Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535)
by Martin Luther
Translated by Theodore Graebner
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1949)
Chapter 3, pp. 106-135
VERSE 10. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse.
The curse of God is like a flood that swallows everything that is not of faith. To avoid the curse we must hold on to the promise of the blessing in Christ.
The reader is reminded that all this has no bearing upon civil laws, customs, or political matters. Civil laws and ordinances have their place and purpose. Let every government enact the best possible laws. But civil righteousness will never deliver a person from the condemnation of God's Law.
I have good reason for calling your attention to this. People easily mistake civil righteousness for spiritual righteousness. In civil life we must, of course, pay attention to laws and deeds, but in the spiritual life we must not think to be justified by laws and works, but always keep in mind the
promise and blessing of Christ, our only Savior.
According to Paul everything that is not of faith is sin. When our opponents hear us repeat this statement of Paul, they make it appear as if we taught that governments should not be honored, as if we favored rebellion against the constituted authorities, as if we condemned all laws. Our opponents do us a great wrong, for we make a clear-cut distinction between civil and spiritual affairs.
Governmental laws and ordinances are blessings of God for this life only.
As for everlasting life, temporal blessings are not good enough.
Unbelievers enjoy more temporal blessings than the Christians. Civil or
legal righteousness may be good enough for this life but not for the life
hereafter. Otherwise the infidels would be nearer heaven than the
Christians, for infidels often excel in civil righteousness.
VERSE 10. For it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
Paul goes on to prove from this quotation out of the Book of Deuteronomy that all men who are under the Law are under the sentence of sin, of the wrath of God, and of everlasting death. Paul produces his proof in a roundabout way. He turns the negative statement, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them," into a positive statement, "As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse." These two statements, one by Paul and the other by Moses, appear to conflict. Paul declares, "Whosoever shall do the works of the Law, is accursed." Moses declares, "Whosoever shall not do the works of the Law, is accursed." How can these two contradictory statements be reconciled? How can the one statement prove
the other? No person can hope to understand Paul unless he understands the article of justification. These two statements are not at all inconsistent.
We must bear in mind that to do the works of the Law does not mean
only to live up to the superficial requirements of the Law, but to obey the
spirit of the Law to perfection. But where will you find the person who can
do that? Let him step forward and we will praise him.
Our opponents have their answer ready-made. They quote Paul's own
statement in Romans 2:13, "The doers of the law shall be justified." Very
well. But let us first find out who the doers of the law are. They call a
"doer" of the Law one who performs the Law in its literal sense. This is
not to "do" the Law. This is to sin. When our opponents go about to
perform the Law they sin against the first, the second, and the third
commandments, in fact they sin against the whole Law. For God requires
above all that we worship Him in spirit and in faith. In observing the Law
for the purpose of obtaining righteousness without faith in Christ these
law-workers go smack against the Law and against God. They deny the
righteousness of God, His mercy, and His promises. They deny Christ and
all His benefits.
In their ignorance of the true purpose of the Law the exponents of the Law
abuse the Law, as Paul says, Romans 10:3, "For they, being ignorant of
God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness,
have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."
In their folly our opponents rush into the Scriptures, pick out a sentence
here and a sentence there about the Law and imagine they know all about
it. Their work-righteousness is plain idolatry and blasphemy against God.
No wonder they abide under the curse of God.
Because God saw that we could not fulfill the Law, He provided a way of
salvation long before the Law was ever given, a salvation that He
promised to Abraham, saying, "In thee shall all nations be blessed."
The very first thing for us to do is to believe in Christ. First, we must
receive the Holy Spirit, who enlightens and sanctifies us so that we can
begin to do the Law, i.e., to love God and our neighbor. Now, the Holy Ghost
is not obtained by the Law, but by faith in Christ. In the last analysis, to
do the Law means to believe in Jesus Christ. The tree comes first, and then
come the fruits.
The scholastics admit that a mere external and superficial performance of
the Law without sincerity and good will is plain hypocrisy. Judas acted like
the other disciples. What was wrong with Judas? Mark what Rome
answers, "Judas was a reprobate. His motives were perverse, therefore his
works were hypocritical and no good." Well, well. Rome does admit, after
all, that works in themselves do not justify unless they issue from a
sincere heart. Why do our opponents not profess the same truth in
spiritual matters? There, above all, faith must precede everything. The
heart must be purified by faith before a person can lift a finger to please
There are two classes of doers of the Law, true doers and hypocritical doers.
The true doers of the Law are those who are moved by faith in Christ to do
the Law. The hypocritical doers of the Law are those who seek to obtain
righteousness by a mechanical performance of good works while their
hearts are far removed from God. They act like the foolish carpenter who
starts with the roof when he builds a house. Instead of doing the Law,
these law-conscious hypocrites break the Law. They break the very first
commandment of God by denying His promise in Christ. They do not
worship God in faith. They worship themselves.
No wonder Paul was able to foretell the abominations that Antichrist
would bring into the Church. That Antichrists would come, Christ
Himself prophesied, Matthew 24:5, "For many shall come in my name,
saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many." Whoever seeks
righteousness by works denies God and makes himself God. He is an
Antichrist because he ascribes to his own works the omnipotent capability
of conquering sin, death, devil, hell, and the wrath of God. An Antichrist
lays claim to the honor of Christ. He is an idolater of himself. The law-
righteous person is the worst kind of infidel.
