Martin Luther’s "The Freedom of a Christian"

Every Christian Should Read: Martin Luther’s “The Freedom of a Christian”

Don’t let the title or length of this blog post intimidate you. I know it looks very academic and wordy, but if you will stick with it I believe you will come understand some essential truths of the Christian faith that will truly free you to live as a servant to all people. This paper was originally submitted for my Church History class at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary.


Introduction to Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a German monk, theologian, and perhaps, the most influential figure of the Reformation. Luther’s name was thrust into the limelight “in 1517 with his Ninety-Five theses criticizing the abuse of indulgences (The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History, 399).” In addition to his emphasis on the priesthood of every Christian, Luther stressed the Bible as the “only source of religious authority (sola Scriptura),” and grace though faith, not works “as the sole means of human salvation (sola fide)” in his writings (www.brittanica.com, “Martin Luther”). One of his greatest contributions was the translation of the Bible into German, the vernacular of the common people. While Martin Luther was by no means a perfect man, his works have helped myriads understand how we can approach the One who is.

Introduction to the Document

Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian, sometimes referred to as, “A Treatise on Christian Liberty” was written in 1520 (class notes, 43). By the time it was released, Luther had written two other important books (Address to the Christian Nobility and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) calling for drastic reform and had developed a significant following (329). Dedicated to Pope Leo X, the document came out just a year before Luther was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (class notes, 43). Although “it was written in a conciliatory spirit,” Luther makes it apparent that he views the Pope “as an equal (329-330).” In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther presents his “evangelical views” on the relationship between faith and works (330). Ultimately, he “makes clear that a believing Christian is free from sin through faith in God, yet bound by love to serve his neighbor (330).”

Summary

  1. Dedication and Open Letter to Pope Leo X
  2. Introduction
    1. The freedom of the spirit
    2. The bondage of the spirit
  3. Considering the inner man
    1. Righteousness through faith alone
    2. Priests and kings
  4. Considering the outer man
    1. What good are good works?
    2. Criteria for truly good works
  5. A middle course vs.
    1. Ceremonialists (lacking faith)
    2. Weak in the faith
  6. Final words on ceremonies

Luther’s treatise is preceded by a brief letter to the mayor of Zwickau, Herman Mühlphordt, making mention of their mutual friend, Johann Egran; Luther esteems both gentlemen as learned and wise (333). Luther explains that Egran has described Mühlphordt as a man with a great “love for and pleasure in Holy Scripture,” who stands in stark contrast to those “who oppose the truth with all their power in cunning (333).” In order to honor their new friendship, Luther dedicates the “treatise” in German to him, whereas the Latin version was dedicated to the pope (333).

In his open letter to the pope, Luther assures Pope Leo X that he still has the highest respect for him, despite what others may have said. Luther refers to him as “most blessed father,” “Your Blessedness,” even “a Daniel in Babylon (334).” Luther hopes that the letter will “vindicate” him in Leo’s eyes, as well as, properly explain what he is actually taking issue with (335). For Luther, the point of contention is actually the Roman Curia, which he claims, “is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was (336).” He goes as far to say that the Roman Curia deserves to have Satan as its pope, instead of a righteous man like Leo (337). Luther adds that Johann Eck was another enemy of the pope, furthermore “a notable enemy of Christ” Himself (338). According to Luther, Eck’s debating only made matters worse (340). And though Eck would have him to be silent out of fear of the pope, Luther makes clear that he has “more courage than that (340).” Luther concludes the letter by once more blessing Leo; however, he makes obvious that he does not view him as a “demigod,” or the “lord of the world” as some would believe (341). He instead, refers to Leo as a “servant of servants,” following the tradition and example of the apostles (341-342). As such, Luther prays that Leo would put a stop to those who “have been too literally [Christ’s] vicars,” for Christ is not absent, but dwells in the hearts of His servants (342).

Luther begins his treatise on Christian Liberty by presenting the “two propositions” he seeks to make clear for the “unlearned (344).” First, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none;” second, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (344).” Luther acknowledges that these may seem to contradict one another at first glance. However, he notes that they are simply a reiteration of what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:19 and other places in his letters (344). In order to explain this dichotomy of being a “free man and a servant” more fully, Luther transitions into a discussion about the “twofold nature” of man (344).

