Martin Luther and the Freedom of the Christian


Tuesday, November 10 marked the 532nd birthday of Martin Luther (1483–1546). Our undergraduate curriculum is fortuitously arranged such that the sophomore students read Luther every fall just after the date that, nearly 500 years ago, he tipped the Roman church down the steepening slope towards reformation. I love watching students discover what makes the great theologians of church history great–and Luther’s insights are perhaps some of the most precious and transformative.

One such insight was the rediscovery of justification by faith apart from works. I say “rediscovery” because, despite Augustine’s (354–430) defense of justification by faith, later medieval developments related to baptism and penance slowly eclipsed biblical teaching on justification. Catholic Christians of Luther’s day would have understood their biblical obedience as a contributing factor to receiving God’s favor in salvation. Such efforts, themselves, could not merit salvation, but in cooperation with the grace of God in Christ dispensed through the church, one could receive eternal life.

The 95 Theses, famously tacked on the door of Wittenberg chapel on 31 October 1517, don’t precisely articulate Luther’s discontinuity with medieval Catholic views on merit, but intriguing evidence for his embrace of sola fide might come as soon as two weeks later. On 11 November, 1517, Luther wrote a letter to friend Johannes Lang in which he signed with not his given name, “Martin Luder,” but “Martin Elutherius.” Elutherius, a Latinization of the Greek ἐλεύθερος, means “freedman” (see 1 Cor. 7:21). Luther, especially through his wrestling with Romans 1:7, had come to experience freedom in the perfect sufficiency of the righteousness of Christ. And it was this transforming freedom found through faith in Christ that would comprehensively shape the magisterial reformation.

Perhaps the most significant work that Luther penned (if such a thing can be said of his prodigious output), has this idea as its central theme. His On the Freedom of the Christian (1520) sets out two propositions:

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

Though seemingly contradictory, both, as Luther points out, are Pauline statements (see 1 Cor 9:19, Phil 2:6-7). They are united, however, by a single transforming reality: the righteousness of Christ as a gift of God through faith, frees us to live without fear before God and men. “God made him to be sin who knew no sin in order that we might become the righteousness of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21). Luther writes,

Thus, the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.

And it is by knowing the freedom that is ours in Christ, we can live lives of radical love and self-denial for the sake of others (2 Cor. 6:1ff). Like Paul, we too can fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions through our carrying of the news of a suffering savior to the lost. Luther again,

Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ, freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.

Returning to see Luther’s notion of the freedom of the Christian is not simply significant for church history nerds, it is critically important for college students (and for me and you). Without a deeply-wrought understanding of our identity in Christ Jesus, we labor (in vain) to build an identity by what we do. Grades. Popularity. Parental approval. Publication. Vocational achievement. We get on the hamster-wheel of self justification, enslaved to our achievements and of little use to the world. Only when we own our identity in Christ, can our labors be done in freedom and love. If the Son sets us free, we are free indeed (John 8:34).

Martin’s new name, and ours, says it all (Isa 56:5).

Ryan Griffith,
Assistant Professor of Christian Worldview
and Director of Integrated Curriculum

Jason DeRouchie’s Message at Chapel,
October 29, 2015: “Confronting the Transgender Storm”

Join us for our weekly Chapel Service on Thursday, November 19th, 12:45-1:45pm, for our Testimony/Thanksgiving Chapel.


Prayer Requests:

1. Praise God for an encouraging assessment of the undergraduate Biblical and Theological Studies program, for many profitable improvements suggested by our faculty, and renewed vision for undergraduate training.

2. Pray that our students, staff, and faculty would be freed from the idolatry of self and live in an ever-deepening experience of the liberty of union with Christ.

3. Pray for all of our students (and faculty!) as we approach the end of the semester. May God grant that we do all things “as unto Christ.”