The Freedom of a Christian (1520)
Changing your name is not casual act. Names mean something. They bear the weight of identity. A new name reflects a new reality. Something has interrupted the normal course of events, necessitating a change. Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus, becomes Paul. In the Roman Catholic tradition, when a cardinal ascends to the papal office, a new name is required. And so in our day Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis, named after the famous saint who abandoned riches to serve the poor.
It was common in the sixteenth century for humanists to change their names to a Greek one in order to reflect their indebtedness to the classical heritage. So it is significant that in 1517, a German Augustinian friar named Martin Luder, changed his name to Eleutherios or the "liberated one." Of course, the new moniker proved unwieldy, and would not be in use for long. But a hint of the new identity is preserved in the "th" that is reflected in the change from Luder to Luther.1
Why the change of name? Because it echoes the core of Luther's new understanding of himself and the change needed in the church. It will also reverberate in the title of one of his most famous writings, The Freedom of a Christian, written in 1520. What follows is a brief outline of the historical context of the treatise followed by some selections from the work itself. We conclude with a commentary on the nature of Luther's understanding of freedom.
Three years have passed since the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. Like a slowly closing vise, Rome's patience with [End Page 82] Luther is growing perilously thin. Discussions had taken place between the rebellious friar and Cardinal Cajetan, one of the finest minds in the church, but to no avail. A debate at Leipzig between Luther and the controversialist theologian, John Eck, made clear that the issue of indulgences was only the tip of the iceberg and that the real problem centered on the authority of the church to interpret Scripture. Papal offers trying to persuade Luther's prince, Frederick the Wise, to hand over his professor of theology proved futile. And so we come to fateful year of 1520.
Luther's productivity in 1520 is nothing short of astounding. He authors five treatises that spell out in detail the consequences of his insistence that the Bible reveals a God who justifies the ungodly.2 Two of them in particular would indicate the vast gulf separating him from Rome. In the Address to the Christian Nobility he attacks the church-state system that had undergirded civil and ecclesiastical authority for a thousand years. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church struck at the very structure of the church, proposing to pare the list of sacraments from seven to two. Small surprise that heresy proceedings were in the offing. An infection in the body this serious could simply not be allowed to spread. Added to all this was the election of a new and very pious emperor, Charles V, who was determined to demonstrate his zeal as a faithful son of the church.
By the autumn of 1520 it seemed inevitable that Martin Luther would soon be tried for false teaching and suffer the fate of others so accused: burning at the stake. But a papal ambassador, Karl von Miltitz, who had tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully for almost two years to mediate the dispute, makes one last ditch effort to bring the two sides together. In hindsight this appears to be a fool's errand. A papal bull threatening excommunication (Exsurge Domini) had been promulgated in June. This document did not mince words. The language was sharp and uncompromising, characterizing Luther as a bull loose in the vineyard of the Lord. But it was theoretically still possible for Luther to remain in the church if he repented of his false views. This would happen if he reversed himself within sixty days of the bull's publication in his region of Germany. So the door remained cracked open slightly. Miltitz met with Luther and as a result the latter agreed to write a letter to Pope Leo X. He [End Page 83] also would append a short writing, which became The Freedom of a Christian.
Given the historical situation, the sharp rhetoric of the letter strikes most readers as strange. If Luther is really serious about taking advantage of this last opportunity to be reconciled to the church, then why is this letter so harshly critical of papal curia? One can understand his frustration with Rome's delays and fabrications but is it really possible to separate the person of the pope from these broadsides, as the Reformer claims to be doing? There is very little evidence that Leo actually read the letter, so the question is moot from one perspective. But perhaps, as Berndt Hamm has said, Luther is trying to apply the lessons of The Freedom of the Christian to the pope.3 In other words, harsh language is necessary for those (the papal advisors and theologians like Eck) who suffocate Christian freedom under a blanket of rules, regulations, laws, and false views of the church. But even the enemy deserves the Christian's love, and this is why Luther is generous toward the person of the pope.
The letter is a fascinating and perplexing historical document. But much more important is the short "summary of the entire Christian life" that Luther dedicated to Leo and appended to the epistle, The Freedom of a Christian.4 While not entirely free of barbs, it lacks the polemics and sense of opposition that is found in many of the Reformer's writings. After a brief introduction, it breaks down into two essential parts, the freedom that comes from faith in Christ and the love that flows from this liberty towards the neighbor.