Those who intend to obtain righteousness by their own efforts do not say
in so many words: "I am God; I am Christ." But it amounts to that. They
usurp the divinity and office of Christ. The effect is the same as if they
said, "I am Christ; I am a Savior. I save myself and others." This is the
impression the monks give out.
The Pope is the Antichrist, because he is against Christ, because he takes
liberties with the things of God, because he lords it over the temple of God.
I cannot tell you in words how criminal it is to seek righteousness before
God without faith in Christ, by the works of the Law. It is the abomination
standing in the holy place. It deposes the Creator and deifies the creature.
The real doers of the Law are the true believers. The Holy Spirit enables
them to love God and their neighbor. But because we have only the first-
fruits of the Spirit and not the tenth-fruits, we do not observe the Law
perfectly. This imperfection of ours, however, is not imputed to us, for
Hence, the statement of Moses, "Cursed is every one that continueth not
in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them," is not
contrary to Paul. Moses requires perfect doers of the Law. But where will
you find them? Nowhere. Moses himself confessed that he was not a
perfect doer of the Law. He said to the Lord: "Pardon our iniquity and our
sin." Christ alone can make us innocent of any transgression. How so?
First, by the forgiveness of our sins and the imputation of His
righteousness. Secondly, by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who engenders new
life and activity in us.
Objections to the Doctrine of Faith Disproved
Here we shall take the time to enter upon the objections which our
opponents raise against the doctrine of faith. There are many passages in
the Bible that deal with works and the reward of works which our
opponents cite against us in the belief that these will disprove the doctrine
of faith which we teach.
The scholastics grant that according to the reasonable order of nature being
precedes doing. They grant that any act is faulty unless it proceeds from a
right motive. They grant that a person must be right before he can do
right. Why don't they grant that the right inclination of the heart toward
God through faith in Christ must precede works?
In the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews we find a catalogue of
various works and deeds of the saints of the Bible. David, who killed a
lion and a bear, and defeated Goliath, is mentioned. In the heroic deeds of
David the scholastic can discover nothing more than outward
achievement. But the deeds of David must be evaluated according to the
personality of David. When we understand that David was a man of faith,
whose heart trusted in the Lord, we shall understand why he could do
such heroic deeds. David said: "The Lord that delivered me out of the paw
of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the
hand of this Philistine." Again: "Thou comest to me with a sword, and
with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord
of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day
will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take
shine head from thee." (I Samuel 17:37, 45, 46.) Before David could
achieve a single heroic deed he was already a man beloved of God, strong
and constant in faith.
Of Abel it is said in the same Epistle: "By faith Abel offered unto God a
more excellent sacrifice than Cain." When the scholastics come upon the
parallel passage in Genesis 4:4 they get no further than the words: "And
the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering." "Aha!" they cry. "See,
God has respect to offerings. Works do justify." With mud in their eyes
they cannot see that the text says in Genesis that the Lord had respect to
the person of Abel first. Abel pleased the Lord because of his faith. Because
the person of Abel pleased the Lord, the offering of Abel pleased the Lord
also. The Epistle to the Hebrews expressly states: "By faith Abel offered
unto God a more excellent sacrifice."
In our dealings with God the work is worth nothing without faith, for
"without faith it is impossible to please him." (Hebrews 11:6.) The sacrifice
of Abel was better than the sacrifice of Cain, because Abel had faith. As to
Cain he had no faith or trust in God's grace, but strutted about in his own
fancied worth. When God refused to recognize Cain's worth, Cain got
angry at God and at Abel.
The Holy Spirit speaks of faith in different ways in the Sacred Scriptures.
Sometimes He speaks of faith independently of other matters. When the
Scriptures speak of faith in the absolute or abstract, faith refers to
justification directly. But when the Scripture speaks of rewards and works
it speaks of compound or relative faith. We will furnish some examples.
Galatians 5:6, "Faith which worketh by love." Leviticus 18:5, "Which if a
man do, he shall live in them." Matthew 19:17, "If thou wilt enter into
life, keep the commandments." Psalm 37:27, "Depart from evil, and do
good." In these and other passages where mention is made of doing, the
Scriptures always speak of a faithful doing, a doing inspired by faith. "Do
this and thou shalt live," means: First have faith in Christ, and Christ will
enable you to do and to live.
In the Word of God all things that are attributed to works are attributable
to faith. Faith is the divinity of works. Faith permeates all the deeds of the
believer, as Christ's divinity permeated His humanity. Abraham was
accounted righteous because faith pervaded his whole personality and his
When you read how the fathers, prophets, and kings accomplished great
deeds, remember to explain them as the Epistle to the Hebrews accounts
for them: "Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness,
obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions." (Hebrews 11:33.) In this
way will we correctly interpret all those passages that seem to support the
righteousness of works. The Law is truly observed only through faith.
Hence, every "holy," "moral" law-worker is accursed.
Supposing that this explanation will not satisfy the scholastics, supposing
that they should completely wrap me up in their arguments (they cannot
do it), I would rather be wrong and give all credit to Christ alone. Here is
Christ. Paul, Christ's apostle, declares that "Christ hath redeemed us from
the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." (Gal. 3:13.) I hear with my
own ears that I cannot be saved except by the blood and death of Christ. I
conclude, therefore, that it is up to Christ to overcome my sins, and not up
to the Law, or my own efforts. If He is the price of my redemption, if He
was made sin for my justification, I don't give a care if you quote me a
thousand Scripture passages for the righteousness of works against the
righteousness of faith. I have the Author and Lord of the Scriptures on my
side. I would rather believe Him than all that riffraff of "pious" law-
VERSE 11. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God,
it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
The Apostle draws into his argument the testimony of the Prophet
Habakkuk: "The just shall live by his faith." This passage carries much
weight because it eliminates the Law and the deeds of the Law as factors in
the process of our justification.
