Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians
Written by: Luther, Martin Posted on: 05/06/2003
Category: Classic Christian Library
Etext Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians
by Martin Luther translated by Theodore Graebner
Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535)
by Martin Luther translated by Theodore Graebner
The preparation of this edition of Luther's Commentary on Galatians was
first suggested to me by Mr. P. J. Zondervan, of the firm of publishers, in
March, 1937. The consultation had the twofold merit of definiteness and
"Luther is still the greatest name in Protestantism. We want you to help us
publish some leading work of Luther's for the general American market.
Will you do it?"
"I will, on one condition."
"And what is that?"
"The condition is that I will be permitted to make Luther talk American,
'streamline' him, so to speak--because you will never get people, whether
in or outside the Lutheran Church, actually to read Luther unless we make
him talk as he would talk today to Americans."
I illustrated the point by reading to Mr. Zondervan a few sentences from an
English translation lately reprinted by an American publisher, of one of
Luther's outstanding reformatory essays.
The demonstration seemed to prove convincing for it was agreed that one
may as well offer Luther in the original German or Latin as expect the
American church-member to read any translations that would adhere to
Luther's German or Latin constructions and employ the Mid-Victorian
type of English characteristic of the translations now on the market.
"And what book would be your choice?"
"There is one book that Luther himself likes better than any other. Let us
begin with that: his Commentary on Galatians. . ."
The undertaking, which seemed so attractive when viewed as a literary
task, proved a most difficult one, and at times became oppressive. The
Letter to the Galatians consists of six short chapters. Luther's commentary
fills seven hundred and thirty-three octavo pages in the Weidman Edition
of his works. It was written in Latin. We were resolved not to present this
entire mass of exegesis. It would have run to more than fifteen hundred
pages, ordinary octavo (like this), since it is impossible to use the
compressed structure of sentences which is characteristic of Latin, and
particularly of Luther's Latin. The work had to be condensed. German and
English translations are available, but the most acceptable English version,
besides laboring under the handicaps of an archaic style, had to be
condensed into half its volume in order to accomplish the "streamlining"
of the book. Whatever merit the translation now presented to the reader may
possess should be written to the credit of Rev. Gerhardt Mahler of Geneva,
N.Y., who came to my assistance in a very busy season by making a rough
draft of the translation and later preparing a revision of it, which
forms the basis of the final draft submitted to the printer. A word should
now be said about the origin of Luther's Commentary on Galatians.
The Reformer had lectured on this Epistle of St. Paul's in 1519 and again in
1523. It was his favorite among all the Biblical books. In his table talks the
saying is recorded: "The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as
it were in wedlock. It is my Katherine." Much later when a friend of his
was preparing an edition of all his Latin works, he remarked to his home
circle: "If I had my way about it they would republish only those of my
books which have doctrine. My Galatians, for instance. "The lectures which
are preserved in the works herewith submitted to the American public
were delivered in 1531. They were taken down by George Roerer, who
held something of a deanship at Wittenberg University and who was one of
Luther's aids in the translation of the Bible. Roerer took down Luther's
lectures and this manuscript has been preserved to the present day, in a
copy which contains also additions by Veit Dietrich and by Cruciger, friends
of Roerer's, who with him attended Luther's lectures. In other words, these
three men took down the lectures which Luther addressed to his students
in the course of Galatians, and Roerer prepared the manuscript for the
printer. A German translation by Justus Menius appeared in the
Wittenberg Edition of Luther's writings, published in 1539.
The importance of this Commentary on Galatians for the history of
Protestantism is very great. It presents like no other of Luther's writings
the central thought of Christianity, the justification of the sinner for the
sake of Christ's merits alone. We have permitted in the final revision of
the manuscript many a passage to stand which seemed weak and
ineffectual when compared with the trumpet tones of the Latin original.
But the essence of Luther's lectures is there. May the reader accept with
indulgence where in this translation we have gone too far in modernizing
Luther's expression--making him "talk American."
At the end of his lectures in 1531, Luther uttered a brief prayer and then
dictated two Scriptural texts, which we shall inscribe at the end of these
"The Lord who has given us power to teach and to hear, let Him also give
us the power to serve and to do."
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace,
Good will to men.
The Word of our God shall stand forever.
St. Louis, Missouri
FROM LUTHER'S INTRODUCTION, 1538
In my heart reigns this one article, faith in my dear Lord Christ,
the beginning, middle and end of whatever spiritual and divine
thoughts I may have, whether by day or by night.
VERSE 1. Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus
Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead).
