David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500 Part 2: The Freedom of a Christian


The first volume of the Annotated Luther series, titled "The Roots of Reform" is a compendium of Luther's most important early writings. My plan for this series is to focus on two texts from each volume, allowing me to introduce all six volumes over the course of a 12-month period. I began with the 95 theses as a symbolic gesture on Reformation Day. That means that I have only one more text to choose from this volume–a task that is difficult in part because a number of Luther's early writings are important for tracing his developing theology. I was tempted to read through the Heidelberg Disputation, on account of its significance; however, at the end of the day I decided I could not avoid "The Freedom of a Christian."

In 1520, Luther published three significant writings, all of which were bestsellers: the Treatise on Good Works, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate, and The Freedom of a Christian.


The Letter to Pope Leo X

Luther's The Freedom of a Christian was originally appended to a letter to Pope Leo X. Encouraged by Karl von Miltitz to pursue the unity of the church, Luther wrote to the Pope seeking reconciliation (although he had already taken to calling the Pope "the antichrist" in other publications!). He included Freedom with that letter as an attempt to explicate his basic theology. It has none of the polemic his other works have, and is, therefore a good read to get at the heart of Luther's understanding of the gospel.

The letter itself is an exercise in rhetoric and should not be ignored. Luther walks back some of his more polemical claims against the Pope, laying the blame instead on the "godless flatterers" who surround the Pope. Luther tells Pope Leo X that he is "a Daniel in Babylon", and then later, "a lamb in the midst of wolves, as Daniel in the midst of lions, and you dwell with Ezekiel among the scorpions." Luther justifies his heated and polemical language against these godless interlocutors by taking Jesus, Paul, and Israel's prophets as examples of those who speak with zeal in the face of a false religiosity. Anyone that pretends offense at his tone does so as a pretext for avoiding the truth of his message. In a wonderful passage of the letter, Luther writes:

The mad multitude of flatterers imitates the ever so sensitive ears of our rational age, so that, as soon as we sense disapproval of our ideas, we cry that we are bitten. As long as we can rebuff the truth by labeling it something else, we flee from it under the pretext of its being snappish, impatient, and unrestrained. What good is salt if it has lost its bite? What is the use of the edge of a sword if it does not cut? "Accursed is the one who does the Lord's work deceitfully."

Luther, thus, seeks to drive a rhetorical wedge between the Pope and the Roman Curia and those who speak on his behalf. He suggests that the Pope probably sees the corruption himself, but cannot root it out alone. Therefore, Luther is really the Pope's ally in this holy cause: the reformation of the Church.

The Letter then transitions to a brief summary of Luther's defense. This amounts to a chronological account of the disagreements between Luther and the Pope's representatives. Luther paints himself as a constant pursuer of peace and reconciliation and Johannes Eck as the one who continues to cause the rift between the Pope and Luther. To this point, Eck had become Luther's greatest foe, meeting him in disputation at Leipzig and forcing him to concede that he did not affirm the primacy of Papal authority.

Luther finally addresses the question of papal authority in the guise of an admonition to Leo. Citing Bernard of Clairvaux as precedent, Luther ventures to instruct the Pope, writing:

Those who place you above a council and the universal church err. Those who attribute to you alone the right to interpret Scripture err. For they seek to establish all manner of ungodliness in the Church under your name, and, alas, through them Satan has made great inroads among your predecessors. In sum, believe none of those who exalt you but only those who humble you.

Thus, Luther implores the Pope to acknowledge the concerns he has over papal authority in a manner that suggests the Pope himself must admit his vocation as a servant and exercise humility in the face of the temptation to worldly power.


The Freedom of A Christian

In the conclusion to his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther writes that The Freedom of a Christian is "a summary of the whole Christian life." We quickly learn at the beginning of Freedom that, for Luther, the Christian life is a life that is paradoxically lived between two equally true statements:

The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none.
The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Luther goes on to explain: the Christian life is a life lived in tension between two competing human natures. The first is the spiritual nature, which pertains to a Christian's inner being, her soul, which is made a new creation in Christ. The second is the bodily nature, pertaining to the outer being, the flesh, the remnant of the old creation. Thus, Luther appeals to Paul's spirit/flesh dichotomy as an explanation for the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. The treatise itself is a treatment of each of these themes in succession, followed by a brief appendix where Luther fends off charges of anti-nomianism while simultaneously attacking legalism.


The Inner Being

The inner being exists in complete freedom righteous and obedient before God. They rightfully take their place as princes and priests in God's kingdom, and are, therefore, above the law. This is possible on account of faith alone. Faith is the response of trusting God when confronted with the Word of God. For Luther, the Word of God is actually two words. The first word is the law–the "commands" of God as represented in the OT–which confronts an individual with the fact that she is not free; to the contrary, she is a slave to sin and death, and therefore, incapable of being obedient to God's law. The only proper response to this first word is repentance; that is, a sober recognition of wrong-doing and the incapacity to do what one ought. Faced with her own disastrous estate, the repentant sinner is now ready to hear the gospel, the second word. This second word pertains to the "promises" of God as represented in the NT. Jesus Christ himself fulfills the law and that we share in Christ's obedience through faith in him.

Faith in Christ means three things:

  1. Christians are free from the law and good works. The no longer must justify themselves before the law because they are, in fact, justified through their faith in Jesus Christ and the promise that they share his fulfillment of the law.

  2. Faith is the means by which the Christian honors God; it is the highest form of worship. To honor and worship God alone is the first commandment. Faith, then, is the expression that obedience to the first commandment takes. Obedience to this commandment is the means by which obedience to any of the other commandments are possible. Therefore, faith is actually the means by which one finally comes to be obedient to God's commands, if at all. Because we honor God in this way, he then honors us by ascribing to us a righteousness that is not our own.

