Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

An Introduction to Martin Luther's *On the Freedom of a Christian*



I. Letter to Pope Leo X


A. Significance of the 95 Theses
Martin Luther began his treatise concerning Christian liberty with a letter to Pope Leo X. In that letter, he mentioned that he had "now, for three years, been waging war." As the letter was written in 1520, we know that the beginning of the three year period he mentions must refer to 1517. This means that, from an early time, Luther himself dated the beginnings of his public struggles for the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses Against Indulgences on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. So this event was seen as significant not only to historians following the time of the Reformation. Rather, in Luther's own time (as the 95 Theses had been taken by his students, translated, given to the printing press, and then distributed across Europe), these Theses were seen as causing a huge stir within the Church, thrusting Luther's teachings into the spotlight.

B. Luther's Intentions Not Ad Hominem

In 1520, previous to writing his treatise concerning Christian liberty, Luther had written his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. In that earlier treatise, Luther had been quite polemical against the papacy, going so far as to name the pope as the anti-Christ. In a certain sense, Luther's letter to Pope Leo X at the beginning of his treatise concerning Christian liberty was intended to dial the rhetoric back a bit. Luther tries to make the point in his letter to Pope Leo X that he is not attempting to personally attack Leo X himself. While Luther has problems with the Roman Church and issues with the papacy itself, he wants to make the point that the issue is not with Pope Leo X as an individual.

C. Luther's Issues With Rome Not Focused on Morals but Doctrine

Along with his assertions that his aim was not to criticize Leo X on a personal level, Luther also wanted to emphasize that the reformation he desired was not a mere improvement of morality within the Roman Church. His critique was not primarily about the lack of good works exemplified by those following the pope, nor was his major concern focused on the 'lifestyle choices' (to use our current term) of those in Romanist leadership. Luther thus implicitly distinguished his objections to the Roman Church from those of others within the Roman system, such as Erasmus (the prominent scholar who had rendered a critical edition of the Greek New Testament), who had criticized the lax morals and abuses of power of some within Roman leadership. Whereas Erasmus did not want to fundamentally change the doctrine taught by Roman Catholic theologians, Luther saw his own call for Reformation as getting more to the heart of the problems within the institutional Church. Luther's call for Reformation involved a reformation of doctrine: specifically, a clarification on the teaching about how sinners could be counted right in God's sight.

D. A Proposed Solution

Luther called upon Pope Leo X to abolish the curia [the administrative body through which the pope governs the Roman Catholic Church]. As Luther had previously urged the German nobility to call a Church Council, he now urged Pope Leo X to call a Church Council. The idea that the pope would call a council that would in any way limit papal claims to authority or de-centralize the pope's role in the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation was highly dubious given the fact that various popes had spent centuries accumulating authority. It seems more likely that the contents of Luther's public letter to Pope Leo X were intended to help the German nobility see that they should indeed call a council, which would determine the degree of control that Rome could claim over the German churches.

E. Luther's Admission of Personal Fault

1. The Fault. At the beginning of his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther admitted that he had "a great beam" in his own eye. Luther said that he couldn't be "the first to cast the stone at the adulteress." Whereas Luther was fully convinced that he has taught no false doctrine in his struggle for reformation, he did admit that the way in which he had engaged in this struggle had, at times, been characterized by rashness, impiety, or intemperate speech.

2. A Defense. ON THE OTHER HAND, he did defend the idea that sometimes strong language IS APPROPRIATE when contending against false teachers. Luther referenced Philippians 3:2 as an example when Paul called his opponents "evil dogs." Luther wrote, "The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers that as soon as we perceive anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed; and when we can repel the truth by not other pretense, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries. What would be the use of salt if it were not pungent, or the edge of the sword if it did not slay?" The idea of 'snowflakes' or being overly sensitive to 'micro-aggressions' is not new to our own day (though the terminology may be), but Luther saw the people of his time as being too weak to realize that the New Testament writers themselves labelled false teachers as wolves or vipers.

II. Body of the Treatise

A. Confronting the Common Misconception That the Christian Life is Meant to be Easy 

Whereas many conceive the Christian life as an easy thing, Luther argued that true faith is attained through trials. Concerning his own life, Luther confessed that he had been "vexed by various temptations." However, Luther viewed these temptations, along with the required perseverance over temptation, as a help, rather than a hindrance, to his faith.

B. THESIS FOR THE WORK: "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone." 

C. The Thesis Proven through a Consideration of the Word and Faith

1. The Word.

a. Precepts and Promises. The Word gives us precepts by which we are condemned. The Word then gives us promises by which we are justified. Justification comes by the authority of the Word of God alone; therefore, the Christian man is free from all other authorities.

b. The Doctrine of Scripture. NOTICE the four-fold Protestant doctrine of Scripture present within this text. Scripture is implicitly presented as authoritative in the way that Luther cites it; a mere citation of Scripture stands as proof by itself, needing no outside proof to back it up. Scripture is implicitly presented as clear in matters concerning salvation; Luther does not feel obligated to dive into extended exegesis of various gospel passages, but he feels that they are understandable on their face. Scripture is explicitly presented as singularly necessary for salvation; as Luther wrote, “One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty, and that is the most holy word of God.” Scripture is explicitly presented as sufficient for the Christian’s spiritual life; as Luther wrote, “having the Word, [the soul] is rich and wants nothing.”