St. Paul wrote this epistle because, after his departure from the Galatian
churches, Jewish-Christian fanatics moved in, who perverted Paul's Gospel of
man's free justification by faith in Christ Jesus.
The world bears the Gospel a grudge because the Gospel condemns the religious
wisdom of the world. Jealous for its own religious views, the world in turn
charges the Gospel with being a subversive and licentious doctrine, offensive
to God and man, a doctrine to be persecuted as the worst plague on earth.
As a result we have this paradoxical situation: The Gospel supplies the world
with the salvation of Jesus Christ, peace of conscience, and every blessing.
Just for that the world abhors the Gospel.
These Jewish-Christian fanatics who pushed themselves into the Galatian
churches after Paul's departure, boasted that they were the descendants of
Abraham, true ministers of Christ, having been trained by the apostles
themselves, that they were able to perform miracles.
In every way they sought to undermine the authority of St. Paul. They said to
the Galatians: "You have no right to think highly of Paul. He was the last to
turn to Christ. But we have seen Christ. We heard Him preach. Paul came later
and is beneath us. It is possible for us to be in error--we who have received
the Holy Ghost? Paul stands alone. He has not seen Christ, nor has he had much
contact with the other apostles. Indeed, he persecuted the Church of Christ for
a long time."
When men claiming such credentials come along, they deceive not only the
naive, but also those who seemingly are well-established in the faith. This
same argument is used by the papacy. "Do you suppose that God for the sake of
a few Lutheran heretics would disown His entire Church? Or do you suppose that
God would have left His Church floundering in error all these centuries?" The
Galatians were taken in by such arguments with the result that Paul's
authority and doctrine were drawn in question.
Against these boasting, false apostles, Paul boldly defends his apostolic
authority and ministry. Humble man that he was, he will not now take a back
seat. He reminds them of the time when he opposed Peter to his face and
reproved the chief of the apostles.
Paul devotes the first two chapters to a defense of his office and his Gospel,
affirming that he received it, not from men, but from the Lord Jesus Christ by
special revelation, and that if he or an angel from heaven preach any other
gospel than the one he had preached, he shall be accursed.
The Certainty of Our Calling
Every minister should make much of his calling and impress upon others the
fact that he has been delegated by God to preach the Gospel. As the
ambassador of a government is honored for his office and not for his private
person, so the minister of Christ should exalt his office in order to gain
authority among men. This is not vain glory, but needful glorying.
Paul takes pride in his ministry, not to his own praise but to the praise of
God. Writing to the Romans, he declares, "Inasmuch as I am the apostle of the
Gentiles, I magnify mine office," i.e., I want to be received not as Paul of
Tarsus, but as Paul the apostle and ambassador of Jesus Christ, in order that
people might be more eager to hear. Paul exalts his ministry out of the desire
to make known the name, the grace, and the mercy of God.
VERSE 1. Paul, an apostle, (not of men, etc.)
Paul loses no time in defending himself against the charge that he had thrust
himself into the ministry. He says to the Galatians: "My call may seem
inferior to you. But those who have come to you are either called of men or by
man. My call is the highest possible, for it is by Jesus Christ, and God the
When Paul speaks of those called "by men," I take it he means those whom
neither God nor man sent, but who go wherever they like and speak for
When Paul speaks of those called "by man" I take it he means those who have a
divine call extended to them through other persons. God calls in two ways.
Either He calls ministers through the agency of men, or He calls them directly
as He called the prophets and apostles. Paul declares that the false apostles
were called or sent neither by men, nor by man. The most they could claim is
that they were sent by others. "But as for me I was called neither of men, nor
by man, but directly by Jesus Christ. My call is in every respect like the
call of the apostles. In fact I am an apostle."
Elsewhere Paul draws a sharp distinction between an apostleship and lesser
functions, as in I Corinthians 12:28: "And God hath set some in the church;
first, apostles; secondarily, prophets; thirdly, teachers." He mentions the
apostles first because they were appointed directly by God.
Matthias was called in this manner. The apostles chose two candidates and then
cast lots, praying that God would indicate which one He would have. To be an
apostle he had to have his appointment from God. In the same manner Paul was
called as the apostle of the Gentiles.
The call is not to be taken lightly. For a person to possess knowledge is not
enough. He must be sure that he is properly called. Those who operate without
a proper call seek no good purpose. God does not bless their labors. They may
be good preachers, but they do no edify. Many of the fanatics of our day
pronounce words of faith, but they bear no good fruit, because their purpose
is to turn men to their perverse opinions. On the other hand, those who have a
divine call must suffer a good deal of opposition in order that they may
become fortified against the running attacks of the devil and the world.
