Martin Luther: Good Works and Authority

Martin Luther: Good Works and Authority

Martin Luther in Hillebrand, The Protestant ReformationMartin Luther in Hillebrand, The Protestant Reformation
This is the second article in a series on Martin Luther’s view of Christian freedom. In the first article—“Martin Luther: Freedom and Faith”—I explained Luther’s theology of faith and Christian freedom.  In this article I will explain his view of the relation between Christian freedom, good works, and political and ecclesiastical authority.  These aspects of Martin Luther’s theology were often misunderstood; as such it is important to clarify them.  I will draw Luther’s theology of these topics from Hans J. Hillerbrand’s collection, The Protestant Reformation (pictured to the right; all citations are to this collection).

According to Luther, although good works are no longer obligated for Christians as a means of justification before God, Christian freedom does not warrant license or rebellion. Rather, love compels Christians to pursue good works as a means of purifying themselves, benefiting their neighbors, and pleasing God. For Luther, Christian freedom never entails rebellion against political authority.

Martin Luther: Freedom and Good Works

Because of his radical denial of the role of works in justification, some of Martin Luther’s contemporaries understood him as morally permissive. If good works had no bearing on justification, why do them at all (16, 25)? Luther’s response to this charge was that Christian freedom was not liberation from good works themselves, but rather freedom from “the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works (25-6).” In fact, according to Luther there are two ways in which good works are still necessary for Christians.

First, Luther argues that because Christians must live their lives physically and interact with people—and since the sinful flesh continues to plague humans this side of the resurrection—Christians must pursue works that discipline their wrong desires. Luther affirms the presence of two natures in humans, “a spiritual and a bodily (5).” The spiritual nature of a Christian is disposed to “serve God joyfully”, while the bodily nature has “a contrary will…which strives to serve the world” and itself (17). Therefore, good works are necessary to reduce the bodily nature to subjection and “purify it of its evil lusts (17),” in obedience to God.

Second, good works are required of Christians for the sake of others. As Christ emptied himself of divine privilege for the sake of others, so Christians must empty themselves and freely serve their neighbors (21, 31, 52, 95, 105). For Luther, true faith “finds expression in works (21).” As good trees produce good fruit, so Christians saved by faith produce good works to serve and benefit their neighbors (17, 21, 41-2). Indeed, even the purification of the flesh and the personal care of one’s own body are required for the benefit of others, that “the strong member may serve the weaker (21).” Moreover, a Christian’s service of others should be free of selfish motivation, taking no account of gratitude, praise, or personal gain (22). Luther characterizes this kind of selfless service as imitation of the freely given gift of salvation in Christ: “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor (22).” Thus, in addition to his maxim that Christians rule over all (14, 22), Martin Luther insists that “a Christian is the servant of all (16).” However, since good works are not done out of obligation to the law, they are done freely, “out of pure liberty (18).”

Martin Luther: Freedom and Rebellion

Luther’s doctrine of freedom was also misinterpreted to mean that Christians should resist—forcibly if necessary—oppressive ecclesiastical or political authorities. A primary example is the peasant uprising of 1525. The twelve article manifesto of the rebels—which demanded freedom to select ecclesiastical leadership and remedy for a range of economic injustices—explicitly drew on an interpretation of Luther’s teachings (64-6). Also, Luther’s writings suggest that some of his devotees were openly rejecting traditional church authority in the name of Christian freedom (25).

Martin Luther’s response to these misinterpretations was twofold. Addressing ecclesiastical revolt he insisted that Christian freedom did not imply automatic rejection of “ceremonies, traditions, and human laws (25).” While he readily acknowledged that Christians are not justified by such works (25), for Luther the notion that a free Christian must reject such customs was itself another form of obligation. Luther pleaded that his followers “not make a ‘must’ out of what is ‘free (33).’” Moreover, his main concern was for weaker Christians who might stumble as a result of such action (26-7, 33). When associated with this “timid multitude,” stronger Christians should lovingly refrain from exercising their freedom and submit to traditional church authority (27, 34). However, maximal freedom should be exercised in the presence of “the unyielding, stubborn, ceremonialists” who would deny Christian freedom (26).

Luther also challenged the forcible means by which the peasants proposed to resolve their political and economic grievances. He categorically rejected the notion that the peasants could overthrow their authorities in the name of Christian freedom (75). Citing biblical evidence of Christian slaves, Luther insisted that Christian freedom is not physical but rather spiritual freedom (83). He argued that rebellion would usurp God’s right to avenge injustice (73), would overthrow the peasants’ God ordained rulers (74), and would contradict Jesus’ teaching that Christians should yield in the face of evil rather than take up the sword in their own defense (73, 75-6). He warned the peasants that such a rebellious exercise of their freedom would cause them to “lose body and goods and soul eternally (75).” He pleaded that the peasants either endure suffering and “call upon God” to address their grievances, or “leave out…the name of Christian” as a cover for their godless rebellion (79, 78).

In summary, Martin Luther understands Christian freedom as liberty from the bondage of sin and the law. By faith, Christians are free from the obligation to earn justification by performing the works of the law, and are free from the harm and condemnation of sin. However, although justification does not require good works, Christians must still perform them out of love for God and their neighbors. According to Luther, the exercise of Christian freedom should be curtailed if necessary to benefit weaker Christians. Moreover, Christian freedom never entails political rebellion.

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