The Freedom of the Christian: Martin Luther’s Great Discovery

March 1, 2017

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German monk posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. With that act, Martin Luther began a debate that launched the Protestant Reformation. After the Leipzig debate, Luther wrote three influential tracts building up to the showdown at the Diet of Worms, that not only display his developing evangelical theology, but also solidify his departure from the Catholic Church. He wrote these three tracts in a span of a few months in 1520. On August 18, he published The Address to the German Nobility, in which he denies the pope’s self-proclaimed final authority over the interpretation of Scripture, while also presenting his doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. On October 6, he published The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he derides the sacramental system as a way in which the church has seized control over the people. In early November, he wrote The Freedom of the Christian. While both German Nobility and Babylonian Captivity were polemical works, Freedom marked a more positive and peaceful presentation of Luther’s theology as he presents his vision for the Christian life in light of his understanding of the Gospel.

It is on The Freedom of the Christian that I wish to provide an overview of three aspects to Luther’s vision for the Christian life, a vision that we Protestants still need to be reminded of today.

1. We are Made Righteous By Faith in Christ

For his time, Luther argued for the radical notion that a Christian is made righteous by faith in Christ. Religious works alone produce only enslaved hypocrites. Luther instructs us saying, “Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God. The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith.” [1] It is through faith alone in Christ alone that the Christian is made right with God. By trusting in the promise of God, the Christian is freed from the demands of the Law and receives the righteousness of Christ.

To us, such an idea doesn’t seem all that radical, but to Luther’s contemporaries it was a revolutionary idea. If Christians are made righteous simply through faith in Christ, then the Catholic Church was severely wrong in its understanding of the Gospel and the centrality of the sacramental system.

2. Thus, the Christian is Free from the Demands of the Law

A second key theme from Luther’s tract is that because the Christian is made righteous by Christ, he is truly free from the burden of the commandments. God has both given the commandments, and fulfilled them on our behalf in Christ. As Luther states, “Thus the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescribes so that all things may be God’s alone, both the commandments and the fulfilling of the commandments. He alone commands, he alone fulfills.” [2] Since the demands of the Law have been fulfilled in Christ and applied to us through faith, the Christian is truly free from the bondage of commandments. The Christian does not need to work to earn God’s favor; rather God gifts us with the righteousness of Christ.

So, the Christian is as free as a king, and he is a priest forever. As Luther puts it, “Yes, since faith alone suffices for salvation, I need nothing except faith exercising power and dominion of its own liberty. Lo, this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians.” [3]

Though we stand in the Protestant Reformation, the human soul has a propensity to drift back to the Law and the shackles of legalism. Luther’s breathtaking discovery is one we must not forget—that my standing before God is secured and given through faith in Christ, not my religious observance, my abstention from sin, or my practice of good deeds. Luther’s discovery of this doctrine of justification by faith was a paradigm shifting moment for him, and one that each generation of Christians needs to discover for themselves.

3. Though Free, the Christian is Servant to All

However, Luther is quick to address an expected criticism. If we are truly justified by faith and freed from the works of the Law, what’s to keep a person from just abusing that grace and living in whatever sort of sin they so desire. In other words, what’s to keep a person from abusing divine grace? If a Christian is truly free, what if he uses that freedom to sin? Luther responds to such an objection, arguing that faith changes a person. When we are justified by faith inwardly, knowing that in Christ we have all that we need, that faith flowers into a litany of good works. The Christian is justified by faith, and so becomes truly free. Yet in our freedom, our desires change. We now delight to do the will of God. Here is a key quote from Luther:

Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. Hence a man cannot be idle, for the need of his body drives him and he is compelled to do many good works to reduce it to subjection. Nevertheless the works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does the works out of a spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing expect the approval of God, whom he would must scrupulously obey in all things. [4]

This changed heart now loves to obey God. This new heart of faith overflows in obedience to God and service to our neighbors. Luther writes, “Behold, from faith thus flows forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly.” [5] The radical grace of God, received by the heart of faith, bursts forth in love for God and neighbor. Though the Christian is free from all, he chooses to be a servant to all. If such professed faith doesn’t lead to a life of service to God and neighbor, the person is not truly a Christian. Luther concludes, “that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian.” [6]

Recapturing Luther’s Vision of the Christian Life

On this five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we Christians should pause and reflect on Luther’s profound discoveries. Luther rediscovered the Gospel through his study of the Scriptures, and he was compelled to attempt to reform the church in light of the Scriptures. Luther helps us understand how to understand the tension between faith and works in the Christian life. His scandalous vision of the free grace of God, which makes bonded sinners free, is good news that needs to be just as powerfully proclaimed in the church today.


Notes:

[1] Luther’s Works, 31:346

[2] Luther’s Works, 31:349

[3] Luther’s Works, 31:355

[4] Luther’s Works, 31:359

[5] Luther’s Works, 31:367

[6] Luther’s Works, 31:371

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