This is our comfort in the ministry, that ours is a divine office to which we
have been divinely called. Reversely, what an awful thing it must be for the
conscience if one is not properly called. It spoils one's best work. When I
was a young man I thought Paul was making too much of his call. I did not
understand his purpose. I did not then realize the importance of the ministry.
I knew nothing of the doctrine of faith because we were taught sophistry
instead of certainty, and nobody understood spiritual boasting. We exalt our
calling, not to gain glory among men, or money, or satisfaction, or favor, but
because people need to be assured that the words we speak are the words of
God. This is no sinful pride. It is holy pride.
VERSE 1. And God the Father, who raised him from the dead.
Paul is so eager to come to the subject matter of his epistle, the
righteousness of faith in opposition to the righteousness of works, that
already in the title he must speak his mind. He did not think it quite enough
to say that he was an apostle "by Jesus Christ"; he adds, "and God the Father,
who raised him from the dead."
The clause seems superfluous on first sight. Yet Paul had a good reason for
adding it. He had to deal with Satan and his agents who endeavored to deprive
him of the righteousness of Christ, who was raised by God the Father from the
dead. These perverters of the righteousness of Christ resist the Father and
the Son, and the works of them both.
In this whole epistle Paul treats of the resurrection of Christ. By His
resurrection Christ won the victory over law, sin, flesh, world, devil, death,
hell, and every evil. And this His victory He donated unto us. These many
tyrants and enemies of ours may accuse and frighten us, but they dare not
condemn us, for Christ, whom God the Father has raised from the dead is our
righteousness and our victory.
Do you notice how well suited to his purpose Paul writes? He does not say, "By
God who made heaven and earth, who is Lord of the angels," but Paul has in
mind the righteousness of Christ, and speaks to the point, saying, "I am an
apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father,
who raised him from the dead."
VERSE 2. And all the brethren which are with me.
This should go far in shutting the mouths of the false apostles. Paul's
intention is to exalt his own ministry while discrediting theirs. He adds for
good measure the argument that he does not stand alone, but that all the
brethren with him attest to the fact that his doctrine is divinely true.
"Although the brethren with me are not apostles like myself, yet they are all
of one mind with me, think, write, and teach as I do."
VERSE 2. Unto the churches of Galatia.
Paul had preached the Gospel throughout Galatia, founding many churches which
after his departure were invaded by the false apostles. The Anabaptists in our
time imitate the false apostles. They do not go where the enemies of the
Gospel predominate. They go where the Christians are. Why do they not invade
the Catholic provinces and preach their doctrine to godless princes, bishops,
and doctors, as we have done by the help of God? These soft martyrs take no
chances. They go where the Gospel has a hold, so that they may not endanger
their lives. The false apostles would not go to Jerusalem of Caiaphas, or to
the Rome of the Emperor, or to any other place where no man had preached
before as Paul and the other apostles did. But they came to the churches of
Galatia, knowing that where men profess the name of Christ they may feel
It is the lot of God's ministers not only to suffer opposition at the hand of
a wicked world, but also to see the patient indoctrination of many years
quickly undone by such religious fanatics. This hurts more than the
persecution of tyrants. We are treated shabbily on the outside by tyrants, on
the inside by those whom we have restored to the liberty of the Gospel, and
also by false brethren. But this is our comfort and our glory, that being
called of God we have the promise of everlasting life. We look for that reward
which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart
Jerome raises the question why Paul called them churches that were no
churches, inasmuch as the Galatians had forsaken the grace of Christ for the
law of Moses. The proper answer is: Although the Galatians had fallen away
from the doctrine of Paul, baptism, the Gospel, and the name of Christ
continued among them. Not all the Galatians had become perverted. There were
some who clung to the right view of the Word and the Sacraments. These means
cannot be contaminated. They remain divine regardless of men's opinion.
Wherever the means of grace are found, there is the Holy Church, even though
Antichrist reigns there. So much for the title of the epistle. Now follows the
greeting of the apostle.
VERSE 3. Grace be to you, and peace, from God the Father, and from our
Lord Jesus Christ.
The terms of grace and peace are common terms with Paul and are now pretty
well understood. But since we are explaining this epistle, you will not mind
if we repeat what we have so often explained elsewhere. The article of
justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of
our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it
with all our heart.
