Galatians: Martin Luther’s Preface

This week Ricky Alcantar from El Paso will be teaching our youth retreat as well as preaching on Sunday.  Because the sermon series will be taking a break from Galatians, we will use our study time to read excerpts from one of the best backgrounds you can read on Paul’s epistle:  Martin Luther’s Preface to the Book of Galatians.  Just to whet your appetite, here are a few ways God has used Luther’s preface in church history. John Bunyan wrote:

I do prefer this book of Marin Luther on the Galatians, excepting for Holy Bible, before all books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.

And this from Charles Wesley:

I spent some hours this evening in private with Martin Luther, who was greatly blessed to me, especially the conclusion of the second chapter [of Galatians].  I laboured, waited and prayed to feel “who loved me” and “gave himself for me…”

Four days later Charles’s prayer was answered and he received the assurance of true faith in Christ.  Three days later his brother John Wesley received the same assurance of God’s love through Luther’s commentary on Romans.

I pray God’s Spirit will speak to us as well.  This will be a long post since I will be typing six portions of the text.  A question follows each section.

1. The main thing: the work of Christ. “The one article of faith that I have most at heart is the faith of Christ…this one sure foundation [is] our justification (that is to say, that it is not by ourselves, nor by our works, which are less than ourselves, but by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we are redeemed from sin, death, the devil, and are made to share eternal life).”

1. Look up and write down a definition of justification.  What is the relationship between the words “justification” and “righteousness”?  Can  you think of one way you try to justify yourself before God or people?

2. The main thing lost: the work of man. “In paradise, Satan shook this rock of faith (Genesis 3:5) when he persuaded our first ancestors that they could be like God by their own wisdom and power, abandoning true faith in God….After a while [he] stirred up brother to murder brother, for no other reason than that his godly brother had offered by faith a more excellent sacrifice, and he offered up his own works without faith…After this, the whole world grew mad against this faith (as St. Paul says in Acts 14:15-16), inventing an infinite number of idols and strange religions by which people went their own way, trusting in works to please gods and goddesses without Christ’s help and seeing by their own works to redeem themselves from evils and sins.”

2. Have you ever thought of the first sin in terms of turning from God’s work (creating us as image bearers) to man’s work (making myself like God by my own wisdom and power)?  What is one example of “pleasing God on our own terms” that you see in the world around you?

3. The work of Christ gives us His righteousness. “St. Paul sets about establishing the doctrine of faith, grace, forgiveness of sins, or Christian righteousness. His purpose is that we may understand exactly the nature of Christian righteousness and its difference from all other kinds of righteousness, for there are various sorts of righteousness.

There is political or civil righteousness, which emperors, princes of the world philosophers, and lawyers deal with.

There is also ceremonial righteousness, which human traditions teach.  This righteousness may be taught without danger by parents and schoolteachers because they do not attribute to it any power to satisfy for sin, to please God, or to deserve grace, but they teach such ceremonies as are necessary simply for the correction of manners and certain observations concerning this life.

Besides these, there is another righteousness, called the righteousness of the law or of the Ten Commandments, which Moses teaches.  We too teach this, according to the doctrine of faith.

There is yet another righteousness that is above all these–namely, the righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, which we must carefully distinguish from the other sorts mentioned above, for they are quite contrary to this righteousness…

But this most excellent righteousness–that of faith, I mean–which God imputes to us through Christ, without works–is neither political nor ceremonial, nor is it the righteousness of God’s law, nor does it consist in works.  It is quite the opposite; that is to say, it is passive, whereas the others are active.  We do nothing in this matter; we give nothing to God but simply receive and allow someone else to work in us–that is, God.  Therefore, it seems to me that this righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, can well be called passive righteousness.”

3. Give a modern day label to each of the three types of active righteousnessCan you think of an example of each from your daily life?  How is Christ’s righteousness different?

4. Our greatest need is to take hold of this righteousness, freely offered by Christ. “…Nothing comforts our conscience so firmly and securely as this passive righteousness….Just as the earth does not generate rain and cannot of itself work to produce it, but receives it by the mere gift of God from above, so this heavenly righteousness is given us by God without our working for or deserving it.  See, then, how much the earth is able by itself to do in getting showers of rain to make it fruitful; that much, and no more, are we able to do by our own strength and works in winning this heavenly and eternal righteousness.”

4. Keeping Luther’s imagery in mind, why is this yours and my greatest need?

5. When it comes to righteousness (justification), law and grace don’t mix. “Anyone who teaches that people are justified before God by observing the law goes beyond the law and muddles these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, and is a poor logician, for he does not explain the law correctly…

This is how we teach people to distinguish between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, so that manners and faith, works and grace, politics and religion should not be confused with each other.  Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their rightful place…

But imagine two worlds, the one heavenly and the other earthly.  In these there are two kinds of righteousness, quite separate from each other.  The righteousness of the law is earthly and has to do with earthly things, and by it we do good works.  But as the earth can only produce fruit if it is first watered and made fertile from above, so…in fulfilling the law we do not fulfill it unless we are first made righteous without any merit or work of ours.

So then, do we do nothing to obtain this righteousness?  No, nothing at all.  Perfect righteousness is to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing of the law or of works, but to know and believe only that Christ has gone to the Father and is no longer visible; that he sits in heaven at the right hand of this Father, not as a judge, but is made by God our wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”

5. “Law and grace don’t mix” as the basis of our standing with God. But how do law and grace relate to each other in this analogy of the field and the rain?  How would you state this order of law and grace in terms of your life today?

6. We must continue to live in the righteousness of Christ. “Therefore, St. Paul, in this letter, teaches us in order to comfort us and to confirm us in the perfect knowledge of this most Christian and excellent righteousness, for once we lose our belief in justification, all true Christian doctrine is lost.  There is no middle ground between the righteousness of the law and Christian righteousness…This is easy to describe in words, but hard to put into practice.”

6. Can you think of a time recently when you slipped back into relying on your works to please God?  Bring it before him and grab hold of Christ’s perfect righteousness once again . . . and rejoice in Him!

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