Luther lectured on the book of Galatians in 1531. Notes were taken of his lectures by various individuals, and these were used to publish a commentary on Galatians by Luther in 1535. The extensive notes taken by Georg Rörer were so good that his have been included in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s works along with the published commentary from 1535. Imagine not only hearing Luther lecture, but then having your notes published alongside his commentary. It must have been quite an honour.

Anyway, Rörer records Luther making some rather interesting comments about religion and religions. Here are two examples:

“There is no difference between a Jew, Papist, Turk. Of course, the rites are diverse, but it is the same heart and thoughts … because it is as follows: if I do thus, God will be merciful to me. It is the same passion of all men in their souls (hearts), [but] there is no middle way between the knowledge of Christ and human activity. Thereafter, it doesn’t matter, whether one is a Papist, Turk, Jew, one faith is as the other. For that reason, they are very much fools, because they fight each other on account of religion.” (WA 40, 1; 603-604,3).

“Every religion is idolatry, and whoever is more prayerful, more spiritual, … this is more pestilent that one averts one’s gaze (eye) from faith in Christ and what is his … Outside of Christ all the religions are idols.” (WA 40, 2: 110,6-111,1)

In short, Luther is saying that all religions are based on the law, i.e. following rules to gain God’s favour, as cited above, “If I do thus, God will be merciful to me.” Over against vain human efforts to gain God’s grace stands Jesus Christ and his gift of salvation given to all sinful human beings. This gift cannot be not earned or achieved. Instead, by God’s grace alone it is received by faith alone. That Jesus has won this gift for us sinners on the cross and in the resurrection and that Jesus has given this gift to us “for free” is unbelievably “good news.” In English, the theological word for good news” is “gospel.”

For Luther, the law and the gospel are diametrically opposed. As we all know through our own experience, our best efforts to fulfil the commandments in the Bible, i.e. the law, fail miserably. Furthermore, when we do manage to fulfil some of them, our sin calls us to bask in the glory of our achievements. In other words, our “good works” are inevitably undermined by the sins of pride and self-righteousness. Round and round and round we go … Maybe that is why St. Augustine defined sin as being turned in on ourselves (incuravatus in se).

That, however, is only the half of it. Luther goes on to declare that all religions outside of Christ are idols. Those are strong words, but the theology behind them is really quite simple. If one’s religion requires one to be busy trying to achieve salvation by winning God’s favour, and if the one true God has given sinners salvation as a gift through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then the gods which demand fulfilment of the law are not truly God. Such gods reveal themselves to be what all false gods are, namely idols.
In our modern, ecumenical, and politically correct age, people who are “religious” frequently succumb to the notion that the different religions offer different ways to get to the one God. Luther claims the opposite. All religions lead to false gods, to idols. Consequently, all religions lead their adherents not only away from the one true God but through their various religious practices lead their adherents to a dead end. For Luther, religion is a diabolical road to nowhere.

For this reason, the season of Lent can mislead many into a false observance. In some denominations, the idea of “giving up something for Lent” would be deemed a “good work” which would merit favour with God. Typically, people “punish” themselves by giving up something which they enjoy, like chocolate or cake or some other similar, superhuman sacrifice. Much more rarely are those who try to give up something truly sinful, and depending on the sin, that could make telling others about one’s Lenten sacrifice a little bit tricky. So, is “religiously” attending midweek Lenten services an idolatrous “good work” or a burdensome act of contrition, which in the end is still an idolatrous good work?

For Lutherans, extra Lenten services offer something diametrically opposed to religion and its various idols. At midweek Lenten serves, we gather to hear God’s word in both law and gospel. That is to hear that we are sinners prey to idolatry of all kinds and descriptions and then to hear that through faith alone in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we are truly forgiven of our sins by the one true God. Lenten services, like Sunday services, are not something which we do. Instead, they are opportunities in which God does something to us. He reminds us of our fallen nature, he calls us to acknowledge and confess such sins, and then he declares that we are forgiven, even righteous, as a gift, through faith alone. So, this Lenten season, have a few extra slices of chocolate cake and celebrate the gift of your forgiveness with others.