by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



There has been a certain amount of controversy over how the Epistle to the Galatians became the book that launched Martin Luther into a reformation in order to bring out the truth that those we become right with God, do so by faith, not by works. The fact that it took so long for this to happen is at the center of this debate. The Roman church in Europe during the Middle Ages offers one explanation:

The Bible was on scrolls and parchments during the early centuries of Christianity. No one possessed an individual “Bible”. In the Middle Ages, each Bible was copied by hand. Most people were, at best, only functionally literate. That is partially why they used stained glass windows and art to tell the Bible story. The printing press was not invented until 1436 by Johann Gutenberg.

So prior to 1436, the idea of everybody having a Bible was out of the question, even if they could read. It’s hard to imagine a world without photocopiers, printing presses, email, and websites. After the invention of the printing press, prior to Luther’s Bible being published in German, there were over 20 versions of the whole Bible translated into the various German dialects (High and Low) by Catholics. Similarly, there were several vernacular versions of the Bible published in other languages both before and after the Reformation. The Church did condemn certain vernacular translations because of what it felt were bad translations and anti-Catholic notes.

This is certainly understandable and logical. But there is another side to this story. It is on record that at the Council of Toulouse (1229 AD), a decree was issued that said: “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament, but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.

This was followed by the Council of Tarragona (1234 AD) in with the following Ruling was made: “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments in the Romance language, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over to the local bishop within eight days after promulgation of this decree, so that they may be burned…

Then at the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1415 AD), a Proclamation was published: “Oxford professor, and theologian John Wycliffe, was the first (1380 AD) to translate the New Testament into English to “…help Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s wording.” For this “heresy” Wycliffe was posthumously condemned by Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury. By the Council’s decree “Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and publicly burned and the ashes were thrown into the Swift River.

And this led to a similar fate for William Tyndale (1536 AD), who was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. According to Tyndale, the Church forbid owning or reading the Bible to control and restrict the teachings and to enhance their own power and importance.

All of this is provided here, not to point fingers at anyone nor make unnecessary accusations, but to give a backdrop the Martin Luther’s emergence from such a state of secrecy that held the truth to what true salvation was by faith. To that end, I encourage you to read the preface to his commentary on Galatians published in 1539 AD.

Martin Luther’s Preface to Galatians (Excerpt)

First of all, we speak of the argument of this epistle: in it, Paul is seeking to establish the doctrine of faith, grace, the forgiveness of sins, or Christian righteousness in order that we may know the difference between Christian righteousness and all other kinds of righteousness. There are many other kinds of righteousness. There is civil or political righteousness, which kings, princes of the world, magistrates and lawyers deal with. There is also ceremonial righteousness, which the traditions of men teach. Besides these, there is another righteousness, called the righteousness of the law, or the Ten Commandments.

Above all these, there is yet another righteousness: the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, which we must diligently discern from the others. The others are quite contrary to this righteousness, both because they flow out of the laws of kings and rulers, religious traditions, and the commandments of God; and because they consist in our works, and may be worked by us either in our natural strength, or else by the gift of God. These kind of righteousness are also the gift of God, like all other good things which we enjoy.

But the most excellent righteousness of faith, which God through the Anointed One, without any works, imputes to us, is neither political, nor ceremonial, nor the righteousness of God’s Law, nor consists of works, but is contrary to these; that is to say, it is a mere passive righteousness, as the others are active. For in the righteousness of faith, we work nothing, we render nothing to God, but we only receive and allow another to work in us, that is to say, God. This is righteousness hidden in a mystery, which the world does not know. Indeed, Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it, and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore, it must be diligently taught and continually practiced.

