I continue to be struck by Dr. Luther's comments on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, 1535 (Luther's Works, Vol. 26, CPH 1963), with specific reference to Gal. 4:8-9. The following, in particular, seems particularly timely in our present day and age:
"By nature all men have the general knowledge that there is a God, according to the statement in Romans (1:19–20): ‘To the extent that God can be known, He is known to them. For His invisible nature, etc.’ Besides, the forms of worship and the religions that have been and remained among all nations are abundant evidence that at some time all men have had a general knowledge of God. Whether this was on the basis of nature or from the tradition of their parents, I am not discussing at the moment.
"But here again someone may raise the objection: ‘If all men know God, why does Paul say that before the proclamation of the Gospel the Galatians did not know God?’ I reply: There is a twofold knowledge of God: the general and the particular. All men have the general knowledge, namely, that God is, that He has created heaven and earth, that He is just, that He punishes the wicked, etc. But what God thinks of us, what He wants to give and to do to deliver us from sin and death and to save us — which is the particular and the true knowledge of God — this men do not know.
"Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know what he has in his mind. So it is that men know naturally that there is a God, but they do not know what He wants and what He does not want. For it is written: ‘No one understands God’ (Rom. 3:11); and elsewhere: ‘No one has ever seen God’ (John 1:18), that is, no one knows what the will of God is. Now what good does it do you to know that God exists if you do not know what His will is toward you? Here different people imagine different things. The Jews imagine that it is the will of God that they should worship God according to the commandments of the Law of Moses; the Turks, that they should observe the Koran; the monk, that he should do what he has learned to do. But all of them are deceived and, as Paul says in Romans, ‘become futile in their thinking' (Rom. 1:21); not knowing what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing to Him, they adore the imaginations of their own heart as though these were true God by nature, when by nature they are nothing at all.
"Paul indicates this when he says: ‘When you did not know God, that is, when you did not know what the will of God is, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; that is, you were in bondage to the dreams and imaginations of your own hearts, by which you made up the idea that God is to be worshiped with this or that ritual.’ From the acceptance of this major premise, ‘There is a God,’ there came all the idolatry of men, which would have been unknown in the world without the knowledge of the Deity. But because men had this natural knowledge about God, they conceived vain and wicked thoughts about God apart from and contrary to the Word; they embraced these as the very truth, and on the basis of these they imagined God otherwise than He is by nature. Thus a monk imagines a God who forgives sins and grants grace and eternal life because of the observance of his rule. That God does not exist anywhere. Therefore the monk neither serves nor worships the true God; he serves and worships one who by nature is no god, namely, a figment and idol of his own heart, his own false and empty notion about God, which he supposes to be the surest truth. But even reason itself is obliged to admit that a human opinion is not God. Therefore whoever wants to worship God or serve Him without the Word is serving, not the true God but, as Paul says, ‘one who by nature is no god.’
"Therefore it does not make much difference whether you call the ‘elements’ here (Gal. 4:9) the Law of Moses or some of the traditions of the Gentiles, even though Paul is speaking specifically and chiefly about the ‘elements’ of Moses. For someone who falls away from grace into the Law is no better off in his fall than someone apart from grace who falls into idolatry. Apart from Christ there is nothing but sheer idolatry, an idol and a false fiction about God, whether it is called the Law of Moses or the law of the pope or the Koran of the Turk."
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