OnChristian Freedom is one of three monumental treatises of the Reformation written by Martin Luther in 1520. The work was foundational in defining the theological emphases of the Protestant Reformation, of which Luther himself was a key figure. The work contains one of the central tenets of the emerging Protestant movement: the relationship between faith and works. Luther recognized something that had been lost and that needed to be restored. And it remains a central and significant part of Protestant proclamation today.
The other two treatises published in 1520 were an Open Letter to the Christian Nobility and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. They each clarified Luther’s ideas and spread them throughout Germany. The popular response was enthusiastic. One papal legate wrote, “All Germany is in revolution. Nine tenths shout ‘Luther!’ as their war-cry; and the other tenth cares nothing about Luther, and cries: Death to the court of Rome!” By 1521 Luther was brought before the young emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. He had already been excommunicated, and now he stood before the highest secular authority in the land.
It was not a theological debate. They asked for his recantation. Luther gave his famous response and appealed to scripture and conscience. He could not recant. Luther was sent away just before they condemned him, but was kept secure in the Castle of Wartburg by Fredrick the Wise. During this time he worked on a German translation of the Bible. Once reform efforts got out of hand, Luther returned to Wittenberg and began the long process of reforming the church and creating a new form of Christian worship and expression.
The principal theme in Luther’s work, On Christian Freedom, is the effect of grace on the soul of a person who has faith in Christ for forgiveness of sins. This grace produces a spiritually free person who may thus give themselves freely to others for Christ’s sake.
On Christian Freedom was initially occasioned by the request of a hopeful Karl von Militz who was mediating between Rome and Luther. It was supposed to demonstrate that Luther was attacking a system and not the person of the pope. And even though the attached letter to the Pope and the treatise itself were written in conciliatory tones, they were in fact “a declaration that the differences between Luther and the papacy were irreconcilable.” Richard Marius argues that this work is perhaps the finest thing that Luther ever wrote. Bertram Lee Woolf has called it “one of the classic documents of the Christian faith, and shows the positive, evangelical basis of the reformation.”
Just the same, Luther did not possess much talent for apologies. Rather, “he addressed Leo in the firm tones of a good German schoolmaster admonishing an inept but well-meaning child.” Luther and the Pope could get along fine, as long as Leo would help him destroy the papacy and all that the medieval church stood for. This attitude comes across more in the letter to Leo than in the actual treatise. However, according to the work, everything about the way the Church understood the gospel, the righteousness of God, and good works would have to change for Luther and Rome to agree.
In this work, Luther writes about his freshly-discovered understanding of the gospel of Christ and what principles for living naturally flow out of such an understanding. The “righteousness of faith” is the cornerstone of this gospel, and it makes all people free who have faith in it. Catholic morality was ill founded in Luther’s mind. Righteousness cannot be gained through any outward acts of “goodness”, but rather through faith in Christ alone, which takes place in the heart. Then, believers, thus declared righteous through faith, do good works because they are now good people. And these good works are done freely because they are not done in order to merit (or earn) righteousness. They are done out of love for God and to serve others.
Luther’s thesis is twofold: “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 may at first sound contradictory, but they are in fact the natural results of being justified by faith rather than by outward works. In the same way, this is exactly the way the Scriptures speak of those who are believers in Christ (1 Cor. 9:19; Rom. 13:8; Gal. 4:4; Phil.2: 6-7). Luther takes pains to demonstrate that each point he makes is found explicitly in Scripture, since, for him, scripture is the principle source from which we draw our theology (sola scriptura).
Luther begins his argument by affirming a commonly held belief that mankind is a twofold nature- spiritual and fleshly. The Scriptures assert differing things about these two spheres of humanity, and thus differing things about the same human. The argument then is that bodily conditions do not change the condition of the soul. Therefore, outward works cannot free the soul. Likewise they cannot damn the soul either. It is the gospel that does for the soul what the outer flesh cannot do. He writes,
“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for the Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ…Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul.”
It is this very word – gospel- and it alone, that grants to a believer all the righteousness of God and its attending benefits. Therefore, faith in this gospel is necessary for the soul to have forgiveness and life. Luther writes, “You may through this faith become a new man in so far as your sins are forgiven and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone.” This faith has no connection with works. Works without faith profit nothing. It is faith that gives life, and the lack of faith keeps one in death.
Luther goes on to discuss how faith justifies and the place of the Law in this process. Ultimately, Christ is all one needs, and this is how the Christian is made free from everything Christ conquered (i.e. Sin, Death, Hell, Satan). Therefore the Christian believer is most free because Christ is most victorious. And the Christian is in Christ through faith alone. He writes again, “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.”
The second part of the thesis begins with the assumption that although the Christian is spiritually above all things, he does not and cannot control all things. Physical powers and authorities still take us under. Yet even these are for our good. In fact, God causes all things to work for our good. Those that lack faith gain nothing from anything that happens. The point is that the body fights against the spirit. The body must therefore be brought into submission to the spirit. This is done through the church ceremonies, discipline, and good works. Obedience to the Law helps one overcome the inclinations of the flesh.
Luther argues that good works are also aimed at meeting the needs of others so that love may be shown as the chief Christian virtue. The Christian made righteous by faith is most free and able to do such acts of love, and not out of outward obligation, but by inner constraint and desire. The gospel of freedom from the Law actually moves the Christian to do such good works.
Luther’s final exhortation is that this gospel must be preached if the church is to be faithful to Scripture, and if the people of God are to be made truly alive and truly righteous. The result will be free and joyful Christians who are eager to show to others the love they have received from Christ.
The key insight is that Christians are free from all slavery, including the slavery of acquiring merit through good works, and are now free and alive in order that they may do good works from love and without fear. This insight remains crucial for a church that seeks to be faithful to the gospel found in the scriptures, and one that is called to bear witness to this gospel by acts of love for the world around us. The church cannot lose sight of both the free acceptance given to us by God through Christ. Nor can we lose sight of our calling to be rich in good works (Titus ), showing mercy and kindness to all who encounter us, so that “they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We are free and bound at the same time.
But the nature of that freedom and servitude make all the difference in the world. Luther was passionate about reclaiming and proclaiming these truths. As a result, Luther’s profound influence and teachings in these matters would become commonplace in Protestantism for at least the next 500 years. It is no wonder that this work had such an impact in Germany (as it was published in both Latin and German) and for the Reformation as a whole. It is stirring, inspiring, and easily accessible. The arguments are not subtle, but clear and to the point. The pope would understand its profoundness and the peasants would understand its simplicity. It is equally accessible for today’s reader. This work ought to be read by contemporary Christians, especially Protestants, so that we too may faithfully embrace and embody the gospel in our various cultures.
Jonathan Huggins is the Chaplain at Berry College in Rome, GA. He received his academic and ministry training from Wheaton College Graduate School (MA), Reformed Theological Seminary (MAR), and Stellenbosch University (PhD in Theology). He is a Priest in the Anglican Church in North America.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon, 1978.
Chadwick. Owen, The Reformation, London: Penguin Books, 1972.
Dillenberger, John, Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. ed. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Luther, Martin On Christian Freedom, Trans by W.A. Lambert, Rev. by Harold J. Grimm, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Marius, Richard, Martin Luther, The Christian Between God and Death. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 1999.
McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought, An Introduction 2d ed; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993.
Steinmetz, David C. Luther in Context, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
Woolf, Bertram Lee, Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, Vol. 1, London: Lutterworth Press, 1952.
Quoted in Chadwick, The Reformation (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 55. ↑