The troubled conscience, in view of God’s judgment, has no remedy against desperation and eternal death, unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by free grace, freely offered in the Anointed One Jesus, which if it can apprehend, it may then be at rest. Then I can boldly say: I seek not active or working righteousness, for if I had it, I could not trust it, neither dare I make it a barrier against the judgment of God. Then I abandon myself from all active righteousness, both of my own and of God’s law, and embrace only that passive righteousness, which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins. I rest only upon that righteousness, which is the righteousness of the Anointed One and the Holy Spirit. The highest wisdom of Christians is not to know the law and be ignorant of works, especially when the conscience is wrestling with God. But among those who are not God’s people, the greatest wisdom is to know the law and is assuredly persuaded in his heart there is now no law, nor wrath of God, but only grace and mercy for the Anointed One’s sake, he cannot be saved; for by the law comes the knowledge of sin. Conversely, works and the keeping of the law is strictly required in the world, as if there were no promise or grace.

A wise and faithful practitioner of the Word of God must so moderate the law that it may be kept within its bounds. He that teaches that men are justified before God by the observation of the law, passes the bounds of the law and confounds these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive. Conversely, he presents the law and works to the old self, and the promise and forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy to the new self divides the Word well. For the flesh or the old self must be coupled with the law and works; the spirit or the new self must be joined with the promise of God and His mercy.

When I see a person oppressed with the law, terrified with sin, and thirsting for comfort, it is time that I remove out of their sight the law and active righteousness, and set before them the gospel, the Christian or passive righteousness, which offers the promise made in the Anointed One, who came for afflicted and sinners.

We teach the difference between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, to the end that manners and faith, works and grace, political and religious, should not be confounded, or taken the one for the other. Both are necessary, but each must be kept within its bounds: Christian righteousness pertains to the new self, and the righteousness of the law pertains to the old self, which is born of flesh and blood. Upon this old self, as upon a donkey, there must be laid a burden that may press self down, and they must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit of grace, except they first put upon self the new self, by faith in the Anointed One. Then may they enjoy the kingdom and inestimable gift of grace. This I say so that no man should think we reject or forbid good works.

We imagine two worlds, the one heavenly, the other earthly. In these, we place these two kinds of righteousness, the one far different from the other. The righteousness of the law is earthly and deals with earthly things. But Christian righteousness is heavenly, which we have not of ourselves, but receive from heaven; we work not for it, but by grace, it is worked in us and is realized by faith.

Do we then do nothing? Do we do nothing at all for the obtaining of this righteousness? I answer, Nothing at all! For this is perfect righteousness, to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing of the law, or of works, but to know and believe this only, that the Anointed One is gone to the Father, and is not now seen; that He sits in heaven at the right hand of His Father, not as a judge, but made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption — briefly, that He is our high priest entreating for us, and reigning over us, and in us, by grace. In this heavenly righteousness, sin can have no place, for there is no law; and where there is no law, there can be no transgression.1 Seeing then that here sin has no place, there can be no anguish of conscience, no fear, no heaviness. Therefore, John says: “He that is born of God cannot sin.”2

But if there is any fear or grief of conscience, it is a token that this righteousness is withdrawn, that grace is hidden, and that the Anointed One is hidden out of sight. But where the Anointed One is truly seen, there must be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with peace of conscience, which thinks this way: Although I am a sinner by the law and under condemnation of the law, yet I do not despair, yet I do not die, because the Anointed One lives, who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life. In that righteousness and life, I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no care of death. I am indeed a sinner as applied to this present life, and its righteousness, as a child of Adam. But I have another righteousness and life eternal; by whom this my body, being dead and brought to dust, shall be raised up again, and delivered from the bondage of the law and sin, and shall be sanctified together with my spirit.

So both these continue while we live here. The flesh is accused, exercised with temptations, oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by the active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigns, rejoices, and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness, because it knows that it has a Lord in Heaven, at the right hand of His Father, who abolished the law, sin, death, and has trodden under His feet all evils, led them captive, and triumphed over them in Himself3.4

Martin Luther

1 Romans 4:15

1 John 5:18

3 Colossians 2:15

Redacted by RRS to modernize the vocabulary

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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