ONE LITTLE WORD
SHALL FELL HIM.
In the name + of Jesus.
This verse from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans probably got Martin Luther into more trouble than any other verse in the Bible. Part of it had to do with his theology—that we are justified before God by faith alone. The other part of it had to do with that word—alone.
That word “alone” caused a firestorm because Martin Luther added it to his translation in Romans 3:28. The verse we read before is rightly translated: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28) But Luther added the word “alone”—or “allein” if you prefer the German—to that verse. Kind critics accused Luther of being ignorant. Harsher critics accused Luther of blasphemy and of altering the word of God for his own self-centered purposes. Many were in uproar over one little word. As to why Luther dared to add the word “alone” to his translation, Luther himself answered that question when a woman wrote him a letter to ask why. We will come back to that later.
Perhaps it sounds wrong to hear that we are saved apart from deeds. After all, the Commandments reveal what God demands of us. The Commandments are not optional. Every person on earth knows that there is a standard of right and wrong. Though some may not care about doing what is right, everyone gets a sense of justice when they've been wronged. From the most pious Christian to the most ardent atheist, people understand that we are expected to do good. Even St. James wrote: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
It is true that the Commandments tell you what you are supposed to do. But the Commandments also highlight that you have not done. Even when you have wanted to serve God faithfully, you have not lived up to God’s glorious standard. The Law does what St. Paul said it is designed to do: The law…speaks…so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. …Through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20) There is no difference between the most pious Christian and the most ardent atheist: All have sinned, and all continue to fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23, translated by me to convey the tenses of the Greek verbs)
Martin Luther was haunted by this question: “How is a man made right before God? Where does he get the righteousness he needs to be saved?” God’s word reveals God’s Commandments. It tells you God's will so you can do what is right and good. But God's word, more importantly to the conscience-stricken sinner, reveals an alien righteousness—that is, a righteousness that does not come from you since you don't have it, but rather a righteousness that comes form God who does have it. This righteousness comes to you through Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Righteous One whom God himself elected. Jesus has obeyed all of God’s Commandments perfectly. Remember, the commandments are not optional. Man must keep them. And now we have a man who has done just that. But the righteous life that Jesus lived was not merely for him. Jesus is the Righteous One, but he is especially the Lord Our Righteousness. (Jeremiah 23:6, emphasis added) Jesus lived a holy and obedient life for you. His righteousness was put upon you when you were baptized. God now views you as holy and blameless—not because you did the works, but by faith in the one who has done the works for you. We are saved by faith alone.
On the other hand, our sins against God’s Commandments cannot be overlooked. Just as obedience to the Commandments is not optional, neither are the consequences for law breakers. The guilty must pay. But your iniquity has been laid upon Jesus. He suffered and died for crimes and sins he did not commit. So, the consequences have doled out. Jesus suffered the consequences and paid the price for all sins. You are saved from God’s wrath—not by works you have done, but by Jesus who has done the works for you. You are justified before God by faith alone. That is why we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works.
This one little word, alone, supplies all our comfort and confidence in life and in death. For Satan will always be your “Accuser.” That's what his name means. He reminds you what the Law says and he accuses you of your sins against it. And the devil makes nothing up. He simply shows you what you have been. He highlights that you have not been good or right. But now, one little word shall fell him. You are saved by faith alone apart from the deeds of the Law. You don’t have to lie to overcome Satan's accusations. You cling to faith alone which points to Jesus, the Word made flesh, who has overcome the devil and who silences his accusations. When the devil comes to show you that your deeds have failed, you respond, “I’m sorry, you are bringing your accusations to the wrong person. Jesus Christ answers for me. He has redeemed me. Therefore, I belong to him; so you must speak to Jesus about me. He tells me I am forgiven. So, off to hell with you. I have work to do.”
One little word shall fell him. Martin Luther added that one little word “alone,” to his translation. We hold that one is justified by faith alone apart from deeds of the Law. (Romans 3:28) That “alone” means that every part of our salvation is in Jesus’ hands, not ours. And since salvation rests in Christ alone, we are sure that it is complete and certain and perfect. Faith rejoices in what Jesus has done. Faith yearns for what Jesus continually gives through his word and sacraments. There, Jesus creates, strengthens, and sustains your living and saving faith. You are justified by faith alone; but as St. James mentioned, faith is never alone. Faith cannot just sit there on its hands. While faith receives good things from God, faith also desires to give what it receives. Faith desires to work, to love, to serve, to praise, to confess, to pray, and to forgive. By faith, we are declared right before God. And by faith, God creates a right spirit within us to do the right things he desires.
We hold that one is justified by faith alone apart from deeds of the Law. (Romans 3:28) Martin Luther added one little word not to edit God’s word, but to keep our focus on Jesus Christ. When asked why he added this word, Luther explained that he wanted St. Paul to speak good German. A German would say that he came to market not with barley but with grain alone. Since that's how Germans speak, that's how the Bible should speak to Germans. Therefore, we are justified not by works, but by faith alone.
Faith alone confesses salvation by Jesus alone. The devil always wants you to focus on your works so that he can drive doubt into your heart. But one little word shall fell him. It is not our doing; it is the work of Jesus Christ alone. Salvation is not our work; it is by faith alone in Jesus.
One little word shall fell him. One little word—the Word which became flesh which was laid in a manger for you; the Word made flesh which overcame every temptation and fulfilled every Commandment for you; the Word whose flesh was nailed to a cross and whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins for you; the Word made flesh whose flesh has risen from the grave and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty for you. One little Word shall fell him. And by faith alone, that Word completely saves you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.