The greeting of the Apostle is refreshing. Grace remits sin, and peace quiets
the conscience. Sin and conscience torment us, but Christ has overcome these
fiends now and forever. Only Christians possess this victorious knowledge
given from above. These two terms, grace and peace, constitute Christianity.
Grace involves the remission of sins, peace, and a happy conscience. Sin is
not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law.
The Law reveals guilt, fills the conscience with terror, and drives men to
despair. Much less is sin taken away by man-invented endeavors. The fact is,
the more a person seeks credit for himself by his own efforts, the deeper he
goes into debt. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God. In actual
living, however, it is not so easy to persuade oneself that by grace alone, in
opposition to every other means, we obtain the forgiveness of our sins and
peace with God.
The world brands this a pernicious doctrine. The world advances free will, the
rational and natural approach of good works, as the means of obtaining the
forgiveness of sin. But it is impossible to gain peace of conscience by the
methods and means of the world. Experience proves this. Various holy orders
have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through
religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only
increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones unless we
cling to the word of grace.
The Apostle does not wish the Galatians grace and peace from the emperor, or
from kings, or from governors, but from God the Father. He wishes them
heavenly peace, the kind of which Jesus spoke when He said, "Peace I leave
unto you: my peace I give unto you." Worldly peace provides quiet enjoyment of
life and possessions. But in affliction, particularly in the hour of death,
the grace and peace of the world will not deliver us. However, the grace and
peace of God will. They make a person strong and courageous to bear and to
overcome all difficulties, even death itself, because we have the victory of
Christ's death and the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins.
Men Should Not Speculate About the Nature of God
The Apostle adds to the salutation the words, "and from our Lord Jesus
Christ." Was it not enough to say, "from God the Father"?
It is a principle of the Bible that we are not to inquire curiously into the
nature of God. "There shall no man see me, and live," Exodus 33:20. All who
trust in their own merits to save them disregard this principle and lose sight
of the Mediator, Jesus Christ.
True Christian theology does not inquire into the nature of God, but into
God's purpose and will in Christ, whom God incorporated in our flesh to live
and to die for our sins. There is nothing more dangerous than to speculate
about the incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty of God when the
conscience is in turmoil over sin. To do so is to lose God altogether because
God becomes intolerable when we seek to measure and to comprehend His infinite
We are to seek God as Paul tells us in I Corinthians 1:23, 24: "We preach
Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks
foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the
power of God, and the wisdom of God." Begin with Christ. He came down to
earth, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and then He died, standing
clearly before us, so that our hearts and eyes may fasten upon Him. Thus we
shall be kept from climbing into heaven in a curious and futile search after
the nature of God.
If you ask how God may be found, who justifies sinners, know that there is no
other God besides this man Christ Jesus. Embrace Him, and forget about the
nature of God. But these fanatics who exclude our Mediator in their dealings
with God, do not believe me. Did not Christ Himself say: "I am the way, and
the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me"? Without
Christ there is no access to the Father, but futile rambling; no truth, but
hypocrisy; no life, but eternal death.
When you argue about the nature of God apart from the question of
justification, you may be as profound as you like. But when you deal with
conscience and with righteousness over against the law, sin, death, and the
devil, you must close your mind to all inquiries into the nature of God, and
concentrate upon Jesus Christ, who says, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and
are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Doing this, you will recognize the
power, and majesty condescending to your condition according to Paul's
statement to the Colossians, "In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom
and knowledge," and, "In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily."
Paul in wishing grace and peace not alone from God the Father, but also from
Jesus Christ, wants to warn us against the curious incursions into the nature
of God. We are to hear Christ, who has been appointed by the Father as our
Christ is God by Nature
At the same time, Paul confirms our creed, "that Christ is very God." We need
such frequent confirmation of our faith, for Satan will not fail to attack it.
He hates our faith. He knows that it is the victory which overcometh him and
the world. That Christ is very God is apparent in that Paul ascribes to Him
divine powers equally with the Father, as for instance, the power to dispense
grace and peace. This Jesus could not do unless He were God.
To bestow peace and grace lies in the province of God, who alone can create
these blessings. The angels cannot. The apostles could only distribute these
blessings by the preaching of the Gospel. In attributing to Christ the divine
power of creating and giving grace, peace, everlasting life, righteousness,
and forgiveness of sins, the conclusion is inevitable that Christ is truly
God. Similarly, St. John concludes from the works attributed to the Father and
the Son that they are divinely One. Hence, the gifts which we receive from the
Father and from the Son are one and the same. Otherwise Paul should have
written: "Grace from God the Father, and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ." In
combining them he ascribes them equally to the Father and the Son. I stress
this on account of the many errors emanating from the sects.
