Luther and Christian Liberty

Copyright © 1994, Word & World, Luther Seminary. Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 48-56.
First published in the Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin 68/1 (Winter 1988), pp. 3-11. Dr. Forell delivered it in lecture form at the October, 1987, “Luther Symposium” at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Used with permission.

A Focus of Controversy

[1] While Luther probably never said “Here I stand,”[1] and while it is doubtful that he ever nailed the ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg,[2] he certainly wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[3] As an Augustinian theologian standing firmly in the western Christian tradition, the issue of freedom and its theological meaning occupied him all his life.

[2] One of his major theological works, and in his own judgment one of his best, was The Bondage of the Will,[4] published in 1525, which denies human beings any power to contribute to their own salvation. In their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom at all. Here we find the famous illustration that the human will is placed between God and the devil like a beast of burden, “If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders contend for the possession and control of it.”[5]

[3] This struggle between God and Satan is the key to Luther’s understanding of the human predicament so colorfully expressed in his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” He sings:

The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight.
On earth is not his equal.
No strength of ours can match his might!
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.[6]
[4] Because Heiko Oberman has articulated the importance of this battle in Luther’s thought so very clearly, his book, Luther: Man between God and the Devil,[7] is probably the best book on Luther’s theology produced in connection with the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth. In this conflict between God and the devil, the issue of freedom is central.

[5] So it is not surprising that Gerhard Ebeling speaks of Luther’s understanding of freedom as the “focus (Brennpunkt) of the modern controversy about Luther.”[8] He observes that while liberty is by no means a very clearly defined concept in our time, it appears to be the “Grundwort und Grundwert der Neuzeit,” which means that liberty is seen as the “basic slogan and the basic value of modernity.”[9] Our colloquium with its theme “Luther and Liberation Theology” only helps to bear out Ebeling’s observation.

[6] It would lead us too far afield to rehearse all the statements about Luther and liberty that have been made by famous and infamous people. The significant point is that those who praise Luther see him as a fighter for freedom, while those who condemn him do so for restricting freedom to the interior of the person and thus contributing to their enslavement more profoundly than even the medieval church had managed to do. Here Karl Marx’s observations are paradigmatic. He observed in the context of his critique of Hegel that Luther had freed human beings from the outward fetters the church had forged but put their hearts into chains. He wrote:

Luther, to be sure, overcame servitude based on devotion, but by replacing it with servitude based on conviction. He shattered faith in authority by restoring the authority of faith. He transformed the priests into laymen by changing the laymen into priests. He liberated man from external religiosity by making religiosity that which is innermost to man. He freed the body of chains by putting the heart in chains.[10]

[7] To obtain some clarity on the subject assigned to us, “Luther and liberty,” we shall follow Ebeling and ask first of all about the relationship between freedom and sin, freedom and conscience, and freedom and ethics in Luther’s thought.[11] Then we shall look rather closely at Luther’s famous pamphlet, The Freedom of a Christian, to see what it can teach us about Luther and Christian liberty.

[8] Ebeling observes that all modern talk about liberty negates the notion of sin. Sin, having been moralized and emptied of its religious significance, has been incorporated into freedom. Since the enlightenment, the fall in paradise has been seen as the beginning of human freedom. The great German poet Friedrich Schiller observed:

If we change the voice of God in Eden, which proscribed the tree of knowledge, into the voice of instinct which kept the human being from this tree, then the alleged disobedience to a divine command is actually the turning against instinct. It is the first expression of self-determination, the first act of daring on the part of human reason, the beginning of humanity’s moral existence (Erster Anfang seines moralischen Daseyns). This fall of humanity from instinct brought moral evil into creation but only in order to make moral good possible. It is without doubt the happiest and greatest event in human history. Human freedom is born at that moment, the foundation of human morality is laid here.[12]

[9] The sense of sin is the cause of bondage. It is significant that Nietzsche calls Christianity the original sin.[13] And it is obvious that it is Luther’s emphasis on sin and the justification of the sinner which is the great obstacle to the acceptance of his theology in modern times.

[10] Luther’s modern protestant critics (not to mention the pop-religions of our day, the “new age” cults with their stress on feeling good about oneself) find his emphasis on sin “medieval” and understand it as an extreme form of Augustinianism.[14] But Luther does not really see the human predicament as caused by the actual sins which had troubled medieval casuists, but rather by original sin, the sin against the First Commandment, the root of all other sins, the unwillingness to let God be God. The profound objection to Luther comes from those who understand (correctly, to be sure) that he insists that apart from faith even good works are sin.

[11] It is Luther’s emphasis on the utter helplessness of human beings apart from God which is the scandal of his theology for modern men and women. He writes: “Free choice without the grace of God is not free at all, but immutably the captive and slave of evil, since it cannot of itself turn to the good.”[15] Again, the liberum arbitrium, free will or free choice, “is plainly a divine term (divinum nomen), and can be properly applied to none but the Divine Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does…whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth.”[16] Christian liberty is not freedom of choice or freedom of the will but it means instead to have been justified as a sinner. It means to be freed from the curse of sin, liberated from the obsession with the self, from being turned into the self (incurvatus in se), and instead, having become absolutely dependent on God. In Paul’s terms, it is having become “a slave of Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:1) which is a phrase utterly abhorrent to contemporary theology and religiosity.

[12] Much of modern religion and contemporary theology has more in common with elements of ancient and medieval religiosity than with Luther. Gnosticism and Pelagianism, not Luther, are the godparents of modern religious thought. One can easily shift from “death of God” to polytheism, pantheism, witchcraft, and devil-worship if one has lost hold of the basic human problem, the sickness unto death, the pervasiveness and power of sin.

[13] But what about freedom and conscience? To quote Ebeling again: “In the long history of the concept of conscience since the days of classical antiquity the phrase ‘freedom of conscience’ appears first, if I am right, in Luther. It affects as a rallying cry the battle for freedom in the modern world including the idea of human rights.”[17]

[14] Of course, Luther was hardly the originator of the quest for individual freedom so basic for the modern world, even though some people have made such assertions. But the reason for their claim is obvious. In his most important political appearance, when he confronted Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he talked about his absolute commitment to God in the language of conscience saying, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” and again, “It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”[18] He expressed eloquently the need to obey his conscience come what may. But there was a difference. As Ebeling puts it: “Gewissensfreiheit wird hier nicht als ein Recht gefordert, sondern als eine Macht gelebt”[19] or “Here freedom of conscience is not claimed as a right but lived as power.” While in the classical tradition conscience was bound to outside rules, to tradition, if you please (e.g., Antigone and her obligation to bury her brother), and scholastic theology talked about a right conscience, namely, a conscience formed by the law, Luther sees himself as captured by the word of God. In his language this means he must obey because of the gospel rather than the law.

[15] The rule of law is changed into a personal relationship to God in Christ. A clear conscience does not result from obedience to the law, from doing good works, but from the justification of the sinner, in spite of conscience, death, and devil. As Luther wrote in his Judgment on Monastic Vows of 1521:

Christian or evangelical freedom, then, is a freedom of conscience (libertas conscientiae) which liberates the conscience from works. Not that no works are done, but no faith is put in them….Christ has freed this conscience from works through the gospel and teaches this conscience not to trust in works, but to rely only on his mercy.[20]

[16] Luther’s entire perspective is almost incomprehensible to modern men and women. For them God does not justify; he needs justification. He is justified in the opinion of some because he makes people obey the law. You may actually not believe in God but in order to support certain ethical values, certain just causes, you may become religious, go through religious motions, and join religious institutions. Christianity has become morality. The sequence attributed to Luther that Christian ethics starts with faith which is active in love, has been completely reversed. Today we tend to use God as a traditional fiction to support the many causes in which we have much more confidence than in God. We do believe in our liberty but not as a gift of God, dependent every moment on God’s grace, but as a right that makes us into autonomous beings for whom faith in God is an option. This is part of our religious liberty as are atheism, witchcraft, and belief in unidentified flying objects.

The Freedom of the Christian

[17] Against this background we shall try to learn what Luther means by Christian liberty by carefully looking at one of his most popular writings dealing precisely with this topic. We repeat the basic propositions: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As always his indebtedness to Paul is obvious and here especially to 1 Cor 9:19: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”

[18] It appears at first that Luther tries to resolve the apparent contradiction between “free lord” and the “dutiful servant” with the device common to western thought, the distinction between the two aspects of the human being, the spiritual and the bodily. He writes: “According to the spiritual nature, which men refer to as the soul, he is called a spiritual, inner, or new man. According to the bodily nature, which men refer to as flesh, he is called a carnal, outward, or old man.”[21] He adds that because of this diversity the scriptures assert contradictory things concerning the same human being, since these two are at odds. As an example he quotes Gal 5:17, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit and the desires of the Spirit against the flesh.”

[19] At first glance this may appear to be the same kind of argument that allowed Plato’s Socrates to speak of the body as the prison of the soul and to think of human liberation as liberation from the world of shadows, the material world, into the world of ideas, the spiritual world. This is a notion repeated throughout the history of western thought, articulated by mystics and expressed in a multitude of versions by idealistic philosophers and gnostic wise men and women (e. g., Mary Baker Eddy).

[20] But nothing could be further from Luther’s intention. He never sees the human being in isolation. The Christian who is the subject of this treatise is what he or she is only because of a relationship to Christ. Christian liberty is completely dependent on this relationship and has nothing to do with the sort of questions raised by modern behavioristic psychology and its determinism.[22] The difference is not “matter” and “spirit,” in the customary philosophical and religious sense, but the person without Christ and the person with Christ. He writes:

One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11[:25], “I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me, though he die yet shall he live”; and John 8[:36], “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”[23]
[21] For Luther, Christian liberty is a gift given to men and women through the word, which is, as he adds immediately, nothing else but “the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies.”[24] To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. Faith in the promises of God, trusting God’s word, gives the human being everything which God’s law demands, but which people cannot produce through their good works. Following the imagery of Ephesians [5:31-32] and less explicitly, Bernard of Clairvaux in his commentary on the Song of Songs, he asserts that faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom….Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage-indeed the most perfect of all marriages…it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.[25]

[22] Here occurs the “joyous exchange” (fröhlicher Wechsel), that is so much a part of Luther’s theology that it has permeated the hymns of the church. Nicolaus Herman (1480-1561) sings:

Er wechselt mit uns wunderlich, Fleisch und Blut nimmt er an,
Und giebt uns in seins Vaters Reich Die klare Gottheit dran.
Er wird ein Knecht und ich ein Herr, Das mag ein Wechsel sein.
Wie konnt er doch sein freundlicher, Das Herze Jesulein![26]

[23] Luther writes:

Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her things that are his.[27]
[24] He uses the whole armory of christological speech to demonstrate the salvation of human beings.

Christ is God and man in one person. He neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.[28]

[25] Christian liberty is the direct result of this divine intervention: “Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.”[29]

[26] Luther continues in the most colorful language to describe the royal marriage between this “rich and divine bridegroom” and this “poor and wicked harlot.” Christian liberty is simply one aspect of the alien righteousness granted to Christians by grace alone. It is the result of having been bound to Christ in this royal marriage. Indeed Christians are free because they are bound to Christ and share in everything he is and has. For this reason, the Christian “needs neither law nor good works but, on the contrary, is injured by them if he believes that he is justified by them.”[30]

[27] But he adds immediately that all this is an eschatological reality and applies to the Christian as saint, while he or she is at the same time sinner. To those who have read thus far and now say: “We will take our ease and do no works and be content with faith,” Luther answers:

Not so, dear friend, not so. That would indeed be proper if we were wholly inner and perfectly spiritual human beings. But such we shall be only at the last day, the day of the resurrection of the dead. As long as we live in the flesh we only begin to make some progress in that which shall be perfected in the future life.[31]

[28] The ethical consequences of the liberation of the human being resulting from justification by faith and described with the help of the image of the marriage of the soul to Christ are treated in the last part of the booklet. Here Luther deals with the second proposition, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” This servanthood of the liberated person has actually two aspects, control of one’s own body and major changes in one’s dealings with other people.[32] The justified person, Luther claims, “meets a contrary will in his own flesh which strives to serve the world and seeks its own advantage.”[33]

[29] The Christian life is therefore a life of conflict; one experiences the assaults of the devil, the famous Anfechtungen which troubled Luther all his life. Again Paul serves as his resource and he quotes Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians to make his point. He does not rule out some success in this battle. Indeed he claims that the life of the believer is in some ways analogous to the life of Adam and Eve in paradise. “Through his faith he has been restored to Paradise and created anew, he has no need of works that he may become or be righteous; but that he may not be idle and may provide for and keep his body, he must do such works freely only to please God.”[34]

Ethical Consequences

[30] It is apparent that Christian liberty has ethical consequences; it affects the daily life of the Christian. This is particularly true in relation to other human beings, for Christian liberty frees Christians from their obsession with themselves and their own salvation to act in the true interest of the neighbor. Insofar as I act as a justified sinner, I am free to act without any concern for my own self‑interest. God has taken care of me so that I might he empowered to care for my neighbor.

[31] Again Christ is the model. And here Luther comes to the most daring assertions of this little book. The Christian ought to think, he says,

Although I am an unworthy and condemned person, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.[35]

[32] We have received freedom in order to serve those in need.

Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.[36]

[33] If we ask how this might be accomplished, Luther suggests as the prominent example of liberation the blessed Virgin Mary, who “out of free and willing love…submitted to the law like other women that she might not offend or despise them. She was not justified by this work, but being righteous she did it freely and willingly.”[37]

[34] For Luther, Christian liberty is not a human achievement but a gift of God’s grace. But it is an empowering gift because it enables the recipient to be freed from self‑concern, the obsession with his or her own interest, for the real needs of others. Christian ethics in the more restricted sense is only possible on the basis of this liberation. There are all kinds of good works that people can do. They are works of the law which may contribute to the earthly welfare of human beings. But the life that makes a woman or a man into a Christ to others is only possible for those who have been made one with him and thus can say with Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). For Luther this alone is Christian liberty.

[1] LW 32:113.

[2] Cf. Erwin Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther between Reform and Reformation (Boston: Beacon, 1968).

[3] The Freedom of a Christian (1520), LW 31:344.

[4] LW 33:15-295.

[5] LW 33:65-66. Note the footnote concerning the history of this illustration and Luther’s modification.

[6] Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg; Philadelphia: Board of Publication, LCA, 1978) Hymn 229. Hereafter, LBW.

[7] Heiko Oberman, Luther, Man between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University, 1989).

[8] Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1971-1989) 3:375. The chapter is a reprint of Ebeling’s Heidelberg lecture of 1982, “Zum Gegensatz von Luther-Enthusiasmus and Luther-Fremdheit in der Neuzeit.”

[9] Ibid., 376.

[10] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right,” ed. Joseph O’Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1970) 138.

[11] To the following, see Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:380ff.

[12] Friedrich Schiller, “Etwas über die erste Menschengesellschaft nach dem Leitfaden der mosaischen Urkunde” (1790), as quoted in Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 2/1:306-7.

[13] F. Nietzsche, Der Antichrist (1888), 61, as quoted in Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:381.

[14] For appropriate quotations from Dilthey and Troeltsch, see Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:381-92.

[15] The Bondage of the Will (1525), LW 33:67.

[16] Ibid., 68.

[17] Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:385-86.

[18] LW 32:112.

[19] Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:387

[20] LW 44:298.

[21] LW 31:344.

[22] Cf. B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1971).

[23] The Freedom of a Christian (1520), LW 31:345.

[24] Ibid., 346.

[25] Ibid., 351.

[26] LBW translation: “He undertakes a great exchange, Puts on our human frame. And in return gives us his realm, His glory and his name. He is a servant I a lord: how great a mystery! How strong the tender Christchild’s love! No truer friend then he” (Hymn 47).

[27] LW 31:351.

[28] Ibid., 351-52.

[29] Ibid., 352.

[30] Ibid., 358.

[31] Ibid.; translation altered. Luther does not write, “you wicked men,” but rather, “Lieber Mensch.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 359.

[34] Ibid., 360.

[35] Ibid., 367 (emphasis added).

[36] Ibid., 367-68 (emphasis added).

[37] Ibid., 368.