Reviewing Martin Luther’s “On Christian Liberty”

In October 31, 1517, Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking widespread public reaction in Germany, which eventually led to the permanent schism in the church. However, a split from church was not really what Luther wanted. What he intended was a theological correction of the church. In 1520, suggested by his colleagues, Luther wrote a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X, which clearly stated that Luther had not been attacking the pope in person,[1] but making an effort to bring the church back to the gospel. Accompanied by this letter Luther included this book, titled On Christian Liberty, arguing for justification by faith alone, not by works or merits. The ideas conveyed in this book are the fundamental doctrines throughout the Reformations, agreed by most of the mainline evangelical Protestant denominations nowadays.

The central idea of On Christian Liberty can be summarized by the following statements: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[2] The first sentence is about the liberty of Christians, while the second is about the service of Christians. These two theses seemingly contradict with each other, but Luther excellently argued for them with biblical verses throughout the whole book. As the arguments go, Luther showed that the first sentence is about that the justification of a Christian is irrelevant to his merits and works, but solely dependent on his faith. A Christian is free, i.e., “lord[ing] over sin, death, and hell.”[3] However, out of this liberty, a Christian “serves, ministers to, and benefits all men,”[4] as a perfect servant of all people, including Christians and non-Christians.[5]

Luther recognized the two-fold nature of man, namely, a spiritual one and a bodily (fleshly) one.[6] Together with interactions among men, Luther divided the book into three parts: the first concerns the spiritual, or the inner, part of man; the second the bodily, or the outer, part of man; and the third, loving neighbors.

First, Luther discussed about the spiritual nature of man, which is the new, and inner part of man. He argued that “no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom, or in producing unrighteousness or servitude.”[7] What a body eats, drinks, and does have nothing to do with his soul. It is not uncommon that some very bad people prosper, and that some very godly men suffer from hunger or even imprisonment. What makes one righteous or free is very different from merits or works, in spite of what the Catholic Church had been preaching.[8] How did Luther come up with this idea? He referred to the Scriptures, the Word of God. Before arguing for this idea, he established his arguments by proving the supreme authority of the Word of God. He cited Matt. 4:4, where Christ quoted the Old Testament, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…” Luther recognized the power of the Word of God, that incarnates to dwell among the peoples. He identified it as the one and the only one thing necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom.[9] This is sola scriptura, one of the five sola’s in this Reformation movement. This is the logical foundation for the doctrine of justification through faith alone.

Then Luther asserted that “faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.”[10] He cited Apostle Paul in Rom. 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” and Rom 1:17, “He who through faith is righteousness shall live.” (taken from the English translation of the book) And he quoted Rom. 10:4 as well. By these verses, Luther confidently affirmed that through faith alone one is saved. And the work done by man cannot save him, as in Rom. 3:23, Apostle Paul said, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and in Rom. 3:10, “none is righteous; no, not one.” All things in man are damnable, and man cannot be saved through all these outer things. Citing Rom. 10:10, Luther elaborated his point that “since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that all these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man.”[11] Therefore, the first concern of all Christians should be to “lay aside all confidence in works,” and “strengthen their faith alone,” and “through faith to grow in knowledge”[12] of Jesus Christ, who suffered and rose for Christians. Luther did not forget to add that Christ also preached faith,[13] as in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Luther also quoted many other verses to argue for the sole dependence and relevance of faith to the salvation of man. It is evident that the teaching of faith is so often reiterated and emphasized in the Scriptures that there should be no doubt about it.

Luther understood people’s possible criticisms that Luther condemned works in spite of the fact that the Scriptures contain many laws that demand people to do something. Luther pointed out that the Scriptures consist of two parts: commandments and promises.[14] He wrote, “the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it,” but “through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own inability.”[15] However, the promises given in the Scriptures provide hopes for those who have faith. As in Rom. 11:32, Apostle Paul wrote, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Luther elaborated, “the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescribes… He alone commands; he alone fulfills.”[16] In a nutshell, through faith alone the soul are justified by the Word of God, and the soul are sanctified and filled with blessings, as in John 1:12, “but to all who… believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.”[17] Therefore, while faith does not induce idleness or wickedness, it makes law and works unnecessary for one’s righteousness and salvation.[18]

