Church history buffs (and a number of us who aren’t but) know that October 31st is Reformation Day— it’s the anniversary of the day when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door and (albeit inadvertently) kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Among the many positive fruits of the Reformation is a renewed emphasis on justification by faith—that is, we are saved by God’s grace alone, not by any works we carry out.
In the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul rails against the creep of justification by works into the church. He knows that there is no hope of standing before God by our own merit and yet a works-based righteousness has bewitched the Galatian churches. They’ve been captured by the idea that the Law brings freedom. But, Paul argues, freedom comes not from works of the Law but from the gospel, a matter Luther expounds upon in his commentary on Galatians 3:5:
This argument based on the experience of the Galatians, pleased the Apostle so well that he returns to it after he had warned them against their twofold danger. You have not only received the Spirit by the preaching of the Gospel, but by the same Gospel you were enabled to do things. What things? we ask. Miracles. At least the Galatians had manifested the striking fruits of faith which true disciples of the Gospel manifested in those days. On one occasion the Apostle wrote: The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. This power revealed itself not only in readiness of speech, but in demonstrations of the supernatural ability of the Holy Spirit.
When the Gospel is preached unto faith, hope, love, and patience, God gives His wonder-working Spirit. Paul reminds the Galatians of this. God had not only brought you to faith by my preaching. He had also sanctified you to bring forth the fruits of faith. And one of the fruits of your faith was that you loved me so devotedly that you were willing to pluck out your eyes for me. To love a fellow-man so devotedly as to be ready to bestow upon him money, goods, eyes in order to secure his salvation, such love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
These products of the Spirit you enjoyed before the false apostles misled you, the Apostle reminds the Galatians. But you haven’t manifested any of these fruits under the regime of the Law. How does it come that you do not grow the same fruits now? You no longer teach truly; you do not believe boldly; you do not live well; you do not work hard; you do not bear things patiently. Who has spoiled you that you no longer love me; that you are not now ready to pluck out your eyes for me? What has happened to cool your personal interest in me?
The same thing happened to me. When I began to proclaim the Gospel, there were many, very many who were delighted with our doctrine and had a good opinion of us. And now? Now they have succeeded in making us so odious to those who formerly loved us that they now hate us like poison.
Paul argues: Your experience ought to teach you that the fruits of love do not grow on the stump of the Law. You had not virtue prior to the preaching of the Gospel and you have no virtues now under the regime of the false apostles.
We, too, may say to those who misname themselves evangelical and flout their new-found liberty: Have you put down the tyranny of the Pope and obtained liberty in Christ through the Anabaptists and other fanatics? Or have you obtained your freedom from us who preach faith in Christ Jesus? If there is any honesty left in them they will have to confess that their freedom dates from the preaching of the Gospel.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, p. 78 (Kindle Edition)