*Note: This morning’s section of Luther is a bit longer than normal, but totally worth it.
For he who is pleased with himself cannot stand in the fear of God and be without presumption. But what is worse than being without fear? Therefore every concern must be to strive for the supreme displeasure with ourselves, even in our good things.
So then, in the first place, consider your omissions, and these are of various kinds. First, with regard to natural things, for you must see whether you have praised and given thanks to God throughout all the days and hours in your whole life, for you are held to this by a strict commandment and by natural law. For since in all days and hours you have received the blessings of God, such as life, being, feeling, mind, besides food and clothing and the service of the sun, of heaven and earth and all the elements in exceeding variety, it is clear that you owe thanks for what you have received. But who would not here see his own endless omissions and ingratitudes? Who has sufficiently given thanks for one day? Second, [consider your omissions] in the gifts of grace received, such as the sacraments and blessings of the church, which serves you no less than the whole world, since the church is a kind of intellectual world. Therefore without ceasing you receive life, feeling, being, understanding, food and clothing in spiritual things, the service of the sun of righteousness, of heaven and earth and of all the blessings in the church. [“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Luke 10:23). With what desire those others kept on looking for those things in which we are!]25 And behold, now by another substitution you are being moved away from the benefits of God and you see your endless omissions, yes, your endlessly endless ingratitudes. For at every moment endless benefits are offered you by the Lord. And as you cannot give proper thanks for one morsel of bread, neither can you for one word of truth. But one who thinks these benefits to be of little value and does not magnify those sins of omission will never be truly humble and displeased with himself, nor will he be fit to evaluate mercy and goodness. It is as Ps. 92:6 says: “The foolish man does not know this,” and, on the contrary: “I meditated on Thy deeds, and I will meditate on all Thy works” (Ps. 143:5). But, ha-ha, how many are there who think everything is the result of chance, not knowing or not believing that they receive these things from the Lord! And this is only because of omitting the giving of thanks.
Third, there are the sins of omission with regard to the commandments of God, not only as far as the substance of the act or works is concerned, but much more as to the quality or quantity. For when it comes to loving God and your neighbor, and so forth, how often have you offended? But even if you have loved, it is very much to be feared that you have not done so to the extent and the degree to which you are held so far as the number and constancy of the heart or attitude are concerned. But who has determined for you or who will tell you how often or how fervently God demands this of you? So that He alone has left his judgment to Himself, and you are forced to be ignorant of both the number and the manner or measure of your omissions. Certainly this one thing alone would be abundantly sufficient to humble all people thoroughly, even the most saintly, and drive them to fear. For He judges righteously (Ps. 9:4) and the sword of His judgment is doubly sharp. Therefore we must pray: “Who can discern his errors? Lord, cleanse me from secret faults, and spare Thy servant from those of others” (Ps. 19:12–13). Everything in weight, number, and measure comes from God, and so He requires it of us. The “number” refers to how often the same thing must be done. The “measure,” how many things, or to whom, namely, to yourself, your neighbors, God. The “weight,” fervor and effort. But who will measure the neighbors to whom you have duties, except God? Who will determine the weight, except the same Weigher of spirits? Who will count the number, except the same God? Therefore see here your unnumbered omissions and your need for fear and humility.
Fourth, think also of your neglect of zeal toward correcting and admonishing others, that is, all the sins of others, of which you have become guilty by keeping silent, or which you have caused to be committed by the offense you gave. But here, too, you do not know how often, how much, and how seriously you have sinned.
Finally, fifth, consider your sins of commission and your transgressions of things forbidden. They, too, have their own number, and you cannot know how often, how much, etc.
Sixth, consider the sins of all others which you ought to assume as your own and the miseries of all which you ought to bear. For one should bear another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). But since these are endless by every measurement, if you will rightly and seriously consider them and think of them in no other way than as if they were your own, how will you not regard as the very greatest the mercy of God, who forgives you so many sins and misfortunes? For if one does not in this way involve himself with the sins of all, how will he fulfill the law of Christ? How will he imitate Christ, who, according to the apostle’s citing of this psalm (v. 9), is acknowledged to have acted in such a way that He did not please Himself (Rom. 15:3) but bore the weaknesses and miseries of others. For “the reproaches of those who reproached God have fallen on Him.” So they should also fall on you, and you should bear all things and pray this whole psalm with Him as if it belonged to you. Then you can say, “How kind is Thy mercy! Save me, because I am stuck.”
