Luther’s Translation of “Faith Alone” in Romans 3:28

Luther’s Translation of “Faith Alone” in Romans 3:28 December 7, 2022

Also: Did “Early Erasmus” Agree with Luther?

Luther researcher and anti-Catholic polemicist James Swan, who runs the Boors All blog, recently explored the famous controversy regarding Luther adding the word “alone” to “faith” in Romans 3:28: “Erasmus, Romans 3:28 and Faith Alone: ‘Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapidata hoc saeculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur’ “ (11-29-22). He maintained that in his earlier writings Erasmus agreed with Luther about “faith alone” but in his later writings, he split from him in this respect.

Before I get into all that, let me note that I myself have dealt with Romans 3:28 and Luther’s “faith alone” in his German translation very little in my apologetics, even though I have written or edited two books about Martin Luther (one / two), and have huge web pages about Luther and Lutheranism. “Romans 3:28” never appears on my Luther web page or in my two books about him. I did mention it in passing in my 2004 book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants:

Luther was equally strident when defending his addition of the word alone after faith in Romans 3:28:

Thus I will have it, thus I order it, my will is reason enough…. Luther will have it so, and . . . he is a Doctor above all Doctors in the whole of Popery (. . . Letter to Wenceslaus Link in 1530).

On the same page I described this as one of the “desperate measures and arguments” of Protestants following Luther’s lead. In a very early article of mine, dated 11 June 1991 (since greatly revised), I made a critical observation about Luther’s statement above:

Luther insists on his own (in effect) absolute infallibility. . . . One wonders whether Luther uttered these absurd sentiments with a smile on his face, or with tongue in cheek. In any event, such boastful, essentially silly and foolish rhetoric is not uncommon in Luther’s voluminous writings.

Note that I had serious doubts (back when I had only been recently convinced of Catholicism) whether Luther was even being totally serious. But this is very little emphasis (given my massive amount of writing about Luther and the Protestant Revolution) on an issue that is one of the most famous regarding Luther. In an article of mine, entitled “18 ‘Dumb Catholic Apologetics Arguments’ Analyzed” (5-14-09), I agreed with Catholic writer Ben Douglass’s cited opinion about this argument:

16. Avoid making hay about Martin Luther adding the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. While the word is indeed absent from the Greek text, Luther was not the first to regard it as a justifiable gloss. That it is not in fact justifiable makes Luther’s addition an exegetical error, but this is not the same thing as a blatant perversion.

I’ve never put much stock in this argument, and agree that it doesn’t accomplish much in Protestant-Catholic discussion.

Conclusion for #16: complete agreement. [bolding in original]

This article, accordingly, represents my first in-depth treatment of this issue, after 32 years of writing Catholic apologetics (over 4,000 articles on my blog, and 51 books). The letter of Luther in question was to Wenceslaus Link, dated 8 September 1530. It was published as An Open Letter on Translating. Here is a very extensive excerpt, which makes for fascinating reading (agree or  disagree):

[Y]ou ask why in translating the words of Paul in the 3rd chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus, I rendered them, “We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone,” and you also tell me that the papists are causing a great fuss because Paul’s text does not contain the word sola (alone), and that my addition to the words of God is not to be tolerated. . . . you can give the papists this answer from me, if you like.

First of all if I, Dr. Luther, had expected that all the papists together were capable of translating even one chapter of Scripture correctly and well into German, I would have gathered up enough humility to ask for their aid and assistance in translating the New Testament into German. However, because I knew (and still see with my own eyes) that not one of them knows how to translate or speak German, I spared them and myself the trouble. It is evident, however, that they are learning to speak and write German from my German translation, and so they are stealing my language from me, a language they had little knowledge of before this. Yet they do not thank me for this, but instead they use it against me. However, I readily grant them this, for it tickles me to know that I have taught my ungrateful pupils, even my enemies, how to speak. . . .

If I have made some mistakes in it (although I am not aware of any, and would most certainly be unwilling to deliberately mistranslate a single letter) I will not allow the papists to be my judges. For their ears are still too long and their hee-haws too weak for them to criticize my translating. I know quite well how much skill, hard work, sense and brains are needed for a good translation. They know it even less than the miller’s donkey, for they have never tried it. . . .

