Luther on Galatians

David R. Andersen
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Sep/Oct 2003
"It is a marvelous thing and unknown to the world to teach Christians to ignore the Law and to live before God as though there were no Law whatever. For if you do not ignore the Law and thus direct your thoughts to grace as though there were no Law … you cannot be saved." (6)

Thus the German reformer Martin Luther provocatively sets the tone for his 1535 lectures on Galatians. His argument is based on the fact that in Galatians the Apostle Paul draws, in effect, a crucial distinction between two kinds of righteousness: active and passive. Active righteousness involves our relying on our own fulfillment of the law for our ultimate justification before God (see Gal. 3:3, 12; 5:2-4). Passive righteousness consists in our permitting someone else-namely, God-to bring about our salvation. Active righteousness consists in our actively working to appease God's wrath. Passive righteousness involves our passively accepting by faith a gift we in no way deserve because God has acted in Christ to justify us (see Gal. 1:3-4; 2:15-16, 20-21; 3:2-14).

This distinction is easy to understand, but it is incredibly difficult to practice. Why? Because, Luther argues, a natural connection exists between sinful human reason and the law. We know the law by nature (see Rom. 1:18-2:16), so in the terrors of conscience and danger of death we naturally look to our own works of the law for eternal hope. Because the connection is so natural, Satan's primary goal in effecting human destruction lies in aggravating our hopeless devotion to the law and thus ensuring that our minds remain turned in upon themselves (see 2 Cor. 11:1-12:10 and especially 11:12-15). But the trouble with such an inward turn is that there is nothing within us except sin and death, so we cannot find solace by looking there.

This continuous battle between the law and Christ's work to redeem us from the law's curse forms the framework for many of Luther's Galatian lectures. For him, the battle must be waged by all of us, because if we stray away from passive righteousness we necessarily relapse into active righteousness. There is no middle ground. We either look to ourselves or we look to Christ for our justification before a holy God. Religion, whether medieval or modern, always succeeds in focusing attention on our worthiness and the law. It always triumphs in focusing attention on individual sins and thus ignoring completely the depth of our sinful predicament. Luther stresses that, according to Scripture, we are radically corrupt from the inside out. Focusing on individual sins only draws us down into despair, in the same way that Peter sank as he began to focus on the individual waves instead of on Christ. Sin erupts from the human heart with infinitely more force than water from behind a ruptured dam, so preoccupation with this or that sin is not only useless, it ultimately drags the sinner down to the deadly rocks below.

The solution must be as radical as the problem-and Luther finds it in the wounds of the crucified God. At that haunting scene of suffering and death there is no room for human self-sufficiency, no room for trivializing sin and death. Recognizing human weakness in a way unique in Christian history, Luther turns our attention with piercing clarity to the flesh of Christ. To that end, he highlights in his Galatian lectures two temptations that both believer and unbeliever battle daily. The first involves our tendency to speculate about God's naked being; and the second involves our hopeless devotion to our own self-sufficiency. We prize both of these. To human reason, with its preconceptions about holiness and its preoccupation with itself, Christ could hardly be more offensive. So what does reason do to remove the offense? It remakes Christ according to its own notions. Thus we are led away from God by turning our gaze away from Christ, and Satan is successful in keeping us in sin and death.

Speculation and Its Devastating Consequences

From Luther's perspective, Adam's fall had two devastating consequences: (1) we lost knowledge of God; and (2) our wills became perverted and hopelessly turned in upon themselves. Before the fall, Adam had by nature a proper understanding of God, but now without that correct understanding we tend to run amuck in our imaginations as to who God is and what he desires. In other words, our tendency is to speculate about God's naked being rather than focus on God as he reveals himself in Christ and Scripture. We are incapable of knowing God apart from what he reveals about himself; and, of course, we must first come to know what something is like before we can offer theories about it. Yet we are much happier offering theories about God before we take the time to understand what God reveals about himself. We are passionately committed to our own wisdom. Human reason wants to flatter itself about what it knows in any and every situation; and so it becomes its own worst sycophant.

But such egocentricity produces idolatry rather than true worship. Sinful human beings naturally put the cart before the horse and refuse to stay on the road that God himself has paved. We always want to have and to do something unusual. Luther sees this as an enormous problem, for we cannot grasp our salvation if we fail to understand what our salvation actually involves. He explains:

[T]rue Christian theology, as I often warn you, does not present God to us in His majesty, as Moses and other teachings do, but Christ born of the Virgin as our Mediator and High Priest. Therefore when we are embattled against the Law, sin, and death in the presence of God, nothing is more dangerous than to stray into heaven with our idle speculations, there to investigate God in His incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty, to ask how He created the world and how He governs it. If you attempt to comprehend God this way and want to make atonement to Him apart from Christ the Mediator, making your works, fasts, cowl, and tonsure the mediation between Him and yourself, you will inevitably fall, as Lucifer did (Is. 14:12), and in horrible despair lose God and everything. For as in His own nature God is immense, incomprehensible, and infinite, so to man's nature He is intolerable. Therefore if you want to be safe and out of danger to your conscience and your salvation, put a check on this speculative spirit. Take hold of God as Scripture instructs you…. Therefore begin where Christ began – in the Virgin's womb, in the manger, and at His mother's breasts. For this purpose He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty….Therefore whenever you consider the doctrine of justification and wonder how or where or in what condition to find a God who justifies or accepts sinners, then you must know that there is no other God than this Man Jesus Christ. Take hold of Him; cling to Him with all your heart, and spurn all speculation about the Divine Majesty; for whoever investigates the majesty of God will be consumed by His glory. I know from experience what I am talking about. But these fanatics, who deal with God apart from this Man, will not believe me …. Take note, therefore, in the doctrine of justification or grace that when we all must struggle with the Law, sin, death, and the devil, we must look at no other God than this incarnate and human God. (28-29)

For Luther, this point cannot be expressed too often: There is no other God than the One who presents Himself in the dereliction of the cross. Why does he make such an absolute statement? Because, as he read in Genesis, the fall wiped out a saving knowledge of God; and this disaster is only compounded by the fact that we are incurably religious by nature. So in the absence of a clear, simple word from God as to his nature and will, we naturally create a god to our own liking-i.e., one that conforms to our own twisted views of holiness and salvation. In other words, we create our own religions with their strict moral rules and guidelines for earning salvation. The law, already written on our hearts (see Rom. 2:15), becomes our hope for eternal bliss. Our perverted inwardness causes us to believe the false claim that if the law exists, then it must be capable of being fulfilled. So fulfilling the law becomes the key to pleasing God and inheriting the kingdom of heaven.

In opposition to this, Luther argues that our only hope is found in the Christian message-a message rooted in history and not in some supersensible, metaphysical reality. Christianity has a fleshly point of departure:

It does not begin at the top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom…. Therefore whenever you are concerned to think and act about your salvation, you must put away all speculations about the Majesty, all thoughts of works, traditions, and philosophy-indeed, of the Law of God itself. And you must run directly to the manger and the mother's womb, embrace this Infant and Virgin's Child in your arms, and look at Him-born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things. In this way you can shake off all terrors and errors, as the sun dispels the clouds. (30)

For Luther, the historic Christ is the key who unlocks our preoccupation with ourselves and frees us from bondage to sin, death, and the devil. Our only hope is in that which is outside us, in Christ; to fasten our gaze on the One who was crucified for the world's sins is the only hope for unbeliever and believer alike. As Paul Althaus has put it: Jesus does not point us to God; he presents the eternal God himself in his very person. So to gaze upon that scene of total desolation where God in Christ bears in his own body the sins of the world is to gaze directly into God's fatherly heart. Here the human mind must subdue all of its own ideas about who God is and what he wills for humankind.

But what if we fail to fix our attention on that bronze serpent (see Num. 21:8-9 with John 3:14)? From Luther's perspective, this failure can produce nothing other than despair and eternal death. This is why the bulk of the devil's efforts are focused on drawing us toward the contemplative life and away from knowing "Christ and him crucified." But Jesus in the flesh is the only profitable object of contemplation. Those who forsake it and speculate about the naked God by self-invented "spiritual" means are swallowed by the Divine Majesty. The incarnate Son is the covering in which the Divine Majesty presents himself to us with the gift of salvation.

Our Sense of Self-Sufficiency Versus Christ's Sufficiency

For Luther, we can hardly submerge Jesus in the human situation too much. The union of the divine and human natures in one person is what assures us that Christ's work stands secure. This union is so wondrous that the angels descend as though there were no God in heaven to come to Bethlehem to adore and worship him as he lies in the manger at his mother's breast. The incarnation makes Jesus' humanity subject to death and hell, yet in that very humiliation it devours them both in itself.

As incredible as this is, the Christian church in every generation manages to place humanity at the center of the religious relationship. As Luther saw it, our self-love produces a Jesus in our own image, one who conforms to our inward sense of self-sufficiency. It does so by making Jesus our great example. He becomes, in effect, our role model. It is claimed that, by daily patterning our lives after his, we can produce the godly lives that God wants us to live. In this way we achieve the synthesis we want between our love for ourselves and our reading of certain New Testament passages, and our lives give off an appearance of piety.

