Romans 3:28

This is part of my expanding Bible Manipulations series.

  • Texts: Textus Receptus (Erasmus’s Greek 1519) –> Martin Luther’s German (1534)
  • Manipulation: Luther added “alone” to the Greek — an example of dynamic equivalence in translation
  • Purpose: doctrinal: emphasizes Luther’s doctrine of salvation (soteriology) — salvation by Grace alone rather than also by [Catholic] Church sacraments.
  • Background: Martin Luther was the first to translated the Greek Bible into a language spoken by the common person in over 1,000 years! He did this around 1521-1522 while being protected in the Wartburg Castle in present day Thuringia after being excommunicate by Pope Leo X. The translation was largely responsible for that area’s dialect becoming present day German.

Wartburg Castle

Luther's Room

Luther's Bible

Luther added the word “alone” (allein in German) to Romans 3:28 even though it is not found it the Greek.   Catholics attacked this addition to which Luther responded:

I know quite well that here in Romans 3:28 that in the Latin and Greek text the word “solum” [alone] is not present, and so Papists need not lecture me about such a fact. . . . But one must not ask the experts in Latin about what the German language should say, as these Jackasses do, but one must ask the mother off the house, the child in the street, the simple man in the market . . . and one must speak German with them.
– Martin Luther (translated by Avalos p 42)

Here is Luther’s Bible passage:

Luther’s German

So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.
Romans 3:28 (Martin Luther 1545)


So we now hold that a man is justified without works of law, by faith alone.

allein = alone

durch den Glauben = through faith

The Greek Text used by Luther:

Remember, there were many Greek texts available at that time,  Luther used Erasmus‘ 2nd edition which became the “Textus Receptus”.  I have included the Greek (with root meanings) here to show you that the word “only” is not included.

λογιζομεθα ουν πιστει δικαιουσθαι ανθρωπον χωρις εργων νομου

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

logizomai (conclude)  oun (therefore) pistis (faith) dikaioo (justify)  anthropos (man)  choris (without) ergon (works) nomos (law).

Most modern day translations in English don’t have Luther’s “alone”.


Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.


For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.


For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.


We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

I did find this passage from the Japanese Living Bible with the “alone”/”only” (dake) present:

Japanese Living Bible
My translation:

In other words, our justification is only by believing faith in Jesus, not by good deeds.

My Conclusion:  To be honest, though I understand how this word addition could end up in a big doctrinal battle, nonetheless it does seems to me that “alone” is indeed implied in the text.   Sure, it was a translation liberty, but not one of the ones I would put in the top ten.  What do you think?

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Romans 3:28

  1. Thanks for providing Sunday School for this morning!

    So Luther is making a dramatic case for dynamic translation in mocking the intellectuals who would press for a word for word translation. Jackasses!

    I wonder if the argument over which type of translations tends to revolve around the meaning people want to find in a certain verse, even in this case.

  2. Temaskian

    I find it interesting to learn that Martin Luther called people Jackasses.

    Yes, the addition of the word along does not seem to do much to the meaning of the passage, and Martin was only adding it so as to make it clear to his people that it was not necessary to go to the church for atonement, to pay to be forgiven, but that faith alone was enough.

    In other words, he had an agenda, so to speak, for translating it that way. In this instance, that agenda did not make the text more inaccurate, but in fact, made it more so.

    But this may not always be the case.

  3. “I find it interesting to learn that Martin Luther called people Jackasses.” -Tema

    he called ppl much worse. he’s kinda a cranky old man sort of theologian. angry, terse, and has the language of a drunken bar-room bully. he’s a lot of fun to read, esp. his letters in response to other theologians at the time. he’s a hoot… save for all that antisemitism crap. so it goes.

    i think that this insertion sparked one of the dumbest debates ever in Christianity: the faith vs. works debate. Jesus implies that it’s both (judge tree from the fruits) and so does James (faith without works is dead). but i think Paul argued a little of both, but primacy on faith. and Paul’s faith is an experiential, non-systematic one (despite what many legalists will try to tell you).

  4. @ Luke
    People in all faiths and non-faiths have felt torn between the efficacy of doing the socially correct things vs. nurturing the good heart sometimes at their expense. This is not a Christian monopoly, they just gave it a whole soteriological twist — unnecessarily (and detrimentally) in my humble opinion.

  5. Temaskian

    “Paul’s faith is an experiential, non-systematic one (despite what many legalists will try to tell you).”

    That’s a refreshing POV. More balanced.

    Soteriology seems to be getting more sophisticated as time goes by. The old concepts are just too simplistic.

  6. @ Temaskian (and Luke)

    I agree that Paul’s doctrines (Luke calls this “faith”, which for Christians is such a loaded word, it is best to avoid) were not systematic. I agree that a tight systematic theology was not Paul’s primary aim though he was out there correcting people’s doctrines and behaviors rather systematically.

    But I have not idea what “experiential faith” means when used in opposition to “systematic faith” — there is an example, I think of the slipperiness of the word “faith”. See my post on “Faith – defined“.

    Because we can’t say “experiential doctrine” or can we. It is trying to add legitimacy to his “faith” because, “Heck, it is his experience, and how can we question that — he was a holy man and had a vision of Jesus”. Well, we know the answer to that. Subjective reality is the first thing we want to question. EVERYONE has “experiential faith”, so the phrase is a little empty in that way.

    Paul had doctrine we can easily reject — lots of them. Experiential or Systematic.

  7. “which for Christians is such a loaded word, it is best to avoid”

    i believe it’s a loaded word more for atheists, my tribe seems to have a working fluid definition.