I would like to see a papist come forward and translate even one epistle of St. Paul’s or one of the prophets without making use of Luther’s German or translation. Then we might see a fine, beautiful and noteworthy translation into German. . . .

If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. [1] For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. . . .

Let this be the answer to your first question. Please do not give these donkeys any other answer to their useless braying about that word sola than simply this: “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.” Let it rest there. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are. And there are brazen idiots among them who have never even learned their own art of sophistry, like Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Snot-Nose, [2] and such like them, who set themselves against me in this matter, which not only transcends sophistry, but as Paul writes, all the wisdom and understanding in the world as well. Truly a donkey does not have to sing much, because he is already known by his ears. . . .

I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text — if the translation is to be clear and vigorous [klar und gewaltiglich], it belongs there. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had set about to speak in the translation. But it is the nature of our language that in speaking about two things, one which is affirmed, the other denied, we use the word allein [only] along with the word nicht [not] or kein [no]. For example, we say “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money”; or “No, I really have nicht money, but allein grain”; I have allein eaten and nicht yet drunk”; “Did you write it allein and nicht read it over?” There are countless cases like this in daily usage.

In all these phrases, this is a German usage, even though it is not the Latin or Greek usage. It is the nature of the German language to add allein in order that nicht or kein may be clearer and more complete. To be sure, I can also say, “The farmer brings grain and kein money,” but the words “kein money” do not sound as full and clear as if I were to say, “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money.” Here the word allein helps the word kein so much that it becomes a completely clear German expression. We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. . . .

Why should I even bother to talk about translating so much? If I were I to explain all the reasons and considerations behind my words, I would need an entire year. I have learned by experience what an art and what a task translating is, so I will not tolerate some papal donkey or mule acting as my judge or critic. They have not tried it. If anyone does not like my translations, he can ignore it; and may the devil repay him for it if he dislikes or criticizes my translations without my knowledge or permission. If it needs to be criticized, I will do it myself. If I do not do it, then let them leave my translations in peace. Each of them can do a translation for himself that suits him — what do I care? . . .

I care nothing about the papal donkeys, as they are not good enough to acknowledge my work and, if they were to bless me, it would break my heart. Their insults are my highest praise and honor. I shall still be a doctor, even a distinguished one. I am certain that they shall never take that away from me until the Last Day.


[1] “I will it, I command it, my will is reason enough.” A quotation from Juvenal’s sixth satire, which Luther often used to characterize the arbitrary power of the pope.

[2] With these abusive terms Luther refers to two prominent Catholic enemies. By “Smith” he means Johann Faber of Leutkirch (whose father was a blacksmith) and by “Snot-Nose” (Rotzlöffel) he means Johann Cochlaeus (“löffel” is the German equivalent of the Latin cochlear).

Swan wrote in his article:

Ironically, it was a Roman Catholic scholar that best defended Luther on this: Joseph A. Fitzmyer pointed out a number of people previous to Luther also saw the thrust of “alone” in Romans 3:28.

We need not — are under no “Catholic necessity” to — deny this. The live question of translation is whether it should be added.  Secondly, if Erasmus’ views are brought into the discussion, it might be interesting to see if he included himself in his famous Textus Receptus Greek edition of the New Testament (or, Novum Instrumentum omne) in 1516. Wikipedia states about it:

The Textus Receptus constituted the translation-base for the original German Luther Bible, the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale, the King James Version, the Spanish Reina-Valera translation, the Czech Bible of Kralice, and most Reformation-era New Testament translations throughout Western and Central Europe. The text originated with the first printed Greek New Testament, published in 1516, a work undertaken in Basel by the Dutch Catholic scholar, priest and monk Desiderius Erasmus.

It turns out that “alone” is not found in Erasmus’ Greek New Testament at Romans 3:28. One web page about this topic posted the Greek from that work:

λογιζομεθα ουν πιστει δικαιουσθαι ανθρωπον χωρις εργων νομου

— The Textus Receptus; base text is Stephens 1550, with variants of Scrivener 1894.

