Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St Paul, Part 14: Asking the Wrong Question, Getting the Wrong Answer

By February 29, 2016 Uncategorized 18 Comments

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!

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  • Done M Espina says:

    Thanks Ken. “Works of the law” is clear to me now.

  • Chris says:

    This had been a great series. Thanks.
    The thing I have never understood, coming on the heels of the Jerusalem Council, literally as Paul is taking this decision back out to the churches, is Acts 16:3. It seems to be so counter to the decision of the Council and to Paul’s teaching.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      No, it fits. In the case of Timothy, Paul had him circumcised for a strategic purpose. In the case of Titus (Galatians) because the Circumcision Party was demanding it and saying Titus could not be saved without it, Paul absolutely refused to allow him to be circumcised.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      An analogy would be Paul, in one situation, not eating meat sacrificed to idols so as to not cause others to be offended (1 Corinthians 8, Romans 14) and in another situation, where someone was claiming that he must abstain in order to be saved, eating freely.

      • Chris says:

        I have seen similar explanations. It still always seem so jarring when I read it. At some level I think this incident will continue to be a bit of a head-scratcher for me since I haven’t “figured it out” in the last 30 years.

  • Pete Dohms says:

    This discussion, of course, raises the question, “WHY did Luther misunderstand the question Paul was facing? Was their something in either his training as an Augustinian, or his training as a priest, or present in the “culture” of the Church at the time, that started Luther down the path of relocating the question from Apostolic time to his own time?

    Is it possible that by understanding the “WHY” that set Luther on his path of misunderstanding that we might grow in the understanding of how to correct the centuries of difficulty that have resulted? Or is it too late?

    Anyway, Ken; an excellent insight on Luther’s condemnation of “Works of the Law.” I plan to make use of it.

  • seto says:

    I admit too, this question has been haunting for me: Was Luther so psychologically damaged, with his own problems so as to become unable or unwilling to see what was, later discerned through,with and in Scripture all along? What is the comparable case for Calvin and company of the reformation brigade? Was Luther and the reformation brigade just another challenge to test our Catholic faith, love and intellect throughout the centuries?

  • Doug says:

    I tend to think that it fit the reality that Luther wanted to be true,the same reason people want to believe it today,I confess that this has been the truth in my own life,many I know still just refuse to see it any other way,its a reality that has been fabricated to be able to accept what they are,my fear is that its like a self induced delusion along with soft whispering spirits of false comfort.So many times Ive heard sermons saying that satan is trying to tell people that they are not saved,my reply to that has been that its probably not satan to which I have recieved angry responses,the thing that bothers me is that it sounds so much like the 2 Thess. 2 delusion because Luthers teaching carried with it the seed of unconditional eternal security.

  • Mary Lou says:

    Thank you Ken.

  • Tessie says:

    when we read the bible we ask God’s holy spirit for his guidance so that he may give us wisdom to understand his word. Luther he just used his earthly thinking he didn’t ask the holy spirit of God to guide him

  • Otfried Schellhas says:

    Nonsense (I’m also being provocative here), there is no misunderstanding on Luther’s part. Agreed there is a clear reaction to the Circumcision party in Paul’s writings, but it is not at all confined to this issue, like it is not confined either to his reactions against Gnosticism , another one of Paul’s pet issues.. Plus, there is apart from the immediate situational issue at hand always a spiritual principle involved (read Galatians in full, please!), which in this case deals with what is essential for salvation. And here Paul’s message is clear “You are justified through faith by grace, not by works lest anyone should boast.” Yes, and not by community membership either, be that the Jewish one or Catholic Church claiming “Ex Ecclesiam non salus est” -So, there are two issues, which Luther correctly identified: the positive assertion of Salvation by faith alone (ref also John 1:12, 3:16 ff) as well as the negative assertion that Community allegiance (with it’s membership rituals , whether that be circumcision of the Jews, or the sacraments of the Church) is not the route to heaven.- or peace with God ,which as you rightly recognized, was Luther’s immediate and personal concern leading him to the truth-and away from the Roman Church’s ecclesiastic dogma and sacerdotal emphasis Luther however was not antinomian, a clerical anarchist as the Roman Church wishes to cast him .-Overall it appears that this article, whilst highlighting one important aspect of Paul’s writings correctly , (deliberately?) glosses over the most important one: Salvation through (personal) faith, by Grace quoting Abraham’s example ( without ruling out the need for obedience). Luther, emphasizing this, was right.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Otfried, thanks for commenting. Have you read the series leading up to this post? I ask only because a lot has been said in previous posts that touch on your points here and that I did not repeat in the post you are responding to. The example of Abraham has been talked about in some depth, the nature of justification, what it means to be called “righteous” in Scripture, the relationship of faith to works, whether salvation once had can be lost, and much more.

      As you already know, it’s easy to simply quote verses that appear to support a position. Yes, Jesus says that those who believe have eternal life (John 3:16). But he also says “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (John 15:10) and in the context it’s clear that the opposite of “remain” is to be thrown out and burned (15:1-4). He also describes the final judgment as based on one’s life of obedience (Matt 25:36ff) and Paul says that God will give eternal life to those who persevere in doing good (Rom 2:6,7 and Gal 6:6,7). I agree with you that we do not earn salvation through our obedience (any more than a Protestant believes we earn it through our faith). But since faith and obedience are viewed in Scripture as two sides of a single coin, and since salvation can be lost, perseverance in “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1 and 16) is what is called for in these and many, many other passages.

  • Mike McGinn says:

    Thank you, Ken, for a wonderful series. My compilation of your 14 parts is on it’s way to my evangelical friend. I cant wait to hear his response.

  • Emily Pennington says:

    Is there a way to see this entire series? I just found it for the last portion and would love to read the rest. Very compelling and excellent information to pass on to others who have wondered about some of these things. Thanks!

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Just go to the blog page on the Calling All Converts website, scroll down and everything is there. Thanks!

      • Thomas R Hanson says:

        Not any more, Ken. Now that gets you to SOLA SCRIPTURA. The simplest way to reach your Luther Misunderstood I have found recently is to just type the word luther into the search box and all fourteen come up together.

  • Jess Rodinas says:

    Thank you so much Bro.Ken of your deep understanding. Luther has a big problem for he was revolting the True Church founded by Christ therefore he didn’t have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A person ho have a big problem re his ambition to become a leader in ways of revolution and rebellion to the Church can not think clearly. Jesus said “those who remains in me will bear good fruits but those who don’t, scatters” Think of how many thousands protestants denominations now a days, oh boy!

  • Mary says:

    Like a previous commenter, I tuned in late – thanks for explaining how to get the earlier posts. On another subject I have a huge mind puzzle regarding Martin Luther – Why was he so Anti-Semitic? I’m a Catholic convert from a number of years ago, and have read Church Hx extensively, but it was only recently I googled his anti Semitic writings and am shocked at the viciousness of it. How could he harbor such hatred and still be a role model for 500 years of Protestant followers? I know this isn’t a direct question on your subject – but still, for me it is mind boggling.

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