Vainglory: Luther on Galatians 5:25-26

In the film, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino’s character (the devil) states: “Vanity is definitely my favorite sin.”  This sin coupled with wealth and power allows the devil to manipulate and control the individuals throughout the film.  It seems that contemporary celebrity culture revolves around vanity and self-conceit.  The older word for self-conceit is vainglory derived from the Latin: inanis gloria.  The Greek word is κενοδοξία. In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians 5:25-26 (KJV) we read: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.  Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”

In his lectures on on these verses from Galatians (published in 1535), Dr. Martin Luther discussed κενοδοξία (vainglory) extensively.  In fact, in the original printed version (and modern English translation) Dr. Luther used the Greek word.  He pointed out how pervasively this vice spread in every society in history.  It infects brilliant individuals in society, government, or the Church.  Particularly, Luther emphasized Paul’s warning against this vice in ministers.  If the minister walked in the Spirit he might avoid this sin.  Luther explained:

“For where the Spirit is present, He renews men and creates new attitudes in them.  He changes men who are vainglorius, wrathful, and envious into men who are humble, gentle, and loving.  Such men seek not their own glory but God’s.  They do not provoke and envy one another; they yield to one another in showing honor.”[Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 27:98]

However, the devil sends false preachers (like the false apostles who opposed Paul) who skillfully deceive their hearers through mimicking spiritual fruit, but inwardly they seek their own glory and fame.  [On these false teachers see: Luther on False Preachers]

Vainglory also has the power to affect pastors who are not false teachers.  For this reason, Dr. Luther explained how ministers should preserve true doctrine and maintain brotherly love with each other.  Unfortunately, even devout ministers may become enamored with praise and adulation. In order to decrease the power of vainglory to ruin a pastor’s ministry, Luther explained that God had connected the teaching of the Gospel with suffering:

For if this teaching enjoyed only admiration and praise of men, and if no persecution, suffering, or disgrace followed it, then certainly all who profess it would be infected by this poison and would perish…For it is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by a recital of praise for him. [LW 27:101]   

This explained Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7) and why ministers often experienced disdain or persecution for their teachings.  For this reason, Luther concluded that Christians must honor their pastors for preaching the Word and administering the sacraments.  Dr. Luther certainly understood the effects of being a very famous person.  His celebrity status surpassed most others in his lifetime.  However, he also understood great hatred and vitriol from his theological enemies.

Vainglory remains a very dangerous sin and vice for pastors.  It may be especially dangerous for those who even hold ‘celebrity’ status in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  Because of the association of youth with celebrity culture, those who practice youth ministry may be particularly susceptible to this sin.  Additionally, social media or other forms of communication may allow any of us to become minor celebrities.   Therefore, we must be vigilant to proclaim the right teachings and not develop ‘cults of personality.’ Since vainglory may become a danger to us all, let us follow Dr. Luther’s instruction:

If you receive praise, you should know that Christ is being praised, not you; for the praise and glory belong to Him.  The fact that you teach faithful doctrine and live a holy life is not your gift; it is God’s.  Therefore you do not receive the praise; God receives it in you. [LW 27:102]


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