The Freedom of a Christian
Many people view the Christian faith as something easy and some even place it among the virtues. They do this because they have not experienced faith, nor have they tasted its great power. A person must experience the strength faith provides in the midst of trials and misfortune. Otherwise it is not possible to write well about faith or to understand what has been written about it. But one who has had even a small taste of faith can never write, speak, reflect, or hear enough concerning it. As Christ says, it is a "spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). [End Page 84]
Although I cannot boast of my own abundance of faith and I also know quite well how short my own supply is, nevertheless I hope I have attained at least a drop of faith—though I grant that I have been surrounded by great and various temptations. However, I hope in what follows that I am able to discuss faith in a way that is more elegant, and certainly with more clarity, than has been done in the past by the literalists and subtle disputants, who have not even understood what they have written.
In order to make the way smoother for the average or common readers (for only them do I serve) I will put forth two themes concerning the freedom and bondage of the spirit.
A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything. A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.
These two assertions appear to conflict with one another. However, if they can be found to be in agreement it would serve our purposes beautifully. Both are statements from the Apostle Paul. He says in I Corinthians 9:19: "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all." And in Romans 13:8 he asserts: "Owe no one anything except to love one another." It is in the very nature of love to be attentive to others and to serve the one who is loved. So it is the case with Christ. Although he was Lord of all and "born of woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4) he was at the same time a free man and servant, in "the form of God" and in the "form of a slave" (Philippians 2:6–7).5
Let us begin by looking inside ourselves at the righteous, free and true Christian, that is, the spiritual, new and inner person, and observe how the transformation to this state occurs. It is evident that nothing external can produce Christian righteousness or freedom. Nor can anything external produce unrighteousness or servitude. This can be proven by a simple argument. How is the soul able to benefit if the body is in good health—free, active, and in general, eating and drinking and doing what it pleases? Is it not the case that even the most godless slaves of wickedness can enjoy such pleasures? On the other hand, how will poor health or captivity or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul? Even the most godly people and those with [End Page 85] free consciences are afflicted with such things. None of this touches upon the freedom or servitude of the soul . . .6
One thing and one thing alone leads to Christian life, righteousness and freedom. This is the holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Jesus himself says in John 11:25: "So if the Son makes you free you will be free indeed" . . .7
You may ask, "What is the Word of God and how should it be used, since there are so many words of God?" I respond by quoting what Paul says in Romans 1. The Word is the gospel of God concerning his son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who makes us holy. To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free and save it, provided the preaching is believed. For faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God . . .8
You might wonder how faith alone, without the works of the law, can justify and confer so many great benefits when it appears that the Bible commands that we do a multitude of works, laws and ceremonies. Here is how I handle this question. First, it is crucial to remember what has been said above, namely, that faith alone without works of the law is what justifies,frees and saves. It should be pointed out that the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commands and promises. The commands teach what is good. However, the good that is taught is not done. The commands show us what we ought to do but they do not give us the power to do it. Thus the commands function in this way: they teach us to know ourselves. By means of the commandments we recognize our inability to do the good and thereby cause us to despair of our own powers. This explains why they are called the Old Testament and belong to the old testament. For example, the commandment "You shall not covet" is a precept that proves all of us are sinners. For none of us can avoid coveting, no matter how hard we might struggle against it . . .9
Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous,free and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will find itself not only united with these promises but fully absorbed by them. It will share in the power of the promises and, even more, it will be saturated and intoxicated by them . . .10 [End Page 86]
The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ just as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this solemn promise, as the Apostle Paul teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh there is a true marriage between them—indeed, the most perfect of marriages because human marriages are but a shadow of this one true union. Given the marriage between Christ and the soul, it follows that they hold everything in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the soul that trusts Christ can boast and glory in him since it regards what he has as its own. And it follows that whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.
Let us look at this exchange in more detail and we shall be able to see its invaluable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation while the soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith enter the picture and sins, death and damnation are Christ's while grace, life and salvation will be the soul's. For if Christ is a bridegroom he must take upon himself that which are his bride's and he in turn bestows on her all that is his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of his bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?
