Looking to Luther — Galatians 2:11-21

by Phil Johnson

I think that Luther was surprised by God's work. I think that surprise is a divine intention. I think that Luther thought that surprise was God's divine intention and that it was an example of God's matchless Grace in the commonplace. Luther was acutely aware of what easily happens. He knew how easily he took things for granted when he said, "If it had pleased the Lord to create us by the same method by which Adam was created from clay, by now this, too, would have ceased to hold the position of a miracle for us; we would marvel more at the method of procreation through the semen of a man. This crude doggerel is right," he said, "and there was certainly good reason for composing it: 'Everything that is rare is appreciated, but what is an everyday occurrence comes to be regarded as commonplace.'" (Luther's Works, Vol. I, Lectures on Genesis, p. 127.)

It was important, according to Luther, not to think that one could make any moral advance before God. Though a person journeys on through life learning and growing towards the destination of death, a person is also forgetting and losing. Luther never let go of the conviction that it is impossible to get on top of things so that Grace is not the essential matter. God loves us, but uot because we are in the right. Therefore, we must not think that justification through faith can ever be less than itself. For example, if "justification by faith alone" should become a doctrine that one knows and owns and by whose possession one no longer needs Grace, then Gospel is lost and the reality of justification is lost with it.

He put it like this in 1518 at Heidelberg, an occasion when he inspired men like Martin Bucer, "The works of the righteous themselves would be mortal sins, unless, being filled with a holy reverence for the Lord, they feared that their works might in truth be mortal sins." (J. H. Merle D'Aubigne, D.D., History of the Reformation, p. 119).

These reflections are helpful when we consider Luther's comments on the Epistle Lesson for Sunday, June 8th. His comments on this passage continue for 78 pages. What we offer here are portions of his writings on verse 11 which give a flavor of the richness and freshness of his thought.

Paul goeth on still in his confutation, saying that he not only hath for his defence the testimony of Peter and the other Apostles which were at Jerusalem, but also that he withstood Peter in the presence of the whole church of Antioch. He sheweth here a matter not done in a corner, but in the face of the whole church. And this is a marvellous history, which hath given occasion of false accusation to many, as Porphyrius, Celsus, Julian and other, which charge Paul with pride, because he assailed the chief of the Apostles, and that in the face of the whole church; whereby (say they) he exceeded the bounds of Christian modesty and humility. But it is no marvel that they thus think and speak who perceive not the point of this disputation of Paul. For, as I before have said, he hath here no trifling matter in hand, but the chiefest article of all Christian doctrine. The utility and majesty whereof whoso rightly esteemeth, to him all other things shall seem but vile and nothing worth. For what is Peter? What is Paul? What is an angel from heaven? What are all other creatures to the article of justification? Which if we know, then are we in the clear light: but if we be ignorant thereof, then are we in most miserable darkness. Wherefore, if ye see this article impugned, or defaced, fear not to resist either Peter or an angel from heaven. For it cannot be sufficiently extolled. But Porphyrius and the others, beholding the great dignity of Peter, do admire his person and forget the majesty of this article. Paul doeth the contrary: he doth not sharply inveigh against Peter, but handleth him with reverence enough; but because he seeth the majesty of this article of justification to be, in danger for the dignity of Peter, he taketh no account of his dignity, that he may keep the same pure and uncorrupt. For it is written: 'He that loveth father or mother, or his own life more than me, is not worthy of me' (Matt. x. 37).

Why then should I so highly esteem Peter, which is but a little drop, and set God aside, which is the whole sea? Let the drop therefore give place to the sea, and let Peter give place unto God. This I say to the end that ye should diligently weigh and consider the matter whereof Paul intreateth: for he intreateth of the Word of God, which can never be magnified enough.

Augustine hath better weighed this matter than Jerome, who hath respect unto the dignity and authority of Peter, and reasoneth thus: Peter was the chief Apostle, therefore it was not meet that he should be reproved of Paul; and if Paul reproved him, he did but dissemble therein. Thus unto Paul he attributeth dissimulation, alleging that he feigned Peter to be reproved to the end that he might promote his own apostleship and defend his Gentiles; but Peter he excuseth every way, and attributeth unto him the truth. This is a most untoward inversion of the text, which plainly declareth that Peter was reprovable and had strayed from the truth; also that other Jews had dissembled with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by them into that dissimulation. These plain words Jerome seeth not, for he sticketh only to this: Peter was a n Ap ostle, there fore he was unreprovable and could not sin. To t hi s sentence Augustine answereth, saying: his not to be borne that there should be dissimulation in Paul , seeing he confirmeth with an oath that he speaketh the truth.

Wherefore Jerome and Erasmus do injury to Paul, when they interpret these words: 'to his face' to mean: 'on the face of i t', that is, not from the heart, but in outward shew only; alleging that Paul resisted Peter, not sincerely, but with a necessary dissimulation, lest the Gentiles should be offended if he altogether kept silence. But 'to his face' signifieth 'in his sight'; for he resisted Peter openly and not in a corner, Peter himself being present and the whole church standing by.