    Experiential faith is my own construction intended to oppose systematic faith. maybe Existential or mystical would work better? the point is that Paul is in no way monolithic in his teachings/faith/doctrine whatever you wanna call it. what is clear is that he wrote a bunch of letters to many different communities that advise them to do different things in their context. the letters are vague. but the “church” (catholic and our fav. conservative ones in this instance) has made a strange systematic set of doctrines out of these letters (some of which aren’t even his).

    so where does this leave us? well, you are the same place you started in, you don’t need it nor ever will. but for us progressive, we need to focus and teach the things you’re writing about with greater tenacity. why?

    because it’s my fundamental assumption that many people DO NOT HAVE experiential faith. they usually have systematic certainty which in my mind is the opposite of experiential faith. they accept what they have been told, they want answers, and they don’t want to do the work for themselves (which is why so few Christians read the bible, or if they have read it, they know the surface of it with no historical context).

    Paul did have something going on and he wanted to share it… and for you, yes you can easily reject it. i, however, cannot.

  8. @ Luke

    I agree with much of the intent of what you wrote.
    However, I have questions for how you plan to use Hebrew and Christian scriptures or what weight you plan to put on them compared to other ancient scriptures and what rationals you plan to attach as you lead your flock — but only time will tell.

    Paul did have something going on and he wanted to share it.

    So did Lao Tze, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Mohammed and the guy who wrote the anti-Narnia series. “Having something going on” ain’t enough to make us preserve that guy’s thoughts and preach them Sunday after Sunday for thousands of years — or at least I don’t think so. If you do, then you must have some unspoken criterion. And if that criterion is only “Tradition”, “Tribal”, “Inheritance”, then IMHO, that ain’t enough — well, not in my book. For we must learn to transcend tribe and tradition when their is greater benefit. The question is, what do we judge as ‘greater benefit’. For such a choice, we must think, relfect and weigh — we must Triangulate truth, values, and choices. And this is our on-going dialogue.

  9. i have my own reasons, none of which i felt would be valued or understood here. i fear it would come across as too apologetic or evangelistic. so knowing my audience, i went with a short response.

    as for those other dudes “having something going on” yeah, they did. (i dunno about the anti-narnia series that sounds interesting.) the question you raise is always paramount: “what do we judge as ‘greater benefit’?”

    apparently Paul’s writings has lead to greater benefit and provided helpful boundaries on how people live their lives. i agree with this, and i’m a hard won convert to that line of thinking because before seminary i thought Paul was a legalistic, homophobic jerk. many churches still view him that way, but i don’t any longer.

    my weight on the scriptures comes both from a tribal start as well as the on-going history of my tradition… new philosophies, articles, methods of living, are all constantly being brought about based on those bunch of stories. my experience lines up with these and i find it both spiritually fulfilling and pragmatically helpful. you don’t, i get your objections, but largely, we’re right back where we started.

  10. Temaskian

    Some people (I’m guessing) treat Christianity as a relationship. God is a person, and like a person, is free to vacillate, and change in emotions, even in principles.

    The truth thus becomes fluid.

    That is the modern way of dealing with the contradictions of the faith, the bible.

  11. Temaskian

    For Christians who rely on “experiential faith”, I wonder if it isn’t the case that when they close their eyes in meditation, they often hallucinate and have many “spiritual experiences” with what they believe is the spiritual realm.

    As a result, they like to discern truth based on those experiences, and as a result, ‘feelings’ more than logic.

    By the way, is the anti-narnia writings referring to Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass?

  12. @ Temaskian

    (1) My experience tells me that few believers have altered states when praying. They just try to identify an internal emotional state with the god — THAT is what they call talking to God.

    (2) Yes, “The Golden Compass”

  13. rey

    “I find it interesting to learn that Martin Luther called people Jackasses.”

    He had a very bad temper. I never could finish reading his book Bondage of the Will. I totally disagree with the Calvinistic theory he puts forth, but the reason I couldn’t finish it how abusive he is, and to Erasmus of Rotterdam no less. He is attacking Erasmus (without whom he wouldn’t have had a Greek text of the NT to translate) calling him an idiot and such for not believing in Calvinism. (Yes, surprisingly enough Luther believed in the predestinarian view that we today call Calvinism, but it seems to only manifest itself clearly in this one book of his so far as I know.)

  14. Temaskian

    It figures that it would take someone like that to be able to break away from the RCC.

  15. pablo

    We read ” Martin Luter was the first to translated the Greek Bible into a language spoken by the common person in over 1000 years !
    Several Bibles were edited in common languages before Luther was born English Spanish Italian Danish French Norwegian Polish Bohemian & Hungarian, of course German.
    In all 626 editions with 198 in te language of the laity, had been edited before the first Protestant Bible was sent forth into the world.
    Those were quotes from QA BIBLE
    Fr Cas M Carty & Rev. Rumble MSC
    and I personnally could search the true of some of them. Danish Bible is actually in museum, so the polish, English from Bede the Venerable, fragments in museums.
    Protestants brothers I know you were told since your childhood Luther was the first even by people you love eg parents & pastors
    But It is not true

  16. @ pablo
    Very good points. I’d don’t have time to do my homework but if you could direct me to a site with cited info, I will change my post. Thank you!
    I suspect you are right.

  17. Temaskian

    Even before Martin Luther translated the bible into German, John Wycliffe (in the 1380s) had already translated it into English, and was persecuted by the pope for it!

  18. Jessica

    I disagree. “Works of the law” does not refer to good deeds, but to old Mosaic law – circumcision and other “works of the law” can no longer save, only a true faith in Jesus Christ, and, as James says, this true faith will be demonstrated by the good works one does.

  19. Azizam

    Hello EJ Hill,
    I commented on the link that you provided but when I went to check on it the link said that no comments had been posted.
    My comment was very simple. I could repeat it here.

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