As Paul continues his defense of justification by faith alone in the book of Galatians, and Luther continues his commentary on it, they make their case based on two powerful illustrations.
The first one is the experience that the Galatian believers had when they first received the Holy Spirit, along with the miraculous signs that accompanied His work in their lives. Paul says in verses 1-5, "You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you...? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?... So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" Apparently what happened to the Galatians when they received the Spirit was very similar to the experience of Cornelius's household, which is recorded in Acts 10:44-48.
Luther mentions the connection when he is paraphrasing Paul's message to the Galatians:
In your own case, you have not only learned the Law by heart, you have labored with all your might to perform it. You most of all should have received the Holy Ghost by the Law, if that were possible. You cannot show me that this ever happened. But as soon as the Gospel came your way, you received the Holy Ghost by the simple hearing of faith, before you ever had a chance to do a single good deed." Luke verifies this statement of Paul in the Book of Acts: "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." (Acts 10:44.) "And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning." (Acts 11:15.)
How was it with Cornelius? Cornelius and his friends whom he had invited over to his house, do nothing but sit and listen. Peter is doing the talking. They just sit and do nothing. The Law is far removed from their thoughts. They burn no sacrifices. They are not at all interested in circumcision. All they do is to sit and listen to Peter. Suddenly the Holy Ghost enters their hearts. His presence is unmistakable, "for they spoke with tongues and magnified God."
Not only did the Galatians (and the first Gentile believers before them) receive the Holy Spirit while they were doing nothing to contribute to that great blessing, but Paul goes on to give a second example, which is Abraham, the father of all the faithful. He says in verses 6-9, "Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations will be blessed in you.' So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer."
I have often noticed and remarked on the fact that when Abraham was justified (declared righteous before God), he was doing nothing, and he did nothing to receive that greatest of all blessings. God simply told him to look at the stars and then promised to make his descendants that numerous, etc. "Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Abraham didn't do anything good; he didn't even say a prayer; he was simply and passively trusting in the promises of God. Of course he did good things later, like being willing to sacrifice Isaac, which proved his faith to be genuine and confirmed his justification. But when he first received it, he was "doing nothing."
There are a number of practical implications for us from these examples, but before I mention some others, I want to let the great Reformer speak to the most important one, which is how we can be assured of our justification, adoption, and future glorification in heaven...
We must learn that forgiveness of sins, Christ, and the Holy Ghost, are freely granted unto us at the preaching of faith, in spite of our sinfulness. We are not to waste time thinking how unworthy we are of the blessings of God. We are to know that it pleased God freely to give us His unspeakable gifts. If He offers His gifts free of charge, why not take them? Why worry about our lack of worthiness? Why not accept gifts with joy and thanksgiving?
What did Jesus say to Martha when she was very "careful and troubled about many things" and could hardly stand to see her sister Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just listening? "Martha, Martha," Jesus said, "thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." A person becomes a Christian not by working, but by hearing. The first step to being a Christian is to hear the Gospel. When a person has accepted the Gospel, let him first give thanks unto God with a glad heart, and then let him get busy on the good works to strive for, works that really please God, and not man-made and self-chosen works.
Learn to understand the constitution of your Christian righteousness. Faith is weak, but it means enough to God that He will not lay sin to our charge. He will not punish nor condemn us for it. He will forgive our sins as though they amount to nothing at all. He will do it not because we are worthy of such mercy. He will do it for Jesus' sake in whom we believe.
We comfort the afflicted sinner in this manner: Brother, you can never be perfect in this life, but you can be holy. He will say: "How can I be holy when I feel my sins?" I answer: You feel sin? That is a good sign. To realize that one is ill is a step, and a very necessary step, toward recovery. "But how will I get rid of my sin?" he will ask. I answer: See the heavenly Physician, Christ, who heals the broken-hearted.
A Christian is beloved of God and a sinner. How can these two contradictions be harmonized: I am a sinner and deserve God's wrath and punishment, and yet the Father loves me? Christ alone can harmonize these contradictions. He is the Mediator.
That is by far the most important application of this passage to our lives, but I thought of a few others that I will add here, as food for thought...
1) The fact that justification and the gift of the Holy Spirit were bestowed on people who were "doing nothing" supports the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation. Just like Jonah was brought to the end of himself and cried out "Salvation is of the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9), so we must realize that we make no contribution to ours--rather it is all of grace. Even faith itself is not meritorious in any sense, but is part of the free gift that salvation is repeatedly said to be (John 6:65, Eph. 2:8-9, Phil. 1:29). In fact, it seems that in Paul's writings especially, justification by faith and not by works is a kind of shorthand for "you didn't do anything to earn it, or even initiate it."
2) This also sheds light on the role of our decisions and responses in conversion. Often people think that God responds to an act of our will when he saves us (we say "accept Jesus in your heart" or "make a decision for Christ"), or that "the sinner's prayer" or similar physical responses (walking an aisle, getting baptized, etc.) somehow cause God to grant us forgiveness. But someone who truly believes has already been saved by God before they make sincere confession or repentance or any other commitment to Christ. It is good to encourage people to confess Christ as Lord, be baptized, join a church, etc...those responses to God's grace are in the Bible. But we must always make sure they don't think they are somehow earning God's favor or otherwise cutting a deal with him. (For more about this, see my posts about evangelism here and here.)
3) Finally, the Galatians must have received the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit spontaneously and unexpectedly, while they were "doing nothing," because the point of the passage doesn't make sense any other way. That calls into question a lot of the so-called miraculous experiences that are claimed today, because people often have to be taught or otherwise prepared to receive them. Take speaking in tongues, for example, since that was probably a part of the Galatians' Holy Spirit experience: In most cases today, that gift doesn't just come upon people as they are listening to the gospel proclaimed--they have to be coached, watch others do it, or at least hear about it before they start practicing it. Not to mention the many other issues like the biblical gift being real human languages, the historical purpose of the sign to usher in the New Covenant age of the Gentiles, and the absence of the required interpretation in much of its practice today.
More on that some other time perhaps. But for now, join me in thanking God that his grace is so great and free that we can actually be blessed for doing nothing!