From the Word
11 Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; 12 the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Romans 13:11–14, RSV
For the sake of effect and emphasis the apostle in his admonition employs a pleasing figure and makes an eloquent appeal. The word “sleep” is used as a simile to help us grasp the spiritual thought. Since for the sake of temporal gain men rise from sleep, put aside the things of darkness and take up the day’s work when night has given place to morning, how much greater the necessity for us to awake from our spiritual sleep, to cast off the things of darkness and enter upon the works of light, since our night has passed and our day breaks. “Sleep” here stands for the works of wickedness and unbelief. For sleep is properly incident to the night time. Then, too, the explanation is given in the added words: “Let us cast off the works of darkness.” Similarly in the thought of awakening and rising are suggested the works of faith and piety. They that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet the hope of salvation.
Paul, of course, does not enjoin against physical sleep. His contrasting figures of sleep and wakefulness are used as illustrations of spiritual lethargy and activity — the godly and the ungodly life. Note the analogy between natural and spiritual sleep. The sleeper sees nothing about him; he is not sensitive to any earthly realities. In the midst of them he lies as one dead and useless, without power or purpose. Though having life in himself he is practically dead to all outside. His mind is occupied, not with realities, but with dreams, in which he beholds mere images, vain forms of the real; and he is foolish enough to think them true. But when he wakes, these illusions or dreams vanish. Then he begins to occupy himself with realities.
So it is in the spiritual life. The ungodly person sleeps. He is in a sense dead in the sight of God. He does not recognize the real spiritual blessings extended him through the gospel; he regards them as valueless. For these blessings are only to be recognized by the believing heart; they are concealed from the natural man.
Luther, Martin, and John Sander. Devotional Readings from Luther’s Works for Every Day of the Year. Augustana Book Concern, 1915, pp. 433–34.