The Freedom of the Christian

“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 one each other.  If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully.  Both are Paul’s statement, who says in I Cor. 9 [:19], ‘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 a 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]” Martin Luther, The Freedom of A Christian, in Luther’s Works vol. 31, p. 344

With these words Martin Luther laid the theological foundation for the true Reformation of late medieval theology and practice.  In 1520 Luther clearly expressed a definitive break with the Roman church and late medieval scholastic theology.  In The Freedom of A Christian, which he sent to Pope Leo X with a open letter, Dr. Luther explained how a sinner could obtain true freedom from sin through Christ’s righteousness and express this freedom in love for one’s neighbor.  How does one obtain this freedom?  Luther explained:

“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, John 11 [:25], ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he lives’ [sic]; and Matt. 4 [:4], ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Ibid., 345.

However, one receives the Word by faith alone in Christ’s promise.  Dr. Luther concludes: “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.” Ibid., 346.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


The Freedom of the Christian — 4 Comments

  1. Here’s The Freedom of a Christian, by Martin Luther, 1520, translated by W. A. Lambert, revised by Harold J. Grimm. After the Introduction by Lambert and Grimm (pp. 1-2), a letter of dedication to Zwickau Mayor Mühlphordt (pp. 2-3), and an open letter to Pope Leo X (pp. 3-8), the actual “Treatise on Christian Liberty” begins toward the bottom of p. 8. The German text is Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen.

  2. In his “Treatise on Christian Liberty,” Luther writes:

    You will ask, “If all who are in the church are priests, how do these whom we now call priests differ from laymen?” I answer: Injustice is done those words “priest,” “cleric,” “spiritual,” “ecclesiastic,” when they are transferred from all Christians to those few who are now by a mischievous usage called “ecclesiastics.” Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, although it gives the name “ministers,” “servants,” “stewards” to those who are now proudly called popes, bishops, and lords and who should according to the ministry of the Word serve others and teach them the faith of Christ and the freedom of believers. Although we are all equally priests, we cannot all publicly minister and teach. We ought not do so even if we could.

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