See also an interlinear version with the Greek of Textus Receptus, and English. One might also sensibly ask: “how have translations rendered Romans 3:28 over the past 500 years?” Do they exhibit  Luther’s vehement insistence (apart from the specifically German aspects of the question)? The Bible Gateway site, that has about 30 English translations (specifically for for Romans 3:28), informs us that none of them have “alone” in Romans 3:28. One translation has “only” and that is the Good News Translation (GNT), a well-known very free paraphrase. It reads: “For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.” Likewise, Bible Hub’s parallel Bibles page shows exactly the same thing: none with “alone” and only GNT with “only.”

These include, most interestingly, even Bibles from the 1500s:

Tyndale Bible (1526) For we suppose that a man is iustified by fayth without the dedes of ye lawe.

Coverdale Bible (1535) We holde therfore that a man is iustified by faith, without the workes of the lawe.

Bishops’ Bible (1568) Therfore, we holde that a man is iustified by fayth, without the deedes of the lawe.

Geneva Bible (1587) Therefore we conclude, that a man is iustified by faith, without the workes of the Lawe.

William Tyndale was a Protestant. Myles Coverdale was an Anglican. His Bible was a combination of Tyndale’s, plus his translations of books not included in Tyndale’s collection. The Bishops’ Bible was produced by the Church of England. The Geneva Bible was also basically a revision of and addendum to Tyndale’s Bible, produced by Protestants. Thus, none of these versions can be accused of Catholic bias in translation. The absence of “alone” in the passage is virtually universal. Hence, the most historically influential Bible in English, the King James Version, reads, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” The Catholic English Bible from roughly the same period: the Douay-Rheims, reads, “For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law.”

One must take a step back from this passage and learn about the issues at stake in the first place. Catholics fully agree that we are “justified by faith apart from works of law” (RSV) because of what we understand by the particular Pauline phrase, “works of law.” I cited my friend Al Kresta in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (2003), explaining this:

Unlike the modern evangelical Protestant revivalistic preaching tradition, the Apostle Paul was not preoccupied with his acceptance as a sinner before a holy and righteous God. That was Luther’s crisis. Protestants have tended to read Paul through the lens of Luther’s experience.

  1. . . . Luther said he feared God but clung to the Apostle Paul. All the constitutive elements of the classic Luther-type experience, however, are missing in both the experience and the thought of the Apostle.

Unlike Luther, Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt, seeking reassurance of a gracious God. He was rather robust of conscience, even given to boasting, untroubled about whether God was gracious or not (Philippians 3:4 ff.; 2 Corinthians 10, 11). He knew God was gracious. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release from that anguish in a message of forgiveness . . . Paul’s burden is not to “bring people under conviction of sin” as in revival services. Forgiveness is simply a matter of fact.

When Paul speaks of himself as a serious sinner, it is . . . very specifically because . . . he had persecuted the church and missed God’s new move — opening the covenant community to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8; Galatians 1:13-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).

What is now set right in his life is not that he is no longer trying to work his way to heaven, abandons self-exertion and now trusts Christ; it is rather that he now sees that God has inexplicably chosen him to reveal this new and more inclusive covenant community made up of Jew and Gentile . . . (Ephesians 2:11-3:6).

2. Paul’s arguments against works of the law are not fundamentally arguments against human participation in or human cooperation with the saving purposes of God but arguments against Judaistic pride that sought to define membership in the covenant community by reference to Jewish marks of identity, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. and not fundamentally faith in Jesus as Messiah . . .

Contrary to the pronouncements of popular preachers, first century Judaism did not believe in salvation by works. They believed that they were God’s elect people by grace; lawkeeping was their response to God’s grace. Salvation was understood to be granted by God’s electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. But most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God’s covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works.