2. Faith.

a. Justification. Justification comes by faith alone, bringing the soul of the Christian man into direct communion with God; therefore, the Christian man is free from all other authorities.

b. Faith vs. Works. Faith yields freedom for the Christian because any work that could be commanded could do nothing to bring a person into right standing before God; whereas, by faith, the Christian is already certain of right standing before God. Luther argued that works cannot be added to faith as the basis of our justification, because faith and works are antithetical; adding faith to works is halting “between two opinions.” Luther wrote, "Faith, which is the brief and complete fulfilling of the law, will fill those who believe with such righteousness that they will need nothing else for justification."

c. The Benefits of Faith. Faith takes hold of the gospel promises. Faith glorifies God, and it unites the soul to Christ. UNION WITH CHRIST was key to Luther’s argument in this treatise. Drawing on Scripture, Luther pointed to the direct analogy between the bride’s union with her husband and the Christian’s union with Christ. Luther wrote, “The believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own whatever belongs to the soul that Christ claims as His.” Whatever riches that Christ has gained in His work, the believer has a share in those things. Luther understood a right consideration of union with Christ to PROVE both components of his thesis. In Christ, the Christian has victory over sin and death. United to Christ, who is King of Kings, the Christian is free from all other authorities. United to Christ, who was a suffering servant during His earthly ministry, the Christian is the most dutiful servant of all.

3. The Faithful Preaching of the Word. The right manner of preaching is NOT teaching the life of Christ as mere historic fact. It is NOT teaching the “laws of men and the decrees of the Fathers.” It is NOT an attempt to move our affections to sympathize with Christ. INSTEAD, the faithful preacher promotes faith in Christ, through teaching why He came.

III. Conclusion to the Treatise

A. Consideration: What role do works play in the Christian life?

B. Objection from Luther’s Opponents: “If faith does everything, and by itself suffices for justification, why then are good works commanded. Are we then to take our ease and do no works, content with faith?”

C. Flesh and Spirit

The outer man must be brought into conformity with the inner man. The inner faith of the Christian must impact every aspect of the Christian’s life. The flesh struggles against the spirit. The flesh must “be purified from its evil lusts.”

D. Similes for Understanding the Relationship of Faith and Works

1. Adam in the Garden. The state of the working believer is like unto the state of Adam working in the Garden. When Adam was placed in the Garden, before he fell into sin, he was in a right relationship with God. He did not have to perform some work to bring himself into a right relationship with God. Yet, before sin entered the picture, he was given works to perform (in naming the animals, tending the garden, etc.), and he would have performed those works out of loving obedience to his Lord.

2. A Pastor in the Church. The state of the working believer is like unto the state of a pastor serving his church. Having been ordained to the pastorate, the pastor does not do his works in order to earn his position in the church. Rather, the pastor’s good works are an outworking of his calling.

E. Further Examples of Luther’s Thesis

1. The purification of the Virgin Mary (Luke 2:22-23; 39).

2. The circumcision of Timothy (Acts 16:3, though Titus was not circumcised, Gal 2:3-5).

3. Peter paying tribute money (Matt 27:27).

4. In each of the above cases, the works mentioned did nothing to bring the person performing them into a right standing before God; rather, they were performed out of love for God and consideration toward others.

F. Works Proceed from Nature

A good tree produces good fruit, not vice-versa. A good builder makes good houses, not vice-versa. People are justified in the sight of other people by good works, but many are deceived [and deceiving] by appearances. “[H]e who wishes to do good works must begin, not by working, but by believing, since it is this which makes the person good.”

G. Our Works Are NOT the Grounds for Our Justification Before God

Works are condemnable when they are taken as “grounds for justification.” The wrong view, that works are grounds for justification, is “invincible when sincere faith is wanting” (sinners naturally tend toward this wrong view), and the wrong view is strengthened by wrong tradition. True Christian works are performed for the purpose of bringing the body under subjection to the spirit or for serving our neighbors; they are never for the purpose of obtaining justification. The person with faith is “free from all law, and in perfect freedom does gratuitously all that he does.” The Christian freely works for, and subjects himself to working for, the good of his neighbor (cf. Phil 2:1-4). Luther resolved, “[I] will do nothing in this life except what I see will be needful, advantageous, and wholesome for my neighbor, since by faith I abound in all good things in Christ.” This is what it means to be a Christian [NOT seeking after merit].

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