Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 2)

Martin Luther 1526Welcome back to the CHEF and to Martin Luther!  Today’s post is the second one dedicated to his important treatise The Freedom of a Christian, which we’re pairing with his Bondage of the Will.  In the first post, I said a few words about Luther, late medieval Christianity, and the first portion of the text.  These comments include the dedicatory letter to Pope Leo X, the (perhaps) surprising importance that Luther finds for faith in leading to freedom, and his thought-provoking metaphor of marriage.  In this second post, I’ll discuss the latter part of the text, as well as give you a few resources that may help you understand and go deeper on the treatise.  Let’s dig in!

More on Faith and the “Inner Person”

We left off in the first post with the description of Luther’s “bridegroom” metaphor, which he uses to describe the union that Christians have with Christ.  He goes on, discussing the benefits of faith and moving on to another biblical image — that we are priests of God in Christ (see, e.g., 1 Peter 2).  Christ, of course, is our high priest (see Hebrews 4), but we are also priests and kings in Christ.  Our kingdom and area of authority is not over worldly matters, as Luther makes clear; rather, we are possessors of a spiritual power.  That royal power gives us the freedom that kings enjoy, and our priestly status allows us to stand directly before God.  It is not that we may puff ourselves up, but rather that we can join the apostles in being “servants” and “ministers” of God’s people.

Two items bear some reflection here.  First, this idea is closely related to one of Luther’s most famous gifts to the church: the principle of the “priesthood of all believers.”  That idea is sometimes misunderstood, as though Luther thought all people should be able to interpret Scripture for themselves without the community, or that each person can be his/her own priest.  Rather, it means that all Christians are able to exercise priestly functions for one another — especially things like hearing confessions from other believers, praying for them, and assuring them of their forgiveness.  This is a good reminder, in our day of increasing professionalization of the clergy: we ALL have the ability and authority to intercede for one another before God’s throne.

The second item of interest is that Luther says that the “visible and corporeal office of priests” prefigures for us the spiritual priesthood that we enjoy.  The idea of something being a “type” or “precursor” is familiar in Christian theology; for centuries, we have said that various Old Testament people/events/objects are prefigurations of Christ — like the snake lifted up in the desert (Numbers 21), or the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).  But here, it sounds as though he’s saying that the present priests are a pointer to our own priesthood.  I’ve not read any discussion on this matter (my own problem), but it’s pretty interesting to me.  Imagine Luther telling the Pope that the papal office is really for the instruction of the Christian cobbler or milkmaid — not just for instruction in doctrine, but also so that the cobbler and milkmaid know that they share the Pope’s spiritual power!

The Outer Person — Loving One’s Neighbor

There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in the second half of the treatise, but the overarching theme that connects it all is how Luther thinks our freedom should work itself out in our lives.  And yes, I did use the word “work,” because it’s a big part of this section — the place of “works” in a Christian life led by faith.  Luther notes right at the beginning of this section that we are not purely spiritual beings, and while we are in our earthly bodies, it is necessary that we teach those bodies to “obey and be conformed to the inner person and faith, “so that they may not “rebel against or impede the inner person.”  In other words, as he says, the function of works is for the discipline of the body — not in order that one may be justified by them before God.  Rather, our souls have “been cleansed through faith,” and so we do our works “in compliance to God out of spontaneous love.”

Most of this is what you’d expect, even if you know only a little about Luther and/or Protestantism.  But you may have been surprised to see that Luther does have a place for works.  Many evangelicals nowadays put such emphasis on our salvation by grace, that they can’t articulate a place for good actions in our lives.  But Luther does, and as he goes on to say, we should remember Adam in the Garden: he was “righteous, upright, and without sin,” and yet God still gave him the job of caring for the Garden!  His work wasn’t there to “obtain righteousness,”  but rather to be done out of pure freedom.  Good works don’t make us good; rather, they show that God has made us good, as he says a bit later.  As he will also say, we are not good by our own merits, but God has showered us with such overwhelming love, that we can not help but live in his ways freely and joyfully.

Later, he takes up the importance of works done for the sake of the neighbor — not just good things done for oneself.  Luther touches on the topics you’d expect — service, imitating Christ, and treating others according to their needs and not our own.  Given these topics, it’s also not surprising that Luther quotes Paul a lot — he uses passages from Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians.  Here’s a good quote for you: “Since each and every person thus thrives through their own faith — so that all other works and the sum total of life flows out from that very faith — by these works each may serve and benefit the neighbor with willing benevolence.”

But here Luther introduces another example of faith and works — but may not one that you’d expect — the Virgin Mary!  Luther doesn’t invoke the common (and compelling) Catholic description of Mary as the disciple par excellence.  Rather, he talks about the narrative in Luke 2 about her “purification according to the Law of Moses.”  Luther says that she wasn’t bound by that law and didn’t need purification (presumably, he’s thinking of her conceiving Christ apart from sexual activity), but “nevertheless, she subjected herself to the law out of free and voluntary love, doing just as other women did, so that she did not offend or disdain them.”  As he notes, of course, she wasn’t “justified by this work” but rather “did it freely and spontaneously.”  I did not expect this analogy (but I probably should have), but it certainly makes sense to me and is thought-provoking.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this text, but I need to sign off here.  I’ll be back next week with Luther’s Bondage of the Will!  But first…

Appendix: Other Tools

As you have read The Freedom of a Christian, you may have found yourself wanting some more information about this or that element of the text.  There are a number of commentators online that you can find, but I’ve collected a couple of resources for you.  First, if you want a brief (and humorous!) summary of the text, with contemporary reflection, you can check out this blogger’s post.  If you want something a little “meatier” — a more extended summary and outline — then you can consult this resource.  Finally, if you just want a simple outline of the text, especially since the Fortress edition I’m using and also the online texts I’ve found tend to not give chapter or section numbers, I’ve included one below.  I’ve built it from the study notes in the translation I’ve got, and you can look in the margins there if you want more detail:

1. The Letter to Pope Leo X (including an introduction, Luther’s defense of his own actions, the cause and progression of his case, and some closing advice for the Pope)

2. Introduction to the Treatise (including his main themes)

3. Part I: The Spiritual, New, and Inner Person (including the challenge of the law and righteousness, the importance of faith, and the spiritual priesthood)

4. Part II: The Outer Person (especially concerning works and the love of one’s neighbor)

5. An Appendix on Libertines and Legalists — people who espouse too much freedom and not enough freedom, respectively

Image credits for this post: www.nltimes.nl (for the 1526 portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder; edited by the blogger), saintbedestudio.blogspot.com/ (for the image of Pope Benedict XVI), and beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/ (for the anonymous painting of the Mother and Child)

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