Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians
by Martin Luther
Translated by Theodore Graebner
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House,
Chapter 4, pp. 150-172
From PROJECT WITTENBERG
VERSE 1. Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth
nothing from a servant, though he be Lord of all;
VERSE 2. But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed
of the father.
The Apostle had apparently finished his discourse on justification when
this illustration of the youthful heir occurred to him. He throws it in
for good measure. He knows that plain people are sooner impressed by an
apt illustration than by learned discussion.
"I want to give you another illustration from everyday life," he writes
to the Galatians. "As long as an heir is under age he is treated very much
like a servant. He is not permitted to order his own affairs. He is kept
under constant surveillance. Such discipline is good for him, otherwise
he would waste his inheritance in no time. This discipline, however, is
not to last forever. It is to last only until 'the time appointed of the
VERSE 3. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the
elements of the world.
As children of the Law we were treated like servants and prisoners.
We were oppressed and condemned by the Law. But the tyranny of the Law
is not to last forever. It is to last only until "the time appointed of
the father," until Christ came and redeemed us.
VERSE 3. Under the elements of the world.
By the elements of the world the Apostle does not understand the physical
elements, as some have thought. In calling the Law "the elements of the
world" Paul means to say that the Law is something material, mundane, earthly.
It may restrain evil, but it does not deliver from sin. The Law does not
justify; it does not bring a person to heaven. I do not obtain eternal
life because I do not kill, commit adultery, steal, etc. Such mere outward
decency does not constitute Christianity. The heathen observe the same
restraints to avoid punishment or to secure the advantages of a good reputation.
In the last analysis such restraint is simple hypocrisy. When the Law exercises
its higher function it accuses and condemns the conscience. All these effects
of the Law cannot be called divine or heavenly. These effects are elements
of the world.
In calling the Law the elements of the world Paul refers to the whole
Law, principally to the ceremonial law which dealt with external matters,
as meat, drink, dress, places, times, feasts, cleansings, sacrifices, etc.
These are mundane matters which cannot save the sinner. Ceremonial laws
are like the statutes of governments dealing with purely civil matters,
as commerce, inheritance, etc. As for the pope's church laws forbidding
marriage and meats, Paul calls them elsewhere the doctrines of devils.
You would not call such laws elements of heaven.
The Law of Moses deals with mundane matters. It holds the mirror to
the evil which is in the world. By revealing the evil that is in us it
creates a longing in the heart for the better things of God. The Law forces
us into the arms of Christ, "who is the end of the law for righteousness
to every one that believeth." (Romans 1:4.) Christ relieves the conscience
of the Law. In so far as the Law impels us to Christ it renders excellent
I do not mean to give the impression that the Law should be despised.
Neither does Paul intend to leave that impression. The Law ought to be
honored. But when it is a matter of justification before God, Paul had
to speak disparagingly of the Law, because the Law has nothing to do with
justification. If it thrusts its nose into the business of justification
we must talk harshly to the Law to keep it in its place. The conscience
ought not to be on speaking terms with the Law. The conscience ought to
know only Christ. To say this is easy, but in times of trial, when the
conscience writhes in the presence of God, it is not so easy to do. As
such times we are to believe in Christ as if there were no Law or sin anywhere,
but only Christ. We ought to say to the Law: "Mister Law, I do not get
you. You stutter so much. I don't think that you have anything to say to
When it is not a question of salvation or justification with us, we
are to think highly of the Law and call it "holy, just, and good." (Romans
7:12) The Law is of no comfort to a stricken conscience. Therefore it should
not be allowed to rule in our conscience, particularly in view of the fact
that Christ paid so great a price to deliver the conscience from the tyranny
of the Law. Let us understand that the Law and Christ are impossible bedfellows.
The Law must leave the bed of the conscience, which is so narrow that it
cannot hold two, as Isaiah says, chapter 28, verse 20.
Only Paul among the apostles calls the Law "the elements of the world,
weak and beggarly elements, the strength of sin, the letter that killeth,"
etc. The other apostles do not speak so slightingly of the Law. Those who
want to be first-class scholars in the school of Christ want to pick up
the language of Paul. Christ called him a chosen vessel and equipped with
a facility of expression far above that of the other apostles, that he
as the chosen vessel should establish the doctrine of justification in
VERSES 4, 5. But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth
his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were
under the law.
"The fullness of the time" means when the time of the Law was fulfilled
and Christ was revealed. Note how Paul explains Christ. "Christ," says
he, "is the Son of God and the son of a woman. He submitted Himself under
the Law to redeem us who were under the Law." In these words the Apostle
explains the person and office of Christ. His person is divine and human.
"God sent forth His Son, made of a woman." Christ therefore is true God
and true man. Christ's office the Apostle describes in the words: "Made
under the law, to redeem them that were under the law."
Paul calls the Virgin Mary a woman. This has been frequently deplored
even by some of the ancient fathers who felt that Paul should have written
"virgin" instead of woman. But Paul is now treating of faith and Christian
righteousness, of the person and office of Christ, not of the virginity
of Mary. The inestimable mercy of God is sufficiently set forth by the
fact that His Son was born of a woman. The more general term "woman" indicates
that Christ was born a true man. Paul does not say that Christ was born
of man and woman, but only of woman. That he has a virgin in mind is obvious.
This passage furthermore declares that Christ's purpose in coming was
the abolition of the Law, not with the intention of laying down new laws,
but "to redeem them that were under the law." Christ himself declared:
"I judge no man." (John 8:15.) Again, "I came not to judge the world, but
to save the world." (John 12:47.) In other words: "I came not to bring
more laws, or to judge men according to the existing Law. I have a higher
and better office. I came to judge and to condemn the Law, so that it may
no more judge and condemn the world."
How did Christ manage to redeem us? "He was made under the law." When
Christ came He found us all in prison. What did He do about it? Although
He was the Lord of the Law, He voluntarily placed Himself under the Law
and permitted it to exercise dominion over Him, indeed to accuse and to
condemn Him. When the Law takes us into judgment it has a perfect right
to do so. "For we are by nature the children of wrath, even as others."
(Eph. 2:3.) Christ, however, "did no sin, neither was guile found in his
mouth." (I Pet. 2:22.) Hence the Law had no jurisdiction over Him. Yet
the Law treated this innocent, just, and blessed Lamb of God as cruelly
as it treated us. It accused Him of blasphemy and treason. It made Him
guilty of the sins of the whole world. It overwhelmed him with such anguish
of soul that His sweat was as blood. The Law condemned Him to the shameful
death on the Cross.
It is truly amazing that the Law had the effrontery to turn upon its
divine Author, and that without a show of right. For its insolence the
Law in turn was arraigned before the judgment seat of God and condemned.
Christ might have overcome the Law by an exercise of His omnipotent authority
over the Law. Instead, He humbled Himself under the Law for and together
with them that were under the Law. He gave the Law license to accuse and
condemn Him. His present mastery over the Law was obtained by virtue of
His Sonship and His substitutionary victory.
Thus Christ banished the Law from the conscience. It dare no longer
banish us from God. For that matter,--the Law continues to reveal sin.
It still raises its voice in condemnation. But the conscience finds quick
relief in the words of the Apostle: "Christ has redeemed us from the law."
The conscience can now hold its head high and say to the Law: "You are
not so holy yourself. You crucified the Son of God. That was an awful thing
for you to do. You have lost your influence forever."
The words, "Christ was made under the law," are worth all the attention
we can bestow on them. They declare that the Son of God did not only fulfill
one or two easy requirements of the Law, but that He endured all the tortures
of the Law. The Law brought all its fright to bear upon Christ until He
experienced anguish and terror such as nobody else ever experienced. His
bloody sweat. His need of angelic comfort, His tremulous prayer in the
garden, His lamentation on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken
me?" bear eloquent witness to the sting of the Law. He suffered "to redeem
them that were under the law."
The Roman conception of Christ as a mere lawgiver more stringent than
Moses, is quite contrary to Paul's teaching. Christ, according to Paul,
was not an agent of the Law but a patient of the Law. He was not a law-giver,
but a law-taker.
True enough, Christ also taught and expounded the Law. But it was incidental.
It was a sideline with Him. He did not come into the world for the purpose
of teaching the Law, as little as it was the purpose of His coming to perform
miracles. Teaching the Law and performing miracles did not constitute His
unique mission to the world. The prophets also taught the Law and performed
miracles. In fact, according to the promise of Christ, the apostles performed
greater miracles than Christ Himself. (John 14:12.) The true purpose of
Christ's coming was the abolition of the Law, of sin, and of death.
If we think of Christ as Paul here depicts Him, we shall never go wrong.
We shall never be in danger of misconstruing the meaning of the Law. We
shall understand that the Law does not justify. We shall understand why
a Christian observes laws: For the peace of the world, out of gratitude
to God, and for a good example that others may be attracted to the Gospel.
VERSE 5. That we might receive the adoption of sons.
Paul still has for his text Genesis 22:18, "In thy seed shall all the
nations of the earth be blessed." In the course of his Epistle he calls
this promise of the blessing righteousness, life, deliverance from the
Law, the testament, etc. Now he also calls the promise of blessing "the
adoption of sons," the inheritance of everlasting life.
What ever induced God to adopt us for His children and heirs? What claim
can men who are subservient to sin, subject to the curse of the Law, and
worthy of everlasting death, have on God and eternal life? That God adopted
us is due to the merit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who humbled Himself
under the Law and redeemed us law-ridden sinners.
VERSE 6. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of
his Son into your hearts.
In the early Church the Holy Spirit was sent forth in visible form.
He descended upon Christ in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), and in the
likeness of fire upon the apostles and other believers. (Acts 2:3.) This
visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to the establishment
of the early Church, as were also the miracles that accompanied the gift
of the Holy Ghost. Paul explained the purpose of these miraculous gifts
of the Spirit in I Corinthians 14:22, "Tongues are for a sign, not to them
that believe, but to them that believe not." Once the Church had been established
and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the
Holy Ghost ceased.
Next, the Holy Ghost is sent forth into the hearts of the believers,
as here stated, "God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts." This
sending is accomplished by the preaching of the Gospel through which the
Holy Spirit inspires us with fervor and light, with new judgment, new desires,
and new motives. This happy innovation is not a derivative of reason or
personal development, but solely the gift and operation of the Holy Ghost.
This renewal by the Holy Spirit may not be conspicuous to the world,
but it is patent to us by our better judgment, our improved speech, and
our unashamed confession of Christ. Formerly we did not confess Christ
to be our only merit, as we do now in the light of the Gospel. Why, then,
should we feel bad if the world looks upon us as ravagers of religion and
insurgents against constituted authority? We confess Christ and our conscience
approves of it.
Then, too, we live in the fear of God. If we sin, we sin not on purpose,
but unwittingly, and we are sorry for it. Sin sticks in our flesh, and
the flesh gets us into sin even after we have been imbued by the Holy Ghost.
Outwardly there is no great difference between a Christian and any honest
man. The activities of a Christian are not sensational. He performs his
duty according to his vocation. He takes good care of his family, and is
kind and helpful to others. Such homely, everyday performances are not
much admired. But the setting-up exercises of the monks draw great applause.
Holy works, you know. Only the acts of a Christian are truly good and acceptable
to God, because they are done in faith, with a cheerful heart, out of gratitude
We ought to have no misgivings about whether the Holy Ghost dwells in
us. We are "the temple of the Holy Ghost." (I Cor. 3:16.) When we have
a love for the Word of God, and gladly hear, talk, write, and think of
Christ, we are to know that this inclination toward Christ is the gift
and work of the Holy Ghost. Where you come across contempt for the Word
of God, there is the devil. We meet with such contempt for the Word of
God mostly among the common people. They act as though the Word of God
does not concern them. Wherever you find a love for the Word, thank God
for the Holy Spirit who infuses this love into the hearts of men. We never
come by this love naturally, neither can it be enforced by laws. It is
the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Roman theologians teach that no man can know for a certainty whether
he stands in the favor of God or not. This teaching forms one of the chief
articles of their faith. With this teaching they tormented men's consciences,
excommunicated Christ from the Church, and limited the operations of the
St. Augustine observed that "every man is certain of his faith, if he
has faith." This the Romanists deny. "God forbid," they exclaim piously,
"that I should ever be so arrogant as to think that I stand in grace, that
I am holy, or that I have the Holy Ghost." We ought to feel sure that we
stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through
the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God,
so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us.
And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God's
mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of
God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law,
sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God
to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God.
This inner assurance of the grace of God is accompanied by outward indications
such as gladly to hear, preach, praise, and to confess Christ, to do one's
duty in the station in which God has placed us, to aid the needy, and to
comfort the sorrowing. These are the affidavits of the Holy Spirit testifying
to our favorable standing with God.
If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God,
that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we
are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful
to God. But because we often feel fear and doubt we cannot come to that
Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it
out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: "I am all
right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes
me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing
better than that Christ's Gospel be known throughout the world and that
many, many be brought to faith in Him."
VERSE 6. Crying, Abba, Father.
Paul might have written, "God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into
your hearts, calling Abba, Father." Instead, he wrote, "Crying, Abba, Father."
In the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans the Apostle describes
this crying of the Spirit as "groanings which cannot be uttered." He writes
in the 26th verse: "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for
we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself
maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."
The fact that the Spirit of Christ in our hearts cries unto God and
makes intercession for us with groanings should reassure us greatly. However,
there are many factors that prevent such full reassurance on our part.
We are born in sin. To doubt the good will of God is an inborn suspicion
of God with all of us. Besides, the devil, our adversary, goeth about seeking
to devour us by roaring: "God is angry at you and is going to destroy you
forever." In all these difficulties we have only one support, the Gospel
of Christ. To hold on to it, that is the trick. Christ cannot be perceived
with the senses. We cannot see Him. The heart does not feel His helpful
presence. Especially in times of trials a Christian feels the power of
sin, the infirmity of his flesh, the goading darts of the devil, the agues
of death, the scowl and judgment of God. All these things cry out against
us. The Law scolds us, sin screams at us, death thunders at us, the devil
roars at us. In the midst of the clamor the Spirit of Christ cries in our
hearts: "Abba, Father." And this little cry of the Spirit transcends the
hullabaloo of the Law, sin, death, and the devil, and finds a hearing with
The Spirit cries in us because of our weakness. Because of our infirmity
the Holy Ghost is sent forth into our hearts to pray for us according to
the will of God and to assure us of the grace of God.
Let the Law, sin, and the devil cry out against us until their outcry
fills heaven and earth. The Spirit of God outcries them all. Our feeble
groans, "Abba, Father," will be heard of God sooner than the combined racket
of hell, sin, and the Law.
We do not think of our groanings as a crying. It is so faint we do not
know we are groaning. "But he," says Paul, "that searcheth the hearts knoweth
what is the mind of the Spirit." (Romans 8:27.) To this Searcher of hearts
our feeble groaning, as it seems to us, is a loud shout for help in comparison
with which the howls of hell, the din of the devil, the yells of the Law,
the shouts of sin are like so many whispers.
In the fourteenth chapter of Exodus the Lord addresses Moses at the
Red Sea: "Wherefore criest thou unto me?" Moses had not cried unto the
Lord. He trembled so he could hardly talk. His faith was at low ebb. He
saw the people of Israel wedged between the Sea and the approaching armies
of Pharaoh. How were they to escape? Moses did not know what to say. How
then could God say that Moses was crying to Him? God heard the groaning
heart of Moses and the groans to Him sounded like loud shouts for help.
God is quick to catch the sigh of the heart.
Some have claimed that the saints are without infirmities. But Paul
says: "The Spirit helpeth our infirmities, and maketh intercession for
us with groanings which cannot be uttered." We need the help of the Holy
Spirit because we are weak and infirm. And the Holy Spirit never disappoints
us. Confronted by the armies of Pharaoh, retreat cut off by the waters
of the Red Sea, Moses was in a bad spot. He felt himself to blame. The
devil accused him: "These people will all perish, for they cannot escape.
And you are to blame because you led the people out of Egypt. You started
all this." And then the people started in on Moses. "Because there were
no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? For
it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die
in the wilderness." (Ex. 14:11, 12.) But the Holy Ghost was in Moses and
made intercession for him with unutterable groanings, sighings unto the
Lord: "O Lord, at Thy commandment have I led forth this people. So help
The Spirit intercedes for us not in many words or long prayers, but
with groanings, with little sounds like "Abba." Small as this word is,
it says ever so much. It says: "My Father, I am in great trouble and you
seem so far away. But I know I am your child, because you are my Father
for Christ's sake. I am loved by you because of the Beloved." This one
little word "Abba" surpasses the eloquence of a Demosthenes and a Cicero.
I have spent much time on this verse in order to combat the cruel teaching
of the Roman church, that a person ought to be kept in a state of uncertainty
concerning his status with God. The monasteries recruit the youth on the
plea that their "holy" orders will assuredly recruit them for heaven. But
once inside the monastery the recruits are told to doubt the promises of
In support of their error the papists quote the saying of Solomon: "The
righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man
knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them." (Eccles. 9:1.)
They take this hatred to mean the wrath of God to come. Others take it
to mean God's present anger. None of them seem to understand this passage
from Solomon. On every page the Scriptures urge us to believe that God
is merciful, loving, and patient; that He is faithful and true, and that
He keeps His promises. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the gift
of His only- begotten Son, that "whosoever believeth in him should not
perish, but have everlasting life." The Gospel is reassurance for sinners.
Yet this one saying from Solomon, misinterpreted at that, is made to count
for more than all the many promises of all the Scriptures.
If our opponents are so uncertain about their status with God, and even
go so far as to say that the conscience ought to be kept in a state of
doubt, why is it that they persecute us as vile heretics? When it comes
to persecuting us they do not seem to be in doubt and uncertainty one minute.
Let us not fail to thank God for delivering us from the doctrine of
doubt. The Gospel commands us to look away from our own good works to the
promises of God in Christ, the Mediator. The pope commands us to look away
from the promises of God in Christ to our own merit. No wonder they are
the eternal prey of doubt and despair. We depend upon God for salvation.
No wonder that our doctrine is certified, because it does not rest in our
own strength, our own conscience, our own feelings, our own person, our
own works. It is built on a better foundation. It is built on the promises
and truth of God.
Besides, the passage from Solomon does not treat of the hatred and love
of God towards men. It merely rebukes the ingratitude of men. The more
deserving a person is, the less he is appreciated. Often those who should
be his best friends, are his worst enemies. Those who least deserve the
praise of the world, get most. David was a holy man and a good king. Nevertheless
he was chased from his own country. The prophets, Christ, the apostles,
were slain. Solomon in this passage does not speak of the love and hatred
of God, but of love and hatred among men. As though Solomon wanted to say:
"There are many good and wise men whom God uses for the advancement of
mankind. Seldom, if ever, are their efforts crowned with gratitude. They
are usually repaid with hatred and ingratitude."
We are being treated that way. We thought we would find favor with men
for bringing them the Gospel of peace, life, and eternal salvation. Instead
of favor, we found fury. At first, yes, many were delighted with our doctrine
and received it gladly. We counted them as our friends and brethren, and
were happy to think that they would help us in sowing the seed of the Gospel.
But they revealed themselves as false brethren and deadly enemies of the
Gospel. If you experience the ingratitude of men, don't let it get you
down. Say with Christ: "They hated me without cause." And, "For my love
they are my adversaries; but I give myself unto prayer." (Ps. 109:4.)
Let us never doubt the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, but make up our
minds that God is pleased with us, that He looks after us, and that we
have the Holy Spirit who prays for us.
VERSE 7. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son.
This sentence clinches Paul's argument. He says: "With the Holy Spirit
in our hearts crying, 'Abba, Father,' there can be no doubt that God has
adopted us for His children and that our subjection to the Law has come
to an end." We are now the free children of God. We may now say to the
Law: "Mister Law, you have lost your throne to Christ. I am free now and
a son of God. You cannot curse me any more." Do not permit the Law to lie
in your conscience. Your conscience belongs to Christ. Let Christ be in
it and not the Law.
As the children of God we are the heirs of His eternal heaven. What
a wonderful gift heaven is, man's heart cannot conceive, much less describe.
Until we enter upon our heavenly inheritance we are only to have our little
faith to go by. To man's reason our faith looks rather forlorn. But because
our faith rests on the promises of the infinite God, His promises are also
infinite, so much so that nothing can accuse or condemn us.
VERSE 7. And if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
A son is an heir, not by virtue of high accomplishments, but by virtue
of his birth. He is a mere recipient. His birth makes him an heir, not
his labors. In exactly the same way we obtain the eternal gifts of righteousness,
resurrection, and everlasting life. We obtain them not as agents, but as
beneficiaries. We are the children and heirs of God through faith in Christ.
We have Christ to thank for everything.
We are not the heirs of some rich and mighty man, but heirs of God,
the almighty Creator of all things. If a person could fully appreciate
what it means to be a son and heir of God, he would rate the might and
wealth of nations small change in comparison with his heavenly inheritance.
What is the world to him who has heaven? No wonder Paul greatly desired
to depart and to be with Christ. Nothing would be more welcome to us than
early death, knowing that it would spell the end of all our miseries and
the beginning of all our happiness. Yes, if a person could perfectly believe
this he would not long remain alive. The anticipation of his joy would
But the law of the members strives against the law of the mind, and
makes perfect joy and faith impossible. We need the continued help and
comfort of the Holy Spirit. We need His prayers. Paul himself cried out:
"O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
The body of this death spoiled the joy of his spirit. He did not always
entertain the sweet and glad expectation of his heavenly inheritance. He
often felt miserable.
This goes to show how hard it is to believe. Faith is feeble, because
the flesh wars against the spirit. If we could have perfect faith, our
loathing for this life in the world would be complete. We would not be
so careful about this life. We would not be so attached to the world and
the things of the world. We would not feel so good when we have them; we
would not feel so bad when we lose them. We would be far more humble and
patient and kind. But our faith is weak, because our spirit is weak. In
this life we can have only the first- fruits of the Spirit, as Paul says.
VERSE 7. Through Christ.
The Apostle always has Christ on the tip of his tongue. He foresaw that
nothing would be less known in the world some day than the Gospel of Christ.
Therefore he talks of Christ continually. As often as he speaks of righteousness,
grace, the promise, the adoption, and the inheritance of heaven, he adds
the words, "In Christ," or "Through Christ," to show that these blessings
are not to be had by the Law, or the deeds of the Law, much less by our
own exertions, or by the observance of human traditions, but only by and
through and in Christ.