Dr. Martin Luther lectured on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians from late October 1516 to March 1517. In addition to his earlier teaching on Romans, his research for these lectures led to the development of his teaching on justification that emerged in 1518 during the Indulgence Controversy. While this controversy continued into the following year, Luther remained in Wittenberg as an active theology professor.
In 1519 Luther decided to edit and then publish his lectures on Galatians. He worked on this project from February to April. His new colleague, Philip Melanchthon, assisted him by finding numerous citations of the church fathers, classical texts, and the holy Scriptures. Philip’s expertise in Greek also helped Luther significantly in his exegesis. A completed edition of the commentary appeared in September 1519.
In the introduction to this work, Dr. Luther addressed the issue of the continuing controversy with theologians connected to the papal court. He contrasted the claimed Roman privileges with the gospel and teaching of divine Scriptures. For this reason, Luther stated that he was turning to St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Luther contrasted Paul’s position as the least of the apostles to the grandiose claims of the Roman Church. It’s clear that Luther intended this commentary as a statement against papal court’s theologians and in favor of the teaching on justification by faith.
For example, in his exposition of Galatians 1:4-5, he commended God’s mercy and asked a series of rhetorical questions aimed at his theological opponents:
Where now are those who boast proudly of free will? Where is the learning of moral philosophy? Where is the virtue of laws, sacred as well as secular, if our sins are so great that they could not be taken away except by paying a price so great? What are we doing when we try to make ourselves righteous by our own will and by laws and teachings except that we cover our sins with a false appearance of righteousness or virtue and make incurable hypocrites? What does virtue profit if sins remain?*
These questions reflect the teachings of medieval scholastic theologians, whom Luther identified as theological sophists with a false understanding of grace, faith, and love. [Medieval Scholastic Theologians] He states that sinners must despair of all these things and know that except for faith in Christ all virtues are useless. Luther explained that sinners must trust that Christ died for their sins:
You must take for granted in steadfast confidence that He was delivered for your sins too, and that you are one of those for whose sins He was delivered. This faith justifies you; it will cause Christ to dwell, live, and reign in you. This faith is the testimony which the Holy Spirit bears to our spirit: that we are the sons of God (Rom. 8:16).**
*Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1519), Luther’s Works, vol. 27, p. 172.
**Ibid. [Emphasis added]
Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortess, 1985), 286-289.