But this synthesis has a horrible price. It segregates Christ from sins and sinners. Christ, as a mere example to be imitated, becomes useless to us. He also becomes a judge and tyrant who is angry at our sins and who damns us on their account. Such a perverted view of Jesus can only be achieved by disregarding God's self-revelation at the cross. At the cross, Luther argues, we must conclude that, just as Christ is wrapped up in our flesh and blood, so he is also wrapped up in our sins, our curse, and our death. Whatever sins we have committed or will commit must be seen as Christ's own, as if he himself had committed them. In other words, our sin must become Christ's own or we shall perish eternally. And so Luther comments: "And this is our highest comfort, to clothe and wrap Christ this way in my sins, your sins, and the sins of the entire world, and in this way to behold Him bearing all our sins. When He is beheld this way, He easily removes all the fanatical opinions of our opponents about justification by works" (279).

When we make Jesus our example, we direct the human race toward the very thing that holds it captive-namely, the law. For fallen humankind, the law is a judge and tyrant that justly pronounces a curse on everything we are and do. We may misunderstand the law's true intent-thinking it has been given to us for us to fulfill-but it nevertheless rightfully condemns the human heart. And, from Luther's point of view, the solution to our plight must be as radical as the curse.

He finds the heart of the solution to our predicament in the apostle's words, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). We must, Luther insists, distinguish carefully Christ from the law. For all who do not keep the law are under a curse, and since no one keeps the law, it follows that all human beings are under a curse (see Gal. 3:10 with Deut. 27:26 and Rom. 3:9-20). Therefore, the law and works of the law do not redeem us from the curse. "On the contrary," Luther concludes, "they drag us down and subject us to the curse." Christ is entirely different from the law and its works; and so redemption in him is different than merit based on works of the law. Only Christ himself could redeem us from the law's curse, bearing in his own body our sins, our curse, and our death. "By this fortunate exchange with us He took upon Himself our sinful person and granted us His innocent and victorious Person" (284). So, in his characteristic language, Luther explains:

When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: "Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them." Now the Law comes and says: "I find Him a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him die on the cross!" And so it attacks Him and kills Him. By this deed the whole world is purged and expiated from all sins, and thus it is set free from death and from every evil. But when sin and death have been abolished by this one man, God does not want to see anything else in the whole world, especially if it were to believe, except sheer cleansing and righteousness. (280)

Wise men indeed find the highest God lying in a lowly manger. But he descends to that manger, to the level of our suffering and pain, for only one purpose: that by bearing our curse and death in himself we might find a gracious God, a God for us. Thus Luther rightly concludes:

With gratitude and with a sure confidence, therefore, let us accept this doctrine, so sweet and so filled with comfort, which teaches that Christ became a curse for us, that is, a sinner worthy of the wrath of God; that He clothed Himself in our person, laid our sins upon His own shoulders, and said: "I have committed the sins that all men have committed." Therefore He truly became accursed according to the Law, not for Himself but, as Paul says, for us. (284)

Why We Must Heed Luther's Words

Does Luther highlight a battle for faith that is culturally bound to the medieval church, with its devotion to shrines and saints, or do his words have applicability in our contemporary situation? For him, human nature remains constant this side of heaven, and consequently the tendencies toward trying to know God outside Christ and to love ourselves dominate all human history. Modern movements such as Pietism and some manifestations of American and European Evangelicalism serve to confirm our abiding inward focus. While they differ in particulars, the result is always the same: Jesus becomes our example, and salvation-despite the constant language of grace-ultimately rests with us. Luther constantly warned against remaking Jesus to our own liking. In fact, he could hardly stress it too often, because we all without exception cling to the law and resist Jesus' insistence that we are the broken reeds and smoldering wicks of Isaiah's text-the very reeds and wicks he promises not to break off and snuff out (see Matt. 12:17-21).

So Luther's fervent call to behold Christ's flesh is as necessary today as it was in his day. Our only consolation is to be found in an ignominious death two thousand years ago and in our appropriation of that death in Word and Sacrament, by which the forgiveness of sins is distributed to beggars who have nothing to offer but sin and death. And so Luther urges us to fight our natural inclination to make Jesus an angry lawgiver. We must learn to regard him as Paul portrays him: He is the God who pays the penalty of our sin with his own blood. It is only with this objective view of God in mind that we can begin to comprehend the unqualified freedom that the Father provides in the bloody death and Resurrection of the Son. It is only by clinging to this picture that we can finally, in our struggles against the law and the accusations of our conscience and the devil and in the face of our own mortality, declare with steady confidence:

Law, you have no jurisdiction over me; therefore you are accusing and condemning me in vain. For I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Father sent into the world to redeem us miserable sinners who are oppressed by the tyranny of the Law. He poured out His life and spent it lavishly for me. When I feel your terrors and threats, O Law, I immerse my conscience in the wounds, the blood, the death, the resurrection, and the victory of Christ. Beyond Him I do not want to see or hear anything at all. (369)
1 [ Back ] All of the quotations identified only by a page number are from Martin Luther, Luther's Works, translated by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), Volume 26. The reference attributed to Paul Althaus is found in his Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 182.
Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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