The result is a most pleasing picture, not only of communion but of a blessed battle that leads to victory, salvation and redemption. For Christ is God and man in one person. He has not sinned or died and he is not condemned. Nor can he sin, die or be condemned. The righteousness, life and salvation he possesses are unconquerable for he is eternal and all-powerful. However, by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and hell of his bride. In fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own. It is as if he sinned, suffered, died and descended into hell in order to overcome them all. However sin, death and hell could not swallow him. In fact, they were swallowed by him in a mighty duel or battle. For his righteousness is greater than all sin, his life stronger than death, and his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the soul that trusts Christ and receives him as its bridegroom through its pledge of faith, is free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and given eternal righteousness, life and salvation . . .11
Finally, we shall deal with those things that pertain to the neighbor. For we do not live in this mortal body and focus only on it. Rather, [End Page 87] we live with all other people on earth. Indeed, we live for others and for ourselves . . .12
Let us be clear that no one needs to do these things to attain righteousness and salvation. Therefore we should be guided in all our works by this one thought alone—that we may serve and benefit others in everything that is done, having nothing else before our eyes except the need and advantage of the neighbor . . .13
From faith there flows a love and joy in the Lord. From love there proceeds a joyful, willing and free mind that serves the neighbor and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame,gain or loss. We do not serve others with an eye toward making them obligated to us. Nor do we distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or ingratitude. Rather we freely and willingly spend ourselves and all that we have, whether we squander it on the ungrateful or give it to the deserving. This is just as our Father does . . .14
But, freely in Christ, our heavenly Father has come to our aid. So our works ought to be directed freely toward our neighbor. Each of us should become a Christ to the other. And as we are Christ to one another the result is that Christ fills us all and we become a truly Christian community.15
This teaching tells us that the good we have from God should flow from one to the other and be common to all. Everyone should "put on" his neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor's place. The good that flows from Christ flows into us. Christ has "put on" us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. The good we receive from Christ flows toward those who have need of it . . .
In conclusion, as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. Otherwise we are not Christian. As Christians we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.16
I have a colleague who teaches at a prestigious university in the eastern part of the United States. It is the kind of institution that is a golden ticket to all sorts of opportunities in graduate schools [End Page 88] and jobs. But there is also an irony because all is not well. This colleague reports that he has never seen such high levels of anxiety and concern in his classrooms. The demands of a merciless meritocracy are etched on the faces of the students. Surrounded by wealth and resources, they have absorbed the message that the promised heaven of material, social, and professional success will be theirs if, and only if, they earn the requisite grades and internships and recommendations. Indeed, their very sense of identity rests on their ability to measure up to the lofty expectations set by family, culture, and ultimately, themselves.
We are separated from Martin Luther's The Freedom of a Christian by five hundred years. Yet, if we allow for the obvious differences, his world in some ways is not that different from our own. The revelation to him of a faith that operated outside the normal channels of human performance ("you get what you deserve") proved so liberating that he ended up shaking the theological and political foundations of sixteenth-century Europe. Within a span of three decades, almost half of the continent switches its religious allegiance. The spark for this revolution is laid out in this little treatise. And his words can still resonate today in the ears of ordinary and privileged people alike.
Luther makes clear at the outset of the treatise that the word of freedom does not operate in a vacuum. The gospel is not abstract. It always strikes listeners in the midst of their daily lives as family members, citizens, and church-goers. We must guard against the concept that we hear the Word and then we take it out into the world and "apply" it. In other words, there is no separation of being and doing, faith and ethics. Thus Luther pairs freedom and service or love in his opening paragraphs. He states that they need to fit together and not be isolated from each other. Like "saint and sinner," there is a simultaneity to faith and love. While it is true that love flows from faith and is only truly possible in faith, it is also inconceivable to Luther that the two would somehow be separated. A good tree will bear good fruit and does not need to be told to do so.
