“The main knowledge and true wisdom of Christians, then, is this: to regard as very serious and true these words of Paul, that Christ was given over to death, not for our righteousness or holiness but for our sins, which are real sins—great, many, in fact, infinite and invincible.
Therefore you must not think of them as minor or suppose that your own works can remove them. Nor must you despair on account of their gravity if you feel them oppressing you either in life or in death. But you must learn from Paul here to believe that Christ was given, not for sham or counterfeit sins, nor yet for small sins, but for great and huge sins; not for one or two sins but for all sins; not for sins that have been overcome—for neither man nor angel is able to overcome even the tiniest sin—but for invincible sins. And unless you are part of the company of those who say “our sins,” that is, who have this doctrine of faith and who teach, hear, learn, love, and believe it, there is no salvation for you.
Therefore you must make thorough preparations not only for the time of temptation but also for the time and struggle of death. Then your conscience will be terrified by the recollection of your past sins. The devil will attack you vigorously and will try to swamp you with piles, floods, and whole oceans of sins, in order to frighten you, draw you away from Christ, and plunge you into despair.
Then you must be able to say with confident assurance:
“Christ, the Son of God, was given, not for righteousness and for saints but for unrighteousness and for sinners. If I were righteous and without sin, I would have no need of Christ as my Propitiator. Satan, you cantankerous saint, why do you try to make me feel holy and look for righteousness in myself, when in fact there is nothing in me but sins, and real and serious sins at that? These are not counterfeit or trivial sins; they are sins against the First Table, namely, infidelity, doubt, despair, contempt for God, hatred, ignorance, blasphemy, ingratitude, the abuse of the name of God, neglect, loathing, and contempt for the Word of God, and the like. In addition, there are sins of the flesh against the Second Table: failure to honor my parents, disobedience to rulers, coveting another man’s property, wife, etc., although these vices are less grave than those against the First Table. Of course, I have not been guilty of murder, adultery, theft, and other sins like those against the Second Table. Nevertheless, I have committed them in my heart; therefore I have broken every one of God’s Commandments, and the number of my sins is so great that an ox’s hide would not hold them; they are innumerable. For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sands of the sea.”
The devil is such a clever trickster that he can make great sins out of my righteousness and good works. Because my sins are so grave, so real, so great, so infinite, so horrible, and so invincible that my righteousness does me no good but rather puts me at a disadvantage before God, therefore Christ, the Son of God, was given into death for my sins, to abolish them and thus to save all men who believe.
The meaning of eternal salvation, then, consists in taking these words to be serious and true. I am not speaking empty words. I have often experienced, and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.
Therefore let us fortify ourselves with these and similar statements of Paul. When the devil accuses us and says: “You are a sinner; therefore you are damned,” then we can answer him and say: “Because you say that I am a sinner, therefore I shall be righteous and be saved.”
“No,” says the devil, “you will be damned.”
“No,” I say, “for I take refuge in Christ, who has given Himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me as you try to frighten me by showing me the magnitude of my sins and to plunge me into anguish, loss of faith, despair, hatred, contempt of God, and blasphemy. In fact, when you say that I am a sinner, you provide me with armor and weapons against yourself, so that I may slit your throat with your own sword and trample you underfoot. You yourself are preaching the glory of God to me; for you are reminding me, a miserable and condemned sinner, of the fatherly love of God, who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only Son, etc.’ (John 3:16). You are reminding me of the blessing of Christ my Redeemer. On His shoulders, not on mine, lie all my sins. For ‘the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘for the transgressions of His people He was stricken’ (Is. 53:6, 8). Therefore when you say that I am a sinner, you do not frighten me; but you bring me immense consolation.”
Anyone who understands this strategy can easily avoid all the tricks of the devil, who kills a man and leads him to hell by reminding him of his sin unless the man resists him with this strategy and Christian wisdom, by which alone sin, death, and the devil are vanquished.
But anyone who does not get rid of the memory of his sin but holds on to it and tortures himself with his own thoughts, supposing either that he can help himself by his own strength or that he can wait until his conscience has been pacified, falls into Satan’s trap, which Satan has set to ensnare men, destroys himself with sorrow, and is finally overcome completely. For the devil never stops accusing his conscience. This sly serpent really knows how to present Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Savior, as a lawgiver, judge, and condemner.
Against this temptation we must use these words of Paul in which he gives this very good and true definition of Christ: “Christ is the Son of God and of the Virgin; He was delivered and put to death for our sins.”
–Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4 (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 26; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 26: 35-37.