Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a remarkable work in which he defends the fact that the Christian is justified by faith in Christ and not through works of the Law (2:16). Through a variety of arguments Paul tells the Gentiles in Galatia that their inclusion in God’s people is already a fact through faith in Jesus Christ. As the baptized they are in Christ, and so they already are sons of God (3:26-27). There is nothing that needs to be added to this.
In a rousing conclusion to this entire line of thought Paul writes, “For freedom (τῇ ἐλευθερίᾳ) Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1 ESV). There are two ways that stand before the Galatians. Either they can continue their life in Christ through faith, or they can go the route of works. Paul has already said that the law cannot bring salvation, because no one can do the law perfectly (Gal 3:10). Now Paul says that if anyone wants to head down the path of law by being circumcised, they will have to do the whole law- all of the Torah (Gal 5:3). As the apostle has already indicated, such a move will have disastrous consequences. He writes: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4 ESV).
Yet after arguing for more than five chapters that Christians are free from the law, in 5:13 Paul makes an unexpected rhetorical pivot that plays off of 5:1. He states, “For you were called to freedom (ἐπ’ ἐλευθερίᾳ), brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13 ESV). Paul has said that faith works through love (5:6; πίστις δι’ ἀγάπης ἐνεργουμένη). He has said that Christians are not justified by works of the law. Yet now he also says that this love worked by faith and directed toward the neighbor fulfills what the law is all about: “For the whole law is fulfilled (πεπλήρωται) in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14 ESV; cf. Rom 13:8-10).
The apostle then launches into a description of how the Christian life is lived in the tension of the struggle between the Spirit and the fallen, sinful flesh (5:16-26). He tells the Galatians, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε) (5:16 ESV). He describes the works of the flesh that prevent a person from inheriting the kingdom of God (5:19-21) and sets this in opposition to the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). The shift from a discussion focused on freedom from the law to one that exhorts Christians not to use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but instead to serve in love is impossible to overlook.
Galatians was, of course, a tremendously important work for Martin Luther. He described it as his Katie von Bora. Luther lectured on the book for a second time in 1535 (the first lectures were in 1519). The Galatians lectures are considered classic statements of the teaching that we are justified by grace on account of Christ through faith. Luther lays out the fact that the law cannot give salvation, and describes the law’s role in convicting us of sin and leading us to repentance – the classic movement from Law to Gospel.
However, because the 1535 lectures on Galatians are such a classic statement of Lutheran teaching, they also provide a helpful test case. There is no need to demonstrate that the law is not a means of salvation and instead convicts sinners. There is no need to demonstrate that the Gospel is running the show in these lectures. What is surprising – and I would say revealing – is the way Luther speaks when he arrives at 5:13 and the verses that follow. There in commenting on the section that begins at 5:14 he writes:
Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith. For Satan is enraged by both and bitterly resists them. Nevertheless, faith must be implanted first; for without it one cannot understand what a good work is and what is pleasing to God (LW 27:53; emphasis added).Everything that has been said thus far in the commentary indicates that the Gospel must predominate. And yet Luther dares to say, “Therefore it is as necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith.”
Luther then goes on to say:
Therefore the apostle admonishes Christians seriously, after they have heard and accepted the pure doctrine about faith, to practice genuine works as well. For in the justified there remain remnants of sin, which deter and dissuade them both from faith and from truly good works. In addition, the human reason and flesh, which resists the Spirit in the saints (in the wicked, of course, it has dominant control), is naturally afflicted with Pharisaic superstitions and, as Ps. 4:2 says ‘loves vain words and seeks after lies’; that is, it would prefer to measure God by its own theories rather than by His word and is far more ardent about doing works that it itself has chosen than about doing those that God commands. This is why faithful preachers must exert themselves as much in urging a love that is unfeigned or in urging truly good works as in teaching true faith (LW 27:54; emphasis added).One can perhaps soften these statements somewhat by regarding them as hyperbole, but that does not change the fact that Luther is talking in a vigorous way about the need to urge good works. For Lutherans trained by twentieth century interpretations of the law and its function, the question that arises is: “What’s wrong with Luther here?” In our present setting, the immediate reaction that is given to any statement that sounds remotely like what Luther has written is: "The law always accuses." We are told that preaching in this way steals what the Gospel has given, and ultimately is in opposition to the Gospel. And yet this doesn’t seem to bother Luther at all. Instead he sets a robust admonishment to good works side by side with teaching about faith.