Apr 27, 2017

Oh, Freedom!

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”—Luther

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by David Neff, former executive editor of Christian History magazine

Some of the most important books begin with a paradox (and a sense of irony).

Charles Dickens famously began A Tale of Two Cities, his novel about the French Revolution: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped fuel the French Revolution with these words from The Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” 

Martin Luther also launched a revolution with the help of paradoxes. His most famous was “Simul justus et peccator”—Latin shorthand for his thesis that we Christians are put right in God’s sight while we are still sinners.

Luther’s second most famous paradox begins the body of what some historians think was his best-selling book, On the Freedom of the Christian (one of three key books published in 1520). After a lengthy mock-fawning address to the Pope, Luther launches his argument against the prevailing view of good works with these words: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."

Luther tries to explain the tension in this statement by appealing to our dual nature as humans: we are spiritual and we are bodily; we are flesh and spirit; there is an “outer man” and an “inner man.”

Erfurt monastery
Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, where Luther studied and became a monk.


The “inner man”—the soul—is neither harmed nor helped by anything the “outer man” experiences or by any effort he makes. The sole requirement for the health of the soul, Luther argues, is the word of God, the Gospel of Christ. Preaching that Gospel yields spiritual renewal and justification in those who hear. This is obvious, Luther says, because the faith that unites the soul to Christ and leads to justification exists not in the body, but in the soul.

After he establishes that freedom results from salvation by grace through faith alone, Luther turns to the second half of the paradox: that the Christian is “a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

That phrase—“servant of all”—might lead you to expect Luther to begin preaching our duty to do good works for our neighbors (and, as Christ taught, even our enemies). But Luther wants to make another point first. Because of what God has done for us, we have a duty to keep clear the channel to the Divine—and that means keeping our bodies in check.

[Christians] must not take their ease; … we must give heed to exercise our bodies by fastings, watchings, labor, and other moderate discipline, so that they may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform to the inner person and faith ….

Once justified by faith, we do these things “out of disinterested love to the service of God; looking to no other end than to do what is well-pleasing to him.” This is for “the mortification of … lusts” that clog the conduit between human beings and God.

Only after Luther explains the Godward orientation of good works properly conceived does he turn to neighbor love.

For we do not live for ourselves alone in this mortal body, … but also for all others on earth; nay, we live only for others and not for ourselves. This is the reason that we bring our own bodies into subjection, that we may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely.

This is “the truly Christian life” and a rich source of joy and satisfaction. Because the Father has “overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches … I will give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbor.”  Luther continues: “I will do nothing in this life, except what … will be needful, advantageous, and wholesome for my neighbor.” Those three qualities—needful, advantageous, and wholesome—keep neighbor love from turning indulgent.

I love Luther’s robust picture of Christian faith in action. As I re-read this passage, I was struck by the contrast between his generous spirit and the parsimonious attitude displayed by one particular member of Congress. During the health care debate, Rep. John Shimkus objected to the idea that he, as a man, should pay for prenatal care through his health insurance. With that kind of view, all insurance seems unfair. But Luther’s grace-driven view of neighbor love is socially embodied in the wide and deep risk pools at the foundation of our insurance system.

In what I quoted above, Luther may have expressed himself in individualistic terms. But he saw the social implications:

We give this rule: the good things which we have from God ought to flow from one to another, and become common to all, so that every one of us may, as it were, put on his neighbor, and so behave towards him as if he were himself in his place.


This little book has a few flaws—or can encourage some mistaken notions.

First, even here in this early work, Luther’s anti-Semitism surfaces. When railing against “hardened and obstinate” Catholic ceremonialists, he likens them to the Jews of old “who would not understand.” In blanket fashion, he attributes simple stubbornness and bad faith to the Jews who resisted Jesus’ teaching. Fortunately, since Luther’s time we have come to understand these divisions in the context of ongoing debates within Second-Temple Judaism.

Second, the strong distinction Luther makes between Law and Gospel has contributed to the traditionalist Lutheran lack of interest in ethics. If you teach that grace is everything, there is more than an off chance that some people will fail to understand the ethical imperatives of the faith. I remember how shocked I was as a young journalist when a theologian from Valparaiso University responded to a moral question I posed. He said, “I’m a theologian. I’m not interested in ethics.” Fortunately, in this early book, Luther remains true to his paradox. Luther embraces both a Gospel of radical grace and the Law’s demand for neighbor love as a response to that Gospel. The final leg of his argument can help counter the too frequent effect of the first leg.

Finally, I cringe at the body-soul dualism on which Luther hinges his argument. That traditional dualism, erroneously derived from Saint Paul, has resulted in dangerous attitudes toward the body. (Read Peter Brown’s The Body and Society for an extended exposition of this problem.) This distortion (spirit, good; flesh, bad) has given Christians much to repent of. More recently, however, the pendulum has swung toward an uncritical celebration of the physical, which has brought additional occasions for repentance.

Which brings us back to our starting point: The trick is to maintain the paradox. A paradox, maintained in proper tension, focuses our attention on two goods and steadies that swinging pendulum. The paradox insists that we take competing interests seriously. It safeguards two realities—and helps us see the connection between the two.

Hats off to Luther and his paradoxes.

David Neff is the former executive editor of Christian History and former editor in chief of Christianity Today. Now retired, he currently serves as music director in a blended Lutheran-Episcopal congregation in the Baltimore area.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Christian History magazine's four issue series on the Reformation will be complete in May. Read the first on Luther here, the second on the people’s Reformation here, and the third on Calvin here.  Subscribe by May 8 to get the next issue (on the Catholic Reformation) in print here.

Tags Martin Luther • liberty

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