And where he saith 'to his face', this clause maketh specially against the venomous vipers and apostles of Satan, which slander those that are absent, and in their presence dare not once open their mouth; as the false apostles did, whom also here he toucheth by the way, which durst not speak evil of him in his presence, but in his absence slandered him most spitefully. So did not I (sayeth he) speak evil of Peter, but frankly and openly I withstood him, not of any colourable pretence, ambition, or other carnal affection, or disease of the mind, but because he was to be blamed and sharply removed.

Here let other men debate whether an Apostle may sin or no: this say I, that we ought not to make Peter's fault less than it was indeed. The prophets themselves have sometimes erred and been deceived. Nathan of his own spirit said unto David, that he should build the house of the Lord (2 Sam vii. 3). But this prophecy was by and by after corrected by a revelation from God, that it should not be David, because he was a man of war and had shed much blood, but his son Solomon, who should build up the house of the Lord. So did the Apostles err also: for they imagined that the kingdom of Christ should be carnal and worldly, as we may see in the first of the Acts, when they asked of Christ, saying: 'Lord wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?' (Acts i. 6) ; and Peter, although he heard this commandment of Christ: 'Go into the whole world,' k,c. (Mark xvi. 15), had not gone unto Cornelius, if he had not been admonished by a vision (Acts x. 9 ff.). And in this matter he did not only err, but also committed a great sin, and if Paul had not resisted him, aU the Gentiles which did believe, had been constrained to receive circumcision and to keep the law. The believing Jews also had been confirmed in their opinion: to wit, that the observation of these things were necessary to salvation; and by this means they had received again the law instead of the Gospel, Moses instead of Christ. And of all this great enormity and horrible sin, Peter by his dissimulation had been the only occasion. Therefore we may not attribute to the saints such perfection as though they could not sin.

Luke witnesseth that there was such great dissention between Paul and Barnabas (which were put apart together for the ministry of the Gospel among the Gentiles, and had travelled through many regions and preached unto them the Gospel) that the one departed from the other. Here we must needs say, that there was a fault either in Paul or Barnabas. And doubtless it could not be, but that the discord was exceeding great which separated these two, being joined together in such a holy fellowship, as the text witnesseth. Such examples are written for our consolation. For it is a great comfort unto us, when we hear that even the saints, which have the Spirit of God, do sin. Which comfort they would take from us which say that the saints cannot sin.

Samson, David, and many other excellent men, full of the Holy Ghost, fell into great sins; Job and Jeremiah curse the day of their nativity (Job iii. 3 ff.; Jer. xx. 14); Elijah and Jonah are weary of their life, and desire death (I Kings xix. 4; Jonah iv. 8). Such errors and offences of the saints, the Scripture setteth forth to the comfort of those that are afflicted and oppressed with desperation, and to the terror of the proud. No man hath so grievously fallen at any time, but he may rise again. And on the other side, no man taketh so fast footing, but he may fall. If Peter fell, I may likewise fall. If he rose again, I may also rise again. And such examples as these are, the weakhearted, and tender consciences ought to make much of, that they may the better understand what they pray for when they say: 'Forgive us our trespasses,' and: 'I believe the forgiveness of sins.' We have the self-same spirit of grace and prayer which the apostles and all the saints had, neither had they any prerogative above us. We have the same gifts that they had, the same Christ, Baptism, Word, forgiveness of sins; all which they had no less need of than we have, and by the same are sanctified and saved as we be.

And this I say against the monstrous commendations and praises wherewith the foolish sophisters and monks have adorned the saints, and have said that the Church is in such wise holy as being altogether without sin. Indeed the Church is holy, as our faith confesseth: 'I believe a holy church,'; and yet notwithstanding it hath sin. Therefore also it believeth the remission of sins, and prayeth: 'Forgive us our debts' (Matt. vi, 12). lVherefore the Church is not said to be holy formally, as the wall is said to be white from the whiteness inhering. That inherent holiness is not enough, but Christ is its perfect and entire holiness; and where that which inhereth is not enough, Christ is enough.

Luther's purpose is clear. It is to substantiate, explicate, and defend the Christian's foundation in justification by faith. Neither the apostles nor the Church herself can live without God's accepting Grace. Luther regards the comments of Jerome and the others as a coverup for Peter and for the church of Rome. This coverup is unnecessary if the human condition and Gods Grace are understood. Where they are not, coverup occurs demonstrating the truth of Paradox 07 offered by Luther at Heidelberg which we quoted above.

David has made the observation that this passage makes the most sense when understood as applying to the community and within the Church. The passage does not command conformity or set the terms of practice for others. In the confidence of Scripture such as this we know that the Covenant is the real Church, though not the whole glorious Church, and this unique passage confirms our conviction that the Covenant is a community of freedom, not by legislation, but by divine right.