Last week I decided to revisit Martin Luther's Lectures on Galatians. Readers will remember, perhaps, that John Bunyan commends this book most warmly in Grace Abounding: "I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience."
Many, encouraged by Bunyan, have taken up the commentary with eager anticipation, only to be keenly disappointed. One reason for this is that it is scarcely a commentary at all in the modern sense of a detailed verse-by-verse explanation. This is why preachers who go to it in the course of sermon-preparation often find nothing. But this is to mistake its purpose. Luther on Galatians is not a treasure-house of biblical lore, but a passionate and timeless, religious manifesto focusing on a few crucial theological themes. The professional New Testament scholar may find little to interest him. The theologian will find enough to put him off his sleep for weeks.
Another problem is that most readers come across this book only in old, antiquated translations. The Lectures themselves were given in 1535 and the translation used by Bunyan was probably one published in London in 1635. It can still be seen around today and may be the only translation most readers have ever seen. It is still serviceable, but it conveys little of the revolutionary verve of Luther's original. To get a real taste you have to read a modern translation: if possible, that published as Volumes 26 and 27 of Luther's Works by Concordia Publishing House in 1963 (to me, that is modern).
But maybe Bunyan himself gave the real reason for people's disappointment with Luther's Galatians: it was for wounded consciences. That, of course, is where Luther himself was coming from. For him, the question of justification was no mere academic interest. It was, in the long term, a matter of life and death; in the short term, a matter of his personal sanity. He had to have absolute assurance that God loved him and absolute assurance that the Law had nothing to do with him. If it had, he was doomed. The Law killed him. He could stay sane (and sometimes barely managed it) only if God were totally committed to justification by faith alone.
Bunyan could understand all this. That's why he cherished Luther: "I found my condition, in his experience, so largely and profoundly handled, as if his book had been written out of my heart."
I am not sure that the route taken by Luther and Bunyan is the only route to Christ. Some people's spiritual journey begins not with Luther's profound sense of guilt, but with a search for Meaning. They find that in Christ, the Eternal Word, who gives coherence to creation and purpose to history. Others begin with an agonised quest for an assurance that someone is in control of this mad world and find peace, at last, in the vision of the Lamb on the Throne. By beginning with the problem of guilt Luther pushed the Priesthood of Christ into the forefront of Protestant religion. Others whose point of departure is different may first be drawn to him as Prophet or King. We need to be patient with the conversion-process, whether our own or others. It is often confused and hesitant and as Rabbi Duncan used to say, it's not where a man is that matters, but where he's heading.
Yet, no matter where we begin at some point we have to face the fact of our own guilt and the relentless, piercing pain of the question, "How can I be right with God?" This is where Luther's Galatians comes in. It is the greatest exposition of The Gospel for a Wounded Conscience that the world has ever seen.
I'm not going to attempt a balanced review of it here. I want to focus on one remarkable thing: the way that Luther tells us, time and again, how frightened he was of Christ. In one remarkable passage (commenting on Galatians 2:20 and addressing, of course, a young student audience) he compliments the younger generation on their good fortune. They had not had to endure, as he had, the mediaeval portrayals of Jesus. "On this score," he declares, "you younger men are much more fortunate than we older ones. You have not been imbued with these noxious ideas with which I was imbued in boyhood, so that even at the mention of the name of Christ I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that he was a judge."
Does this ring bells? Are there still children who turn pale at the name of Jesus and want to hide under the bed? Is there still preaching that portrays him as a terrifying judge, torturer and inquisitor?
Why did people see Christ like this? Because, Luther argues, human nature is incorrigibly legalistic. It finds it impossible to believe in grace; and one clear symptom of this is that we instinctively think of Jesus as Another Lawgiver. We see Him as another Moses, thundering from His own Sinai, laying down more regulations and telling us how difficult the road to heaven really is.
Here Luther breathes fire (an expression he himself applies to St Paul): "Either Christ must abide, and the Law perish; or the Law must abide, and Christ perish." Jesus did not come to institute laws, but to abolish them. Indeed, the Law and the Gospel must be kept as far apart as heaven and earth. The Gospel is the revelation of the son of God. As such, it cannot possibly "demand works, threaten death, or terrify the conscience."
