This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
As a culture, we premise everything on the notion of rights. Our political system, our economic system, our legal system are all derived from the right of the individual to exercise one’s vote, speak one’s mind, practice one’s religion, and make one’s money. In a sense, we have almost descended into the abyss of competing rights. Each side of our culture wars claims you can’t make them do “this” [insert “wear a mask,” “get an ID,” “keep the pregnancy,” “pay taxes,” or “get a vaccine”]. That may be the way that our culture operates, and there may even be a certain truth to those arguments in the civil realm of a constitutional democracy. But when it comes to the church, to fellow Christians, and maybe especially to brother pastors, that simply is not the image the Scriptures give us. The image of the Scriptures is one of mutual submission, of Christians not asserting their independence, but binding themselves to one another in a common faith, hope, and love. The image of the Scriptures is one of concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ, for our brother pastors, not seeking to serve ourselves and what we want, but those with whom we share a “unity of the sprit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). It is this principle Martin Luther expresses in his November 1520 “Freedom of a Christian,” a surprisingly irenic, balanced treatment of the role of good works in the life of the justified.
The reason Luther writes this treatise is to respond to objections he is almost certain to receive from critics of his new understanding of justification. In the previous year or so, Luther had increasingly begun to speak of justification by faith, and how that faith should inform everything from our worship and the reform of the church to our Christian lives. But a likely objection still remained: If we need not perform good works in order to merit eternal life, then what motivation will we have to live according to God’s law? Medieval views of justification had long taught the principle of “faith formed by love” (in Latin, “fides caritate formata”), which meant that it was not enough to believe in the gospel if our faith did not lead to acts of love, that is, obedience to the Scriptures. In the Middle Ages, faith did not indicate a trust in the promises of God, or “fiducia,” but “historica”—an assent to the truth of what the canonical Gospels say about Jesus, but without any effect upon the believer’s life. Luther rejected this notion, speaking more of the gospel as a promise of forgiveness through Christ that is received by faith—a confident trust that what Christ says in his Word he will do for me.
Luther never envisioned this faith as excusing one from living in accordance with God’s Word and the commands laid down therein. On the contrary, drawing heavily upon Romans and Galatians, faith means freedom from the bondage of sin to serve fellow Christians according to the law of love—not out of compulsion, but as a response to the gracious gift Christ offers in the gospel. To that end, Luther’s treatise includes what has become a famous twofold proposition: “The Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (LW 31:344) The first proposition relates to the “spiritual, new, inner, and inner man”—to our standing before God (“coram Deo”). This “spiritual, new, inner, and inner man” is now defined by justifying faith. Luther distinguishes between three different functions of this faith that renews and liberates us. First, faith receives the Word, believes it, and is justified. This faith depends upon the preached Word so that it may believe. It is for this reason, then, that the clergy, or spiritual estate, was instituted for the ministry of the Word, that the hearers may have something to believe. Second, faith honors the one whom it trusts. That means faith honors the Christ who promises forgiveness, and it honors Christ by worshipping and believing in him alone. Third, faith unites the soul with Christ as its bridegroom. It is in this context that Luther uses the notable phrase “happy exchange” to describe the union between the believer and Christ, the bridegroom: Christ takes upon himself the believer’s sin, while the believer receives the royalty that is Christ’s alone. This in turn makes the Christian a “free lord of all, subject to none”: the Christian is now greater than human royalty because he or she has the divine royalty of Christ. The same rationale holds for the distinction between clergy and laity. There is no longer a spiritual distinction between clergy and other Christians, but by virtue of their baptisms all are priests and lords. What separates the clergy from the laity is merely their responsibility to proclaim the Word, so that the people may have something to believe.
