The Freedom of a Christian Summary
When Luther speaks of the freedom of a Christian, he's referring to inner, spiritual freedom. Through faith in Christ, man is completely free, in that he's not subject to anyone. But at the same time, paradoxically, in his outward self, he is a dutiful servant to his neighbor, subject to all, and bound to all others by ties of Christian love.
This paradox is exemplified by Christ himself. Though perfectly free, he bound himself under the law to serve and save mankind. He was free insofar as he was the Word made flesh, but he was also a servant in that he willingly subjected himself to those he loved. Or, as Jesus put it himself in I Cor. 9 [:19]:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all.
In response to his Catholic opponents, who accused him of advocating a life without good works, Luther maintained that, in his capacity as a servant to all, man inevitably does all kinds of good works; it's just they are neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation, which only faith can provide. In practical terms, the outer man, the man of flesh living in a world of other men, must exercise constant self-discipline and restraint in his dealings with others. In doing so, he will make his outward self conform to the inner man, the man who, by faith, is created in the image of God. In this way, the outer man's freedom as a servant to all corresponds to the inner man's freedom as subject to none.
The Freedom of a Christian is a reform document created by Martin Luther in 1520. Luther’s goal was to link the ideas of spiritual freedom and servitude, and he began by laying down two seemingly contradictory principles. Luther states,
A Christian man is the freest lord of all, and subject to none.
A Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.
He then explains how these two statements are linked, and moreover, how the connection between them conveys the essence of his religious doctrine and his Christian faith. Luther maintains that without faith, humans are slaves to sin and the law. He hails a life of faith as the only road to freedom and a life without faith a sure road to hell. Luther believed the only way to freedom, and to heaven, was through faith and faith alone. Good works cannot ensure a man’s freedom, he maintains. In contrast, good works without faith ensures a man’s servitude to sinners and sinful ways. Luther proclaimed God’s law as the only law, and thus, following the law of any other, or doing what in society’s view constitutes good works, holds no weight in Luther’s Christianity. Therefore, faith in God is the only way to be free from sin, from the law, and from false gods and principles that interfere with Christian servitude.
“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...
(The entire section is 2,276 words.)