Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Martin Luther - On the Freedom of a Christian and others

PREFACE: In the Preface to his "Complete Works," Luther gives a bit of historical background for his work, including the 95 Theses. He portrays himself as a reasonable man willing to be conciliatory but pushed toward "necessary conclusions" like "the pope must be from the devil" by circumstances.

Luther asks that we read all of his works in light of a single revelation, where he realized that God is not angry and spiteful but merciful: his justice is not one carried out upon human beings but one manifested within them.

"Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God."

ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY: After some conciliatory words directed at Pope Leo X, where Luther makes it clear that his object of hate is more the Roman court than the Pope himself, Luther tells us that he means to justify two propositions:

"A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one."

To begin a justification of these two seemingly contradictory statements, Luther distinguishes between spiritual (new, inward) and bodily (old, outward) nature. The freedom of the Christian is a spiritual one that depends only on the word of God and faith, and not on any outward manifestations in works. Luther lists three virtues of faith: 1) feeling no compulsion to "need the law or works for justification and salvation," 2) the highest of reputations, 3) a marriage to Christ, where his "grace, life, and salvation" replaces the soul's "sin, death, and condemnation."

Luther finally gets to his first proposition: "Every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, in spiritual power, he is completely lord of all things, so that nothing whatever can do him any hurt; yea, all things are subject to him, and are compelled to be subservient to his salvation.... there is nothing of which I have need--for faith alone suffices for my salvation--unless that in it faith may exercise the power and empire of its liberty."

Luther then turns to the second proposition: though spiritually we are free, bodily we are bound to serve others, not to justify ourselves through works but as an outward manifestation of our inward faith. Good works flow from the good person naturally; thus, one who has faith does not simply "take his ease, but is
compelled on its account to do many good works...., with the sole object of pleasing God." Put simply: "Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works"; "Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works."

Good works that are done for justification are actually bad works, like bad fruits growing on bad trees. Those who believe in justification by works are hardened against faith. But those who see the truth are truly amazed that "my God, without merit on my part, of His pure and free mercy, has given to me, an unworthy, condemned, and contemptible creature all the riches of justification and salvation in Christ, so that I no longer am in want of anything, except of faith to believe that this is so." A free gift.

Luther concludes his treatise by advocating for Paul's middle way between those who support justification by works and the idiots who show themselves free in their contempt of tradition and law. Both, for Luther, are caught within a logic of works; only the "middle way" of faith counters a works-centered ethos.

TWO TYPES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS: The first type of righteousness is instilled from without by the grace of God in faith and is opposed to original sin, which is also acquired by birth, without works. The second type of righteousness is in outward manifestation, as evidenced in works and in Christ's example. This righteousness is only truly righteous when based on the first type of righteousness.

This distinction has a very practical application: when dealing with the weakness, sin, and foolishness of others, someone with only the second kind of righteousness will get angry and judgmental. Because of his carnal nature, a man of this second kind delights in the punishment and shame of his neighbors. But when that second type is based on the first, one will not get angry but take on those other sins as his or her own. Luther distinguishes between public and private affairs to avoid the charge that he is saying people should just be let off the hook: of course, in the public sphere, it is necessary to punish criminals.

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