This means Luther turns religion and ethics around. We cannot fulfill the will of God without being united with Him. And this is impossible without forgiveness of sins. Even the best people have elements of despair, and aggressiveness and indifference and self-contradiction. Only on the basis of Divine forgiveness can the full yoke of Christ be imposed on everybody. This is completely different from a moralistic interpretation of Christianity. The moral is that which follows – it might or might not follow; it should follow, essentially; sometimes it does not – but the prius of it is the participation in the Divine grace in His forgiveness and in His power of being.
This makes all the difference in the world, and it is one of the most unfortunate happenings that Protestantism always is in the temptation to turn around the thing into its opposite, namely, to make the religious dimension dependent on morality. Wherever this is done, we are outside the realm of true Protestantism. You should never forget this in your congregations and everywhere: if somebody says, “Oh, God must love me, and I love Him because I do almost everything He demands.” – namely, what the suburban neighbor demands! – then the religious and ethical situation is completely turned into its opposite. But if somebody says: “I know that I don’t do anything good, or so little seemingly good, so ambiguous that the only thing which is good in me is that God declares that I am good and that I am able to accept this Divine declaration, and if I accept it, then it may happen that there may be a transformed reality; but the other side is the first.” And that is one of the centers of the whole Reformation. Therefore the famous phrase, “by faith alone,” (sola fide.) This phrase is the most misunderstood and distorted, phrase of the Reformation.