Thursday, 11 June 2009

Martin Luther: The Freedom of a Christian

Martin Luther wrote The Freedom of a Christian in response to the Pope’s criticisms of his teaching. Contrary to popular belief, Luther wasn’t opposed to the Catholic Church as such, and was pretty gutted when they kicked him out; it was more that he thought they were wrong about some crucial things, and should admit the errors of their ways and agree with him instead. The Freedom of a Christian comes accompanied with a charming little letter which goes roughly like this:

Dear Pope Leo,

I want to make it clear that, while I've attacked the ungodly doctrines of the Catholic Church and your terribly corrupt See, I've never attacked you personally. Sometimes I actually stand up for you, and to show you just how much I wish you well, I've sent you this little treatise, explaining why you are wrong and I am right.

Lots of love,

Luther’s argument revolves around two basic principles:

1. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
2. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.

He says that human beings have a twofold nature: the spiritual, inner soul, which the Bible refers to as the ‘new man’, and the carnal, outward flesh, which the Bible calls the ‘old man.’ A Christian becomes righteous not by anything to do with the flesh, but only by faith in the Word of God. Only the soul can accept the Word of God, so nothing the flesh can do makes any difference. You can’t think that works get you anywhere and also have faith: as soon as you have faith you realise that you’re entirely ‘blameworthy, sinful, and damnable’, and only by trusting Christ can you become a new man. No outward work can justify a person, and nor can any outward work make a person guilty.

Scripture is divided into commandments and promises. The commandments of the Bible teach us what is good, but they don’t help us to do good things: they’re just meant to show us how incapable we are of doing good. When we despair of ourselves, then the promises come to our aid: they promise that if we only believe in Jesus, we will have all things.

Now, the greatest compliment you could have in a person is having faith in their goodness and trustworthiness, and the greatest insult you could pay a person is to be suspicious of them. The highest worship we can offer to God is to trust him, and the greatest rebellion against him is to disbelieve his promises. When we do good works because we think they’ll make us righteous, because we don’t trust God’s promises, they’re not worth anything and are worse than useless.

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride with her bridegroom (giggedy giggedy), and the soul becomes one flesh with Christ. This means that everything Christ has, the soul can claim for its own and vice versa, so that soul gains Christ's grace, life and salvation, and Christ gains sin, death and damnation (aw, crap). He made them his own, and suffered, died, and descended into hell to defeat them. His sinless life was stronger than death, so he defeated death and hell and set the soul free.

So, does that mean we don’t need to do good works? Well, it’s not that straightforward, sadly. Although we’re justified by faith and don’t need anything else spiritually, we still have to live on earth. The soul that has been set free by Christ wants everything else to be set free, and so disciplines the body to purify it so that it too can worship God. Works aren’t done to justify ourselves, but out of love for God. It’s a bit like a bishop: baptising children doesn’t make him a bishop, but the other way round: if he wasn’t a bishop, he wouldn’t be able to baptise children (don’t bash the bishop...analogy). A good or bad house doesn’t make a good or bad builder; a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house.

When Jesus was asked to pay taxes, he pointed out that the sons of the king are exempt from taxes; but then he freely submitted and paid taxes anyway (more tax systems should depend on fish-gold). We do good works not because we need to but out of love for God and others.

Some people might say, well, since I’m not justified by works, I don’t need to do any: I will do what I feel like and won’t take part in the ceremonies and rituals of Church. Incorrect. In the same way that we need food or drink, but they don’t make us righteous, we can’t stop doing good works. In this world, we’re still bound to the life of the body. In the same way that wealth is a test of poverty, the ceremonies of the Church are the test of the righteousness of faith. Small boys need to be cherished in the bosoms of maidens, but when they are older, maidens become a danger and a temptation, and in the same way, inexperienced young Christians need the restraint of Christian ceremony, even though for more mature Christians there is a danger that they will come to believe that they’re justified by ceremonies.

I found it interesting reading Luther, because it made me realise just how much of the theology I've heard in churches I've belonged to can be traced back to him. But I do find him pretty dualistic: can body and soul really be separated that clearly? Are we really so hopelessly depraved and corrupt that there's nothing good in us at all before we accept Jesus? For all his clever similes, I don't find him such a rich thinker as Aquinas, and it makes me sad that he sees the beauty of salvation apparently only by contrast to the corruption of everything else.


Gabriel Smy said...

You do make me laugh. Especially the innuendo. All the letter was missing was: 'In fact, some of my best friends are Catholics'.

I'm glad you said the D word at the end. The dualism alert alarm was going like crazy. Did Luther effectively equate the 'old man' with the body?

Jeremy said...

Ha ha, you said 'fish-gold'.

KC said...

I must disagree and offer a correction. It's not "giggedy" but "giggity". Notice the American pronunciation of "t" as in internet said, "innernet". The Yanks either leave out the "t" or change them to "d"

The rest of it's too deep for me to understand, but it seemed good to me to offer my humble services nonetheless.

seriously, thanks for this rockin' blog. I like what's said in the message,

"Faith and works, works and faith, you can't separate the two without ending up with a dead corpse on your hands!£


Marika said...

