The sixteen century was a time of fear and anxiety. People literally fear death because of Europe’s previous encounter with the bubonic plague that killed a third of the population (3). War, famine, and other diseases made average life span pegged at forty and the anticipation of death, and fear thereof, was further aggravated by a vengeful and wrathful God being projected by the Church through its teachings and sermons (4). People in this century also believed in a real, diabolic entity, the Devil, which was responsible for all their miseries (6). The Basilica of Peter was being built around this time, thus selling of indulgences were authorized by Pope Leo X to support this project (19). This was the world were Martin Luther grew up with.
In 1483, Martin Luther was born in a small mining community of Eisleben, Germany. His father was a miner but was able to send the young Luther to the University of Erfurt to study Law in 1501. His direction shifted to theology after almost being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm just outside his university in 1505. Luther entered Augustinian order, lived like a monk, and by 1507 was ordained priest (10). But his rigorous training as a monk and his ministry as a priest could not shake the fear of death and judgment off him. This contributed much to his spiritual turmoil which led him to dig deeper into the truths of the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans gave Luther the answer to his long search for righteousness — for in it is written the justifying work of faith (13).
Luther now understood that penance or good works cannot free him or anyone from sin, death, and hell — faith alone in Christ has the power to do that! This revelation revolutionized his theology and empowered him to face the world without fear but with freedom that faith alone gives through the word and Word of God.
In Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther discusses that faith alone, not good works, is what makes a Christian justified and righteous. This faith sets a Christian free from sin, death, and the devil. Luther argues that because of faith, a Christian is both “lord of all” and “servant of all” (50). He presents his argument by mentioning the two natures of a human being. First, the inner person, which redeemed through faith alone in the word of God, which he describes as “the gospel of God concerning His Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who makes us holy” (53). Having faith in the word of God gives a person the power to be free from the law, to honor God, and be united with Christ — thus, the double honor of being both a king and a priest. By faith, a Christian is now a “king” over sin, death, and the devil and is now a “priest who is free to give God honor through prayer, fasting, worship, and do other forms of piety.
Second, the outer person. Luther makes clear that good works cannot justify a person but are necessary to discipline the body to keep it from doing evil and to serve other people with freedom and love (74). Good works are the fruits of faith and are not done to liberate a person from the impending wrath or judgement of God. Therefore, works of penance are not what sets people free and indulgences are not the bridges to forgiveness of sins but faith alone. Faith liberates while good works celebrate that freedom. Although sanctification is not in Luther’s vocabulary, as far as Freedom of a Christian is concerned, traces of it are hinted in his argumentation about good works.
The dichotomous explication of Luther about Christian freedom leads him to strike a balance in his understanding of justification and judgement, commands and promises, and law and grace. For Luther, freedom means achieving that awareness that Christ already paid for everything so that a Christian can live freely ruling and freely serving through faith.
Freedom of a Christian is both a product of Luther’s quest for personal and communal justification. Living in sixteenth century atmosphere of dread and judgement, Luther sought to gain divine approval by doing all forms of piety that was required of him as a monk but nothing seemed to help and he further plunged into that deep well of Anfechtung (21). No amount of good works delivered him from that confusing and doubtful state. He desired forgiveness yet the greater the penance, the greater the distance from God he seemed to feel. This contrition led him to the unearthing of Scriptural treasures which finally brought the needed liberation from sin, death, and hell — faith justifies! It was a defining moment for Luther, though no one exactly knows when, because he finally discovered that faith alone was enough for him to be made righteous before God (16-17).
As much as Luther was aware of his personal need of justification, he was well aware of the penance that people do in order to be absolved of their sins and the indulgences that people buy to attain pardon. He was totally against these indulgences for they tainted the image of the clergy and the Church, abused the people, and denied them of the truth of the gospel. His personal enlightenment led him to defend the truth of faith and sought to liberate Christianity, particularly the poor, from this deception. Though his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses at the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517 was not intended to solicit public opinion, it was readily picked and spread (20). Perhaps the theses spoke about the real sentiments of the silent majority — do penance and indulgences really deliver people from judgment and death? Luther’s liberating discovery that faith alone and good works can justify gave the Christians of his time hope, knowing that they were living in a world of fear and uncertainty. Luther not only ignited debates because of his writings and theology but also paved the way for the Reformation that changed the course of Christian history forever.
Source: Luther, Martin (1520). Mark D. Tranvick, trans. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther Study Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.