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Friday, September 29, 2017

Martin Luther, 16th Century Cessationist (from his commentary on Galatians 4:6)

I already covered the larger passage and its overall meaning (Gal. 4:1-7) in my last post, but I didn't have room there to reproduce an interesting and edifying section of Luther's comments, in which he spends several pages providing his readers with a doctrinal and practical "primer" on pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit). So I want to do it here.

The title above is an attention-getting wink at those who know about the theological controversy between "cessationists" and "continuationists," and is intended to highlight the fact that contrary to what some people think, the idea that the "sign gifts" ceased is not a result of modern rationalism influencing the 19th Century Princeton theologians like B. B. Warfield, nor is it a product of the dispensationalism that emerged in the same era. Luther was neither, of course, yet he believed in "cessationism" in the sense that the work of the Holy Spirit is in some ways different today than it was during the First Century transition to the New Covenant, and before the completion of the biblical canon.

Luther explains that at the beginning of the section I'll reproduce below, and I happen to agree with him (see chapters 2 and 3 of my book Decisions, Decisions and this blog post). But though I find those comments of his interesting, I'm much more excited about the rest of his "primer" on the Holy Spirit's work. One reason is that it shows, also contrary to what some think, that cessationists can have a very robust theology of the Holy Spirit, and a wonderful, life-changing experience of his work. We are not "ignoring the Spirit," as we have often been accused of. We just focus on the amazing supernatural works of biblical inspiration, illumination, and application, as well as regeneration and sanctification, through which the Spirit brings to us the glorious blessings of faith and assurance.

But the biggest reason I'm excited to share the bulk of Luther's comments on the work of the Spirit is that my heart was so encouraged by them, and they're something that even my continuationist friends can agree with and rejoice in. I do hope you all will be blessed by reading Luther's comments, such as these on the part of Galatians 4:6 that says, "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts"...

In the early Church the Holy Spirit was sent forth in visible form. He descended upon Christ in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), and in the likeness of fire upon the apostles and other believers. (Acts 2:3.) This visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to the establishment of the early Church, as were also the miracles that accompanied the gift of the Holy Ghost. Paul explained the purpose of these miraculous gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 14:22, "Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not." Once the Church had been established and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the Holy Ghost ceased.

Next, the Holy Ghost is sent forth into the hearts of the believers, as here stated, "God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts." This sending is accomplished by the preaching of the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit inspires us with fervor and light, with new judgment, new desires, and new motives. This happy innovation is not a derivative of reason or personal development, but solely the gift and operation of the Holy Ghost. 

This renewal by the Holy Spirit may not be conspicuous to the world, but it is patent to us by our better judgment, our improved speech, and our unashamed confession of Christ. Formerly we did not confess Christ to be our only merit, as we do now in the light of the Gospel. Why, then, should we feel bad if the world looks upon us as ravagers of religion and insurgents against constituted authority? We confess Christ and our conscience approves of it. Then, too, we live in the fear of God. If we sin, we sin not on purpose, but unwittingly, and we are sorry for it. Sin sticks in our flesh, and the flesh gets us into sin even after we have been imbued by the Holy Ghost. Outwardly there is no great difference between a Christian and any honest man. The activities of a Christian are not sensational. He performs his duty according to his vocation. He takes good care of his family, and is kind and helpful to others. Such homely, everyday performances are not much admired. But the setting-up exercises of the monks draw great applause. Holy works, you know. Only the acts of a Christian are truly good and acceptable to God, because they are done in faith, with a cheerful heart, out of gratitude to Christ. 

We ought to have no misgivings about whether the Holy Ghost dwells in us. We are "the temple of the Holy Ghost." (I Cor. 3:16.) When we have a love for the Word of God, and gladly hear, talk, write, and think of Christ, we are to know that this inclination toward Christ is the gift and work of the Holy Ghost. Where you come across contempt for the Word of God, there is the devil. We meet with such contempt for the Word of God mostly among the common people. They act as though the Word of God does not concern them. Wherever you find a love for the Word, thank God for the Holy Spirit who infuses this love into the hearts of men. We never come by this love naturally, neither can it be enforced by laws. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Luther comments on the second part of the verse ("crying, 'Abba! Father!'"), he takes the verse very literally to mean that it is the Holy Spirit himself (rather than us) who cries "Abba! Father!" This once again is an over-literal reading by the great Reformer (see this post for another example), because rather than connecting this passage with Romans 8:26-27 as Luther does, it is better explained by the more parallel passage in Romans 8:15. That verse says "we cry 'Abba! Father!'" by the work of the Spirit in us, and Galatians 4:6 is probably Paul's shorthand version of the same idea. (Plus, Luther's interpretation makes the text read like the Spirit himself has been adopted by God, or at least relates to the Father as his own personal "Daddy," and both of those ideas create problems with our trinitarian doctrine.)

