Martin Luther: Freedom and Faith
In this series of two articles I will explain what Martin Luther meant by “freedom” as he used the term in a selection of his works published in Hans J. Hillerbrand’s collection, The Protestant Reformation (pictured to the right; all citations are to this collection). For Martin Luther, freedom is at the heart of the gospel. In this article I will explain his view that faith in Christ brings freedom from the bondage to sin and from the crushing obligation of the law.
Martin Luther: The Bondage of Unbelief
The meaning of “freedom” in Martin Luther’s writings is grounded in his understanding of the human condition apart from faith as slavery to sin and the law. In this fallen state, everything that people do is sinful. Luther cites Rom. 14.23 (“whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”) and concludes that every deed done without faith in Christ is “opposed to God (99).” Because they can do nothing else, fallen people are in bondage to sin (93, 103). Their works do not serve them, but rather bind them in servitude (14). Implicit in Luther’s scriptural argument is the idea that unbelief is the fundamental problem of the fallen person. For Luther, the damnable condition of servitude to sin derives from “unbelief of heart, and no outer work (7).”
Moreover, since God’s law reveals sin, it also binds the unbeliever (99). The law reveals what “we ought to do (8),” and hence fulfillment of the law is the only means of obtaining righteousness and avoiding condemnation (9). Luther refers to this obligation to fulfill the works of the law as slavery (19, 93). However, since the best works of an unbeliever amount to “heaping sins upon sins (99),” such a pursuit of works righteousness is futile (9). The unbeliever is thus bound by both sin and the law.
Martin Luther: Freedom and Faith
Although Martin Luther sometimes seems to use “freedom” to characterize the Christian condition in general, most often it seems to refer to the Christian’s liberation from slavery to sin and the law. Most importantly for Luther, this liberation is the result of faith (16). According to Luther, since the soul needs only the Word of God for “Christian life, righteousness, and freedom,” faith alone—the efficacious reception of the Word—brings freedom (6, 8, 9). Faith takes hold of Christ “as the ring encloses the gem (104),” and it is on account of Christ’s merits that the sinner is justified before God (7, 104). As a result of faith in Christ, God forgives sin and imputes righteousness to the Christian believer (7, 88). Luther characterizes this “righteousness of faith” as passive, since the believer does nothing whatsoever to earn it (88).
The corollary to Luther’s doctrine of faith alone is that good works have no role in justifying or freeing the sinner. Unlike faith, works cannot receive or cherish the all-important word of God, and so they do not lead to freedom (7). Moreover, Luther asserts that freedom and righteousness relate to the inward soul and not the outward body, and that outward works therefore cannot bring about inward freedom and righteousness (5). In Luther’s words, justifying faith “cannot exist in connection with works (7).”
Therefore, since Christians are completely justified by faith and are free of the requirement for justifying works, they also have “no need of the law,” and are thus “free from the law (9).” In Christ the believer fulfills the requirements of the law, and therefore need not work to fulfill the law (10, 12, 18). It is this liberty from obligation to the law—“which makes the law and works unnecessary for any man’s righteousness and salvation”—that Luther calls “Christian liberty (9).” Faith also brings freedom from the slavery of sin since the Victor over sin—Christ—is present with the believer, preventing the harm and condemnation of sin (106). In Christ, the believer is “free from all sins (12).” Therefore, since faith results in freedom, Luther deems it “the inestimable power and liberty of Christians (13).” The lofty believing Christian is bound by nothing—neither sin nor law—and so rules with God over all (14).
In light of this doctrine of faith, Martin Luther chides scholastic theologians who suggest that faith can be earned. According to Luther, these “sophists” teach that a good work performed by a non-Christian can earn a “merit of congruity,” which in turn deserves “grace ‘by congruity (97)’” from God. Once such grace is obtained, an additional good work “merits eternal life ‘by condignity (97).’” In this way, the scholastics teach that a person can earn salvation and eternal life through good works. Luther criticizes this perspective since it seems to leave out the importance of Christ. Why is Christ necessary if we can save ourselves by works? According to Luther, if one holds this position, “then Christ has become altogether useless (98).” Luther also contends that the scholastics dangerously underestimate the sinfulness of humanity, limiting sin to outward works, and overlooking pervasive inward sin (98). For Luther, they miss the important point that human nature is thoroughly sinful, and that every faithless work is “diabolical and opposed to God (98).”
In the next article I will explain Martin Luther’s view of the connection between Christian freedom, good works, and political and ecclesiastical authority.