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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Martin Luther: "Preach the Gospel to Yourself" (from his commentary on Galatians 1:1-4)

"Preach the gospel to yourself" has become a beloved and meaningful maxim to many believers, while others are concerned that it has been overused and often misused.  I recently listened to a Q&A with a famous pastor where he was critical of the saying, but then backtracked a bit and qualified his comments when the interviewer said, "But there's some truth to it, right?"

There definitely is truth to it, because it's from the Bible.  The apostle Paul basically says the same thing in different words in Romans 6:11:  "Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus."  And there are many other passages that encourage us to remind ourselves of gospel truth, whether by command or example.

The problem is sometimes people use it more like a meaningless mantra than a meaning-filled maxim, as if just reciting gospel truth or encouraging others to do it is a means of grace all by itself.  And even when the the truth is clearly grasped and sincerely believed, "preach the gospel to yourself" can lead to an imbalance when only part of the gospel is being rehearsed.  The "good news" of the gospel includes the message of deliverance from the power and presence of sin as well as the penalty of sin, but sometimes "preach the gospel to yourself" only means the latter.  In other words, sometimes people are only looking to the truths of faith and justification to help them with the problems they face, while neglecting the biblical teachings about repentance and sanctification that are also necessary for true change.

But as long as the truth of free justification is understood in the context of the holistic biblical teaching about the gospel, it is often the message we need to hear the most, from others and within our own hearts.  And that brings me to Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, which I just started reading again for the first time since it changed my life almost 20 years ago (along with some friends who have agreed to go through it with me, and will hopefully participate here by posting their comments).

Luther's Commentary on Galatians was his favorite work.  It was the first book he wrote after he was tried at the Diet of Worms and then locked up in Wartburg Castle by his friend Prince Frederick to keep him from being killed by the agents of the Pope.  Luther always "spoke in thunderbolts," as Charles Spurgeon said about him, and the ordeal that the Reformer had just experienced plus the relevance of the content of Galatians caused his electric words to be even more super-charged than usual.

Speaking of favorites, by the way, Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan said, "I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all books that I have ever seen for a wounded conscience."  Regarding his own experience with Luther’s commentary on Galatians, Bunyan wrote, "The God in whose hands are all our days and ways one day brought into my possession a book by Martin Luther.  It was his commentary on Galatians.  It was so old that, if I so much as turned it over, it was ready to fall to pieces.  I was so pleased that such an old book had fallen into my hands that when, just a few pages into it, I found my condition so comprehensively described by Luther’s experience, it was as if his book had been written from my own heart."

Notice that Bunyan doesn't say it's the best book ever, much less that it's the only book we need for the myriad of challenges we face as Christians.  But as far as it goes, Luther's commentary is a major shot in the arm for those who are plagued by any form of works righteousness and need a big dose of free grace and justification by faith alone.  And toward that end, it goes very far indeed.

Here are some excerpts from Luther's comments on Galatians 1:1-4...

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.

We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace....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.

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 consciences. 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.

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 stubbornly ingrained. 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 eternal life. 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.

So there you have it....Luther telling us to preach the gospel to ourselves (and even to the Devil, when we need to resist him!).  May you be blessed as I was by what he wrote, and perhaps you would like to join me as I read through this wonderful commentary during my personal time with the Lord over the next few months.  You can share your insights, questions, and favorite quotes in the comments section of the posts, and maybe the Lord will allow this to develop into a kind of "study group" where we can be a blessing to one another.

My favorite version of the commentary is this one, but since it's not available on Kindle I got a digital copy of this one because I like to read in my bed at night or right after I wake up in the morning.  The latter is the source of my quotes.

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