One of the areas of theology I have been teaching and preaching on the most in the past few years comes fromLuther’s The Freedom of a Christian.
I believe that it is a fundamentally important and timely piece and plan to pick away at it as often as I have time for as long as it takes.
For those that haven’t read it, Luther highlights a most important dichotomy:
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.
As simple as this sounds the implications are enormous. I have spent months, on my feet and in real time, chasing through the treatise and its theological/scriptural implications. I believe Luther’s definition of faith coming from this piece to have fallen so far out of use that it will strike many as both profound and reformational.
It has driven me to think of Table Practice, and who is admitted and not, more in terms of the weaker and stronger brother (Romans 14). To think of fruit and how we perceive those we know to profess Christ but live a lifestyle we are uncomfortable with in terms of maturity of faith and not law heavy “moralism.” Which, in turn, has forced me to consider and help those whom I have a pastoral responsibility for to also consider the following:
- Our goal is not to fill our rolls in order to warm our all too empty (emptying) pews, but to serve our neighbor from the freedom Christ has given us without a request or demand in payment of any kind.
- So that when someone new comes into our church our response is not to mold them into our ideal image of a “member.” For if that is what we do, and we seek payment or compliment in this way, then we have not done so for Christ or our neighbor, but for ourselves.
- Consequently we must examine our motives and discover if we are making demands on others for our own sake or if we are emptying ourselves in service for their sake.
- We must grow in maturity of faith in full service of our neighbors (defined by me to my confirmands as being every pair of eyeballs that are not your own).
At the heart of Luther’s assumptions, and I would say faith, is an understanding of justification by faith through grace. I think he got it viscerally, from head to toe. I would say that this is essentially the first step in grasping the overwhelming freedom Christ has given us.
The opening line of The Freedom of A Christian is about that faith:
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 about it or to understand whatt has been written about it unless one has at one time or another experience 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].
The truth is, in this era, he may as well be talking about justification and grace.
How have so many, not forgotten, but never learned about objective salvation. As I say it in bible class, two thousand years ago apart from yourself, your desire, your work, etc, Jesus died on a tree on a hill. It changed everything, and continually changes us daily. His work saves us, nothing more is needed. Yet when I listen in on what my participants, adults and confirmands alike are actually saying, I have to stop and draw steps and ladders on the white board and ask “why are you trying to save yourselves?”
That is it. Why is the subjective used to replace the objective so that both become perverted? The fruit of this is an intense immaturity of faith. Faith that does not know that it is free because it is unnecessarily burdened with works, have to’s and ought to’s. Such faith lacks confidence because its object is the sinner and his/her own shortcomings in which it resides! Of course this sort of faith does not provide a foundation for serving its neighbors when it has so many obstacles in the way to simply hear and receive absolution. Of course it demands the same burden be carried by every neighbor out there.
This is distorted faith accomplished and cared for by us and not that which is freely given and accomplished by God outside of ourselves. Maintained by Word and Sacrament. Nurtured by the Holy Spirit, and springing up as it were, a river of life. Much how I picture the river spoken of by John in Revelation.
If I sound passionate about this it is because in my own life’s experience I have suffered through the burden of not knowing, viscerally from head to toe, that I am saved by grace through faith. I had a distorted view. A hybrid understanding, God and me. But I always ran the verbs. God was kind enough to knock some sense back into me. So, please do not think this is a blame game thing, nor am I judging my parishioners. I understand the burden of my responsibility to them, and that in some things, we have yet much work to do. For me, The Freedom of the Christian has been a more than adequate avenue for the re-discovery of faith, salvation and grace.
I highly recommend it to all.