Christians Teach Morals and All the Virtues

In his lectures on Galatians, published in 1535, Dr. Luther discussed the Law as the means by which God reveals sin and brings God’s just punishment on sinners. Second, he identified the Gospel of the free forgiveness in Jesus Christ as the only means of justification before God.  These are central themes of these incredible lectures that represent Dr. Luther’s most significant publication on the doctrine of justification.

Hopefully, during the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation that begins in 2017, many Christians will rediscover it and others will read it again. Simply reading Luther’s summary of St Paul’s main argument in the epistle is a worthwhile endeavor. [See Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), Luther’s Works vol. 26: 4-12]

After Luther had lectured on Galatians 1:1-5:11, he noted a distinct shift in St Paul’s emphasis in the epistle beginning at Galatians 5:12.  In fact, he identified a pattern that appeared in most of St Paul’s epistles.  After the apostle set forth his teaching on justification by faith in Christ, he gave instructions for Christian living.  Luther observed:

Now there follow exhortations and commandments about good morals.  For the apostle makes it a habit, after the teaching of the faith and the instruction of consciences, to introduce some commandments about morals, by which he exhorts the believers to practice the duties of godliness toward one another.  Even reason understands and imparts this part of his teaching to some extent, but it knows nothing at all about the teaching of faith.[Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 27: 47. (Emphasis added)]

Notice again the pattern that Luther identified in St. Paul’s writing: after the teaching of faith and how to have good conscience before God for Christ’s sake, then the apostle calls upon Christians to understand and practice virtues.  Does Dr. Luther (following St. Paul) mean that pastors should teach the Law after the proclamation of the Gospel?  Simpy put, Yes.  Why?  Luther answers that question:

“Therefore to avoid the impression that Christian teaching undermines good morals and conflicts with political order, the apostle also admonishes about good morals and about honest outward conduct, the observance of love and harmony, etc.  Thus the world has no right to accuse Christians of undermining good morals or of disturbing public peace and respectability; for they teach morals and all the virtues better than any philosophers or teachers…” [LW 27: 47]

Christians still live in the world.  They must still be taught how they should live properly before their neighbors.  Not only, do Christians not undermine common morality and society, they teach (and ostensibly learn and practice) good ethics and true virtue better than pagan philosophers.  Why?  Luther stated, “…because they add faith.” [LW 27: 47 (Emphasis added)]

Faith in Christ grants the ability to actually obey the Law or fulfill it.  Luther, who by the early 1530s had observed the results of preaching justification by faith alone, noted the difficulty in his comments on Galatians 5:13.  St. Paul warned believers not to abuse their Christian liberty to serve the flesh, but rather serve their neighbors in love.  Luther recognized that many in his own day had abused their new freedom in the Gospel by not seeking to fulfill God’s commandments. Instead he noticed that many had turned to greed, pride, and lust and lived according to those vices. [LW 27:48-49]

In opposition to these practices, Luther stated that while the godly must remember they are free in consciences before God from the Law’s curse, sin, and death, in their bodily life they must fulfill the commandment to serve one another in love.  They accomplish this by God’s grace in their daily vocations.  According to Luther, the abusers of Christian freedom are going to destruction and are “worse idolaters” than they were formerly as followers of the pope. [LW 27:50-51]

How does St Paul describe serving one’s neighbor in love? Luther explained that the apostle explicated the Ten Commandments summarized in Leviticus 19:18.  False teachers, like the late medieval scholastics, reverse faith and love or equated the two.  Instead, they insist on the proper rituals (like circumcision in Paul’s time) being completed in order to gain God’s favor.  However, faithful pastors must teach faith in Christ but also exhort Christians to do good works because Satan hates both.  Luther summarized:

“Therefore, the apostle admonishes Christians seriously, after they have heard and accepted the pure doctrine about faith, to practice genuine good works as well.  For in the justified there remain remnants of sin, which deter and dissuade them both from faith and from truly good works.” [LW 27:54.]










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