There are many benefits of faith. First, it honors God.[19] Second, God “does us great honor of considering us truthful and righteous for the sake of our faith.”[20] Third, “it unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom,”[21] as Apostle Paul taught in Eph. 5:31-32. This marriage has great power, that Christ’s possessions are also the faithful man, for example, His righteousness.[22] Moreover, “by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of health which are the bride’s… He makes them his own and acts as if… he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into the hell that he might overcome them all.”[23] In this process, He washed away the sins of the bride. The bride, through Christ, lord over death, as Luther quoted Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:57, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[24] We also shared the birthright with Christ.[25] This birthright involves a twofold honor: priesthood and kingship.[26] Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Pet. 2:9, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Our priesthood enables us to be “worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.”[27] This resonates what Heb. 10:18 and 22 teaches. Our kingship makes us to be a “steward of God’s mysteries,”[28] as 1 Cor. 4:1 teaches. Based on these biblical teachings, Luther criticized the teachings of the Catholic Church that only certain “ecclesiastics” could act as priests, contradicting biblical teachings.[29] On the other hand, the stewardship had evolved to be a great “tyranny” in Luther’s times[30] because the Catholic Church gripped the interpreting authority of the Scriptures.

After discussing the spiritual part of man and faith, Luther moved on to the bodily part of man and the sheer irrelevance of works to salvation. Luther pointed out the reality that as long as we live in the flesh, we are far from being perfect, and we have to keep perfecting ourselves for future life.[31] One must control and discipline his own body. Although by faith man is saved, one “cannot be idle, for the need of his body drives him,”[32] and he must do good works to reduce the drive. However, all these good works does not justify him before God, but he does it out of his love towards God. In other words, these good works are done because of man’s sinful nature, and are not done out of obligation but a free choice because he loves God.

These works are meaningless if a man is not a Christian and a believer. Luther explained with an analogy that a bishop performs his duties because he is a bishop, not that he was made a bishop because he performed these duties.[33] “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good work; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.”[34] A Christian does not need works to be justified because he is saved through faith alone. He is free from works and laws, but he does works and obeys laws “out of pure liberty.”[35]

To many people, a person looks good or evil by what he has done, as Christ said in Matt.7:20, “you will recognize them by its fruits.” But the outward appearance can be “deceiving.”[36] Luther suggested we look beyond works about how one is justified, and reminded that we are justified by the Word of God.[37] Luther was not afraid to be annoying to repeatedly reiterate the teaching of justification by faith alone, calling the justification by works a blasphemy, rendering Christ’s works to be pointless.[38]

In spite of the irrelevance of works to the justification, Luther did not reject good works, but suggested they should be taught as much as possible.[39] But because man tends to seek justification through works because of our sinful nature, or Luther said, “[the] perverse notion of works is unconquerable,”[40] both works and God’s grace must be preached at the same time. For example, John the Baptist yelled at the same time “repent!” and “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He preached not only works, but also His mercy and grace. Luther wrote, “we are to bring forth out of our new treasure things new and old, the voice of law as well as the word of grace.”[41] (Matt. 13:52) Therefore, while preaching works as much as possible, “we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused.”[42] Repentance is from the law of God, but grace and forgiveness come from the promises in His Word.

The third part of the book concerns loving the neighbors. After extensively discussing about faith and works, Luther moved on to the teaching that a Christian does not live for himself in his mortal body, but for others.[43] Even the Apostle Paul wrote this after discussing this central part of Christian teachings in the first part of his Epistles to the Romans, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:7-8) A Christian lives for others freely, with liberty. In everything he does, he should be guided by the thought that he serves and benefits others, i.e., for the welfare and advantages of others instead of his own self-interests.[44] Unlike the “ecclesiastics” who received wages from church, Luther quoted Apostle Paul’s epistles that everyone should work on their own so that they have enough to fund the needy.[45] “… let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph. 4:28) A Christian does all these to his neighbors because of his love towards them. The stronger serves the weaker, bearing each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2) Apostle Paul wrote, “faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6)

This is following Christ’s example of humility. As Apostle Paul wrote in Phil. 2:5-8, Christ has the form of God, He does not need works and sufferings to make himself righteous and saved,[46] but He takes the form of a servant to serve the needy and the neighbors.[47] Luther also noted that these neighbors include both Christians and non-Christians: “He does not distinguish friends and enemies or anticipate thankfulness or unthankfulness…”[48] and he also quoted Matt. 5:45: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rains on the just and on the unjust.” If we recognize the great and the precious things which are given us, our hearts will be filled with the Holy Spirit.[49] An ignorance of these gifts makes Christ be born in vain. By this token, all Christians ought to serve the others not out of the needs for salvation, but out of liberty and love.

