Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 1)

Today we come to one of the most famous figures in all of church history: Martin Luther, sometimes called the “Father of the Protestant Reformation.”  For this month’s reading group, in addition to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, we are looking at his 1520 work The Freedom of a Christian, from which comes Luther’s famous line “The Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  You can read the text online at this link; I am reading this recent publication from Fortress Press.  After a brief introduction to Luther, let’s get into the text!

A Few Words about Luther

There’s no way to adequately introduce Martin Luther in just a few sentences, but let me link to his Wikipedia page and offer a few comments of my own.  He was born in Germany in 1483 and was, therefore, what we would call “Roman Catholic,” in many of the stereotypical senses of that phrase.  The Catholicism he grew up in was very complex with LOTS of different elements that contributed to his later Reformation.  By his time there were a number of monastic orders, including the Augustinians of which he would become a part, and these had important roles at the various universities of Europe; in other words, monks and professors were important parts of late medieval European society.  There was an increasingly rigorous, official teaching office in the Catholic church (including the famous “Inquisition”), but there were also individuals and groups who were “doing their own thing” in terms of teaching Scripture and spirituality.  Finally, there were individuals committed to the great traditions of the church, but there were also folks who were comfortable critiquing those medieval traditions, including the Pope himself.  Some of the people who laid the foundations for Luther’s reforms include folks like Peter Waldo, Girolamo Savonarola, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus.

But, of course, he is best known for his seeking to reform the Catholic church of his day, which ultimately led to what we now call the “Protestant Reformation.”  Overall, in terms of his influence, Luther is my own top 5 “Most Famous Theologians of Church History” along with Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Wesley.  Among the many things that Luther bequeathed to the broader church are the emphasis on justification by grace (following Paul in Romans and Galatians), the importance of worship and Bibles in the vernacular (the everyday languages people speak), a sense of Christianity as BOTH a communal AND an individual operation, and a reminder of the importance of congregational participation in all aspects of church life.  If you’re interested in learning more, you might check out the psychologist Erik Erikson’s famous study Young Man Luther, or Roland Bainton’s brief and accessible biography Here I Stand.

The Freedom of a Christian

The primary text starts with a letter to the pope of that time, Leo X, in which we learn that Luther essentially dedicated the treatise to Pope Leo.  This is not a terribly surprising move, in that writers have been writing little prefaces for centuries!  For example, the biblical books of Luke and Acts both indicate that the author is intending to write to someone named Theophilus; this was a normal practice in the Greco-Roman world when someone wanted to thank the benefactor of a literary project.  In this case, though, Leo was not the one bankrolling Luther’s writing; rather, he was an important part of Luther’s audience.  As the German says toward the beginning of his letter, he has been specifically accused of attacking Pope Leo’s person, and Luther wants to defend himself from the accusations.  Given the conflicts that Luther and the Pope did encounter, it’s a little surprising that Luther would take such a conciliatory tone; however, the kind of politeness and courtesy that we see in the letter was pretty common at that time — plus it would have been REALLY foolish for Luther to “poke the bear,” so to speak.  (That said, he sure isn’t afraid of saying some extremely harsh things against other members of the Church’s leadership.)

Once he gets into the treatise as a whole, it is a bit surprising to me that he spends so much time talking about faith.  I thought this text was about freedom?!?  But early on, Luther gives us the answer: “In looking at the inner person first, we grasp how someone may become righteous, free, and truly Christian” — and the answer is the Word of God, the good news about Jesus.  And, of course, this message is one that requires trust and belief.  Put another way, Luther seems to think that faith is the key to freedom.  The reason that’s important is because the church of his day and/or its leaders had increasingly taught the importance of various rituals and ceremonies as a part of one’s salvation — the most odious of these, in Luther’s mind, were indulgences — and Luther goes on to say that these things “do not help the soul.”  It’s not the outward actions of these kinds that give freedom — it’s an inward faith in God and in Christ’s redemption!

Luther goes on to discuss some themes that have become fairly familiar to those of us who are Protestants: that faith alone justifies (following Paul), that “works” do not make us righteous before God (quoting John 6:29), that the law makes demands and yet we are inherently unable to fulfill it, and that God alone is able to fulfill God’s own command.  Next comes a discussion of the benefits and powers of faith, and Luther gives us a concise recap of the point made in the previous paragraph:

“[T]his is the Christian freedom referred to above, namely, our faith, which does not cause us to be lazy and lead evil lives but instead makes the law and works unnecessary for the righteousness and salvation of the Christian.”

Luther continues, noting that faith brings honor to the one in whom people trust — that is, God — because it holds that being to be worthy of trust.  A third benefit of faith is the union with Christ that it effects, much like that of a bride and bridegroom.  As a non-Luther-specialist, I was a little surprised to read this mystical-sounding language — I tend to think of Luther as a great debater and logician and theologian (in the modern sense of the word) more than as a mystic.  But, just as no one can know the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11 — a text Luther quotes multiple times in the Bondage of the Will), so he says that no one can fully comprehend the riches of the glorious gift of our marriage to Christ!

That said, the wedding metaphor is appropriate for Luther, it seems to me, for multiple reasons (and those don’t include his own marriage to Katharina von Bora, which had not yet happened!).  First, even if the image is most famously found in Revelation, it is also Pauline (see 2 Corinthians and Ephesians), and we know Luther’s fondness for Paul.  Second, and more importantly, it actually does fit into Luther’s thinking about salvation because of the exchange of goods that spouses make with one another.  One of Luther’s fundamental tenets is that we are righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness that we are freely given — not because of our own.  And that free gift is just like the gifts that spouses give to one another.  Christ is like a bridegroom, giving all that is his to his beloved bride.  Good news, right?

Let’s stop here.  I’ll come back next week with the second post on The Freedom of a Christian, before we turn to Bondage of the Will for a couple of posts.  Join in the conversation, if you like, and I’ll do my best to answer your comments and questions.  And in the meantime, let me give you a pair of questions for reflection: What is the biggest obstacle for you in trusting God these days?  And what do you think you could do about that?

Image credits: www.fortresspress.com for the image of the book, commons.wikimedia.org for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther, and www.redhenlab.org for the mosaic of Jesus and the church in the S. Maria in Trastevere church

Suggested next click: Freedom of a Christian, Part 2

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