Luther starts by examining the nature of the inner man, and how it is that a man can become free. He claims that external things have no way of “producing Christian righteousness or freedom, or in producing unrighteousness or servitude (345).” How one dresses, eats, prays, etc. play no part in making a person righteous, for even wicked people can do these things (345). Luther says there is one thing that has the power to make a man free, and that is the “holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ (345).” Furthermore, Luther states simply that the soul is “justified by faith alone and not any works (346).” And this faith, according to Luther, takes place within the inner man alone (347).

He then goes on to explain that the commandments and promises found in Scripture cannot be kept or claimed through any kind of work (348). He writes, “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing (349).” Luther summarizes this idea by saying that there is no work that can equal the power of faith (349). There are three main aspects to the power of faith, says Luther. First, it makes “the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation (350).” Second, it enables the Christian to regard God as truthful and trustworthy (350-351). Third, Luther states that faith “unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom (351).” Luther repeats himself once more by saying that works are incapable of accomplishing such things; however, they are not useless to him. He argues, “they can, if faith is present, be done to the glory of God (353).”

Luther then describes how every Christian is both a priest and a king, not by blood, but by faith (354). He argues that Christians are exalted even higher over things than earthly kings are, for “nothing can do [them] any harm (354).” Luther makes sure to note that this does not mean Christians are free from suffering, rather it means, by faith, a Christian can say, ‘all things are working together for my good’ (355).” As good as this kingship is, Luther believes that each Christian’s priesthood “is far more excellent” in nature (355). Unlike unbelievers, priests have the privilege to go before God, even pray for and teach others (355). For Luther, such freedom, liberty, and honor in the inner is the result of faith, and faith alone (356-357).

Luther now turns to address the outer man, specifically answering the question: “If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded (358)?” To this Luther replies that works are not done to obtain righteousness, instead they are done “freely only to please God (360).” Luther uses the analogy of a tree and its fruit to explain also that any “good” things done prior to becoming a Christian amount to nothing (361). He claims that the tree must precede the fruit. Furthermore, the fruit does not make the tree good or bad; instead, the tree dictates what the fruit will be (361). Luther tags on that a “tree” is only made good through faith, and evil through unbelief—works have nothing to do with it (362). Yet, Luther wants to make clear that he does “not reject works;” he simply does not view their role the way the, as he calls them, “blind leaders of the blind” view them (362-363).

He states that good works are not done for oneself, but out of love for one’s neighbor (364). Luther argues that the Christian is to follow Christ’s example in becoming a servant to all, for this is how “God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him (366).” Sadly, writes Luther, most people are taught to only look out for themselves and desire the praise from men (368). The purpose of doing good works, according to Luther, is to either keep one’s body in control or to serve one’s neighbor, anything else is neither “good [nor] Christian (370).” Luther sums up by saying a Christian “lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love (371).”

At this junction, Luther explains two errors in some people’s understanding of “the freedom of faith (371).” Some people use it as an opportunity to do whatever they want, disregarding everything “that pertains to Christian religion (372).” Others focus so much on ceremonies that they “do not care a fig for the things which are the essence of our faith (372).” Luther proposes that Christians “take a middle course (373).” In other words, Christians should joyfully exercise their freedom in Christ, while being mindful of those who are weak in the faith, citing Paul in Romans chapter 14 (373-374).

Luther concludes his treatise with some final thoughts on ceremonies (374-377). Luther argues that ceremonies, although people can be “imprisoned” by them, are not wrong in themselves (375). He likens them to a builder’s plans— “they are prepared, not as a permanent structure, but because without them nothing could be built or made (376).” Once the building has been completed, the plans are no longer needed (376). Luther makes obvious that it is not ceremonies or works that he has problems with. His problems lie with those who hold to a faulty understanding of how and why a Christian does them, as well as what they actually accomplish (376-377).

Significance of the Document

The significance of Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian cannot be overstated in terms of its effect on the Protestant Reformation. Luther, as he made clear in his introduction of the treatise, set out to make these essential theological truths understandable to the common people. Protestants today welcome doctrines such as righteousness by faith alone, the priesthood of every Christian, and good works done out of love for one’s neighbor largely because of Luther’s work here. Also, we see in the way that Luther addresses Pope Leo X in The Freedom of a Christian that he is applying the truths he has found in Scripture to his own life. In this way, this treatise is very pastoral in its nature, not simply a theological exercise. This is perhaps why it is still being read and admired by Christians hundreds of years later. Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian is not only an important historical document of the Reformation; it is a wealth of knowledge and truth for Christians today who desire to understand biblically the relationship between faith and works.