Thanks for the correction! I had qualms about the spelling, so it's good to be put right.

And Gabriel, Luther does pretty much equate the 'old man' with the body, though he also sees the body as that which involves us in life in the world: relationships to other people, physical activity, any sort of external activity. Dirty dualist.

I like the idea of paying taxes with goldfish instead, although my family have traditionally been bad at keeping animals alive, so would likely be impoverished pretty quickly.

Sam Hole said...

Nice blog, Marika - a great link from my facebook newsfeed! I know it's not strictly what you were writing about, but Luther apparently (according to Rublack) deliberately misdated the letter to Leo, from November (when it was actually written) to September. September, it's argued, was before the Pope issued the bull of excommunication against Luther, so it could be Luther claiming the moral high ground in the battle. Not fully relevant, but a nice snippet of Luther's wide eyed awareness of the necessity of political activity!

Marika said...

Thanks Sam, that's a lovely little detail! He was such a cheeky monkey, wasn't he?

Boring Postcard said...

The 'giggedy' spelling is correct, according to the subtitles on the DVD. End argument. :)

Unknown said...


I love this sentence. Keep going

Anonymous said...

Hi Marika, I have been enjoying your posts. It gives me pause to think through a number of aspects that challenge my Luther perspective. I wonder though if the hated "dualism" you find in Luther, is a bit easier to understand in relation to his two kinds of righteousness. Coram Deo we have nothing good to offer, but I am sure that coram vicino et mundo he makes room for a certain amount of goodness and even to some degree free will. Also I don't think it was simply an equating of old man with the body but his concept of "Flesh" (sinful nature) in the body. Luther feared death to some degree, struggled physically and experienced the plagues.You are quite correct in saying that he was obsessed with the priority of faith in both salvific and political contexts. The small comment made about the dating of the Letter to LEO is also correct in my understanding. However, Luther most certainly engaged deMedici with a certain level of sarcasm.
Thanks again.

Marika said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Brett. Could you explain what coram deo or coram vicino et mundo are? I haven't come across them in what Luther I've read, and my Latin is ... sketchy.

Anonymous said...

sorry to take so long to get back to you Marika. I was adding your link to my blogroll and noticed your Q. Before God, the neighbor and the world, is how my sketchy Latin would have it. They are regular terms used to describe Luther's "relational-soteriological" emphasis. Thanks again for your great blog. Brett

Unknown said...

Marika, this seems to be a fair summary of Luther's goal in this letter. He certainly did not seem to desire a break with the Catholic Church, and is trying to defend himself on the matter of 'sola fide'.
Unfortunately, his reevaluation of the Eucharist left him utterly outside of union with Catholic thought. (See the oath required of Berenger of Tours, 11th century, for what Luther would have had to swear to for Reconciliation).
On the matter of 'sola fide', we see the same recipe to heresy with the Catholic Church as any: the strong exaggeration of an aspect of scripture, to the complete disregard of another. Luther's famous naming of James as the 'Epistle of Straw' shows this disregard.
The Catholic Church agrees that works alone do not save, and that all works are ideally done for the sake of Love (Caritas), so the real question is of justification by faith and what it means, i.e. what is grace and how does it change us, i.e. are we "depraved" or merely deprived of goodness; this is where he slips off the Catholic Church's back.

Father Anonymous said...

Just for the sake of clarity, let me add a small correction here. For Luther, the "old man" is not the body, but the soul before grace. That's quite clear in "Christian Freedom," when he says things like:

"Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if he is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife's, and, at the same time, impart to his wife that which is his."

Incidentally, it is also passages like this one which open up something genuinely interesting about Luther, but not well enough known. When he writes about salvation, he often relies on the image of a "joyous exchange," in which Christ gives us his righteousness in trade for our death. I believe the idea has its roots in Augustine, and was passed on to Luther by his monastic superior, Von Staupitz.

It's quite different from the "banking" model familiar to many people, including many Lutherans, in which the merits of Christ are applied to our account. The big difference is that the exchange of wedding gifts is part of a personal encounter, where the transfer of "funds" is a purely forensic, impersonal act.

JL said...


I enjoyed this article that reframes the dualist perspective on luther:

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

"it makes me sad that he sees the beauty of salvation apparently only by contrast to the corruption of everything else."

But why does that make you sad? How can we talk about the greatness of God's love if we don't know just how great his wrath against sin is? How can we talk about God's forgiveness if we don't know what we're being forgiven from? If we downplay "corruption" aka SIN, then we are downplaying salvation and Jesus' work on the cross. If humans aren't totally depraved, then why did Jesus, the God-Man, Son of God, have to die as a sacrifice? The gospel of Christ is watered down when we don't take SIN and corruption seriously.
(I'm a Calvinist btw)