The second proposition Luther lays out does not contradict the first, but complements it, even follows from it. Now he is dealing with the “outer man”—with the life of the believer that flows from saving faith. He argues that these works of the Christian do not save; faith alone does. However, the works Christians do reflect what Christ himself has done for them. Like fruit from a tree, the believer’s faith gives rise to good works—not because they must be done in order to be justified, but as a response to what Christ has done. Luther explicitly patterns this after the language of Philippians 2: “Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him. This he should do freely, having regard for nothing but divine approval” (LW 31:75) The problem for Luther was never the need for the Christian to do works. As the Formula of Concord says: “Good works are necessary” (FC IV.14). The problem for Luther—as for the Confessions—comes when Christians trust those works to save them. Once justification by faith frees us from the need to save ourselves, we are free to submit to our neighbor in works of love and service. The Christian freed from the condemnation of sin in fact should exemplify the command to love God and neighbor as oneself. “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor” (LW 31:80).
Lutherans generally do not struggle with the first proposition of Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian.” Due to the painstaking labors of Luther, the Lutheran confessors, and our own Missouri Synod predecessors, we can’t help but get justification right. It is the second proposition that tends to cause problems for American Lutherans, steeped in rabid individualism and its language of rights. Nearly everything we breathe in our religious air is modified by the first-person, singular possessive pronoun: “my” faith, “my” church, “my” offering, “my” ministry. The last one indicts clergy particularly. We isolate ourselves from our fellow clergy, do things the way we want to do them regardless what anyone else thinks or says, and neglect the brotherly conversation, sharpening, and rapport that should be ours as co-laborers in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When we ignore the concerns and cares of our brothers in the ministry, we reduce the ministries Christ has entrusted to us to little more than individualistic occupations or expressions our distinctive personalities. This does our congregations no favors, I might add. We grow overly dependent upon the congregants we serve for moral and emotional support to the degree that we exhaust them rather than provide for them.
One area where this independence and isolation has long bedeviled us is the practice of adiaphora: “things indifferent,” those things which Scripture neither prohibits nor commands, yet we are free to practice in Christian liberty. Worship practices usually receive the most attention in this respect, though it applies just as readily to all sorts of pastoral, congregational, and denominational matters. When it comes to the responsible exercise of adiaphora, the principle of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians should govern what we do: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24). Or, as the Apostle says in Romans, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). For St. Paul, what matters less is the right you have to do something—in these cases, religious observances or dietary customs—than the effect it has upon your neighbor. That is the concern that should shape how we view our relationship with others in the church. How do the ways I worship, the ways I practice pastoral ministry, and the decisions I make in my congregation impact my neighboring pastor or neighboring congregation? How can I best take into account my brother pastor and what he needs rather than myself and what I want or need? The responsible practice of adiaphora, whether that is in worship styles, congregational decisions, or pastoral ministry, does not celebrate our freedom to do what we wish, but binds us to our fellow pastors and congregations, as if they mattered as much—or more—than me and what I want to do. If we fail to take others into account, then we actually misuse the Scriptural freedom we have in adiaphora by potentially causing harm to those with whom we should have the most in common.
This is but one of a whole host of applications we could make from Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian.” Ultimately, though, it relates to how we responsibly live in light of what Christ has given us. We have no problem when it comes to the first proposition: “The Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” We are free on account of our faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us—free from the condemnation of the law, free from the onerous demands of the Old Testament sacrificial and ceremonial regulations, free from the ultimate consequence of our sin, free from hell and eternal death. Realizing the implications of the second is much harder: “The Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” How do we live as if we were “servant of all” and “subject to all”? How do we “count others more significant than ourselves” (Phil. 2:3)? How do we submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21)? In his famous 1974 commencement address, the eminent Russian refugee Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested that it may be time “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” It may be time for us to spend less effort defending our freedom as Christian pastors and more effort considering our obligations as Christian pastors to one another. The language of our rights rather than our responsibilities toward one another has not served us well; it is the equivalent of taking Luther’s first proposition and ignoring the second. Indeed, as our culture eats itself alive over politics, race, gender, sexuality, and healthcare, it would behoove us to act less like them—fighting for our right to do and say whatever we want—and more like the Christ who did not defend his rights, but died a death he did not deserve for sins he did not commit, “who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). That is where true Christian freedom begins, and it can only lead us to love and serve our neighbor as ourselves.