Luther’s Meaning of Freedom

The following essay defines Luther’s use of freedom. First, one will see that it is relegated to faith in the righteousness of Christ. Second, one will look at a couple of paragraphs that discuss the paradox of how freedom is related to the soul and how servitude is related to outward body. Luther is not a dualist but this dichotomy is helpful for finding a middle course for reform. This will also be seen in the discussion of how Luther tackles the political using his idea of freedom against those who continue to trust in works. (He will say this is failure to believe God.) Next, one will focus on the role of faith in finding freedom. Finally a discussion of how freedom relates to the good works that Christians should do will conclude the exercise.

Freedom is the Christian’s ability to have sins imputed to Christ’s righteousness.   For Luther faith is what is necessary freedom or liberty.[1] He means that faith is the power that suffices for salvation. Luther’s idea of freedom stems out of his view of the righteousness of God. Luther believes God’s righteousness is the righteousness God cloths us with when he justifies us. This is an extraneous righteousness given as an act of God’s grace apart from works and received by faith alone; in a word it is what justifies us. So that when Luther begins to talk of freedom it is relegated to the discussion of justification. His core view of the freedom moves everything else that Luther theologizes as we will see in his response to the Twelve Articles.

On freedom, Luther states a paradox of faith and works. His idea his that a Christian is simultaneously a free lord of all and a dutiful servant.[2] The things that are necessary for Christian life are righteousness and freedom, which are brought about through the Word of God.[3] Thus it is on the basis of faith alone, without works that justifies, frees, and saves.[4] On page nine, Luther walks the reader through his line of thinking that shows how freedom is attained. Similar to a syllogistic style, Luther expounds his logic. Christ as the Word imparts its qualities to the soul. All a Christian needs they have in faith and there is no need for works to justify. No need of works means that a Christian has no need of the law. If no need of the law, surely then a Christian is free.[5]

This freedom is separated from the outward human body. Here Luther talks of the twofold nature of the soul being captive and its relationship to the outward body.[6] He will go on to show that while a soul may be liberated it does not necessarily equate with change of the outward body. Luther will argue on this basis that the body can be in good or bad shape but it is unrelated to the freedom of the soul. This division is helpful to Luther’s move toward liberty. It gives him a theological standpoint to move against the use of vestments, dwelling in sacred places, and other works that can be helpful for the will but do nothing for the freedom of the soul, that of course can come only through faith. This is also very helpful for mediating a moderate middle path of reform. For if it is of no significance to the soul for the body to be in sacred places it also not significant for the body to be in secular places. If this is the case, then as Luther points out it is not inherently wrong to attend a Mass. The middle of the road approach is thus established on the fact that Mass and merit practices are neither overly helpful for justification nor are they useless because they instruct the outward nature. In this way, Luther gets after what is of real importance, a reform of the inward nature. This reform will affects the understanding of the mediation of grace (how justification is mediated) and avoids the fallacy of simply trying to reform the outward practices of how to work out that justification.

The fallacy of outward practices of justification fall on two diametric erroneous sides: humanism as is present in Erasmus and the legalistic system of merits. In his comments on Galatians 2:16, Luther shows the error of the scholastics. They miss Christ in their understanding of human freedom. Here he points out that if a person can do a work that deserves grace “by congruity” (before) and afterward one is able to continue to perform works by grace, then one receives eternal life “by condignity” without any need for faith in Christ.[7] The answer to this problem according to Luther is that a person acknowledges who they are before the law, an evil person.[8] So that as a result one cannot deserve grace by works. Thus he shows that there is no “congruity” so that the law moves us to Christ in which we receive freedom of justification.[9]

Luther is clear that this freedom does not relate to the Christian’s will and he is very careful not to apply it to social or political motivations. It is certain that when Luther responds to the Twelve Articles, his idea of freedom is freedom from the doctrinaire authority and glossing tendencies of the church. He is quick to censure the peasants, appealing to their last comment that anything not in agreement with the Word of God be repealed.[10] It is here that Luther applies his view of freedom to the crisis of 1525. Luther will warn them about liberty communication that it does not mean freedom of body in that way he says is the judgment of God.[11]Since Luther believes that free will does not really exist after the fall, he will say that whatever a person does they are committing mortal sin. He relates that continual trust in the ability of works for justification equates to disbelief in God’s righteousness. Unbelief then is the failure of faith. Doing good works with unbelief does not impute trustfulness to God. (Here we remember that belief and faith are derived from the same Greek word, pistiV.) Thus faith works truth and righteousness by giving God what belongs to him. What belongs to God is an allusion to an honorific cultural assumption.