Wrong! Luther’s experience was not Paul’s. New Testament scholars, for the most part, now understand ‘works of law’ not as synonymous with human effort but as the activities by which the Jews maintained their distinct status from the Gentiles . . . (pp. 141-142; from unpublished lecture notes entitled Some Further Thoughts on Justification by Faith Through Grace [1993] )

With this understanding, Catholics can and do freely accept the proposition, “justified by faith apart from works of law” because it doesn’t exclude grace-produced, grace-enabled works that accompany genuine faith, according to what is taught in James:

James 2:14, 17-18, 20-22, 24-26 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?…[17] So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [18] But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. . . . [20] Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, . . . [24] You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. [25] And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? [26] For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

We have no problem with “justification by faith” nor with justification by grace alone. The Catholic Church fully accepts both. Our problem is with an altogether different proposition: “justification by faith alone.” I’ve written many times along these lines:

Trent Doesn’t Utterly Exclude Imputation (Kenneth Howell) [July 1996]

Council of Trent: Canons on Justification (with a handy summary of Tridentine soteriology) [12-29-03]

Initial Justification & “Faith Alone”: Harmonious? [5-3-04]

Catholic-Protestant Common Ground (Esp. Re Good Works) [4-8-08]

Comparative Soteriology (Salvation): A Handy Chart [7-19-08]

Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine [1-7-10]

Salvation: By Grace Alone, Not Faith Alone or Works [2013]

Scripture on Being Co-Workers with God for Salvation [2013]

Also, Luther’s view on justification, fully understood, is much more complex than a supposed stark dichotomy between faith and works:

Martin Luther: Good Works Prove Authentic Faith [4-16-08]

Luther on Theosis & Sanctification [11-23-09]

Martin Luther: Faith Alone is Not Lawless Antinomianism [2-28-10]

Merit & Sanctification: Martin Luther’s Point of View [11-10-14]

Lastly, Erasmus’ remarks must be understood in light of all of this backdrop, too. Swan cites Protestant exegete D. A. Carson, who claimed that Erasmus accepted some variation of “faith alone” till “1532, when he . . . began advocating for the need of human works in justification.” I don’t have time for an exhaustive review of Erasmus’ soteriology, but I do know that he made the following (perfectly orthodox and Catholic; consistent with Trent) statements in 1526, in his Hyperaspistes, which was a reply to Luther. I have in my own library a copy of Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999), by Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, and Charles Trinkhaus, editor.  Here are some relevant excerpts:

[I]n my Discussion I so distinctly and so clearly explain that there is no contradiction in saying that the sum and substance of a good deed should be attributed to God and asserting also that the human will does something, however tiny its share may be. (p. 154)

For why should anyone have faith in himself if he knows that he can neither begin nor complete anything without the help of God’s grace, to whom I profess that the sum and substance of all things rightly done ought to be attributed? Nor is there any difference between you and me except that I make our will cooperate with the grace of God and you make it completely passive. (p. 185)

How will a person rise up against God if he knows that he has in himself no hope of salvation without the singular grace of God, if he is persuaded that all human powers are of no avail for salvation without the aid of grace, especially since he is not unaware that everything he can do by his natural powers is the free gift of God? If a person wishes to cross the ocean, is he confident that he can achieve this without a ship and wind? And yet he is not idle while he is sailing. For professing free will does not tend to make a person attribute less to the mercy of God but rather keeps him from not responding to operating grace and gives him reason to blame himself if he perishes. I exalt God’s mercy so much, I diminish human power so much, that in the matter of salvation no one can claim anything for himself, since the very fact of his existence and whatever he can do by his natural endowments is the gift of God. You exalt grace and demean mankind so much that you open another pit which we had closed over by attributing just a little bit to free will, namely that it accommodates itself to grace or turns away from grace. (p. 186)

When you say that a person taken captive by sin cannot by his own power turn his will to good unless he is blown upon by the breath of grace, we also profess this, especially if you mean turning effectively. (p. 188)

. . . you remove grace from free will, but when I say free will does something good, I join it with grace, and while it obeys grace it is acted upon and it acts felicitously. (p. 190)

Now see how you bear down upon me: it effects nothing without grace; therefore it does nothing at all with grace. Is this the trap you have set to catch me? (p. 190)


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Photo credit: Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: The controversy over Romans 3:28 and Martin Luther adding “alone” to “faith” in his German Bible is explored from many angles, including the views of Erasmus.

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