Once I was telling my grandson Johnny (I believe he was three at the time) about a trip we had taken as a family.
“Grandma went on the airplane,” I said. “And grandpa went on the airplane.”
Now, Johnny was sitting on my lap looking at me, totally engrossed in the story and vigorously nodding his head in response to my every sentence. I continued, “And mommy and daddy went on the airplane” (round eyes, nod, nod, nod). “And Hero and Mary (Johnny’s two older sisters) went on the airplane” (eyes growing larger, nod, nod, nod). And then, just as I was about to say, “and Johnny went…” I paused, realizing that he hadn’t been born when we went on that trip.
“And what about Johnny?” he asked.
“Oh,” I said, “you were still in your mommy’s tummy when we went on that trip, Johnny. But don’t worry. Grandpa will take you on an airplane some day and we’ll fly all over the place.”
Johnny looked at me with full sincerity and said, “And will I be your tummy, grandpa?”
Misunderstanding the Context
Misunderstanding is a part of life.
Now, granted, the title of this series was calculated to be provocative: “Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St Paul!”
But I believe it to be true. I believe Martin Luther misunderstood what Paul was teaching about salvation, and he misunderstood what Paul was teaching first of all because he misunderstand the nature of the problem Paul was dealing with in his ministry.
Paul wasn’t dealing with false teachers who were infiltrating the Church and saying, “Listen! In order to be saved we must trust in Christ and live in obedience to his commandments — like Noah and Abraham and Joseph and Moses and David and every other saint in redemptive history!” He was dealing with false teachers who were infiltrating the Church and saying, “In order to become Christians Gentiles have to first become Jews and keep the customs of Moses!”
These false teachers are referred to in several places as the “circumcision party.” We encounter them for the first time in Acts 11 when Peter returns to Jerusalem after admitting the first Gentile converts into the Church (Acts 10). “Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the world of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'” (Acts 11:1-3).
Now, once Peter explained how God had directed him to bring the gospel to the household of Cornelius, “they were silenced. And they glorified God saying, ‘then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life'” (Acts 11:18).
Misunderstanding the Question
But the issue didn’t die there. And in Acts 15 we find these Jewish believers continuing to stir up trouble. “But some men came down from Judea [to Antioch in Syria] and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1). In fact, this was this exact dispute that occasioned the first Council of the Christian Church, referred to since as the Council of Jerusalem. Think of it: here’s the very first Church Council in Christian history, and it wasn’t convened to define the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of the Holy Spirit or the union of two natures in Christ.
It was convened to answer a specific question: Can Gentiles become Christians without having to first become Jews?
In Acts 15:2 and following we read how Paul and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem where they met with the apostles and elders of the Church and recounted what God has been doing through them among the Gentiles. Some were no doubt overjoyed. “But,” we read in verse five, “Some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.'” After much debate and discussion the decision was made that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved but that they should be instructed to abstain from some of the more obvious behaviors that would offend Jewish sensibilities, things like eating food that has been sacrificed to idols and consuming animal blood, etc.
The Council drafted a letter to be sent out to all the churches. It was expected to be received as authoritative: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…” (Acts 15:28).
It’s right around this time that Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia. Essentially the entire epistle is devoted to this same issue. In Galatians Paul talks about false teachers who had infiltrated the churches and were trying to compel Gentile believers to be circumcised (6:12). He talks about how he absolutely refused to allow Titus to be circumcised and in this way bought back into “bondage” (2:3,4). He talks about how he had to rebuke Peter at Antioch because while Peter had been previously eating with the Gentiles, when “certain men came from James,” because he feared “the circumcision party,” he drew back and wouldn’t eat with them (2:11-21). Paul talks about God’s purpose for giving the Mosaic Law and emphasizes that for those who have been baptized into Christ there is no more Jew or Gentile (3:19-29).
Galatians is all about how being a Jew doesn’t matter. And it’s clear what Paul has on his mind. In frustration he cries out at one point, “You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (4:10). He wishes that these false teachers would go all the way and emasculate themselves (5:12). Twice in Galatians and one in 1 Corinthians he explicitly states that it doesn’t matter to God whether one is circumcised or not; what matters is that one has become a new creation in Christ (Galatians 6:15), that one has a faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6) and that one keeps the commandments of God (1 Corinthians 7:19).
Misunderstanding the Answer
In other words, the entire discussion in Galatians is about whether Gentiles need to take on the Mosaic law, with a clear emphasis on those aspects of the law that distinguished Jews from Gentiles and functioned as badges of ethnic and religious identity: circumcision, food laws, Sabbaths, Jewish festivals and the like. And when Paul answers these false teachers by insisting that “a man is not justified by ‘works of the law’ but through faith in Jesus Chris” (Galatians 2:16) this is what he has in mind.
He isn’t saying that Gentiles (or Jews, for that matter) don’t need to keep the moral commandments of God. He’s not drawing a distinction between faith and obedience or pitting the two against one another as though we are either saved by faith or by obedience. We may as well ask whether the man who washed in the Pool of Siloam and received his sight was healed by his faith or by his obedience. What Paul is doing is pitting ‘faithful obedience’ over against the boasting of one who would say, “But I am of the tribes of Israel!”
John the Baptist responded to these boastful ones by saying, “Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father'” (Matthew 3:8,9). Paul responds by saying, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a [true] Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart…” (Romans 2:28,29). The two are talking about the same thing.
Of course salvation isn’t a wage we earn as we work for God as though we were his employees. But the obedience that flows from humble faith? The obedience we’ve seen in lives of men like Noah and Abraham and so many others? That’s an entirely different kind of obedience. The one God wants nothing to do with. The other, he requires: “To those who by perseverance in doing good, He will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
Although Paul was in his previous life a Pharisee, zealous for the traditions of the fathers, he had come to understand while the Mosaic Law had its purpose, ultimately it could not provide what was needed: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit.
If it could have, why would the prophets have spoken of a New Covenant God would one day make with his people?
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
In fact, all the way back in Deuteronomy we find Moses speaking of a future day when “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:1-6). Ezekiel describes this ‘circumcision of the heart’ in one of my favorite OT passages:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
Paul has come to see that in Jesus the new covenant has been instituted. In him alone there is forgiveness of sins, the gift of a new heart and the Holy Spirit who enables us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul, and live.
In any and every situation in life, if I don’t understand the situation, the context, and I don’t understand the question being asked, I’m probably not going to understand the answer being given. I’m most probably going to misinterpret the answer being given.
This is exactly what I believe happened with Martin Luther. Instead of thinking hard about the issue Paul was dealing with and the question he was addressing in Galatians and Romans (“Can Gentiles be saved without having to first become Jews?”) Luther came to Paul dealing with his own issue and asking his own question (“How can I be just in the eyes of an infinitely holy God?”). Imagining that this was the question Paul was asking, Luther misunderstood the answer Paul gave.
In his own historical context, when Paul said that a man “is justified by faith apart from works of the law” what he was saying is that the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit come through faith in Christ apart from the need to become Jews.
What Luther, coming with an entirely different question burning in his heart, heard Paul saying was, “Guess what? We don’t have to do anything to be saved! Obedience is not required. We just have to believe!”
From the time of the Reformation, Protestants have been reading St Paul through the eyes of Luther’s experience, asking the question Luther was asking and hearing the answer Luther heard. But already I can see cracks in the dam as New Testament biblical scholarship takes more and more care to read the New Testament in its historical context.
Well, off to other issues. Thanks for reading!