In this book, Luther went over the fundamental teaching about the riches and glory of the Christian life. “It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing. It is lord over sin, death, and hell, and yet at the same time it serves, ministers to, and benefit all men.”[50] This statement resonates with the central theme introduced by Luther at the beginning of this book, i.e., we lord over all things, but we are also subject to all things. By faith alone we are justified, and we are free to make decisions, not bound by the traditions. Luther raised the example of Timothy and Titus. Timothy was circumcised by the Apostle Paul for the sake of the gospels, but Titus was not circumcised because of the possible messages conveyed to those who were weak in faith. In this example, Christians have the liberty to decide whether to carry out circumcision.[51] Another example is about tax money, that Christ said not to give offense to the authority, and to give the tribute.[52] Apostle Paul gave a similar teaching in Rom. 13:1-7. Even the works encouraged by the church a Christian is free to do, but Luther advised the readers “to be careful not to do it in order to obtain some benefit, whether temporal or eternal, for you would do injury for your faith…”[53]

Luther then concluded this part and also the whole book that “[a Christian] lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends himself into his neighbors.”[54]

However, Luther was not done. He disputed some possible misunderstandings or criticisms stemming out from the teachings in this book. There are two erroneous extremes, one being the abuse of this Christian liberty that all things that satisfy their fleshly desires are allowed, while the other being relying on their salvation solely on their reverent observance of ceremonies.[55] Both extremes are in error, and Luther quoted Apostle Paul who had attacked this kind of erroneous teachings back in the Apostle’s Age in Rom. 14:3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” However, Luther pointed out that pastors played an important role in guarding the faith of their congregations.[56]

This book written by Luther is so important that it is the cornerstone of Protestantism. In his times, the proclamation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone posed a great challenge to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that justification through merits. His emphasis of God’s mercy and grace makes the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, as it is human inability to achieve salvation is the total point of all Christ’s works. He argued all these based on the sole authority of the Scriptures, while in Catholic Church, ecclesiastical traditions played an important role in interpreting the Scriptures. He hailed the Scriptures as the sole authority of all Christian teachings, where all his teachings of faith, works, and loving neighbors were based on what the Scriptures teach. This book and the Reformations brought back the gospel that had been masked by the complex scholastic doctrines in the Middle Ages. The authority of Scripture and Luther’s doctrine of justification are (or, should be) still upheld by evangelical churches nowadays.

From his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther wanted to avoid a split of the church. Clearly, this was a failed attempt as we know from history, but the mere incompatibility between Luther’s teaching and Catholic teaching made a reconciliation very difficult. Of course, it is beyond Luther’s control as the complex political climate of Holy Roman Empire allowed Lutheran Reformation to survive and thrive, unlike previous attempts like Hussites and Waldensians. Reformations happened because of divine providence.

Luther discussed about faith and works in the context of the prevalence of theological teachings that salvation was based on merits. The teaching of Christian liberty freed the fellow Christians from works and merits, or the financial burdens in purchasing indulgences. As the Western societies have become more individualistic, embracing Christian liberty could be misunderstood as freely pursuing lusts and self-centered desires. A reaction of this is the stringent life styles from erroneous organized religious teachings, either it is from Christian heresies or even another religion. While Luther did dispute these two extremes, theologians ought to communicate Luther’s teaching and biblical teaching in a way that speaks to the peoples of this age.

 

[1] Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty, trans. W. A. Lambert, rev. Harold J. Grimm (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2003), 75-76.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 14. English translation in the book.

[18] Ibid., 15.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 18.

[22] Ibid., 19.

[23] Ibid., 20.

[24] Ibid., 21.

[25] Ibid., 25.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] Ibid., 27.

[28] Ibid., 30.

[29] Ibid., 29.

[30] Ibid., 30.

[31] Ibid., 33.

[32] Ibid., 36.

[33] Ibid., 38-39.

[34] Ibid., 39.

[35] Ibid., 41.

[36] Ibid., 42.

[37] Ibid., 43.

[38] Ibid., 44.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 45.

[41] Ibid., 45-46.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Ibid., 47.

[44] Ibid., 48.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 51.

[47] Ibid., 52.

[48] Ibid., 53.

[49] Ibid., 54.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 56.

[52] Ibid., 57.

[53] Ibid., 61.

[54] Ibid., 62.

[55] Ibid., 61-62.

[56] Ibid., 67-70.

Continue reading “Reviewing Martin Luther’s “On Christian Liberty””