Sabbath: Martin Luther and Galatians

Introduction to The Gospel in Galatians

The Protestant world is getting ready to celebrate the 500thanniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther — guided by the Holy Spirit — brought to millions crucial biblical truths that were long hidden under centuries of superstition and tradition. One could argue that out of the pages of Galatians (along with Romans) Protestantism itself was born half a millennium ago! It was while reading Galatians that Martin Luther first was touched with the glorious good news of righteousness by faith, the great truth that spawned the Protestant Reformation, which freed millions from centuries of theological and ecclesiastical error. What he read in this book changed Luther, and the world has never been the same again.

Seventh-day Adventists, many centuries after Luther, also are indebted to Galatians. Through the study of Galatians, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones helped the Adventist Church in the 1880s and 90s rediscover the truth of righteousness by faith.

What is it about Galatians that has made it such a backbone of the Protestant Reformation? Why has it been able to touch the hearts of so many, such as Martin Luther? In a manner unlike any other book in the Bible, Galatians addresses a number of themes crucial to the Christian soul. It is in Galatians that Paul tackles issues such as freedom, the role of the law in salvation, our condition in Christ, and the nature of the Spirit-led life, as well as the age-old question, How can sinful humans be made right before a holy and just God? It was this question, perhaps more than any other, that spurred Martin Luther on the track he started and from which he never turned back.

Of course, other books, such as Romans, address some of these same questions, but Galatians is different. Not only is it more succinct, but its rich themes are written in a powerfully personal and impassioned pastoral tone that can’t help but touch hearts open to the Spirit of God, even today.

Although Paul’s letter speaks to us personally, our understanding can be strengthened if we are aware of the original historical situation that Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was addressing.

Many scholars believe that Galatians may be the earliest of Paul’s letters. It was written in A.D. 49, shortly after the famous Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Therefore, the book may be the oldest Christian document known. As Acts and Galatians make clear, the early church found itself in a fierce battle over the nature of salvation, especially in the case of Gentiles. According to a group of Jewish believers, known as Judaizers, belief in Jesus alone was not good enough for Gentiles. Gentiles must also be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses (Acts 15:1). It is no surprise, then, that when Paul founded a church of Gentiles in Galatia, some of these Judaizers traveled there to “straighten things out.”

When word of this problem reached Paul, he reacted fervently. Recognizing that this false gospel of salvation by faith and works threatened to undermine the work of Christ, Paul wrote the Galatians an impassioned defense of the gospel. In the strongest of words, he identified this false teaching for what it really was — legalism, pure and simple.

This quarter’s Bible study guide invites us to journey with the apostle Paul as he pleads with the Galatians to remain true to Jesus. At the same time, it also gives us a chance to reflect on our own understanding of the truths that opened the way for Martin Luther’s ultimate break with Rome and the restoration of the biblical gospel.

Carl Cosaert, PhD, is a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.



Sabbath: Martin Luther and Galatians — 3 Comments

  1. The timing of these lessons are amazing. Namibia was formerly a German colony and as a result there are many German-speaking people in the country. It is unfortunate that since the Advent message was first preached in South West Africa, the only Germany pastor was a self-supporting pastor who worked together with a literature evangelist in the 1960's. In 2001 a young recently graduated German pastor and his family spent 11 months in Namibia and since then there have been other priorities, with the result that, even though there have been willing workers, a follow-up has never materialized. Last year a team of young people were given the go-ahead to spend their summer holidays doing evangelistic outreach to the German-speaking population. However, their visa applications have been rejected. Seeds have been sown over the past years - books, DVD's, literature and friendship and now that the seeds are sprouting - there are no workers! But God is working! Just last week I received a call from an old friend with whom I had shared a copy of The Desire of Ages in German. She wanted to know whether I had more as their Lutheran Bible Study group want to use the book in their studies. She had given her pastor the book to read in order to get his approval and he has no problem with it. The Government might close the doors - our Church work only for their own people - but this quarter's lessons are proof that the Holy Spirit is at work. You may ask why the interest in the Germans - I, English born, am married to one - baptised in the '60's as a result of our German Pastor - Reinhard Engel. God has given me the gift of tongues - German being one of them - but my grammar 'offends' the ears of a true German!! Pray for the work in Namibia!

    • Worry not, the Holy Ghost is working in ways you can't imagine!
      Be blessed as you're carrying for these souls which know not yet the message of our salvation!


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