The first part of the treatise deals with the nature of freedom. Luther begins by noting that nothing "external" can make a person righteous or worthy. In his day, external works included pilgrimages, [End Page 89] indulgences, and becoming a priest or monk. Again, the link with our time is not hard to make. We also live "outside in" We believe things external to us like wealth, respectability, and degrees will somehow make for happiness and a stable identity. They will "save" us or make us whole. (It is interesting to note that one of the root meanings of the word salvus—the word we use for saved is "whole.") However, Luther says the path to proving our own worth leads to folly. Only one thing is truly necessary: the knowledge that we are loved and forgiven in Christ's death and resurrection.
At this point Luther has to confront a problem. If we are not saved by works, then why does the Bible have so many commands? Luther reminds his readers that God speaks with two voices in scripture. There is the voice of the law, which makes clear how high the bar is. On a human level, external behavior is the ultimate measure. For example, no one will be sentenced to prison for thinking about stealing a car. But God searches the heart and the truth about us is revealed. I tell my students that a careful reading of Matthew 5–7 (the Sermon on the Mount) is not a feel-good experience. We are not inclined to turn the other cheek when struck. We have a hard time loving our enemies. The law shines a bright light into the dark corners of our lives and exposes our hypocrisy and weakness.
But there is another voice in the Bible—the one where God makes a promise. When he speaks of this promise, Luther has a hard time containing himself. It is a word of power that "saturates" and "intoxicates" the soul. God in Christ breaks into our lives and shatters all our foolish attempts to construct a life based on reputation, respectability, and wealth. A new identity is given in Christ and Luther turns to the most intimate of human relationships—marriage—to explain what he means. I do not need to repeat Luther's words here and any attempt to approximate his passion for God's love in Christ would be a poor imitation. Rather I suggest a careful reading of the section above on how Christ the bridegroom weds a wholly unworthy bride (us!) and gives to his beloved everything she lacks while taking upon himself all that shames and disgraces her. Faith, or better, trust is the inevitable result of such love and it frees the bride from self-preoccupation to go out into the world of the neighbor. [End Page 90]
The world of the neighbor comprises much of the second part of the treatise. The one freed in Christ is now bound to the needs of others. Note carefully that one of words that Luther uses to link freedom and service is "flows": "From faith there flows a love and joy in the Lord" and "the good that flows from Christ flows into us . . . the good we receive from Christ flows toward those who have need of it." The image is a fountain of God's love, spilling over the sides and beyond any walls meant to contain it. It saturates all in its path, including us, and then flows through us to the neighbor in need. This love, like water itself, seeks the low places. Luther says it extends to the ungrateful. This love no longer distinguishes between friends and enemies. (Imagine that!) It seeks no obligation. It flows through us, though we be unworthy vessels. And it carries us into places we would not have ventured on our own—regions inhabited by the lost, lonely, and forsaken. For one Martin Luder who became Martin Luther, the freedom of a Christian can mean nothing less.
FOR FURTHER READING
Two recent translations of The Freedom of a Christian are available. Both come with introductions and commentary on the text. One is The Freedom of a Christian, translated and introduced by Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). The other is The Freedom of a Christian. The Annotated Luther Study Edition, edited by Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016). See also On the Freedom of a Christian with Related Texts, edited and translated, with an introduction by Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2013), because it includes sixteenth-century reactions to Luther's teaching on freedom from his allies and opponents. [End Page 91]
1. See Heinz Schilling, Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, translated by Rona Johnston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 139–40.
2. In addition to The Freedom of a Christian, they are, in chronological order, Treatise on Good Works in Helmut Lehmann and Jaroslav Pelikan, eds. Luther's Works, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955–1986), 44:17–114 (hereafter referred to a LW), The Papacy in Rome: An Answer to the Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig (LW 39:55-104), Address to the Christian Nobility (LW 44:123–217) and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (LW 36:11–126).
3. Berndt Hamm, "Luther's 'Freedom of a Christian' and the Pope," Lutheran Quarterly 21 (2007): 249-67.
4. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, translated and introduced by Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008):45. Hereafter cited as Freedom.
5. Freedom, 49–50.
6. Freedom, 51–52.
7. Freedom, 52.
8. Freedom, 53.
9. Freedom, 57.
10. Freedom, 59.
11. Freedom, 62—63.
12. Freedom, 79.
13. Freedom, 79–80.
14. Freedom, 83.
15. Freedom, 83–84.
16. Freedom, 88–89.