What Counts

From Commentary on Galatians (1535)

The law dispels all self-illusions. It puts the fear of God in a man. Without this fear there can be no thirst for God’s mercy. God accordingly uses the law for a hammer to break up the illusion of self-righteousness, that we should despair of our own strength and efforts at self-justification… The law enforces good behavior, at least outwardly. We obey the law because if we don’t we will be punished. Our obedience is inspired by fear. We obey under duress, and we do it resentfully…Happy the person who knows how to utilize the law so that it serves the purposes of grace and of faith….

Each Christian continues to experience in his heart times of the law and times of the gospel. The times of the law are discernible by heaviness of heart, by a lively sense of sin, and a feeling of despair brought on by the law. These periods of the law will come again and again as long as we live. To mention my own case, there are many times when I find fault with God and am impatient with him. The wrath and the judgment of God displease me, my wrath and impatience displease him. Then is the season of the law, when “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” The time of grace returns when the heart is enlivened by the promise of God’s mercy. It soliloquizes: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? Can you see nothing but law, sin, death, and hell? Is there no grace, no forgiveness, no joy, peace, life, heaven, no Christ and God? Trouble me no more, my soul. Hope in God who has not spared his own dear Son but has given him into death for you sins.” …

When reason hears that justification before God is obtained by grace alone, it draws the inference that the law is without value. The doctrine of the law must therefore be studied carefully lest we either reject the law altogether or are tempted to attribute to the law a capacity to save. There are three ways in which the law may be abused. First, by the self-righteous hypocrites who fancy that they can be justified by the law. Secondly, by those who claim that Christian liberty exempts a Christian from the observance of the law. “These,” says Peter, “use their liberty for a cloak of maliciousness,” and bring the name and the gospel of Christ into ill repute. Thirdly, the law is abused by those who do not understand that the law is meant to drive us to Christ. When the law is properly used its value cannot be too highly appraised. It will take me to Christ every time….

The law is not to teach us another law. When a person feels the full force of the law he is likely to think: “I have transgressed all the commandments of God; I am guilty of eternal death. If God will spare me I will change and live right from now on.” This natural but entirely wrong reaction to the law has bred the many ceremonies and works devised to earn grace and remission of sins. The law means to enlarge my sins, to make me small, so that I may be justified by faith in Christ. Faith is neither law nor word; but confidence in Christ “who is the end of the law.” How so is Christ the end of the law? Not in this way that he replaced the old law with new laws. Nor is Christ the end of the law in a way that makes him a hard judge who has to be bribed by works… Christ is the end or completion of the law to all who believe in him. The law can no longer accuse or condemn them. But what does the law accomplish for those who have been justified by Christ? Paul answers this question next. The apostle declares that we are free from the law. Christ fulfilled the law for us. We may live in joy and safety under Christ. The trouble is, our nature will not let us believe in Christ with all our heart.

The fault lies not with Christ, but with us. Sin clings to us as long as we live and spoils our happiness in Christ. Hence, we are only partly free from the law. “With the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25) …

Because sin continues to dwell in the flesh, the law waits around to molest our conscience. More and more, however, Christ increases our faith and in the measure in which our faith is increased, sin, law, and flesh subside. If anybody objects to the Gospel and the sacraments on the ground that Christ has taken away our sins once and for always, you will know what to answer. You will answer: Indeed, Christ has taken away my sins. But my flesh, the world, and the devil interfere with my faith. The little light of faith in my heart does not shine all over me at once. It is a gradual diffusion. In the meanwhile, I console myself with the thought that eventually my flesh will be made perfect in the resurrection.

Paul as a true apostle of faith always has the word “faith” on the tip of his tongue. By faith, says he, we are the children of God. The law cannot beget children of God. It cannot regenerate us. It can only remind us of the old birth by which we were born into the kingdom of the devil. The best the law can do for us is to prepare us for a new birth through faith in Christ Jesus. Faith in Christ regenerates us into the children of God. St. John bears witness to this in his Gospel: “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12). What tongue of man or angel can adequately extol the mercy of God toward us miserable sinners in that he adopted us for his own children and fellow heirs with his Son by the simple means of faith in Christ Jesus!

To “put on Christ” may be understood in two ways, according to the Law and according to the Gospel. According to the Law as in Romans 13:14, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which means to follow the example of Christ. To put on Christ according to the Gospel means to clothe oneself with the righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and Spirit of Christ.

By nature we are clad in the garb of Adam. This garb Paul likes to call “the old man.” Before we can become the children of God this old man must be put off, as Paul says (Eph. 4:29). The garment of Adam must come off like soiled clothes. Of course, it is not as simple as changing one’s clothes. But God makes it simple. He clothes us with the righteousness of Christ by means of Baptism, as the apostle says in this verse: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” With this change of garments, a new birth, a new life stirs in us. New affections toward God spring up in the heart. New determinations affect our will. All this is to put on Christ according to the Gospel. Needless to say, when we have put on the robe of the righteousness of Christ we must not forget to put on also the mantle of the imitation of Christ.

When a person has put on Christ nothing else matters. Whether a person is a Jew, a punctilious and circumcised observer of the law of Moses, or whether a person is a noble and wise Greek does not matter. Circumstances, personal worth, character, achievements have no bearing upon justification. Before God they count for nothing. What counts is that we put on Christ.

Whether a servant performs his duties well; whether those who are in authority govern wisely; whether a man marries, provides for his family, and is an honest citizen… all these advantages do not qualify a person for salvation. These virtues are commendable, of course; but they do not count points for justification. All the best laws, ceremonies, religions, and deeds of the world cannot take away sin guilt, cannot dispatch death, cannot purchase life.

There is much disparity among men in the world, but there is no such disparity before God. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Let the Jews, let the Greeks, let the whole world keep silent in the presence of God. Those who are justified are justified by Christ…

We all have one and the same Gospel, “one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” one Christ and Savior of all. The Christ of Peter, Paul, and all the saints is our Christ. Paul can always be depended on to add the conditional clause, “In Christ Jesus.” If we lose sight of Christ, we lose out…. “If you are Christ’s” means, “if you believe in Christ.” If you believe in Christ, then you are the children of Abraham indeed. Through our faith in Christ, Abraham gains paternity over us and over the nations of the earth according to the promise: “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Through faith we belong to Christ and Christ to us.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German priest and theologian, a seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation. His teaching about justification by faith, revealed in his study of the Pauline Epistles, became the core of Protestant teaching about salvation, and inspired a wide-reaching series of reform in Christian ministry, worship, and spiritual practice. His Commentary on Galatians derives from lectures he gave to students at Wittenberg University. Martin Luther is commemorated on February 18 on the calendars of several Lutheran and Anglican Churches. 

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