The Arians were sharp fellows. Admitting that Christ had two natures, and that
He is called "very God of very God," they were yet able to deny His divinity.
The Arians took Christ for a noble and perfect creature, superior even to the
angels, because by Him God created heaven and earth. Mohammed also speaks
highly of Christ. But all their praise is mere palaver to deceive men. Paul's
language is different. To paraphrase him: "You are established in this belief
that Christ is very God because He gives grace and peace, gifts which only God
can create and bestow."
VERSE 4. Who gave himself for our sins.
Paul sticks to his theme. He never loses sight of the purpose of his epistle.
He does not say, "Who received our works," but "who gave." Gave what? Not
gold, or silver, or paschal lambs, or an angel, but Himself. What for? Not for
a crown, or a kingdom, or our goodness, but for our sins. These words are like
so many thunderclaps of protest from heaven against every kind and type of
self-merit. Underscore these words, for they are full of comfort for sore
How may we obtain remission of our sins? Paul answers: "The man who is
named Jesus Christ and the Son of God gave himself for our sins." The heavy
artillery of these words explodes papacy, works, merits, superstitions. For if
our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son
of God to be given for them? Since Christ was given for our sins it stands to
reason that they cannot be put away by our own efforts.
This sentence also defines our sins as great, so great, in fact, that the
whole world could not make amends for a single sin. The greatness of the
ransom, Christ, the Son of God, indicates this. The vicious character of sin
is brought out by the words "who gave himself for our sins." So vicious is sin
that only the sacrifice of Christ could atone for sin. When we reflect that
the one little word "sin" embraces the whole kingdom of Satan, and that it
includes everything that is horrible, we have reason to tremble. But we are
careless. We make light of sin. We think that by some little work or merit we
can dismiss sin.
This passage, then, bears out the fact that all men are sold under sin. Sin is
an exacting despot who can be vanquished by no created power, but by the
sovereign power of Jesus Christ alone.
All this is of wonderful comfort to a conscience troubled by the enormity of
sin. Sin cannot harm those who believe in Christ, because He has overcome sin
by His death. Armed with this conviction, we are enlightened and may pass
judgment upon the papists, monks, nuns, priests, Mohammedans, Anabaptists, and
all who trust in their own merits, as wicked and destructive sects that rob
God and Christ of the honor that belongs to them alone.
Note especially the pronoun "our" and its significance. You will readily grant
that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were
worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ
gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the
pronoun "our," and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have
made ourselves worthy by good deeds.
This attitude springs from a false conception of sin, the conception that sin
is a small matter, easily taken care of by good works; that we must present
ourselves unto God with a good conscience; that we must feel no sin before we
may feel that Christ was given for our sins.
This attitude is universal and particularly developed in those who consider
themselves better than others. Such readily confess that they are frequent
sinners, but they regard their sins as of no such importance that they cannot
easily be dissolved by some good action, or that they may not appear before
the tribunal of Christ and demand the reward of eternal life for their
righteousness. Meantime they pretend great humility and acknowledge a certain
degree of sinfulness for which they soulfully join in the publican's prayer,
"God be merciful to me a sinner." But the real significance and comfort of the
words "for our sins" is lost upon them.
The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul "who gave himself for our
sins" as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as
insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so
terrible that we must despair. Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for
picayune and imaginary transgressions, but for mountainous sins; not for one
or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are
Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in
the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with
confidence: "Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for
sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot
delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not
imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt,
despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse
of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table,
dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another's
possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft,
and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and
therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God.
"Because my transgressions are multiplied and my own efforts at
self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, therefore Christ the
Son of God gave Himself into death for my sins." To believe this is to have
Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar
passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, "Thou shalt be damned," you tell him:
"No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being
a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding
me of God's fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He
gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,
but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort
me above measure." With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil's craft
and put from us the memory of sin.
St. Paul also presents a true picture of Christ as the virgin-born Son of God,
delivered into death for our sins. To entertain a true conception of Christ is
important, for the devil describes Christ as an exacting and cruel judge who
condemns and punishes men. Tell him that his definition of Christ is wrong,
that Christ has given Himself for our sins, that by His sacrifice He has taken
away the sins of the whole world.
Make ample use of this pronoun "our." Be assured that Christ has canceled the
sins, not of certain persons only, but your sins. Do not permit yourself to be
robbed of this lovely conception of Christ. Christ is no Moses, no law-giver,
no tyrant, but the Mediator for sins, the Giver of grace and life.
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