But regardless of Luther's slight subject-verb misallocations in the following quotes, he once again "gets it right" when it comes to the gospel truth of justification by faith alone, and what it means practically for our spiritual struggles with sin, guilt, fear, and unbelief. And notice that in the very last sentence of his comments, he actually gets the pronoun right, despite what he's said before...

The fact that the Spirit of Christ in our hearts cries unto God and makes intercession for us with groanings should reassure us greatly. However, there are many factors that prevent such full reassurance on our part. We are born in sin. To doubt the good will of God is an inborn suspicion of God with all of us. Besides, the devil, our adversary, goeth about seeking to devour us by roaring: "God is angry at you and is going to destroy you forever." In all these difficulties we have only one support, the Gospel of Christ. To hold on to it, that is the trick. Christ cannot be perceived with the senses. We cannot see Him. The heart does not feel His helpful presence. Especially in times of trials a Christian feels the power of sin, the infirmity of his flesh, the goading darts of the devil, the agues of death, the scowl and judgment of God. All these things cry out against us. The Law scolds us, sin screams at us, death thunders at us, the devil roars at us. In the midst of the clamor the Spirit of Christ cries in our hearts: "Abba, Father." And this little cry of the Spirit transcends the hullabaloo of the Law, sin, death, and the devil, and finds a hearing with God. 

The Spirit cries in us because of our weakness. Because of our infirmity the Holy Ghost is sent forth into our hearts to pray for us according to the will of God and to assure us of the grace of God. 

Let the Law, sin, and the devil cry out against us until their outcry fills heaven and earth. The Spirit of God outcries them all. Our feeble groans, "Abba, Father," will be heard of God sooner than the combined racket of hell, sin, and the Law.


  1. Hello Dave. I am a Pastor from Mumbai, India. I am glad to stop by your profile on the blogger and the blog post. I am also blessed and feel privileged and honored to get connected with you as well as know you and about you being a writer and your desire to serve the Lord Jesus and be more like Him. I have thoroughly enjoyed your post on Martin Luther 16th century Cessationist( from his commentary on Gal 4:6). I love getting connected with the people of God around the globe to be encouraged, strengthened and praying for one another. I have been in the Pastoral ministry for last 38 yrs in this great city of Mumbai a city with a great contrast where richest of rich and the poorest of poor live. We reach out to the poorest of poor with the love of Christ to bring healing to the brokenhearted. We also encourage young and the adults from the west to come to Mumbai to work with us during their vacation time. We would love to have your young children come to Mumbai with their friends to work with us during their vacation time. I am sure they will have a life changing experience. Looking forward to hear from you very soon. My email id is: dhwankhede(at) and my name is Diwakar Wankhhede. Looking forward to hear from you very soon. God's richest blessing on you, your family and friends.

    1. Hello Brother, good to hear from you. Please let me know if you have a website or address where I could find out more about your ministry. God bless you!

  2. Dave...I am a very young 57 year old believer who has finally stopped drinking the religious kool-aid and now I am very hungry for truth that sets men free. I am married, 30 long years, to a died in the wool crazomatic and it is so overwhelming to hear what garbage she believes and acts upon. I am clear in my understanding of who and what the holy spirit is and what he is not! I also understand cessation doctrine. I am not in a fellowship of like minded believers because there are so many flavors near me that are all continuing to drink the same tainted water. Do you know of any solid churches near Everett, Washington?
    I am so very hungry for the truth.
    Please reply.
    God bless you.
    Steven P Williams
    Gold Bar, Washington

    1. Hi Steven, see my comment below. I accidentally made a separate one instead of replying to you directly. Thanks for reaching out!

  3. Hi Steven, if I were you I would try Westminster Presbyterian and ask Pastor Fred what other churches in the area have sound doctrine. That way if you prefer something bigger or more contemporary you can try them too. But he'll know which ones have good teaching.