It follows from this that our hope of justification depends on the Law having nothing to do with us. If you ask Luther, "What Law?" he will reply at once, "All Law! Law in every conceivable shape and form!" One ounce of it is fatal to our peace with God. It is all too easy to expel the Law by one door and bring it in by another. Few Free church people, for example, would imagine for a moment that they could be justified on the ground that they had kept the Ten Commandments. Fewer still would argue that they might be accepted because they'd obeyed all the rules of the Rabbis. But how many lack peace with God because they think there's something wrong with their faith or because they're not happy with the pattern of their conversion or with the manner of their new birth? They may think that is humility. In fact, it is pure self-righteousness: a reminder that deep-down we still believe that we can be accepted by God only on the basis of something within ourselves. It is so difficult to believe that nothing in ourselves or about ourselves matters; that the only thing that matters is what Christ did on the cross of Calvary: "He loved me and gave Himself for me." For Luther, faith meant total certainty on that score. "Who is this me?" he asked. "It is not I who loved the Son of God and gave myself for Him. It is I, an accursed and damned sinner, who was so beloved by the son of God that He gave Himself for me."
But we can preach even justification-by-faith-alone as if it were Law. We can preach it in a threatening, terrifying and condemnatory way, pouring scorn on people's religion, rubbishing their good works and mocking their efforts at self-justification. That is a betrayal of its whole spirit. This doctrine is Good News and its proper form is surely this: "Even though you have no works, even though your faith is weak, even though your conversion seems out of line with others', I have Good News for you. God justifies the ungodly. "The preacher has to follow the soul into every nook and cranny of her despair and tell her, "For you, for precisely someone in your condition, I have Good News. "To her protests that she is a sinner, Luther will speak his immortal simul iustus et peccator: "A Christian is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God."
This fact that Christ is not a new Moses, not a new Lawgiver, has enormous implications for our whole understanding of the Christian life. It means that all attempts to turn Christianity into a system of regulations has to be deplored; and every proposed regulation has to be viewed with the profoundest suspicion. The idea that baptism is valid only if it involves total immersion; that Communion is valid only if the celebrant is properly ordained and properly attired; that Christian worshippers must observe a dress-code; that women must wear hats; that the Christian should torture himself over whether it's right to polish his shoes on Sunday; that the smoker, the drinker or the theatre-goer should be instantly excommunicated: such are some of the regulations alleged to come from the New Moses. The problem is not that any single one of them is wrong (or right), but that they are foreign to the whole mind-set of Jesus. Eating pork doesn't make us wicked. Wearing hats doesn't make us saints.
Under the Old Testament, of course, the church lived under a huge body of regulations. One object of these was to separate Israel from the heathen world around them. This was particularly true of the Food Laws. The very fact that the Jew could eat only what was kosher made it very hard for him to socialise with Gentiles. He couldn't ask them for a meal, for example; nor could he accept an invitation from them.. In this way the Mosaic laws became boundary-markers, separating Israel from her neighbours and erecting a formidable barrier ("a middle wall of partition") between her and the Gentiles.
When Jesus came, he knocked down the barrier; and he did so precisely by abolishing "the law of commandments and ordinances". The Ten Commandments, of course, remained in force, and still do. But the whole mass of Mosaic regulations and rabbinical traditions was swept away. Henceforth, there were to be no dividing-walls between Jews and Gentiles. Far less can there be boundary-markers between one group of Christians and another ("our distinctive principles").
Are there, then, no boundary-markers? Luther does make one remarkable statement in this connection: "Externally there is not much difference between the Christian and another socially upright human being." Can that be true?
What Jesus did, of course, was to abolish obvious, simplistic, outward distinctions. You cannot tell a Christian by what he doesn't eat or doesn't wear or doesn't go to. You cannot tell him from his not wearing jeans; or her from her wearing a hat.
But at the same time, Jesus gave us alternative boundary-markers. They're summarised in the Sermon on the Mount. The Christian eats like the Gentile and dresses like the Gentile. But unlike the Gentile he is poor in spirit, mourns for his sins, is meek, merciful and pure in heart. Unlike the Gentile, he lives for the kingdom of God, turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. He doesn't judge other people; and he doesn't worry.
You can see why it's much more convenient to define ourselves by what we eat and what we put on.
Go and read Luther. It could change your life; and even your church.