In regard to freedom, the role that is played by faith is one of unification. Since faith unities the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom.[12] What is Christ’s (grace, life, and salvation) is traded from what is ours in a type of wondrous exchange. This is one way how freedom is gained.[13] Luther believes that true faith takes hold of Christ so that Christ becomes the object of faith, the one who is present in faith.[14] Luther seems to associate the reception of faith into the believer as the reception of Christ. An acceptance of the state slavery of one who is in sin and repents paradoxically releases that person to sigh and hope in Christ’s help as Mediator.[15] Thus you paradoxically have a relationship of slavery to the law with freedom that is found in the sigh of release in the arms of Christ on faith. Faith then rests on the superabundance of merits of congruity and condignity of what Christ has done as propitiator.[16] In addition, after we are saved, we impute those sins that may happen after sanctification by faith back to Christ. We of course are not in this life perfected (as is in some Higher Life theology) in Luther’s view. The person is at once both by faith righteous and still a sinner. The conclusion then is that a Christian is someone who has faith in Christ so that God does not impute their sin upon them, but upon Christ. It is for this reason that Luther’s major objection with the scholastic school is that it keeps people in a state of perpetual guilt, never allowing them to understand that the peace of the conscience that comes with the imputation of sin to Christ.

One ponders the relationship between freedom and good works that Christians seem to be wanting do to according to Luther. Good works glorify God.[17] Essentially is that Luther’s argumentation takes the duty and the merit out of a good work. What is left is a beautiful acts of good done out of the love for neighbor and God. These acts are done for no other sake then for the sake of acting good. Luther quickly points out that unbelievers might say we should take it easy if salvation is faith alone, without works.[18] However, this is not what he is communicating about freedom. He shows that humanity is not perfected until the last day and must attempt to attain the results that the Spirit in our life will produce. His argument is essentially that since humanity remains in the mental life they must control their own body. Essentially he is arguing that works hold our will in check.[19] These works are to submit the body to the person’s will and purify it of the evil desires within it. So works do not justify they merely help purify through controlling the will.[20] Luther will argue that a person must be good before any work can be good.[21] He concludes on works and shows how our faith in Christ does not free us from works but rather frees us from the false ideas concerning works. That is faith frees us from the idea that justification is acquired by works.[22] Nonetheless, it seems that in order to do good works one must have freedom that comes through faith. Works that are good can come from a liberated believer because they are works done as a servant in the service of Christ. “Good works” then cannot come from unbelievers since they are what Luther calls the best vices.[23]

In conclusion one may infer some ideas of Luther on freedom. First, that freedom is a spiritual movement of the soul that comes in the form of trust in Christ as faith. Second, one may infer what freedom is not. Luther’s view of freedom is not a bodily freedom that affects the comforts of this world. He makes this clear when he censures the peasants for distorting his view.[24] Finally, that freedom by faith in Christ actually provides a better motivator for good works because they are out of gratitude and stand on their own and for their own sake.

[1] Hillerbrand, Hans J., The Protestant Reformation, (New York, NY: 1968), 13.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] Ibid, 98.

[8] Ibid, .99.

[9] Ibid, 99.

[10] Ibid, 68.

[11] Ibid, 75.

[12] Ibid, 11.

[13] Ibid, 11.

[14] Ibid, 102.

[15] Ibid, 103.

[16] Ibid, 103.

[17] “Not by the doing of works but by believing do we glorify God and acknowledge that He is truthful.” Ibid, 12.

[18] Ibid, 16.

[19] Ibid, 17.

[20] Ibid, 17.

[21] Ibid, 17.

[22] Ibid, 25.

[23] “As a man is, whether believer or unbeliever, so also is his work-good if it was done in faith, wicked if it was done in unbelief.” Ibid, 18.

[24] Ibid, 51.