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True Grace for Real Sin:
The Message of Paul to the Galatians

For Sunday June 6, 2010

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

1 Kings 17:8–16, (17–24) or 1 Kings 17:17–24

           Psalm 146 or Psalm 30

           Galatians 1:11–24

           Luke 7:11–17

           The collected works of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) number about sixty volumes. The man could write. Luther's phenomenal capacity to write met the voracious appetite of a newly literate reading public. In Luther's day the printing press was the great force multiplier that had mechanized mass book production for the first time. Consider just one example. In his book The Reformation (2003), Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that "there were 390 editions of various of Luther's writings published in Germany in 1523 alone."

           Amongst this massive output, Luther had his favorites. His favorite book of the Bible was the epistle for this week. "The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am, as it were, in wedlock." Years later when a friend was editing the Latin edition of what would become those sixty volumes of his collected works, Luther made a suggestion: "If I had my way about it, they would republish only those of my books which have doctrine. My Galatians, for instance."

A younger Martin Luther.
A younger Martin Luther.

           "My Galatians" refers to his commentary on the epistle. The little letter to the Galatians, just six chapters in ten pages, provoked from Luther's prolific pen a monster commentary that in one edition ran to 733 pages. Why such prolixity? What was so important about Galatians to Luther? Many scholars even judge that his Galatians commentary is one of the most formative books in the history of Protestantism. How so?

           Luther locked onto Galatians for an important reason. In Galatians Paul makes an impassioned and uncompromising defense of the radical grace of God. In Galatians Paul boldly defends this singular gospel of free grace against any and every other "different gospel," which posers he dismisses as "no gospel at all" (1:6–7). To understand and experience the gospel of Galatians, says Paul, is to enter into the very heart of what God did in Christ, whereas to lose or "pervert" (1:7) it is a spiritual disaster. And that's what was happening in Galatia.

Paul with his scrolls, Roman catacombs.
Paul with his scrolls, Roman catacombs

           This was a deeply personal and intensely practical matter for Luther. He had struggled all his life to please God, and he did what many of us do today. He tried to earn God's favor, in his case as an overly scrupulous monk. But that only led Luther to despair, anxiety, and to Anfechtungen. Anfechtungen is hard to translate but easy to appreciate. It's what Martin Marty calls “the spiritual assaults that Luther said kept people from finding certainty in a loving God.” Instead of trying to earn God's favor, says Marty, Luther insists that God in Christ says to us, “I am more certain to you than your own heart and conscience.” That's the personal antidote to despair that Luther found in Galatians.

           Luther also identified a crucial theological question in Galatians. In Galatians Paul tackles a simple question that has profound implications. It was a question that troubled the early church. Did a Gentile who wanted to be a Christian have to live like a Jew? Did Gentiles have to follow the Mosaic law, and if so, how much or how little? Today we grapple with the opposite question, whether a Jew must convert to Christianity to enjoy God's favor. But Jesus was a Jew, Paul was a zealous "Hebrew of Hebrews," and for its first few decades the early church was effectively a Jewish sect. So what about Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus? Did they have to become Jews?

Older Luther.
Older Luther.

           Some early believers said yes. They argued that Gentiles must obey the 631 Mosaic commandments, and in particular certain dietary laws and the ritual of circumcision. Even the apostle Peter succumbed to hypocrisy on this matter. In Acts 11 we read how Peter had a vision that convinced him that God accepted both Jews and Gentiles without any favoritism. But later, "certain men came from James" (2:12) and convinced Peter to separate himself from eating with Gentiles. "Even Barnabas was led astray," writes Paul (2:13).

           Paul was aghast; he rebuked Peter in public for compromising the free grace of God. "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified" (2:15–16).

Apostle Paul by Andrei Rublev, 1410–1420.
Apostle Paul by Andrei Rublev, 1410–1420.

           Christians should live with a radical sense of freedom before God, says Paul, knowing that our relationship with him is based not on our performance but on his love. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (5:1). To seek to justify yourself before God is chasing the wind. Rather, we're free to accept our fragile selves just like God does.

            Perhaps you have heard the aphorism to “sin boldly.” This comes from a letter that Luther wrote to his younger protege Philip Melanchthon who was super scrupulous and anxious about God's grace. Luther rebuked him for such anxiety about trying to merit God's favor:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach true grace and not a fictitious grace. If grace is true, you must bear a true and not fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.

True grace forgives real sins and not just polite or acceptable sins. Even with our own deep sense of sin, frailty and failure, grace liberates us to live fully and freely, with candor and honesty but without obsession or anxiety. This message is no mere "human invention," says Paul (1:11), not some "cleverly invented tale," says Peter (2 Peter 1:16). It's divinely good news which Paul says we should never compromise.

For further reflection:

* For a biography of Luther see Martin Marty's Martin Luther (New York: Penguin, 2004).
* Consider the words of Paul Tillich: "You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you don’t know…Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens, we experience grace."
* Contemplate the words of Donald McCullough: "Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are. We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements…but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust."

Image credits: (1) God's Word is Truth blog; (2); (3) Australian Ejournal of Theology; and (4)

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