To George Spenlein
Wittenberg, April 8, 1516
George Spenlein was an Augustinian friar in the monastery at Wittenberg who had recently been transferred to Memmingen. In this letter Luther is reporting on the disposal of some of Spenlein's possessions. It gives an insight into Luther's understanding of justification and its implication for the Christian life prior to his controversy with Rome.
Text in Latin: WA, Br 1, 35–36. The following translation, with minor changes, is by Theodore G. Tappert and is used by permission from Luther: Letters. LCC 18, 109–111. Published 1955, The Westminster Press.
To the godly and sincere Friar George Spenlein, Augustinian Eremite1 in the monastery at Memmingen, my dear friend in the Lord
My dearest Friar George: I wish you to know that I sold some of your things for two-and-a-half gulden,2 namely, the coat of Brussels for one gulden, the larger work of the Eisenach theologian3 for half a gulden, and the cowl and some other things for one gulden. Some things are left, such as the Eclogues of Baptista Mantuanus4 and your collections [of other literary materials]. These you must consider a loss, for we have not been able to dispose of them. The two-and-a-half gulden which you owe to the Most Reverend Father Vicar5 we gave him in your name. The other half gulden which you still owe him you must either try to pay or get him to cancel. I felt that the Most Reverend Father was so well disposed toward you that he would not object to doing so.
Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. For in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God, which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible. While you were here, you were one who held this opinion, or rather, error. So was I, and I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it as yet.
Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, "Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not."6 Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one.7 For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours.
If you firmly believe this as you ought (and he is damned who does not believe it), receive your untaught and hitherto erring brothers, patiently help them, make their sins yours, and, if you have any goodness, let it be theirs. Thus the Apostle teaches, "Receive one another as Christ also received you to the glory of God."8 And again, "Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, [did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped], but emptied himself," etc.9 Even so, if you seem to yourself to be better than they are, do not count it as booty, as if it were yours alone, but humble yourself, forget what you are and be as one of them in order that you may help them.
Cursed is the righteousness of the man who is unwilling to assist others on the ground that they are worse than he is, and who thinks of fleeing from and forsaking those whom he ought now to be helping with patience, prayer, and example. This would be burying the Lord's talent and not paying what is due.10 If you are a lily and a rose of Christ, therefore, know that you will live among thorns. Only see to it that you will not become a thorn as a result of impatience, rash judgment, or secret pride. The rule of Christ is in the midst of his enemies, as the Psalm puts it.11 Why, then, do you imagine that you are among friends? Pray, therefore, for whatever you lack, kneeling before the face of the Lord Jesus. He will teach you all things. Only keep your eyes fixed on what he has done for you and for all men in order that you may learn what you should do for others. If he had desired to live only among good people and to die only for his friends, for whom, I ask you, would he have died or with whom would he ever have lived? Act accordingly, my dear Friar, and pray for me. The Lord be with you.
Farewell in the Lord.
From Wittenberg, April 8, 1516
Friar Martin Luther