the attempt to keep God’s commandments and secure salvation, the Law now slays him through his own works. He is compelled to exclaim:
“Alas, who knows how God will look upon my efforts? Who may stand before him?”
That means, to forfeit heaven through the verdict of his own conscience. The work he has wrought and his holiness of life avail nothing. They merely push him deeper into death, since he is without the solace of the Gospel, while others, such as the thief on the cross and the publican, grasp the comfort of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Thus sin is conquered; they escape the sentence of the Law, and pass through death into life eternal.
Now the meaning of the contrasting clause, “the Spirit gives life,” becomes clear. The reference is to naught else but the holy Gospel, a message of healing and salvation; a precious, comforting word. It comforts and refreshes the sad heart. It wrests it out of the jaws of death and hell, as it were, and transports it to the certain hope of eternal life, through faith in Christ. When the last hour comes to the believer, and death and God’s judgment appear before his eyes, he does not base his comfort upon his works. Even though he may have lived the holiest life possible, he says with Paul: “I know nothing against myself, yet am I not hereby justified.”
These words imply being ill pleased with self, with the whole life; indeed, even the putting to death of self. Though the heart says, “By my works I am neither made righteous nor saved,” which is practically admitting oneself to be worthy of death and condemnation, the Spirit extricates from despair, through the Gospel faith, which confesses, as did St. Bernard in the hour of death:
“Dear Lord Jesus, I am aware that my life at its best has been but worthy of condemnation, but I trust in the fact that thou hast died for me and hast sprinkled me with blood from thy holy wounds. For I have been baptized in thy name and have given heed to thy Word whereby thou hast called me, awarded me grace and life, and bidden me believe. In this assurance will I pass out of life; not in uncertainty and anxiety, thinking, who knows what sentence God in heaven will pass upon me?”
The Christian must not utter such a question. The sentence against his life and works has long since been passed by the Law. Therefore, he must confess himself guilty and condemned. But he lives by the gracious judgment of God declared from heaven, whereby the sentence of the Law is overruled and reversed. It is this: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life.” (John 3:36.)
We are a Law & Gospel collective of creative contributors, dedicated to proclaiming to people how Christ remains faithful even when we are faithless. We provide a voice for Christians who are both Sinner & Saint. We promote the bad news that you are a greater sinner than you think and the good news that Christ is a greater savior than you can imagine.