Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther

Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther


Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, November 26

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375713767
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2002
Edition description: FIRST
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Richard Lischer is the author of Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church, an account of his first assignment as a young Lutheran pastor in the tiny farming town of New Cana, Illinois, in the 1970s. For the past twenty years he has been a professor at Duke Divinity School. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt


"Here I Stand"

It has been well observed that revolutions are not freely created by one individual's will but rather involve setting loose larger forces that have accumulated and await their chance to pour forth. If ever there was a test of such a hypothesis, surely it was the day a Bible professor and monk, one Martin Luther, tacked his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg, an upstart university town in a backwater district of the Holy Roman Empire. Though, in fact, such an act, calling for yet another academic debate, was if anything routine, and though, in the end, no one ever came and the debate was never held, the effects of this one act by one man produced a sea change in Europe.

In the end what happened was not a revolution; it would properly be termed the Reformation. Although he challenged his colleagues and students in vain, within days, weeks, and months Luther's call had set loose an ever-widening debate. It would be difficult to conceive a better protagonist for it. One Franciscan prior, on receiving news of his friend Martin Luther's theses, told his monks, "He is here who will do the task."

These selections from the writings and sermons and letters and even the prayers and intimate conversations of Martin Luther do not include this most famous and notorious document, the Ninety-five Theses. Their highly compressed and technical theological language do not serve well the needs of the reader we posit, who is in search of spiritual succor. Instead, to begin, we offer two other documents that dramatically and eloquently show the man and his core ideas. One was written three years after the theses and is the second part of
The Freedom of a Christian, a work, Luther was confident, that contained "the whole of Christian life in a brief form." In it he aimed to reconcile two paradoxical theses: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none" and "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."

The second reading is an excerpt from one of the most famous speeches ever made, Martin Luther's defense of his ideas before the assembled diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms. Interestingly, this occasion has come down to us as carefully recorded by officials of the Roman Catholic Church--who succeeded in having the diet ban Luther as an outlaw--as it was by his friends, who had come in his support. The resulting account shows us a man whose ringing affirmation of individual conscience over conformity to higher authority has stirred generations of thoughtful readers, as it did those then present.

from The Freedom of a Christian

Part Two

Many people have considered Christian faith an easy thing, and not a few have given it a place among the virtues. They do this because they have not experienced it and have never tasted the great strength there is in faith. It is impossible to write well about it or to understand what has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experienced the courage which faith gives a man when trials oppress him. But he who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it. It is a living "spring of water welling up to eternal life," as Christ calls it in John 4 [:14].

As for me, although I have no wealth of faith to boast of and know how scant my supply is, I nevertheless hope that I have attained to a little faith, even though I have been assailed by great and various temptations; and I hope that I can discuss it, if not more elegantly, certainly more to the point, than those literalists and subtile disputants have previously done, who have not even understood what they have written.

To make the way smoother for the unlearned--for only them do I serve--I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:

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

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together, they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul's own statements. He says in 1 Cor. 9, "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all," and in Rom. 13 [:8], "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although He was Lord of all, was "born of woman, born under the law" [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, "in the form of God" and "of a servant" [Phil. 2:6-7].

Let us start, however, with something more remote from our subject, but more obvious. Man has a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily one. According to the spiritual nature, which men refer to as the soul, he is called a spiritual, inner, or new man. According to the bodily nature, which men refer to as flesh, he is called a carnal, outward, or old man, of whom the apostle writes in 2 Cor. 4 [:16], "Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day." Because of this diversity of nature, the scriptures assert contradictory things concerning the same man, since these two men in the same man contradict each other, "for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh," according to Gal. 5 [:17].

First, let us consider the inner man to see how a righteous, free, and pious Christian, that is, a spiritual, new, and inner man, becomes what he is. It is evident that no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom, or in producing unrighteousness or servitude. A simple argument will furnish the proof of this statement. What can it profit the soul if the body is well, free, and active, and eats, drinks, and does as it pleases? For in these respects even the most godless slaves of vice may prosper. On the other hand, how will poor health or imprisonment or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul? Even the most godly men, and those who are free because of clear consciences, are afflicted with these things. None of these things touch either the freedom or the servitude of the soul.