The scholastics misconstrue this passage by saying: "The just shall live by
faith, if it is a working faith, or a faith formed and performed by charitable
works." Their annotation is a forgery. To speak of formed or unformed
faith, a sort of double faith, is contrary to the Scriptures. If charitable
works can form and perfect faith I am forced to say eventually that
charitable deeds constitute the essential factor in the Christian religion.
Christ and His benefits would be lost to us.
VERSE 12. And the law is not of faith.
In direct opposition to the scholastics Paul declares: "The law is not of
faith." What is this charity the scholastics talk so much about? Does not
the Law command charity? The fact is the Law commands nothing but
charity, as we may gather from the following Scripture passages: "Thou
shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and
with all thy might" (Deut. 6:5.) "Strewing mercy unto thousands of them
that love me, and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:6.) "On these
two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt. 22:40.) If
the law requires charity, charity is part of the Law and not of faith. Since
Christ has displaced the Law which commands charity, it follows that
charity has been abrogated with the Law as a factor in our justification, and
only faith is left.
VERSE 12. But, The man that doeth them shall live in them.
Paul undertakes to explain the difference between the righteousness of the
Law and the righteousness of faith. The righteousness of the Law is the
fulfillment of the Law according to the passage: "The man that doeth them
shall live in them." The righteousness of faith is to believe the Gospel
according to the passage: "The just shall live by faith." The Law is a
statement of debit, the Gospel a statement of credit. By this distinction Paul
explains why charity which is the commandment of the Law cannot
justify, because the Law contributes nothing to our justification.
Indeed, works do follow after faith, but faith is not therefore a meritorious
work. Faith is a gift. The character and limitations of the Law must be
When we believe in Christ we live by faith. When we believe in the Law
we may be active enough but we have no life. The function of the Law is
not to give life; the function of the Law is to kill. True, the Law says: "The
man that doeth them shall live in them." But where is the person who
can do "them," i.e., love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and his
neighbor as himself?
Paul has nothing against those who are justified by faith and therefore are
true doers of the Law. He opposes those who think they can fulfill the Law
when in reality they can only sin against the Law by trying to obtain
righteousness by the Law. The Law demands that we fear, love, and
worship God with a true faith. The law-workers fail to do this. Instead,
they invent new modes of worship and new kinds of works which God
never commanded. They provoke His anger according to the passage: "But
in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of
men." (Matthew 15:9.) Hence, the law-righteous workers are downright
rebels against God, and idolaters who constantly sin against the first
commandment. In short, they are no good at-all though outwardly they
seem to be extremely solicitous of the honor of God.
We who are justified by faith as the saints of old, may be under the Law,
but we are not under the curse of the Law because sin is not imputed to us
for Christ's sake. If the Law cannot be fulfilled by the believers, if sin
continues to cling to them despite their love for God, what can you expect
of people who are not yet justified by faith, who are still enemies of God
and His Word, like the unbelieving law-workers? It goes to show how
impossible it is for those who have not been justified by faith to fulfill the
VERSE 13. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being
made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth
on a tree.
Jerome and his present-day followers rack their miserable brains over this
comforting passage in an effort to save Christ from the fancied insult of
being called a curse. They say: "This quotation from Moses does not apply
to Christ. Paul is taking liberties with Moses by generalizing the statements
in Deuteronomy 21:23. Moses has 'he that is hanged.' Paul puts it 'every
one that hangeth.' On the other hand, Paul omits the words 'of God' in
his quotation from Moses: 'For he that is hanged is accursed of God.'
Moses speaks of a criminal who is worthy of death." "How," our
opponents ask, "can this passage be applied to the holy Christ as if He
were accursed of God and worthy to be hanged?" This piece of exegesis
may impress the naive as a zealous attempt to defend the honor and
glory of Christ. Let us see what Paul has in mind.
Paul does not say that Christ was made a curse for Himself. The accent is
on the two words "for us." Christ is personally innocent. Personally, He
did not deserve to be hanged for any crime of His own doing. But because
Christ took the place of others who were sinners, He was hanged like any
other transgressor. The Law of Moses leaves no loopholes. It says that a
transgressor should be hanged. Who are the other sinners? We are. The
sentence of death and everlasting damnation had long been pronounced
over us. But Christ took all our sins and died for them on the Cross. "He
was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and
made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12.)
All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor,
murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on
earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ
was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins
of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who
denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery
and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short,
Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that He should pay for them
with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among
sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as
to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged
and hanged Him for a sinner.
In separating Christ from us sinners and holding Him up as a holy
exemplar, errorists rob us of our best comfort. They misrepresent Him as a
threatening tyrant who is ready to slaughter us at the slightest
I am told that it is preposterous and wicked to call the Son of God a cursed
sinner. I answer: If you deny that He is a condemned sinner, you are forced
to deny that Christ died. It is not less preposterous to say, the Son of God
died, than to say, the Son of God was a sinner.
John the Baptist called Him "the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin
of the world." Being the unspotted Lamb of God, Christ was personally
innocent. But because He took the sins of the world His sinlessness was
defiled with the sinfulness of the world. Whatever sins I, you, all of us
have committed or shall commit, they are Christ's sins as if He had
committed them Himself. Our sins have to be Christ's sins or we shall
Isaiah declares of Christ: "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us
all." We have no right to minimize the force of this declaration. God does
not amuse Himself with words. What a relief for a Christian to know that
Christ is covered all over with my sins, your sins, and the sins of the
The papists invented their own doctrine of faith. They say charity creates
and adorns their faith. By stripping Christ of our sins, by making Him
sinless, they cast our sins back at us, and make Christ absolutely worthless
to us. What sort of charity is this? If that is a sample of their vaunted
charity we want none of it.
Our merciful Father in heaven saw how the Law oppressed us and how
impossible it was for us to get out from under the curse of the Law. He
therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: "You are now
Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the
disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world's
iniquity." The Law growls: "All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the
world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross."
And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.
The argument of the Apostle against the righteousness of the Law is
impregnable. If Christ bears our sins, we do not bear them. But if Christ is
innocent of our sins and does not bear them, we must bear them, and we
shall die in our sins. "But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies. The
sins of the whole world, past, present, and future, fastened themselves
upon Christ and condemned Him. But because Christ is God He had an
everlasting and unconquerable righteousness. These two, the sin of the
world and the righteousness of God, met in a death struggle. Furiously the
sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God. Righteousness is
immortal and invincible. On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who
subdues all men. This tyrant pounces on Christ. But Christ's righteousness
is unconquerable. The result is inevitable. Sin is defeated and
righteousness triumphs and reigns forever.
In the same manner was death defeated. Death is emperor of the world.
He strikes down kings, princes, all men. He has an idea to destroy all life.
But Christ has immortal life, and life immortal gained the victory over
death. Through Christ death has lost her sting. Christ is the Death of
The curse of God waged a similar battle with the eternal mercy of God in
Christ. The curse meant to condemn God's mercy. But it could not do it
because the mercy of God is everlasting. The curse had to give way. If the
mercy of God in Christ had lost out, God Himself would have lost out,
which, of course, is impossible.
"Christ," says Paul, "spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of
them openly, triumphing over them in it." (Col. 2:15.) They cannot harm
those who hide in Christ. Sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, the devil are
mortified in Christ. Where Christ is near the powers of evil must keep
their distance. St. John says: "And this is the victory that overcometh the
world, even our faith." (I John 5:4.)
You may now perceive why it is imperative to believe and confess the
divinity of Christ. To overcome the sin of a whole world, and death, and
the wrath of God was no work for any creature. The power of sin and
death could be broken only by a greater power. God alone could abolish
sin, destroy death, and take away the curse of the Law. God alone could
bring righteousness, life, and mercy to light. In attributing these
achievements to Christ the Scriptures pronounce Christ to be God forever.
The article of justification is indeed fundamental. If we remain sound in
this one article, we remain sound in all the other articles of the Christian
faith. When we teach justification by faith in Christ we confess at the same
time that Christ is God.
I cannot get over the blindness of the Pope's theologians. To imagine that
the mighty forces of sin, death, and the curse can be vanquished by the
righteousness of man's paltry works, by fasting, pilgrimages, masses, vows,
and such gewgaws. These blind leaders of the blind turn the poor people
over to the mercy of sin, death, and the devil. What chance has a
defenseless human creature against these powers of darkness? They train
sinners who are ten times worse than any thief, whore, murderer. The
divine power of God alone can destroy sin and death, and create
righteousness and life.
When we hear that Christ was made a curse for us, let us believe it with
joy and assurance. By faith Christ changes places with us. He gets our sins,
we get His holiness.
By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the
sinlessness of Christ. The more fully we believe this, the fuller will be our
joy. If you believe that sin, death, and the curse are void, why, they are
null, zero. Whenever sin and death make you nervous write it down as
an illusion of the devil. There is no sin now, no curse, no death, no devil
because Christ has done away with them. This fact is sure. There is
nothing wrong with the fact. The defect lies in our lack of faith.
In the Apostolic Creed we confess: "I believe in the holy Christian
Church." That means, I believe that there is no sin, no curse, no evil in
the Church of God. Faith says: "I believe that." But if you want to believe
your eyes you will find many shortcomings and offenses in the members
of the holy Church. You see them succumb to temptation, you see them
weak in faith, you see them giving way to anger, envy, and other evil
dispositions. "How can the Church be holy?" you ask. It is with the
Christian Church as it is with the individual Christian. If I examine myself
I find enough unholiness to shock me. But when I look at Christ in me I
find that I am altogether holy. And so it is with the Church.
Holy Writ does not say that Christ was under the curse. It says directly that
Christ was made a curse. In II Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes: "For he (God)
hath made him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might
be made the righteousness of God in him." Although this and similar
passages may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a
sacrifice for the curse and for sin, yet in my judgment it is better to leave
these passages stand as they read: Christ was made sin itself; Christ was
made the curse itself. When a sinner gets wise to himself he does not only
feel miserable, he feels like misery personified; he does not only feel like a
sinner, he feels like sin itself.
To finish with this verse: All evils would have overwhelmed us, as they
shall overwhelm the unbelievers forever, if Christ had not become the
great transgressor and guilty bearer of all our sins. The sins of the world
got Him down for a moment. They came around Him like water. Of
Christ, the Old Testament Prophet complained: "Thy fierce wrath goeth
over me; thy terrors have cut me off." (Psalm 88 16.) By Christ's salvation
we have been delivered from the terrors of God to a life of eternal felicity.
VERSE 14. That the blessing of Abraham might come, on the Gentiles
through Jesus Christ.
Paul always keeps this text before him: "In thy seed shall all the nations of
the earth be blessed." The blessing promised unto Abraham could come
upon the Gentiles only by Christ, the seed of Abraham. To become a
blessing unto all nations Christ had to be made a curse to take away the
curse from the nations of the earth. The merit that we plead, and the work
that we proffer is Christ who was made a curse for us.
Let us become expert in the art of transferring our sins, our death, and
every evil from ourselves to Christ; and Christ's righteousness and
blessing from Christ to ourselves.
VERSE 14. That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
"The promise of the Spirit" is Hebrew for "the promised Spirit." The Spirit
spells freedom from the Law, sin, death, the curse, hell, and the judgment
of God. No merits are mentioned in connection with this promise of the
Spirit and all the blessings that go with Him. This Spirit of many blessings
is received by faith alone. Faith alone builds on the promises of God, as
Paul says in this verse.
Long ago the prophets visualized the happy changes Christ would effect in
all things. Despite the fact that the Jews had the Law of God they never
ceased to look longingly for Christ. After Moses no prophet or king added
a single law to the Book. Any changes or additions were deferred to the
time of Christ's coming. Moses told the people: "The Lord thy God will
raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like
unto me; unto him ye shall hearken." (Deut. 18:15.)
God's people of old felt that the Law of Moses could not be improved
upon until the Messiah would bring better things than the Law, i.e., grace
and remission of sins.
VERSE 15. Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but
a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or
After the preceding, well-taken argument, Paul offers another based on the
similarity between a man's testament and God's testament. A man's
testament seems too weak a premise for the Apostle to argue from in
confirmation of so important a matter as justification. We ought to prove
earthly things by heavenly things, and not heavenly things by earthly
things. But where the earthly thing is an ordinance of God we may use it
to prove divine matters. In Matthew 7:11 Christ Himself argued from
earthly to heavenly things when He said: "If ye then, being evil, know
how to give good gifts to your children; how much more shall your Father
which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"
To come to Paul's argument. Civil law, which is God's ordinance,
prohibits tampering with any testament of man. Any person's last will
and testament must be respected. Paul asks: "Why is it that man's last will
is scrupulously respected and not God's testament? You would not think
of breaking faith with a man's testament. Why do you not keep faith with
The Apostle says that he is speaking after the manner of men. He means
to say: "I will give you an illustration from the customs of men. If a man's
last will is respected. and it is, how much more ought the testament of
God be honored: 'In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.'
When Christ died, this testament was sealed by His blood. After His death
the testament was opened, it was published to the nations. No man ought
to alter God's testament as the false apostles do who substitute the Law
and traditions of men for the testament of God."
As the false prophets tampered with God's testament in the days of Paul,
so many do in our day. They will observe human laws punctiliously, but
the laws of God they transgress without the flicker of an eyelid. But the
time will come when they will find out that it is no joke to pervert the
testament of God.
VERSE 16. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He
saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed,
which is Christ.
The word testament is another name for the promise that God made unto
Abraham concerning Christ. A testament is not a law, but an inheritance.
Heirs do not look for laws and assessments when they open a last will;
they look for grants and favors. The testament which God made out to
Abraham did not contain laws. It contained promises of great spiritual
The promises were made in view of Christ, in one seed, not in many
seeds. The Jews will not accept this interpretation. They insist that the
singular "seed" is put for the plural "seeds." We prefer the interpretation
of Paul, who makes a fine case for Christ and for us out of the singular
"seed," and is after all inspired to do so by the Holy Ghost.
VERSE 17. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before
of God in Christ, the law which was four hundred and thirty years
after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.
The Jews assert that God was not satisfied with His promises, but after four
hundred and thirty years He gave the Law. "God," they say, "must have
mistrusted His own promises, and considered them inadequate for
salvation. Therefore He added to His promises something better, the Law.
The Law," they say, "canceled the promises."
Paul answers: "The Law was given four hundred and thirty years after the
promise was made to Abraham. The Law could not cancel the promise
because the promise was the testament of God, confirmed by God in Christ
many years before the Law. What God has once promised He does not take
back. Every promise of God is a ratified promise."
Why was the Law added to the promise? Not to serve as a medium by
which the promise might be obtained. The Law was added for these
reasons: That there might be in the world a special people, rigidly
controlled by the Law, a people out of which Christ should be born in due
time; and that men burdened by many laws might sigh and long for Him,
their Redeemer, the seed of Abraham. Even the ceremonies prescribed by
the Law foreshadowed Christ. Therefore the Law was never meant to
cancel the promise of God. The Law was meant to confirm the promise
until the time should come when God would open His testament in the
Gospel of Jesus Christ.
God did well in giving the promise so many years before the Law, that it
may never be said that righteousness is granted through the Law and not
through the promise. If God had meant for us to be justified by the Law,
He would have given the Law four hundred and thirty years before the
promise, at least He would have given the Law at the same time He gave
the promise. But He never breathed a word about the Law until four
hundred years after. The promise is therefore better than the Law. The
Law does not cancel the promise, but faith in the promised Christ cancels
The Apostle is careful to mention the exact number of four hundred and
thirty years. The wide divergence in the time between the promise and the
Law helps to clinch Paul's argument that righteousness is not obtained by
Let me illustrate. A man of great wealth adopts a strange lad for his son.
Remember, he does not owe the lad anything. In due time he appoints the
lad heir to his entire fortune. Several years later the old man asks the lad
to do something for him. And the young lad does it. Can the lad then go
around and say that he deserved the inheritance by his obedience to the
old man's request ? How can anybody say that righteousness is obtained by
obedience to the Law when the Law was given four hundred and thirty
years after God's promise of the blessing?
One thing is certain, Abraham was never justified by the Law, for the
simple reason that the Law was not in his day. If the Law was non-existent
how could Abraham obtain righteousness by the Law? Abraham had
nothing else to go by but the promise. This promise he believed and that
was counted unto him for righteousness. If the father obtained
righteousness through faith, the children get it the same way.
We use the argument of time also. We say our sins were taken away by the
death of Christ fifteen hundred years ago, long before there were any
religious orders, canons, or rules of penance, merits, etc. What did people
do about their sins before these new inventions were hatched up?
Paul finds his arguments for the righteousness of faith everywhere. Even
the element of time serves to build his case against the false apostles. Let
us fortify our conscience with similar arguments. They help us in the
trials of our faith. They turn our attention from the Law to the promises,
from sin to righteousness; from death to life.
It is not for nothing that Paul bears down on this argument. He foresaw
this confusion of the promise and the Law creeping into the Church.
Accustom yourself to separate Law and Gospel even in regard to time.
When the Law comes to pay your conscience a visit, say: "Mister Law, you
come too soon. The four hundred and thirty years aren't up yet. When
they are up, you come again. Won't you ?"
VERSE 18. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of
In Romans 4:14, the Apostle writes: "For if they which are made of the
law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect." It
cannot be otherwise. That the Law is something entirely different from the
promise is plain. The Law thunders: "Thou shalt, thou shalt not." The
promise of the "seed" pleads: "Take this gift of God." If the inheritance of
the gifts of God were obtained by the Law, God would be a liar. We would
have the right to ask Him: "Why did you make this promise in the first
place: 'In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed'? Why did
you not say: 'In thy works thou shalt be blessed'?"
VERSE 18. But God gave it to Abraham by promise.
So much is certain, before the Law ever existed, God gave Abraham the
inheritance or blessing by the promise. In other words, God granted unto
Abraham remission of sins, righteousness, salvation, and everlasting life.
And not only to Abraham but to all believers, because God said: "In thy
seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." The blessing was given
unconditionally. The Law had no chance to butt in because Moses was not
yet born. "How then can you say that righteousness is obtained by the Law?"
The Apostle now goes to work to explain the province and purpose of the
VERSE 19. Wherefore then serveth the law?
The question naturally arises: If the Law was not given for righteousness
or salvation, why was it given? Why did God give the Law in the first
place if it cannot justify a person?
The Jews believed if they kept the Law they would be saved. When they
heard that the Gospel proclaimed a Christ who had come into the world to
save sinners and not the righteous; when they heard that sinners were to
enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous, the Jews were very
much put out. They murmured: "These last have wrought but one hour,
and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden
and heat of the day." (Matthew 20:12.) They complained that the heathen
who at one time had been worshipers of idols obtained grace without the
drudgery of the Law that was theirs.
Today we hear the same complaints. "What was the use of our having
lived in a cloister, twenty, thirty, forty years; what was the sense of having
vowed chastity, poverty, obedience; what good are all the masses and
canonical hours that we read; what profit is there in fasting, praying, etc.,
if any man or woman, any beggar or scour woman is to be made equal to
us, or even be considered more acceptable unto God than we?"
Reason takes offense at the statement of Paul: "The law was added because
of transgressions." People say that Paul abrogated the Law, that he is a
radical, that he blasphemed God when he said that. People say: "We might
as well live like wild people if the Law does not count. Let us abound in
sin that grace may abound. Let us do evil that good may come of it."
What are we to do? Such scoffing distresses us, but we cannot stop it.
Christ Himself was accused of being a blasphemer and rebel. Paul and all
the other apostles were told the same things. Let the scoffers slander us, let
them spare us not. But we must not on their account keep silent. We must
speak frankly in order that afflicted consciences may find surcease. Neither
are we to pay any attention to the foolish and ungodly people for abusing
our doctrine. They are the kind that would scoff, Law or no Law. Our first
consideration must be the comfort of troubled consciences, that they may
not perish with the multitudes.
When he saw that some were offended at his doctrine, while others found
in it encouragement to live after the flesh, Paul comforted himself with
the thought that it was his duty to preach the Gospel to the elect of God,
and that for their sake he must endure all things. Like Paul we also do all
these things for the sake of God's elect. As for the scoffers and skeptics, I
am so disgusted with them that in all my life I would not open my mouth
for them once. I wish that they were back there where they belong under
the iron heel of the Pope.
People foolish but wise in their conceits jump to the conclusion: If the Law
does not justify, it is good for nothing. How about that? Because money
does not justify, would you say that money is good for nothing? Because
the eyes do not justify, would you have them taken out? Because the Law
does not justify it does not follow that the Law is without value. We must
find and define the proper purpose of the Law. We do not offhand
condemn the Law because we say it does not justify.
We say with Paul that the Law is good if it is used properly. Within its
proper sphere the Law is an excellent thing. But if we ascribe to the Law
functions for which it was never intended, we pervert not only the Law
but also the Gospel.
It is the universal impression that righteousness is obtained through the
deeds of the Law. This impression is instinctive and therefore doubly
dangerous. Gross sins and vices may be recognized or else repressed by the
threat of punishment. But this sin, this opinion of man's own
righteousness refuses to be classified as sin. It wants to be esteemed as
high-class religion. Hence, it constitutes the mighty influence of the devil
over the entire world. In order to point out the true office of the Law, and
thus to stamp out that false impression of the righteousness of the Law,
Paul answers the question: "Wherefore then serveth the Law?" with the
VERSE 19. It was added because of transgressions.
All things differ. Let everything serve its unique purpose. Let the sun
shine by day, the moon and the stars by night. Let the sea furnish fish, the
earth grain, the woods trees, etc. Let the Law also serve its unique purpose.
It must not step out of character and take the place of anything else. What
is the function of the Law? "Transgression," answers the Apostle.
The Twofold Purpose of the Law
The Law has a twofold purpose. One purpose is civil. God has ordained
civil laws to punish crime. Every law is given to restrain sin. Does it not
then make men righteous? No. In refraining from murder, adultery,
theft, or other sins, I do so under compulsion because I fear the jail, the
noose, the electric chair. These restrain me as iron bars restrain a lion and
a bear. Otherwise they would tear everything to pieces. Such forceful
restraint cannot be regarded as righteousness, rather as an indication of
unrighteousness. As a wild beast is tied to keep it from running amuck, so
the Law bridles mad and furious man to keep him from running wild.
The need for restraint shows plainly enough that those who need the Law
are not righteous, but wicked men who are fit to be tied. No, the Law does
The first purpose of the Law, accordingly, is to restrain the wicked.
The devil gets people into all kinds of scrapes. Therefore God
instituted governments, parents, laws, restrictions, and civil
ordinances. At least they help to tie the devil's hands so that he does
not rage up and down the earth. This civil restraint by the Law is
intended by God for the preservation of all things, particularly for the
good of the Gospel that it should not be hindered too much by the
tumult of the wicked. But Paul is not now treating of this civil use
and function of the Law.
The second purpose of the Law is spiritual and divine. Paul describes
this spiritual purpose of the Law in the words, "Because of
transgressions," i.e., to reveal to a person his sin, blindness, misery,
his ignorance, hatred, and contempt of God, his death, hell, and
This is the principal purpose of the Law and its most valuable
contribution. As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, thief, he
would swear that he is righteous. How is God going to humble such a
person except by the Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of
hell, and the lightning of God's wrath to bring down the proud and
shameless hypocrites. When the Law was instituted on Mount Sinai it was
accompanied by lightning, by storms, by the sound of trumpets, to tear to
pieces that monster called self-righteousness. As long as a person thinks
he is right he is going to be incomprehensibly proud and presumptuous.
He is going to hate God, despise His grace and mercy, and ignore the
promises in Christ. The Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through
Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous.
This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe.
And that is what the Law is, a big axe. Accordingly, the proper use and
function of the Law is to threaten until the conscience is scared stiff.
The awful spectacle at Mount Sinai portrayed the proper use of the Law. When
the children of Israel came out of Egypt a feeling of singular holiness
possessed them. They boasted: "We are the people of God. All that the Lord
hath spoken we will do." (Ex. 19:8) This feeling of holiness was heightened
when Moses ordered them to wash their clothes, to refrain from their wives,
and to prepare themselves all around. The third day came and Moses led the
people out of their tents to the foot of the mountain into the presence of
the Lord. What happened? When the children of Israel saw the whole mountain
burning and smoking, the black clouds rent by fierce lightning flashing up
and down in the inky darkness, when they heard the sound of the trumpet
blowing louder and longer, shattered by the roll of thunder, they were so
frightened that they begged Moses: "Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but
let not God speak with us, lest we die." (Ex. 20:19.) I ask you, what good
did their scrubbing, their snow-white clothes, and their continence do them?
No good at all. Not a single one could stand in the presence of the glorious
Lord. Stricken by the terror of God, they fled back into their tents, as if
the devil were after them.
The Law is meant to produce the same effect today which it produced at
Mount Sinai long ago. I want to encourage all who fear God, especially
those who intend to become ministers of the Gospel, to learn from the
Apostle the proper use of the Law. I fear that after our time the right
handling of the Law will become a lost art. Even now, although we
continually explain the separate functions of the Law and the Gospel, we
have those among us who do not understand how the Law should be
used. What will it be like when we are dead and gone?
We want it understood that we do not reject the Law as our opponents
claim. On the contrary, we uphold the Law. We say the Law is good if it is
used for the purposes for which it was designed, to check civil
transgression, and to magnify spiritual transgressions. The Law is also a
light like the Gospel. But instead of revealing the grace of God,
righteousness, and life, the Law brings sin, death, and the wrath of God to
light. This is the business of the Law, and here the business of the Law
ends, and should go no further.
