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Bernard and the One Thing Needful 


From Martin Luther's Commentary on Galatians 4:30.


Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Germany was the man who took the first steps in leading the Reformation, proclaiming the Word of God and its doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. As a young man he had earned his Master of Arts at the University of Erfurt, but after a series of events including the death of a close friend and a near-death experience of his own, he decided to try to atone for his sins as a monk of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther went to great extremes in order to obtain forgiveness of sins by his own “good works”, going so far as to damage his health permanently by severe physical punishment such as fasting for many days and abstaining from sleep. Ordained to the Roman priesthood in 1507, he still found no satisfaction, seeing nothing but the depth and darkness of his own guilt. He then discovered a Bible in a library, from which he found his first great rays of hope through Jesus Christ, and travelling to Rome with the light of the Word in his heart, he saw through the pagan superstitions of the Papal system. Finally he returned to his studies at university, this time in Wittenberg where he gained a doctorate in 1512. Here, encouraged by his mentor, the Augustinian scholar Johann von Staupitz (1470-1524), he continued earnestly to study the Bible; and as the text from Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith”, had several times come to him with power, so he began to preach this earth-shattering doctrine to the world.



Wherefore we ought not to consider so much the wicked lives of the papists, as their abominable doctrine and hypocrisy, against which we specially fight. And they themselves do not defend their wicked lives; but the best of them do detest it: but they fight for the maintenance and defence of the doctrine of devils, for hypocrisy, and for the righteousness of works. Therefore we fight not against the manifest wickedness of the papacy, but against the greatest and holiest saints thereof, who think they lead an angelical life, whilst they dream that they keep not only the commandments of God, but also the counsels of Christ, and do works of supererogation, and such as they are not bound to do. This, we say, is to labour in vain, except they take hold of that only and alone which Christ says is necessary, and choose the good part with Mary which shall not be taken away.


This did Bernard, a man so godly, so chaste, that he is commended and preferred above them all. He being once grievously sick and having no hope of life, put not his trust in his single life, nor in his good works, and deeds of charity, whereof he had done many; but removed them far out of his sight, and receiving the benefit of Christ by faith, he said: "I have lived wickedly, but Thou, Lord Jesus Christ, by double right dost possess the Kingdom of heaven: first, because Thou art the Son of God: second, because Thou hast purchased it by Thy death. The first Thou keepest for Thyself, by thy birthright; the second Thou givest to me, not by right of my works, but by the right of grace." He set not against the wrath of God his monkery, nor his angelical life: but he took hold of that one thing needful, and so was saved. I think that many other of the fathers were saved after the same sort. And it is not to be doubted but that in the Old Testament, many kings and other idolaters were saved in like manner, who, at the hour of death, casting away their vain trust in idols, took hold of the promise of God, which was made unto the seed of Abraham, that is to say, Christ, in whom all nations should be blessed. And if there be any of the papists which shall be saved, they must simply lean not on their own good deeds and deserts, but on the mercy of God offered unto us in Christ, and say with Paul: "Not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is by faith in Christ" (Phil. iii. 9).




“Commentary on Galatians", Kregel Publications, 1979, pp. 295, 296. (Reprinted from the edition published in London in 1850).