Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
“Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life?” asks Martin Luther near the end of his treatise The Freedom of a Christian. The Christian can do all things and has all things and is filled with “the love which makes us free, joyful, almighty workers and conquerors over all tribulation, servants of our neighbors, and yet lords of all.” However, who lives this Christian life in our day? It is neither preached about nor sought after, so that Christians do not know why they bear the name of Christ. Surely, Luther says, it is because God dwells in us, so that by faith in God we become Christs to one another and treat our neighbors as Christ has treated us, that “Christ may be the same in all . . . that we may be truly Christian.”
These challenging words, written in 1520 during a time of extreme conflict with the papacy, express the heart and soul of Luther’s treatise on Christian liberty in which he sets forth, with simplicity and clarity, the essence of Christian faith and life. The book is dedicated as a “token of peace and good hope” to Pope Leo X, whom Luther calls “a lamb in the midst of wolves” and “a Daniel among lions” because of the wickedness present in the Roman Curia surrounding the pope. Luther writes in a bold and straightforward style, confident that although he has written a book small in size, “it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form, provided you grasp its meaning.” Subsequent generations have confirmed it as one of Luther’s most important and enduring writings, especially in its clear articulation of the central Reformation concept of justification by faith.
Born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, Luther was preparing for a vocation in law when, in the summer of 1505, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning. This experience seemed to provide a culmination and partial answer to the religious questions that troubled him, and two weeks later he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. In 1508 he became professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg; and in 1517, to protest the corrupt sale of indulgences by the church, he nailed ninety-five theses challenging this practice to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This proved to be the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation.
The truly great event in Luther’s life, however, was his breakthrough into personal faith and freedom in Christ which came, in the years 1513-1519, through careful study and teaching of the Scriptures. Luther’s major problem had been how to stand in holiness before a righteous, demanding God. In recovering the biblical meaning of the righteousness of God—as mercy, not judgment—Luther came to the belief that a person stands before God in the light of God’s grace alone, not dependent on any good work or infusion of righteousness through the sacraments. The joy and freedom of a Christian was that in faith; one need not look to oneself, a broken sinner, but only to God’s mercy and goodness. It was this wonderful liberation and joy that Luther speaks of so passionately to Pope Leo in The Freedom of a Christian.
Luther outlines the main argument of his treatise by setting down two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” These seemingly contradictory statements are held together in tension and provide an outline of the two main parts of the treatise that follow: the first part in which Luther shows how the inner spiritual person is justified and set free by faith alone; and the second part in which he shows that the outward carnal person, saved by faith, necessarily engages in good works and serves the neighbor in Christian love.
The inner person has nothing to gain from outward external acts such as fasting, going on pilgrimages, or performing “sacred” duties. “Such works produce nothing but hypocrites.” Neither will secular dress or activities necessarily harm the spiritual person. Only one thing is absolutely necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the Word of God, the gospel of Christ. Jesus says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon Press, 1950. Popular history, superbly done, without sacrificing scholarship or precision.
Forell, George W. Faith Active in Love. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1954. A thorough and balanced exploration of the principles underlying Luther’s social ethics.
Jüngel, Eberhard. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther’s Significance for Contemporary Theology. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1988. A fresh look at Luther as he speaks to modern Christians. Bibliography.
Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Edited by Timothy F. Lull. 1989. 2d ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005. The Freedom of a Christian is included among the writings. Includes a brief biography, glossary, bibliographic references, illustrations, and a fully searchable CD-ROM.
Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Covers Luther from his flight to the monastery through his breakthrough work The Freedom of a Christian to his attack on Desiderius Erasmus. Bibliography, index.
Rupp, Ernest Gordon. Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms, 1521. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. A vivid account of Luther’s development in the critical years leading to his break from the Catholic Church.
Spitz, Lewis W. The Protestant Reformation, 1517-1559. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An outstanding, well-written assessment of the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s crucial role in its development.