The business of the Gospel, on the other hand, is to quicken, to comfort, to
raise the fallen. The Gospel carries the news that God for Christ's sake is
merciful to the most unworthy sinners, if they will only believe that
Christ by His death has delivered them from sin and everlasting death
unto grace, forgiveness, and everlasting life. By keeping in mind the
difference between the Law and the Gospel we let each perform its special
task. Of this difference between the Law and the Gospel nothing can be
discovered in the writings of the monks or scholastics, nor for that matter
in the writings of the ancient fathers. Augustine understood the difference
somewhat. Jerome and others knew nothing of it. The silence in the
Church concerning the difference between the Law and the Gospel has
resulted in untold harm. Unless a sharp distinction is maintained between
the purpose and function of the Law and the Gospel, the Christian
doctrine cannot be kept free from error.
VERSE 19. It was added because of transgressions.
In other words, that transgressions might be recognized as such and thus
increased. When sin, death, and the wrath of God are revealed to a person
by the Law, he grows impatient, complains against God, and rebels. Before
that he was a very holy man; he worshipped and praised God; he bowed
his knees before God and gave thanks, like the Pharisee. But now that sin
and death are revealed to him by the Law he wishes there were no God.
The Law inspires hatred of God. Thus sin is not only revealed by the Law;
sin is actually increased and magnified by the Law.
The Law is a mirror to show a person what he is like, a sinner who is
guilty of death, and worthy of everlasting punishment. What is this
bruising and beating by the hand of the Law to accomplish? This, that we
may find the way to grace. The Law is an usher to lead the way to grace.
God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted. It is His nature
to exalt the humble, to comfort the sorrowing, to heal the broken-hearted,
to justify the sinners, and to save the condemned. The fatuous idea that a
person can be holy by himself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners.
God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the Law in His fists
and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence,
self-wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help. When the conscience has
been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace
with its message of a Savior who came into the world, not to break the
bruised reed, nor to quench the smoking flax, but to preach glad tidings to
the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins to all
Man's folly, however, is so prodigious that instead of embracing the message
of grace with its guarantee of the forgiveness of sin for Christ's sake, man
finds himself more laws to satisfy his conscience. "If I live," says he, "I
will mend my life. I will do this, I will do that." Man, if you don't do the
very opposite, if you don't send Moses with the Law back to Mount Sinai and
take the hand of Christ, pierced for your sins, you will never be saved.
When the Law drives you to the point of despair, let it drive you a little
farther, let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus who says: "Come
unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
VERSE 19. Till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.
The Law is not to have its say indefinitely. We must know how long the
Law is to put in its licks. If it hammers away too long, no person would
and could be saved. The Law has a boundary beyond which it must not go.
How long ought the Law to hold sway? "Till the seed should come to
whom the promise was made."
That may be taken literally to mean until the time of the Gospel. "From
the days of John the Baptist," says Jesus, "until now the kingdom of
heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the
prophets and the law prophesied until John." (Matthew 11:12, 13.) When
Christ came the Law and the ceremonies of Moses ceased.
Spiritually, it means that the Law is not to operate on a person after he has
been humbled and frightened by the exposure of his sins and the wrath of
God. We must then say to the Law: "Mister Law, lay off him. He has had
enough. You scared him good and proper." Now it is the Gospel's turn.
Now let Christ with His gracious lips talk to him of better things, grace,
peace, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
VERSE 19. And it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
The Apostle digresses a little from his immediate theme. Something
occurred to him and he throws it in by the way. It occurred to him that the
Law differs from the Gospel in another respect, in respect to authorship.
The Law was delivered by the angels, but the Gospel by the Lord Himself.
Hence, the Gospel is superior to the Law, as the word of a lord is superior
to the word of his servant.
The Law was handed down by a being even inferior to the angels, by a
middleman named Moses. Paul wants us to understand that Christ is the
mediator of a better testament than mediator Moses of the Law. Moses led
the people out of their tents to meet God. But they ran away. That is how
good a mediator Moses was.
Paul says: "How can the Law justify when that whole sanctified people of
Israel and even mediator Moses trembled at the voice of God? What kind
of righteousness do you call that when people run away from it and hate it
the worst way? If the Law could justify, people would love the Law. But
look at the children of Israel running away from it."
The flight of the children of Israel from Mount Sinai indicates how people
feel about the Law. They don't like it. If this were the only argument to
prove that salvation is not by the Law, this one Bible history would do the
work. What kind of righteousness is this law-righteousness when at the
commencement exercises of the Law Moses and the scrubbed people run
away from it so fast that an iron mountain, the Red Sea even, could not
have stopped them until they were back in Egypt once again? If they could
not hear the Law, how could they ever hope to perform the Law?
If all the world had stood at the mountain, all the world would have hated
the Law and fled from it as the children of Israel did. The whole world is
an enemy of the Law. How, then, can anyone be justified by the Law when
everybody hates the Law and its divine author?
All this goes to show how little the scholastics know about the Law. They do
not consider its spiritual effect and purpose, which is not to justify or to
pacify afflicted consciences, but to increase sin, to terrify the conscience,
and to produce wrath. In their ignorance the papists spout about man's good
will and right judgment, and man's capacity to perform the Law of God. Ask
the people of Israel who were present at the presentation of the Law on Mount
Sinai whether what the scholastics say is true. Ask David, who often
complains in the Psalms that he was cast away from God and in hell, that he
was frantic about his sin, and sick at the thought of the wrath and judgment
of God. No, the Law does not justify.
This text was converted to ASCII format for Project Wittenberg by
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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Concordia Theological Seminary
Surface Mail: 6600 N. Clinton St., Ft. Wayne, IN 46825 USA
Phone: (260) 452-3149 Fax: (260) 452-2126