Martin Luther’s “On The Freedom of a Christian”
In November of 1520 Martin Luther wrote an essay titled “On the Freedom of a Christian.” This essay outlined several revolutionary ideas concerning Luther’s view of the Christian faith with a particular focus on the relationship between faith and works. The following is a brief summary of Luther’s essay.
Christians are both perfectly free, subject to none, and perfectly bound servants of all. This statement may seem contradictory, but the two ideas fit together well when we consider love. We are freed from the law but bound to serve our neighbor out of love.
We, as humans, in our mortal world perform works daily. Scripture, regarding works, is divided into two parts. The first is God’s commands (also known as God’s law), and the second is God’s promises. God’s commandments tell us what actions we should do but they do not give us the power to do them, and consequently, cause despair because we can not meet God’s expectations. This point of despair is where God introduces the promise of faith. The promise found in the Gospel of Christ is the only thing necessary for Christian freedom and righteousness. This promise of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is the word of God. In order to be saved by faith alone, however, we can not trust in ourselves the law, or this world in any way. Righteousness comes from trusting God alone, and His word which creates faith in our hearts.
Works can not glorify God, but if faith is present in the work they can be done in the name of the glory of God. If a Christian thinks that they can become righteous by any good work they lose their faith because in relying on the good work they neglect the fact that Christ has already made them righteous.
There are two parts of humans, the inner self and the outer self. The inner self is where faith lives. This faith can be strong if it is true, and does not allow the falsehoods of law or justification by works to harm it. Works have a place in the life of the outer self because of our interactions with this mortal world. Works are used as a tool to keep the mortal body in check because the body wishes to serve the world. In themselves works are not evil, it is only when one believes that they can be justified through the performance of works that the actions become harmful to the inner self. Good works do not make a person good, but a good person can do good works. The only works that are just in God’s eyes are those that are done on behalf of one’s neighbor without asking anything in return, or those that are done to keep the earthly body under control. Any works besides these are contrary to faith, and are harmful to a person’s faith and salvation.
As Christians we have received the promise of salvation by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Our salvation is not something we need to earn. It is a free gift from Christ and as Paul says in Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” We have received freedom in Christ, and are no longer bound to service by the law. The law Justifies no one. It is faith in Christ’s gospel promise, granted by the Holy Spirit, that makes us righteous before God.