  3. Finally, faith accomplishes a wedding between the Christian and Christ. Through the "wedding ring of faith", the Christ takes on human sinfulness, death, and hell, and the Christian then partakes in Christ's own righteousness (in other places, Luther calls this "the wonderful exchange"). Christ himself engages in an "astounding dual" with sin and death, conquering it once for all, and therefore freeing human nature for new life.

Thus, the proper relationship between faith and good works is established. Good works cannot precede faith as means by which one justifies oneself; instead, they flow naturally from faith as the fulfillment of the commandments of God, now possible on account of faith's fulfillment of the first commandment. Good works take the form of obedience as a means to glorify God, not as a means to justify the sinner. In this sense, good works pertain to the outer being, the flesh.


The Outer Being

Although the gospel free us from the law, and the consequences that our disobedience to the law produce, we nevertheless, make ourselves obedient to the law and, therefore, servants. For Luther, the paradigm for the Christian life is Christ's own life and especially the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

For Luther, this passage is not only a high christological passage, but it is also a summary of the Christian life. To be a Christian is to share both in Christ's being "the form of God" and in Christ's taking "the form of a servant."

On these terms, good works function to serve two purposes in the Christian life: (1) disciplining the body, and (2) service to our neighbors. In the first case, the Christian must "enslave" her body, training and subduing it to conform to the new life that belongs to the inner being. The flesh is naturally opposed to the spirit and if it is not disciplined, it will work contrary to the purposes of the spirit. For Luther, discipline is not a hard and fast rule; instead, it must be determined for each person by a "measure of discretion" and in correspondence with the errant desires of each individual. Even here, discipline is balanced with freedom so that each person is free to discipline their bodies in accordance with their own sense of need and not according to any external measurement or law.

In the second case, the Christian has a responsibility to serve her neighbors. She must be come a "little Christ" or a "second Christ" to those around her. Just as Christ humbled himself and became a servant on her behalf, she too should humble herself and become a servant to others. Good works, on these terms, are the means by which we love our neighbor. Even though Christians are free from the law, they may submit themselves to it in certain instances in order to serve those who are "weaker" in faith and do not yet understand the freedom of a Christian. Paul's admonition to serve those who abstain from eating meat in 1 Cor is instructive here. Similarly, even though one may experience a measure of liberty with regards to some desires of the flesh, disciplining them or abstaining may nevertheless serve as an example of what discipline looks like to a neighbor in need. The Christian experiences freedom in Jesus Christ. Everything she has is a result of the freedom she has in Christ; therefore, she should imitate Christ in freely giving to others. In this regard, service to the neighbor is the basic form of the Christian life. Even disciplining the body is predominantly for the purpose of preparing it to be able to love and serve the neighbor.


A Notable Theme: Growth in the Christian Life

There are a number of important themes that come up throughout the course of Luther's The Freedom of a Christian. We see expressed here themes that will become central to Luther's overall theology: the centrality of the Word of God, the law/gospel distinction, the wonderful exchange, the idea that we are "little christs", to name just a few. One particular theme that is worth reflecting on more is Luther's implicit criticism of virtue in his treatment of good works.

Luther begins Freedom with the sentence:

Many people view Christian faith as something easy, and quite a few people even count it as if it were related to the virtues.

Here, Luther has in mind the traditional treatment of faith, hope, and love as theological virtues; particularly, an Aristotelian reading of faith that makes it conditional upon love for God (expressed through works of love). Such treatments, Luther worried conflated faith and works (and therefore, justification and sanctification), suggesting that faith depended upon works to make faith obtain. And so, from the outset it seems like a Lutheran theological ethic is one that would exclude virtue. This is something that concerned theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, when he first set out to re-introduce the importance of virtue to Protestant ethics. I think Hauerwas's main thesis was largely correct. Usually, ethicists who tend to read Protestant theologians like Barth with a bent towards virtue have to make some type of accommodation or change in terms in order to proceed with their projects. This should not prevent us from seeing, however, that Luther has a pretty dynamic view of faith that does speak of "growth".

At least four times in Freedom, Luther speaks about faith in these terms. First, Luther says that by treating faith alone and putting aside works, faith is strengthened "more and more" because it "grow[s] ... in knowledge" of Jesus. In this case, obviously the growth that Luther suggests is a growth that occurs apart from virtue, through a sort of relational knowledge of Jesus. The second example comes at the beginning of Luther's treatment of the outer being, in the form of a summary statement about the inner being. There, Luther explains:

the inner person is in the spirit fully and completely justified through faith. Such a one has what he or she ought to have, except of course that this very faith and its riches ought to increase day by day toward the future life.

Here, in quite clear terms, Luther is simultaneously suggesting the inner life to be one that is complete and yet becoming more and more so. And all of this before he's even addressed the outer being, which means that we cannot read him to suggest that the outer grows more and more like the inner. Instead, the inner life is both a life of faith and a life of growing in faith. A third occurrence of this theme reinforces this point, speaking of faith that "ought to increase until it is made perfect". A final example admonishes the Christian to focus on faith. Even so, it suggests the relationship between this growing faith and works:

let faith be your sole concern, so that faith may be increased by exercising it either through works or suffering.

Faith, it seems, grows not merely by knowledge of Jesus, but through imitating Jesus in service to others. This type of "practicing" faith results, of course, from Luther's exhortation to "faith alone"; yet, it blurs the distinction between faith and love, suggesting faith is something like a virtue, even if it is not a natural capacity we possess.