— 1545 (1522) —

Martin Luther

The reason for writing prefaces to the Bible

It would be right and proper that this book should appear without preface and without any other name than that of its authors, and convey only its own name and its own language. But many wild interpretations and prefaces have driven the thought of Christians to a point where no one any longer knows what is Gospel or Law, Old Testament or New. Necessity demands, therefore, that it should have an announcement, or preface, by which the simple man can be brought back from the old notions to the right road, and taught what he is to expect in this book, so that he may not seek laws and commandments where he ought to be seeking the Gospel and God’s promises.

God’s Word rightly divided

[Therefore it should be known, in the first place, that the idea must be given up that there are four Gospels and only four Evangelists. The division of the New Testament books into legal, historical, prophetic and wisdom books, is also to be rejected entirely. Some make this division, thinking that by it they are somehow comparing the New with the Old Testament. On the contrary, it is to be held firmly that…]

Just as the Old Testament is a book in which are written God’s laws and commandments, together with the history of those who kept and of those who did not keep them; so the New Testament is a book in which are written the Gospel and the promises of God, together with the history of those who believe and of those who do not believe them. For Gospel is a Greek word, and means in Greek, a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with rejoicing. So, when David overcame the great Goliath, there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been smitten and they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it.

So the Gospel, too, is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil; He made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and are steadfast in faith.

Testament or inheritance

This report and encouraging tidings, or evangelical and divine news, is also called a New Testament, because it is a testament, when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to heirs whom he names, and Christ, before His death commanded and bequeathed this Gospel, to be preached into all the world, and thereby gave to all who believe, as their possession, everything that He had, that is, His life, in which He swallowed up death; His righteousness, by which He blotted out sin; His salvation, with which He overcame everlasting damnation. A poor man, dead in sin and tied for hell, can hear nothing more comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ, and from the bottom of his heart, he must laugh and be glad over it, if he believes it true.

The Gospel promises of God

Now to strengthen this faith, God promised this Gospel and testament in many ways, by the prophets in the Old Testament, as St. Paul says, in Romans 1:1, “I am separated to preach the Gospel of Christ, which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scripture, concerning His Son, who was born of the seed of David, etc.”

To indicate some of these places: — He gave the first promise, when He said to the serpent, in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall tread on thy head and thou shalt sting his heel.” Christ is the seed of this woman, and He has trodden upon the devil’s head, i.e., sin, death, hell, and all his power, for without this seed, no man can escape sin, death, or hell.

Again, in Genesis 22:18, He promised Abraham, “Through thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” “Christ is the seed of Abraham,” says St. Paul, in Galatians 3:16, and He has blessed all the world through the Gospel, for where Christ is not, there is still the curse that fell upon Adam and his children when he had sinned, so that all of them together are guilty of sin, death, and hell, and must belong to them.

Against this curse the Gospel blesses all the world by the public announcement, “He that believeth in this seed shall be blessed,” that is, rid of sin and righteous, and shall remain alive and be saved forever; as Christ Himself says, in John 11:26, “He that believeth in me shall never die.”

Again, He made this promise to David, in 2 Samuel 7:12, when He said, “I will raise up thy seed after thee, who shall build a house to my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” That is the kingdom of Christ, of which the Gospel speaks, an everlasting kingdom, a kingdom of life, salvation, and righteousness, and all those who believe shall enter into it from out of the prison of sin and death.

There are many more such promises of the Gospel in the other prophets also, for example, in Micah 5:2, “And thou, Bethlehem, Ephratah, though thou art small in comparison with the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall come for me Him who is Lord in Israel”; and again in Hosea 13:14, “I will redeem them from hell and rescue them from death; death, I will be to thee a poison; hell, I will be to thee a pestilence.”

What the Gospel is

The Gospel, then, is nothing but the preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man, who by His death and resurrection has overcome all men’s sin, and death and hell, for us who believe in Him.

Thus the Gospel can be either a brief or a lengthy message; one can describe it briefly, another at length. He describes it at length, who describes many works and words of Christ, — as do the four Evangelists; he describes it briefly who does not tell of Christ’s works, but, indicates shortly how by His death and resurrection He has overcome sin, death, and hell for those who believe in Him, as do St. Peter and St. Paul.

Christ is not a new Law-giver

See to it, therefore, that you do not make of Christ a second Moses or of the Gospel a book of laws and doctrines, as has been done heretofore; and certain prefaces, even those of St. Jerome, speak for this. For the Gospel does not really demand works of ours by which we become righteous and are saved, nay, it condemns such works; but it does demand faith in Christ, that He has overcome for us sin, death, and hell, and thus makes us righteous, and gives us life and salvation, not through our works, but through His own works, death, and suffering, in order that we may avail ourselves of His death and victory, as though they were our own.

To be sure, Christ, in the Gospel, and St. Peter and St. Paul besides, do give many commandments and doctrines, and expound the law, but these are to be counted like all Christ’s other works and benefits. To know His works and the things that happened to Him, is not yet a knowledge of the Gospel, for if you know only these things, you do not yet know that He has overcome sin, death, and devil. So, too, it is not yet knowledge of the Gospel, when you know these doctrines and commandments, but only when the voice comes that says, “Christ is your own, with His life, teaching, works, death, resurrection, and all that He is, has, does, and can do.”

We see, also, that He does not compel us but invites us kindly and says, “Blessed are the poor, etc.”; and the apostles use the words, “I exhort,” “I entreat,” “I beg.” Thus one sees on every hand that the Gospel is not a book of law, but really a preaching of the benefits of Christ, shown to us and given to us for our own, if we believe. But Moses, in his books, drives, compels, threatens, smites and rebukes terribly; for he is a law-giver and driver.

We are justified by faith alone, and created in Christ for good works

Hence it comes that to a believer no law is given by which he becomes righteous before God, as St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1, because he is alive and righteous and saved by faith, and he needs nothing more, except to prove his faith by works. Nay, if faith is there, he cannot hold himself back; he shows himself, breaks out into good works, confesses and teaches this Gospel before people, and risks his life for it. Everything that he lives and does is directed to his neighbor’s profit, in order to help him, not only to the attainment of this grace, but in body, property, and honor. He sees that this is what Christ has done for him, and he follows Christ’s example.

That is what Christ meant when He gave, at last, no other commandment than love, by which men were to know who were His disciples and true believers. For where works and love do not break forth, there faith is not right, the Gospel does not take hold, and Christ is not rightly known. See, then, that you so approach the books of the New Testament as to learn to read them in this way.

Reading-order of New Testament books

[From all this you can now judge all the books and decide, among them which are the best. John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books. They ought rightly be the first books and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading, make them as familiar as his daily bread.]

In them you find not many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find it depicted, in masterly fashion, how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This is the real nature of the Gospel, as you have heard.

If I had to do without one or the other, — either the works or preaching of Christ, — I would rather do without His works than His preaching; for the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says. Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching, while the other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching; therefore John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, — Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that it is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. But more of this in other prefaces.