Dr. Howard Griffith writes:
Martin Luther was an outsized personality, with great faith and some great flaws. Living with this great person has a good effect on you. Let me commend his little book, The Freedom of a Christian. When he challenged the practice of indulgences in 1517, and when he debated Johann Eck a year later, Luther’s concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the “consolation of sin ridden consciences.”1 Luther was becoming convinced that Christ alone is the Saviour, he alone is the Lord of the Church and his authority is found in the Scripture alone. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope’s authority and upsetting church order.
In July 1520 Pope Leo warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors, and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his statement of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter, asking for peace. This is his statement of justification by faith alone.
The book has two theses, or propositions. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” This is true in the inner man. “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”2 This is true in the outer man.
Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer’s relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? [Because] nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom, or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks it, nothing can help him.
What did Luther have in mind by external good works? He was thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance, required for all Christians, and rigorous monastic practice. Penance kept up your relationship with God; it had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. “If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace.”3 But this left the conscience in doubt. How could anyone be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to priest had become the occasion for tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ’s sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people’s faith toward human works, rather than to God’s free promise.4 There was no freedom there.
How then can righteousness be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, received by faith.
Luther said faith has three powers. Its first power is in receiving the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.
…the moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through 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.5
No human work can accomplish this, neither can an outward work, but only unbelief of heart, make one guilty of sin.
Luther answers an objection: then why does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone “justifies, frees and saves”? Martin’s answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfil. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good, and lead us to despair of it. But the second part of Scripture, the promises, are “holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness.” Luther is saying that when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. Thus there is no need for good works to justify, and the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.
Faith’s second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous and good. The highest honour we can pay anyone is to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. “Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?”6 If a person does not trust God’s promise, he sets up himself as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.
Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God’s wrath against sin. But now he says that God’s basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy, his personal favour, based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion.7 “What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us.” He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defines grace as an internally located gift from God; it became instead his favour, his merciful disposition toward sinners.8
Faith’s third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.
…Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage… it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. … Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. 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… By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride’s…. Her sins cannot now destroy her… and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, … and [can] say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his…”9
Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.
Finally, Luther says that by faith this perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer, to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies. The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably.
How then is the Christian different from the church’s priests, popes, bishops, and other “ecclesiastics”? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants.10 But the church has turned these servants into lords.
The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us.
…that he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me… faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him.
What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?”11
Faith is trust in God, not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.
“A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all.” This defines the believer’s relationship to other people. We must continue to do good works, because we are still subject to sin, and we are bound to others.
Good works are valuable to the believer, but not as an alternative righteousness. If that “Leviathan” burdens them, they are actually not good at all. This notion destroys faith.12 All teaching about good works must be grounded in faith.
Faith is active through love.
That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man wilfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.13
His sum of the joyful service of the Christian:
Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, 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 my whole 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 neighbour, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.14
Luther concludes “By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.”15
Luther brings us back to the gospel. If we would follow Luther, our ministries must, above all things, seek to lead people to believe, to trust God’s Word. We are to set forth Christ for us. God is good and trustworthy and he freely offers us all things, in Christ. Therefore the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. What we want to do for everyone is to help them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.
Second, Luther is not antinomian. He is clear that faith works through love (Gal. 5:3). But why do we need the moral law? Because we are still sinners, subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God’s law as the believer’s delight. But it is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. “If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend.”16 It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God’s law, and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.
Last, Luther’s doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to “union with Christ by faith alone,” than to “justification by faith alone.” His major metaphor is the union of the believer and the Bridegroom, the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Luther clearly includes justification in this, an “alien righteousness,” Christ’s righteousness, by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished, and final righteousness, counted ours once for all, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.
Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not faith, considered in itself, that grounds God’s pronouncement. Christ’s sacrifice for us, alone, is the basis of our being forgiven, fully and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely. However, having said this, I think Luther’s idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the “freedom of a Christian.” When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive both his righteousness as a completed gift, and are thus accounted righteous by God, once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term “sanctification,” by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union. John Calvin would later put it like this:
We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.17
I close with these beautiful words of Luther:
Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him…as the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], “My beloved is mine, and I am his.”18
1 Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 72.
2 J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, selections from his writings (New York: Anchor, 1962), 53.
3 See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).
4 Kolb, 86.
5 Dillenberger, 55f.
6 Dillenberger, 59.
7 Kolb, 60.
8 Kolb, 34.
9 Dillenberger, 60f.
10 Dillenberger, 65.
11 Dillenberger, 66.
12 Dillenberger, 72.
13 Dillenberger, 74.
14 Dillenberger, 75f.
15 Dillenberger, 80.
16 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
17 Institutes 3.11.10.
18 Dillenberger, 80f.
This lecture was part of Reformed Theological Seminary’s “Luther’s (Re)Formative Years: Engaging the Reformation at 500” Conference. You can find the audio here.