This excerpt is from lecture notes transcribed by Martin Luther’s students on Galatians 4:3.
Although Paul calls the entire law “the rudiments of the world” (for so it seems according to what I’ve already said), he reserves a disdain for the ceremonial laws. These don’t profit much; even so (he says), they only consist in external matters such as meats, drinks, dress, places, times, the temple, the feasts, ritual washings, sacrifices, etc. These belong only to this world; they are matters ordained by God only for use in this present life but not to justify or save before God. Thus through this phrase, “the rudimentary principles of the world,” he rejects and condemns the righteousness of the law, which consists in these external ceremonies, which were ordained through God’s command to be observed for a while, and gives it an insignificant name calling it “the rudimentary principles of the world.” In the same way, the laws of the emperor are rudiments of this world, for it deals with matters of this world; that is, things dealing with this life such as goods, possessions, inheritances, murders, adulteries, robberies, and so on, things that the second table of the Ten Commandments also mentions. With respect to the canons and papal decrees, which prohibit marriage and meats, Paul in another place calls these “doctrines of devils.” These are also rudiments of the world for they are the ones that most wickedly submit people’s consciences to the observance of external matters, contrary to the word of God and faith.
Therefore, the law of Moses deals with nothing else than worldly matters—that is, it only shows there is evil in the world, whether it’s dealing with civilian society or spiritual matters. However, if used in its true sense, it compels the conscience through terrifying fears to seek and thirst after God’s promise and look to Christ. But for that to happen, you need the Holy Spirit’s help who can say to your heart, “It is not God’s will that after the law has performed its work in you, you should continue paralyzed and dead. Instead, when through the law you come to know your misery and condemnation, you should not lose hope but put your faith in Christ, who is ‘the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified.’” At this moment, there is no longer any earthly thing, but everything of this world and every law comes to its end. However, everything heavenly begins to appear, for as long as we are under the rudiments of the world, that is under the law, which is not only incapable of granting righteousness and peace to the conscience (but instead reveals and increases sin, stirs up wrath), we are entirely subject to the law as its servants even if we have the promise of the blessing to come. Indeed, the law said, “You shall love the Lord your God,” but the law cannot give me such love, nor can it take my hand to grasp on to Christ.
I say this not for the law to be despised, for neither is that Paul’s intent, but that it should be held in great esteem. However, since Paul is dealing here with the subject of justification, it was necessary to talk about the law as something despicable and hateful, for justification is another subject that greatly differs from the law. When we are dealing with this subject, one must keep on talking about the law as insignificant and detestable. Thus when the conscience finds itself in conflict, then it should fix its gaze on nothing else but Christ and Christ alone. Then the law must be removed entirely from sight, and we must embrace nothing else but the promise regarding Christ. But this is easier said than done. However, in the moment of temptation, when the conscience struggles in God’s presence, it is the most difficult thing to achieve—that is, when the conscience accuses you, harasses you, perturbs you, reveals your sin, threatens with God’s wrath and eternal death, with all the strength of mind and body, respond as if there had never been any law or any sin but Christ alone, sheer grace, and redemption. You could also say, “Oh law, I am not going to pay any attention to you, for you stammer and are slow of speech. Further, the fullness of time has come and thus I am free; I will no longer, not even for one more second, put up with your tyranny!” Here, you can see how difficult it is to separate the law from grace. Once again, how divine and heavenly it is to hope against all hope and how true is Paul’s declaration that “we are justified by faith alone.”
Indeed, the law said, “You shall love the Lord your God,” but the law cannot give me such love, nor can it take my hand to grasp on to Christ.
So that when it comes to the topic of justification, learn to talk about the law with the greatest disdain possible, following the example of the apostle who calls the law “the rudiments of the world,” pernicious traditions, the power of sin, the ministry of death, etc. If you allow the law to dominate and reign over your conscience when you find yourself in God’s presence fighting against sin and death, then the law is nothing more than a bottomless pit of every evil, heresy, and blasphemy, for it cannot do anything more than stir up sin, accuse and trample the conscience, threaten with death, and leave you exposed to a wrathful God who rejects and condemns sinners. Therefore, here, if you are to be wise, banish far from you that stammering and stuttering Moses together with his law and don’t let yourself be moved at all by his terrors and threats. Here, you must hold him as a suspect, as a heretic, as excommunicated and condemned, worse than the Pope and the devil himself, and thus you must absolutely not give him an audience.
However, outside of the topic of justification, together with Paul we should think reverently about the law, highly recommend it, call it holy, just, good, spiritual, and divine. When it’s outside the realm of the conscience, we should deify it, but when it impinges upon the conscience, it’s the very devil himself. In the tiniest temptation, it is incapable of lifting and comforting the conscience. On the contrary, it smothers, oppresses with despair, and snatches from the conscience the assurance of righteousness, life, and the greatness of God’s favor. That is why Paul soon after calls it “the weak and miserable elemental principles.” Thus under no circumstance should we allow the law to govern in our conscience, especially seeing that Christ paid such a great price to free our conscience from the tyranny of the law, “for He was made for us a curse in order to deliver us from the curse of the law.” Thus let the godly learn that the law and Christ are incompatible, for one cannot tolerate the presence of the other. When Christ is present, there is no circumstance at all in which the law can reign, but it should abandon the conscience, get out of bed (for it is so narrow that there is no room for the two, as Isaiah 28:20 says), and leave its place to Christ alone. Let Him alone reign in righteousness, peace, joy, and life; let the conscience sleep and rest joyfully in Christ without any feeling regarding the law, sin, and death.
Paul here uses the figurative phrase “elements of the world.” By using this phrase, he vigorously minimizes the glory and authority of the law to catch our attention. Every careful reader of Paul will realize that he calls the law “the ministry of death,” “the letter that kills,” etc. Yet immediately, the question arises: “Why does he refer to the law with such odious names, that to one’s reason it would seem to border on blasphemy, although it is a doctrine that has been revealed from heaven?” But Paul answers that the law is both just and good, and that it is also the ministry of sin and death, but from different aspects. Before Christ’s coming, it is holy. After Christ has come, it is death. Therefore, once Christ has come there’s no reason for us to come to an understanding with the law, unless it is in this one aspect: that it has power and dominion over the flesh, to bridle it, to keep it under subjection. Here, there is a conflict between the law and the flesh (the yoke of the law is hard and grievous) for as long as we live.
When it’s outside the realm of the conscience, we should deify it, but when it impinges upon the conscience, it’s the very devil himself.
Of all the apostles, only Paul calls the law “the rudiments of the world,” “the weak and poor elements,” “the power of sin,” “the letter that kills,” and such. The other apostles never talked about the law using those words. Then let everyone who wishes to be a scholar in Christian theology, observe diligently this manner of speech used by the apostle. Christ calls him a “chosen vessel” and thus gave him an exquisite vocabulary—unique among the apostles—so that he, as a chosen vessel, could faithfully establish the foundations of the article of justification and be able to clearly expound it.