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.