A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
With this paradox, Martin Luther introduced A Treatise on Christian Liberty, a pamphlet describing the positions of faith and works in a Christian’s life and salvation. His “heretical” ideas about the Christian life, combined with his criticism of many facets of the Roman Catholic Church, caused a schism that still exists between modern Protestants and Catholics. But what does this statement mean, and how did this idea cause such a lasting break?
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, received his doctorate in 1512 specializing in interpretation of Holy Scripture. Sometime between 1513 and 1518, he became aware through his studies that many traditions and doctrines of the Catholic Church directly conflicted with what the Bible taught. One major difference Luther found had to do with what a human could do to be saved. The Catholic Church maintained that humans must perform works to be absolved of sins and gain salvation. Luther’s study showed that -- according to the Bible -- humans could not be saved by works, but only by faith in God through Jesus Christ. Christian Liberty was written to explain how the Bible supported this idea.
The first statement in the paradox is what Martin Luther means by Christian Liberty: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” What Luther means by this is that once a person is freed by Jesus Christ, nothing on earth has true dominion over that person. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36 NIV)
Works are the first thing mentioned in Christian Liberty that Christians are freed from. Humans do not have to perform good works to know God or be saved. Also, once they are saved, they do not have to perform good works either to stay saved or to continue their relationship with God. Sacraments are not required. “Yes, since faith alone suffices for salvation, I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty.” (Luther 18) In contrast, the Church at the time taught that penance and the sacraments were required continually throughout life.
Another thing Christians are freed from is sin. One of Luther’s major complaints with the Catholic Church was the selling of ‘indulgences’: sins were often not forgiven by the church unless a monetary price was paid, and the money then went to fund a cathedral in Rome. The freedom from sin that Luther proposed is based on the idea that each Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Those who accept this relationship with Jesus are forgiven of their sins -- past, present, and future -- through him. Since Jesus is both all-powerful and sinless, he can also give Christians both moral discernment and the power not to sin in the future. This does not mean that they will not sin; the sinful nature still exists within Christians, but it is no longer in control, and its power wanes until death. “As long as we live in the flesh we only begin to make some progress in that which shall be perfected in the future life.” (Luther 21)
Christians are also freed from the law. This freedom is related to freedom from works. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages often teamed up with European kings and emperors to excommunicate lawbreakers. Luther believed instead that the church should be independent of the law. Since the performance of good works (adherence to the law) is not needed to save a person, the law itself is not what saves a person; since the law is not what saves, the law is not binding to a Christian. Leviticus, the primary lawbook of the Old Testament, does not apply as a requirement to Christianity. “[I]t is a blind and dangerous doctrine which teaches that the commandments must be fulfilled by works.” (Luther 16)
The last Christian freedom within Christian Liberty is freedom from harm from all things. This is not to say that Christians are physically invincible; it means that the things of Earth no longer hold spiritual power over a Christian. Christians may be shunned, beaten, or killed, but nothing can destroy a Christian spiritually. “[E]very Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that . . . he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm.” (Luther 17) The Apostle Paul actually guarantees that things will work to a Christian’s spiritual good: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)
Since salvation frees Christians from all things, how is it that “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all”? The freedoms mentioned by Martin Luther all have a common element: they are all spiritual freedoms from things. In contrast, Christians should be voluntary servants to God and other men, motivated by love for God and the changes made by salvation.
Christians should do good works. These good works should not be done, though, because of any idea that the works are needed for salvation. The works should be done freely as a product of salvation and not an initiator of salvation. “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” (Luther 24)
Christians should follow the law. This practice should not be done, though, as a sort of ‘legalism’ that is intended to contribute to salvation. This should be done, like good works, freely as servants to God. “[T]he works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience of God . . .” (Luther 22) This principle also extends to the laws of a country insofar as they do not contradict with God’s laws. “Paul gives in Rom. 13 . . . that Christians should be subject to the government and be ready to do every good work . . ." (Luther 32)
Christians should also serve other humans. This should be done out of love for them -- a Charity love that desires the good of the other, even if the other is unknown or unliked. This servanthood should be demonstrated to all other humans, not just Christians, or friends, or those with authority. "[E]veryone should ‘put on’ his neighbor and so conduct himself toward him as if he himself were in the other’s place." (Luther 34)
The two statements at the beginning of this paper may be a paradox, but Martin Luther succeeded in integrating them into a whole when taken in the light of the Bible. Luther showed that Christians have been freed from the covenant of law that was given to the Israelites by God. Instead, a new covenant of love has been created; Christians have entered into this covenant through Christ’s death, and their acceptance of this sacrifice to pay for their sins. The Catholic Church of the time, immersed in corruption and ritualism, rejected this view of the Bible that would reduce its power on earth. This created a great divide within Christianity as a whole which exists to this day, even after Counter-Reformations and re-evaluations of belief.
Luther, Martin. A Treatise on Christian Liberty. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957.