Seventh, consider that the peace and security of our time is the greatest hindrance and reason why God’s mercy is not often good or great, for it does not permit evils to appear as many and great, although, if one would think about it, it would be so much greater. For the wrath of God upon us is so much greater, and if we want to turn it away, we must pray to Him with far greater urgency and fear and humility than at the time of the martyrs. For then they prayed with so much boldness that they praised God even in the midst of evils and rejoiced in the midst of sufferings. But now we cannot do this, because in a time of peace and security we are unable to rejoice. Therefore our prayers are now full of nothing but sadness, fear, and affliction, or at any rate they ought to be, because the Comforter has been far removed from us because the afflictor has been far removed.
Eighth, you can weep most bitterly over all these things, that because of your hardness you do not feel such things nor are moved or touched by them, since any one of these is of such a kind and so great that it could not be sufficiently wept over with all tears. Therefore, if you cannot groan over them, at least groan that you cannot groan; weep that you cannot weep, be sad that you cannot be sad, be humble that you cannot be humble, fear that you cannot fear, and so on, with the rest, if perchance or in this way the divine mercy might look upon you and magnify itself over you.
And in order that you might accept the full measure and guidance of God’s mercy that is to be magnified, consider someone or some people who were killed or who died suddenly in their sins. But I think that if you are sound of mind, you would not take all the glory, riches, and pleasures of the whole world and die like that. And if you knew that you were about to perish thus and could redeem yourself from this destruction at the cost of the whole world, you would most gladly do it.
I implore you, pay careful attention and fashion and assume for yourself the feeling of those who perish in such a manner. I believe you will see horror upon horror and you would value the great goodness of God if He would snatch you out. And if those already condemned were snatched out, think how immeasurably they would magnify the mercy of God! But now add this: Just as they perished, could you not have perished in the same moment and through all the separate moments to the present? And just as these condemned people are now suffering the punishment, could you not have suffered the same? But the fact that this has not happened and may not happen even now, is not this the bottomless abyss of divine goodness toward you? Or are you so foolish that you think less of this goodness because it preserves you, rather than because it might rescue you? Do not think in that way. But imagine yourself to be already altogether condemned with all demons (for without a doubt you were and are such a one of yourself), and therefore weigh the grace of God, who preserves you from damnation with the same measure as you would measure the grace of Him who snatches you out of the midst of hell. Hezekiah had such an extremely devout and efficacious thought when he said (Is. 38:10): “I said, in the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell,” though in fact he never entered them. And farther on: “But Thou hast delivered my soul that it should not perish” (Is. 38:17). Behold, he calls it delivered, even though it never was there, because as far as he was concerned, it was destined for that place. David said: “Out of the depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord” (Ps. 130:1). Thus the Lord brings down to hell and brings back again (1 Sam. 2:6). Thus He magnifies His mercy with us. But those who do not occupy themselves with such reflection consider His mercy of little value, in opposition to them Jonah 2:8 says: “Those who are vain forsake their own mercy.” For he himself said with such deep emotion (Jonah 2:3): “I cried to Thee out of the belly of hell.” And all the saints are filled with such emotion before they die with the Lord and descend to hell with Him. So also, in the end, when they rise with Him and ascend to heaven and send the gifts of the Spirit to others. All this, I say, is to be understood tropologically. For they die as far as the desire and purpose to commit sin is concerned. Similarly, they descend into hell as far as the attitude toward its punishments is concerned. Thus all the prayers of the Psalms which are uttered in the person of Christ as being in hell, are also uttered in the person of the saints, as descending to hell in their mind and heart. Thus “the wicked shall be turned into hell, all the nations that forget God” (Ps. 9:17). For that reason whoever does not die with Christ and descend to hell will never rise and ascend with Him. Therefore he prays here, “Draw Me out, set Me free.” All these are the most earnest prayers also of those who are occupied with meditating on hell, just as they are the prayers of Christ who was literally in hell. Therefore it follows that worldly men, since they live in their own goodness and do not descend to hell with the Lord, but rather ascend to the heavens, will themselves finally descend and not ascend. Thus is it said of the saints in Ps. 107:26: “They mount up to the heavens, and they go down to the depths. Their soul pined away in the evils.” The apostle earnestly commends this tropology of suffering to us in many places, because it contributes a great deal to an understanding of Scripture and mightily moves us toward the good. Thus, as I have said, he explains this verse, too, when he says: “Christ did not please Himself” (Rom. 15:3), desiring that tropologically we, too, do the same thing, namely, in attitude and thought to assume the sins of all and thus to bear the infirmities of the weak and not please ourselves, but one person please another for his good, not for his evil; for his edification, not for his destruction. But in support of the claim that we should accept this authority tropologically, hear the great word, “Whatever things were written, were written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4), that is, moral instruction. Therefore also what is here said about Christ literally constitutes moral instruction for us. Since, therefore, we do not have actual sufferings and afflictions in our time, it is extremely necessary that we at least inflict them on ourselves in our thinking, so that we might be the kind of people on whom God would have mercy and whom He would save. So let us be our own tyrants, tormentors, heretics, stirring up such attitudes as keep after us and urge us on to better things, lest we be destroyed through peace and security. For peace and security are in all-out opposition to these attitudes, and so is pleasure, gluttony, etc.
