Thunderbolt Against Self-Righteousness

For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.
—Isaiah 48:11

Here you see that a self-righteous person is a thief of the divine glory and also an idolater, because he lays claim to God’s glory for himself. He does not pray, “Hallowed be Thy name.” Aspiring to the glory of divinity is a most grievous monstrosity. Here you see the battle between God and the self-righteous concerning glory. The outward glory of this world is nothing compared with it. The self-righteous want to rob God of His glory. And God will not permit this.

The self-righteous man thinks that God will give him rewards for fasting and labor. He thinks that without these God will give him nothing. He thinks precisely that God is someone who will save him through his works, not for the sake of free grace. To this fiction, “God will save me through my works,” he attributes salvation.

This is the most persistent struggle and battle of the world against God. No one wants to rely on God’s glory alone and repudiate all his own merits. For that reason there are so many examples in Scripture which invite us to look to grace alone, whether we eat or whether we drink. So there are endless examples of sins, such as of the robber, that draw us to God’s grace alone.

He wants to make our heart … neither despair because of sins nor be presumptuous because of blessings. … Let the one who has fallen into sin say, “I shall not be condemned because of it.” Let the one who has done well say, “I am not saved thereby.” This teaching applies to the godly only, but for the rest of the crowd it opens the window of carnal liberty. The godly simply cling to God and trust in His grace. They see that the apostles and robbers were saved by the same grace, not by works and merits. This is a thunderbolt against every kind of righteousness.

—Martin Luther
“Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66” in Works, 17:162–163.


Striving to Save Ourselves

We have heard how the Spirit admonishes the unbelievers who strive to save themselves. This evil is inborn in us, that in times of need we run to all gods except the one God. Therefore God meets us with Scripture, where the contention is that all our toil and merits are cut out by the promises alone apart from the works of the Law, as Paul treats of it so richly in Galatians 3:15ff. There he says that God’s covenant was in force out of pure mercy and promise a long time, 400 years in fact, before the Law. These arguments are unfailing: By grace alone all things come to us who merit nothing. Yet the flesh cannot keep silent in afflictions but always runs back to its own resources, and people look for help to their own prayers and merits. Thus the sophists debated whether the blessed Virgin deserved to become a mother. I say that she was made a mother according to promise before she was born, before she gave any thought to the matter. So here Israel should be plucked out of the Babylonian captivity gratis, at no cost, absolutely free. Therefore the prophet meets this evil especially, since all of us, immersed in trials, forget the promises of God and have recourse to our own resources.

—Martin Luther
“Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66” in Works,  17:141–142.


Grace Alone

To prove that we have attained the hope of salvation by his grace alone, not by works [cf. Eph. 2:8–9], he states that “we are his creatures, since we have been reborn in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” [Eph. 2:10, cf. Vg.]. It is as if he said: Who of us can boast that he has appealed to God by his own righteousness when our first capacity for well-doing flows from regeneration? For, as we have by nature been created, oil will sooner be pressed from a stone than any good work from us. It is truly wonderful that man, condemned to such disgrace, dares still assume that he has anything left. Let us therefore admit, with this very great instrument of God, that the Lord “called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his purpose and … grace” [2 Tim. 1:9 p.], and that “the generosity and love of God our Savior was manifested toward us, for he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but on account of his own mercy, … that we might be justified by his grace and be made heirs of eternal life” [Titus 3:4–5, 7 p.]. By this confession we deprive man of all righteousness, even to the slightest particle, until, by mercy alone, he is reborn into the hope of eternal life, since if the righteousness of works brings anything to justify us, we are falsely said to be justified by grace. Obviously, the apostle was not forgetful when he declared justification free, since he proves in another passage that grace would no longer be grace if works availed [Rom. 11:6]. And what else does the Lord mean when he says that he “came not to call the righteous but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]? If only sinners are admitted, why do we seek entry through feigned righteousness?

—John Calvin
Institutes, 3.14.5.


Sola Gratia

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
—Romans 11:6

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.
—Romans 4:4

[Paul] first extols grace by contrasting it with works, and then in the clearest and simplest terms he states that we are justified freely, and that grace would not be grace if it were earned by works, so that he quite unmistakably excludes all works in the matter of justification in order to establish grace alone and free justification.

Yet with all this light we still search for darkness, and when we cannot claim large and all-inclusive things for ourselves, we try to claim little modest things, just to ensure that justification by the grace of God shall not be free and apart from works. As if he who denies us all the important things will not even more deny that the little modest things help us in any way toward justification, when he has laid it down that we are justified only by his grace apart from all works, and therefore apart from the law itself, in which all works, great and small, congruous and condign, are included. Now go and boast of your ancient authorities, and rely on what they say, when you see that they have one and all overlooked the clearest and plainest teaching of Paul as if they deliberately shunned this morning star, or rather this sun, because of the carnal notion they doubtless entertained that it would be absurd to have no place left for merits.

—Martin Luther
The Bondage of the Will (Works, 33:269–270).

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