There are many who have pointed out that Luther added the word, "alone" to Romans 3:28 (you can read one such example in this question) so that the Luther Bible reads:

for we reckon a man to be justified by faith alone without deeds of law

where the Greek reads:

for we reckon a man to be justified by faith without deeds of law

Is this true?


3 Answers 3


Yes and no. Yes he added it, no it is not the atrocity that it necessarily implies.

Part of Luther's defense of the translation is that inclusion of the word "alone" is more grammatically correct than its exclusion. While I'm not an expert in German, I do speak enough of it to know that he does have a point.

His problem, though, is in the interpretation of the verse. If we're being true to the original Greek the passage is better understood, "of the set {faith, works of the law} man is only reconciled by faith."

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    ...and that is quite a problem, because it puts him directly at odds with both Christ and James, who teach clearly and unambiguously that obedience to the Gospel (which means works, but not "of the law" (of Moses), which is what Paul was talking about here) are also necessary. Putting a "sola" in there destroys the idea of the well-defined set that Paul mentioned, and builds an entire theology on a false and dangerous premise.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jun 28, 2012 at 21:47
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    @MasonWheeler then Paul created a false set, no? Why waste time (and be so misleading) saying: "Well, between these two items 'A' and 'B' in the set, it would be only item 'A' that is sufficient and necessary" when what he really meant was "Item 'A' isn't sufficient. You must add a third item, 'C.'" We can discuss what the biblical definition of "faith" is and what it includes, but it is evident in Romans that Luther didn't change anything by adding the word. Or so says me, a crazy Baptist. :) Jun 28, 2012 at 23:11
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    @SanJacinto: Because the point of the sermon in question was not to specify what is necessary for salvation, but what is not: obedience to the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was supposed to produce faith in adherents and turn their mind to the Savior (see Galatians 3,) but it was perverted by the Rabbis to the point where they ended up essentially worshiping the Law itself. Paul's point here is that it is the faith produced by the observation of the Law that can lead to salvation; the actual works of the Law, divorced from faith, are irrelevant. Luther loses that point, which is dangerous.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jun 28, 2012 at 23:43
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    @MasonWheeler & SanJacinto This looks amusingly like a discussion. Perhaps a second question is in order? Jun 29, 2012 at 7:01
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    @MasonWheeler obedience to the Gospel is a fruit of salvation, not a precursor. Works are fruit, and as such are "necessary", but only insomuch as they are evidence of what God already did, what already happened spiritually, by Grace, not by works... that no one may boast. Jun 30, 2015 at 19:03

Yes, clearly and obviously, Luther added the word "alone" to his translation. But that's not the real question to ask. If you'll permit a small digression, the real question is why. It is clear that his reason is to make the meaning of the greek in the receptor language (german). In other words, the greek carries with it the nuance of 'alone' in the greek itself without the word, 'alone.' (“⸀λογιζόμεθα ⸁γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι ⸂πίστει ἄνθρωπον⸃ χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου.” (Romans 3:28 NA28-T)) So, for the sake of bringing this clearly over into his target language he adds the word alone. Here's an excerpt from Luther's open letter on translating

"You tell me, besides, that the papists are making a tremendous fuss, because the word sola is not in Paul's text, and this addition of mine to the words of God is not to be tolerated...But because I knew—and still see with my own eyes—that none of them knows how to translate, or to speak German, I spared them and myself that trouble.."

To word it slightly differently, the issue to Luther was a translation issue far more than a doctrinal issue in his translation of Romans 3:28. He was simply striving to bring the precision of the greek into the German. Paul is setting up an exclusive statement. "We conclude that a person is declared righteous" (λογιζόμεθα ⸁γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι). But then Paul front-shifts the instrumental dative for emphasis (prolepsis) out of its normal position. So we would add weight and emphasis to this by saying something like "We conclude that a person is declared righteous by faith!!!" Next Paul continues with a very strong ablative adverb (χωρὶς). We would express this in english by saying something like "without any sort of law-works at all!"

The arbiter/moderator is welcome to strip away this comment. But I added it initially for a reason. The question is incomplete. It's a question that betrays a lack of understanding even the basics of translation practice. For when you say that Luther added a word to the German it carries with it the unspoken assumption (accusation) that he added to the meaning of the Greek. That is simply not the case.

Let me give you an example: In my translation class on the Vulgate we kept running across the phrase "it was a long time until his nose became hot." We had absolutely no clue as to what that phrase meant. It was only later, when I actually took Hebrew class that I realized that the phrase was the Hebrew idiom for taking a long time till someone "blows their top", losing all patience. So, to translate that from the initial language (Hebrew) into the receptor language (english) you need to change the english wording so that you do not change the Hebrew content. It is the same here with Luther's wording of this passage in Romans. This is basic, elementary linguistic practice, not ax-grinding, agenda-ridden, doctrine-shoe-horning habit.

Also, it may surprise you to learn that Greek is not english. (-: Greek can use an exclusive particle like μονον to express an "alone" thought. But it does not have to.

As I mentioned, it is fine with me to strike my big long comment. But the question is incomplete as it is written. I don't think that the questioner meant it that way. But, nonetheless, that is how it is. Without a basic working understanding of translation theory it is easy to conclude that Luther was adding to God's word.

Any question about James should be asked separately and not in this thread.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview of what this site is about, please take the Site Tour. I understand your wish to provide reasoning for what Luther did. Unfortunately, that's not what the question asks. However, if you want to provide an answer to the why, you are welcome to ask that question here, and then answer it yourself. Dec 5, 2015 at 0:16
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    @LeeWoofenden Apparently the community doesn’t think it’s a different question (duplicate points to a duplicate that points to this).
    – Susan
    Dec 5, 2015 at 2:28
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    Steve, I think this is on point as an answer to the question (“add” could mean two different things here, and you’ve stated that in on sense it’s obvious and gone on to address the other sense). The comments on translation philosophy are valid in their own right, but to me it seems that what’s missing is a justification of why you think the Greek carries the nuance of “alone".
    – Susan
    Dec 5, 2015 at 2:30
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    Steve, that is information (or a line of argumentation anyway) that belongs in the answer, which you can edit. @Lee, IMO whether he “added” is nonsensical in terms of translation methodology without discussing why. Clearly all of the German words were “added” since the text was not in German. The question is whether he inappropriately added, which requires asking why and determining whether this was justified.
    – Susan
    Dec 5, 2015 at 3:02
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    @LeeWoofenden Why not simply edit this one rather than delete it, since all answers are assuming why anyway? The other question's answer does a worse job of answering the why question than these do, anyway. Dec 5, 2015 at 14:30


When people translate from one language to another words are sometimes added and sometimes removed (for instances, Matthew 6:1). One can compare any two Bibles and find thousands of words to argue about. Citing Morris Protoctor

Sometimes Bible translators, for various reasons, will both insert extra English words and not translate all Hebrew and Greek words.

I think Catholic opposition to Luther's choice of words, and obsession with this one in particular, indicates what the Protestant reformation was all about.

  • The question doesn't ask for a defense of what Luther did. It simply asks whether he did it. Dec 5, 2015 at 0:25

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