Therefore go down with Jacob weeping to hell (Gen. 37:35). Mark this sign for yourself: When you are lukewarm and not in hell with your heart, know that there is danger for you, and peace and security are lying in ambush for you to bring you to destruction. For that reason you must not let your eyeball rest day or night, and you must not allow yourself any rest and peace (that is, security), because if you do, destruction will then unexpectedly come over you. Therefore Christ descended once, and all should follow Him wherever He might go, for He has commanded that we should follow Him. But if we are to do so in all other matters, why not also in this? Therefore, if you are looking for a sign of God’s grace, and whether Christ is in you, behold, no sign will be given you except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matt. 12:39 f.). If, then, you have been three days in hell, this is a sign that Christ is with you and you are with Christ. Therefore you must be full of fear lest Ezek. 16:42 be cited to you: “My indignation shall rest on thee, and my jealousy shall depart from thee.” Nothing is worse than this wrath. For if jealousy is removed, love must at the same time be removed, since the two are inseparable companions. Ps. 4:1: “When I was in distress, Thou hast enlarged me.” So, on the contrary, “When I was in security, without doubt Thou hast constricted me and compressed me.” Ps. 17:36: “Thy discipline shall teach me.”26 Therefore, on the contrary, “My peace will unteach me.” So you see how truly dangerous the times of this peace and security are, as the apostle describes them to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:2 f.). For everything he mentions there arises from peace and security, “lustful, puffed up, lovers of pleasure, etc.” Therefore consider this a sign that God is extremely angry and be not deceived because you do not feel His jealousy over you. And note that as the primitive times were happy times because they were times of discipline and affliction, when the church made its greatest progress, so these last times are unhappy ones, because they are and will be times of peace and security, when the church is and will be most deficient. And the ultimate in persecutions for the church will be peace and security, as the apostle says (1 Thess. 5:3): “When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.” So it happened to the Sodomites and the people at the time of the flood (Luke 17:26 ff.). So it happened later to the Jews when they were destroyed. Therefore the charge is made against the last of the seven angels, that of Laodicea, that he was neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm (Rev. 3:15–16), that is, secure in peace.
Therefore draw the conclusion. Whenever you are not in such a frame of mind, as one already burning and condemned in hell, or as one already dying, you cannot worthily say such prayers, neither can you presume that you are perfect. For the more strongly and intensively you can adopt this attitude, the more progress you will make; and the more coldly you act, the more you will fail. From this fact you have the best reason for being humble, for when you are not in hell or death, you can confidently fear God’s wrath and not yet expect His mercy. Thus we are told in the lives of the fathers that a person cannot finish one day unless he regards it as his last. So let us add: A person will not worthily finish one hour or moment, unless he seriously regards it as his last. Such a person will be humbled and will fear. And so God will give him His grace, and His Spirit will rest upon him. Hence the Book of Wisdom says: “I am the mother of fair love, of fear, of knowledge, and of holy hope” (Ecclus. 24:18). But this must be done not only with the attitude of fear but also with the attitude of hope and love, so that, just as no one can worthily pray the prayers of affliction unless, as I said above, he goes down to death and hell, so, on the contrary, no one can worthily and joyfully speak praises, unless he ascends to heaven with the attitude of hope and, as intensely as he can, think of himself as being in fact already in the midst of the angels and saints. So also no one can love (according to the spirit) worthily, except one who takes on the attitude of the Lord Jesus, that is, one who thinks as follows. If he were the highest, noblest, richest, most powerful, and filled with the greatest love, he would give himself over into every evil and death for his enemy or the most loathsome criminal. The more earnestly you do this, the more you will understand the love of Christ and ascend to love toward Him.
Luther’s works, vol. 10: First Lectures I