October 31, 2017, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Historians debate whether Luther nailed the theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, whether he had a university beadle do the deed, or whether he simply mailed them to the archbishop of Mainz. Regardless, the date nonetheless stands as a pivotal point in church history—and indeed, in the history of the world. The Reformation had begun.
Reform, of course, wasn’t new. Many had called for all kinds of reform in the Middle Ages. But the reform of the sixteenth century took on new overtones; it struck deeper into the heart of Christendom. And one of the best places to see the nature of the new calls for reform is to read Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.
The year 1520 saw the publication of three of Luther’s most important books: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (particularly attacked the wall between the clergy and laity), The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (addressed the sacramental system of the church), and The Freedom of a Christian. The last of these three offers a brief, insightful view of what animated Luther in the move for reform, and in this post, I want to give it some consideration.
Luther saw this treatise as “a summary of the whole Christian life” (487). And he captured this basic summary in two seemingly opposite themes: “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” (488). These two themes correspond with the inner person (freedom) and the outer person (service), a differentiation drawn from 2 Corinthians 4:16.
As one might expect, a central aspect of the book is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or sola fide. But it is also important to note at the outset that for Luther, sola scriptura (490–92) undergirds sola fide (492–94). And Luther lays out some of the scriptural evidence for the theological tension of his thesis (488):
1 Corinthians 9:19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” (ESV)
Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (ESV)
In speaking of the inner person, Luther demands that faith alone justifies. This teaching was a response to Nominalist theologian Gabriel Biel’s claim that “to those who do what is in them God will not deny grace” (492n66). On the contrary, God’s word gives commands and promises (494–96). The commands show what God expects and how we fail to meet those standards; the promises show us Christ, who fulfilled those expectations and who imparts life to those who have faith in him. Justification, then, comes through faith Christ, not through works.
Why is faith the operative element? Faith has at least three benefits. First, faith grants freedom and thus renders the law and works “unnecessary for the righteousness and salvation of the Christian” (497). Second, faith honors God by saying that he is completely trustworthy and true. And third, faith “unites the soul with Christ, like a bride with a bridegroom” (499).
Faith is foundational to the whole Christian life; works are not:
For even if you were nothing but good works from the soles of your feet to the top of your head, you would still not be righteous, worship God, or fulfill the first commandment, since God cannot be worshiped unless the glory of truth and of complete goodness is ascribed to him, as truly must be due him. But works cannot do this—only faith of the heart can. For not by working but by believing do we glorify God and confess that God is truthful. (502)
If we are in bondage to sin, we desperately need to be set free. For Luther, freedom comes only through faith, not through works.
What about the outer person? What about service? The outer person, Luther says, is “where works begin” (511). Works are necessary to keep the outer person in check “so that it may not rebel against or impede the inner person (as is its nature when not held in check)” (511). Luther discusses two categories of works: (1) works that a Christian does to train his or her own body and (2) works toward one’s neighbor.
Luther makes it absolutely clear that these works never justify, and no one should perform them with the thought that they do justify. Instead, the Christian should do them “in compliance to God out of spontaneous love” (512).
Luther states it poignantly:
Since, therefore, works do not justify anyone and a person must be righteous before doing something good, these things are absolutely clear: that faith alone—because of the sheer mercy of God through Christ [given] in his word—properly and completely justifies and saves a person; and that no law is necessary for a Christian’s salvation, since through faith one is free from every law and does everything that is done spontaneously, out of sheer freedom. Such a person seeks nothing for a payment or for salvation—already being satisfied and saved by God’s grace from one’s faith—but seeks only what pleases God. (515)
Works must be done freely, and they can only be done freely if one is set free by faith. Faith is the necessary requirement for attaining freedom, and freedom is necessary for works. Luther says that the kind of service whereby faith “reveals itself in works of freest servitude” is “truly the Christian life” (521).
The model and basis for the Christian’s life of service is Christ himself. Because Christ, who was perfectly free because he was perfectly sinless, humbled himself to serve, so ought his followers humble themselves to serve—though this is out of complete freedom, not to earn favor. (521–24)
The Christian should thus say, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (524).
Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor—remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love. (530)
In the appendix, Luther rejects both antinomianism and legalism. He rejects those who want to use their Christian freedom to indulge in the freedom of the flesh (antinomianism), and he rejects those who insist on observing ceremonies without attending to matters necessary for salvation (legalism).
In seeking to pave the ever-difficult middle way, Luther makes this key statement on works:
For we are not free from works through faith in Christ but from conjectures about works, that is, from the foolish presumption of justification acquired through works. For faith redeems, makes right, and guards our consciences, so that we realize that righteousness is not in works—although works can and should not be lacking. (532)
In a work saying that works contribute nothing to salvation, this statement about works sounds a bit like backpedaling. However, I think it highlights a common feature in the great theologians of the church: theological tension. In fact, as is so often the case for great theologians, tension is central to good theology. The human naturally tends toward extremes and toward emphasizing one side to the detriment of the other. And that’s why the tension between freedom and service is critical to Luther’s theology. We must have both, he says, but we also must get the order and nature of both right, or else we imperil our very souls.
The Reformation was an incredibly important era in church history because, at the very least, it had a long-lasting impact on Christianity and the broader world, even down to our own time. It is difficult to quantify its effects. Luther’s Freedom of a Christian reminds us what was at the heart of the foremost leader in the Reformation. And its message is one aspect of the Reformation that is well worth remembering.