Christ, our Light

"Faith is a work of God in us"

an essay on

"Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans"
Martin Luther

     "Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans" summarizes Martin Luther's views on the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, while affording more than a little insight into Luther's own ideas and feelings. It is a foundational document of the Reformation, in that it gives a clear account of salvation by grace through faith, the formula that is the cornerstone of Reformed theology. In a remarkably brief essay, Luther addresses, at a high but satisfying level, every major topic raised in Romans.

     Halfway through Martin Luther's opening comments in his "Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans," he makes the statement, "Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God." Then he writes, "Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God's grace." These two statements, had I encountered them forty years ago, might have changed the direction of my life entirely. Even today, they need to be stamped on my forehead and whispered in my ears a hundred times a day.
     I will not try to second-guess God, or underestimate the extent of my rebellion against Him during those developmental and intervening years, but I recall believing that there was a standard that I had to achieve before I could be saved, and that faith was something that I conjured up within myself. This sort of legalism closed my mind and heart for decades.
     When, at last, faith came into my life, I was no longer looking for it, did not really want it, did not believe that it solved anything. Now, of course, I know that I was always looking for it without understanding what it was, and I am seeking more of it. It has solved the problems that I believed were beyond solution.
     Crystal clear in my own experience is the fact that God changed my life, created faith within me, and made me reborn, not me. So, in that respect, I can bear personal witness to that aspect of Luther's thesis, or rather, Paul's. For, it is Paul's. He wrote it; Luther understood it and sounded it forth to the world at a time when the world had forgotten about God's grace.
     In view of the fundamental character of these two propositions, and the gravity of retaining a wrong understanding, I can see no more important message for people today than to convey the correct idea to them concerning what is, and is not, faith. Luther's Preface is so short, and so easy to read, that I think it would make an excellent handout to high-school seniors or entering freshman collegians.
     The writing is very energetic and emotional, revealing Luther's passionate character. He begins by placing Romans at the top of the Christian reading list, calling it "the purest Gospel," and suggesting that one read parts of it daily and commit it to memory.
     But, my own experience, and that of many others, is that Romans is a difficult book. There are problems following the train of thought, problems with terms, and statements that require considerable reflection to grasp and understand. Luther's summary is an invaluable tool for reading and understanding Romans, not only for the simplification he introduces but for the clarification of terms, insight into structure, and making clear the theological framework upon which Romans hangs.
     Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, has provided an extremely idiomatic and easy-to-read translation of Luther's Preface to Romans from the German original. The entire text is available at the "Celestial Classics Ethereal Library", to whom I am deeply indebted. The Preface runs about ten printed pages and can easily be read in half an hour. I strongly recommend your familiarizing yourself with this powerful and important document. The effort will repay you many fold.
     RMA, June, 2000

"Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans" [text], Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB

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Last updated: 09/10/09