It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body. The righteousness and the freedom of the soul require something far different, since the things which have been mentioned could be done by any wicked person. Such works produce nothing but hypocrites. On the other hand, it will not harm the soul if the body is clothed in secular dress, dwells in unconsecrated places, eats and drinks as others do, does not pray aloud, and neglects to do all the above-mentioned things which hypocrites can do.

Furthermore, to put aside all kinds of works, even contemplation, meditation, and all that the soul can do, does not help. One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says in John 11 [:25], "I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live"; and in John 8 [:36], "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed"; and in Matt. 4 [:4], "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing. This is why the prophet in the entire Psalm [119] and in many other places yearns and sighs for the Word of God and uses so many names to describe it.

On the other hand, there is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of His Word, as He says in Amos [8:11]. Likewise there is no greater mercy than when He sends forth His Word, as we read in Psalm 107 [:20]: "He sent forth His Word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction." Nor was Christ sent into the world for any other ministry except that of the Word. Moreover, the entire spiritual estate--all the apostles, bishops, and priests--has been called and instituted only for the ministry of the Word.

You may ask, "What then is the Word of God, and how shall it be used, since there are so many words of God?" I answer: the apostle explains this in Romans 1. The Word is the gospel of God concerning His Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God, according to Rom. 10 [:9]: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." Furthermore, "Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified" [Rom. 10:4]. Again, in Rom. 1 [:17], "He who through faith is righteous shall live." The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith.

This faith cannot exist in connection with works--that is to say, if you at the same time claim to be justified by works, whatever their character--for that would be the same as "limping with two different opinions" [1 Kings 18:21], as worshiping Baal and kissing one's own hand [Job 31:27-28], which, as Job says, is a very great iniquity. Therefore, the moment you begin to have faith you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful, and damnable, as the apostle says in Rom. 3 [:23], "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and, "None is righteous, no, not one; . . . all have turned aside, together they have gone wrong" [Rom. 3:10-12]. When you have learned this you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you so that, if you believe in Him, you may through this faith become a new man insofar as your sins are forgiven and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone.

Since, therefore, this faith can rule only in the inner man, as Rom. 10 [:10] says, "For man believes with his heart and so is justified," and since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man. On the other hand, only ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outer work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin. Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works, and increasingly to strengthen faith alone, and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus, who suffered and rose for him, as Peter teaches in the last chapter of his first epistle [1 Pet. 5:10]. No other work makes a Christian. Thus when the Jews asked Christ, as related in John 6 [:28], what they must do "to be doing the work of God," He brushed aside the multitude of works which He saw they did in great profusion and suggested one work, saying, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent" [John 6:29]; "for on Him has God the Father set His seal" [John 6:27].

Therefore true faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison, which brings with it complete salvation and saves man from every evil, as Christ says in the last chapter of Mark [16:16]: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." Isaiah contemplated this treasure and foretold it in chapter 10: "The Lord will make a small and consuming word upon the land, and it will overflow with righteousness" [cf. Isa. 10:22]. This is as though he said, "Faith, which is a small and perfect fulfillment of the law, will fill believers with so great a righteousness that they will need nothing more to become righteous." So Paul says, Rom. 10 [:10], "For man believes with his heart and so is justified."

Should you ask how it happens that faith alone justifies and offers us such a treasure of great benefits without works, in view of the fact that so many works, ceremonies, and laws are prescribed in the scriptures, I answer: First of all, remember what has been said, namely, that faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves; we shall make this clearer later on. Here we must point out that the entire scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments and promises. Although the commandments teach things that are good, the things taught are not done as soon as they are taught, for the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability. That is why they are called the Old Testament and constitute the Old Testament. For example, the commandment "You shall not covet" [Exod. 20:17], is a command which proves us all to be sinners, for no one can avoid coveting no matter how much he may struggle against it. Therefore, in order not to covet and to fulfill the commandment, a man is compelled to despair of himself, to seek the help which he does not find in himself elsewhere, and from someone else, as stated in Hosea [13:9]: "Destruction is your own, O Israel: your help is only in me." As we fare with respect to one commandment, so we fare with all, for it is equally impossible for us to keep any one of them.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews