Reading the Bible with Dead Guys: Martin Luther on Galatians 3:2

This article is part of the Reading the Bible with Dead Guys series.

Reading the Bible With Dead Guys is a weekly blog series giving you the chance to read God’s Word alongside some great theologians from church history. With content adapted from the Crossway Classic Commentaries series, these posts feature reflections on Scripture by giants of the faith like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and more.

Today we’ll hear from Martin Luther (1483-1546) on Galatians 3:2.

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” - Galatians 3:2

“If I had nothing against you but your own experience,” says Paul indignantly in essence, “that is still enough. Tell me—I am your pupil, for you have become teachers all of a sudden—did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law or by hearing the Gospel preached?” With this argument he convinces them that they have nothing more to say in reply. Their own experience is altogether against them; namely, they had received the Holy Spirit not through observing the law, but through believing the
Gospel they had heard preached.

Here again I warn you that Paul is not just speaking about the ceremonial law but about the whole law. He bases his argument on the contrast between receiving the Holy Spirit by the law or by believing. If it is by the law, then it is not by believing what is preached. There is no middle way between the two.

Everything that is not the Holy Spirit, or believing what is preached, is the law.

Everything that is not the Holy Spirit, or believing what is preached, is the law.

To be justified, there is no other way except either the voice of the Gospel or the voice of the law. Therefore, the law here is to be taken generally, as wholly separate from the Gospel. But it is not the ceremonial law that is separate from the Gospel, but also the moral law or the law of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, Paul here is speaking about the whole law.

“Tell me,” he says, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? You cannot say that this was done by the law, for while you were under the law and observed it, you never received the Holy Spirit...But as soon as you heard the Gospel and believed, you received the Holy Spirit, before you had done anything or showed any fruit of the Gospel.”

As Luke witnesses in Acts 10:44-46, Peter and Paul had only to preach and the Holy Spirit came upon those who heard their message, and through him they also received various gifts, so that they spoke in tongues.

Therefore, it is not only hearing the law but the zeal with which you try to obey it in your actions that is in vain. Even if people try to do everything— being zealous for God, and trying their best to be saved by the law, and exercising themselves day and night in this righteousness—they still are working and spending themselves in vain.

Those who are ignorant of the righteousness of God and seek to establish their own (as Paul says in Romans 10:3) are not submitting themselves to the righteousness of God. Again: “Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it” (Romans 9:31). Paul is speaking here in Galatians about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the early church.


Martin Luther

Luther's commentary on Galatians is considered among the finest of all time. Abridged and stylistically adapted for today's readers his astounding work is part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries.

The Holy Spirit came down in a clear form on those who believed and by this sign showed that he was present when the apostles preached and that those who believed the message preached by the apostles were accepted as righteous before God. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit would not have come down on them.

When those who were zealous for the law wondered how it could be that the uncircumcised Gentiles, who did not observe the law, could be justified and receive the Holy Spirit, Paul and Barnabas pointed simply to plain experience; the others were confounded by this and had nothing more to say. Thus Paulus Sergius, the lieutenant, believed when he heard the message preached, without observing the law, as did also those in the cities, regions, kingdoms, and countries where the apostles had preached.

To say that the Gentiles are justified by faith is nothing but to say that those who do not observe the law, who are not circumcised, who do not sacrifice, and so on are justified and receive the Holy Spirit. How? Not by observing the law but freely and without any other means but by hearing the Gospel.

This article was adapted from Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries series edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer.

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