Martin Luther created an unintentional split in the church when he posted his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. The Roman Catholic church could have either condemned Luther as heretic or persuade him to recant as they sought to reunify what he torn asunder. Karl von Miltitz in 1520 presided over an assembly that charged Luther to write a letter to Pope Leo X to defend his belief; he hoped this letter would open the possibility of reunification (467). As history tells, Miltitz’s charge did not create the desired unity. However, Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian laid the groundwork for Protestant doctrine that later generations would refine and expand: the Christian is free from all things and simultaneously bound to all things (488). He explores these two themes by examining “the spiritual, new, and inner person” (489) and “the outer person” (510).
Internal & External Freedom
First, as it concerns the inner person, external works do not cultivate saving righteousness in the Christian (490). Luther argued that since an unsaved person could use “sacred robes … or perform sacred duties” just like a saved person could and not demonstrate faith, then “righteousness and freedom of the soul will require something completely different” (490).
However, the one “external” thing that can free a person is God’s Word because it is “life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy freedom, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and every imaginable blessing” (491). In order for God’s Word to be effectual for salvation, it must be received “by faith alone” (sola fide) (492).
Works & Salvation
Second, while the Christian needs nothing else for salvation, they need to do works as it concerns the outer person (510). Whereas God’s Word brings the inner person into conformity with God’s will, doing good works brings the outer person into alignment with the Christian ethic (511). It is important to note that this perspective could be viewed as bondage rather than freedom.
However, as Luther argued, whereas God’s Word sets the inner person free by faith, the freedom for the outer person lies in the subjectivity of what works are considered beneficial for sanctification (512).
In addition to works that are personally beneficial, Luther brings to bear a communal aspect to work: “each person lives only for others” (520). While personal sanctification may grow, good works are for the flourishing of one’s community or neighbor.
A noteworthy aspect of Luther’s treatise is his articulation of the essentials for belief. Luther argued that to enter into this bonded freedom, one must believe the severity of sin and the necessity of Jesus’ work (492). He recognized that in order for an unrighteous person to believe, that person must first recognize their sinful estate (492).
However, this fallen estate is not where the Gospel ends, because Jesus came and redeemed all of God’s people (492).
Therefore, if one recognizes their miserable and sinful estate (WSC 17) and believes on the entirety of Jesus’s works only (solus Christus), then they will be saved from their sins (492).
For Luther, this understanding of the gospel meant true freedom for God’s people.
However, Luther missed out on important aspects of the redemptive narrative: the creation and new creation. To that point, he did not have the theological framework of this structure because he did not concern himself with it. In his context and treatise, he attempted to properly align faith and works because he believed the Roman Catholic Church had erred in their understanding. That being said, this neutering of the biblical narrative does have consequences.
The narrative starts with the problem instead of creational reality how things were. As a result, death is seen as an escape for this corruptible body. While it is true that sin has corrupted humanity, the state before sin was perfection, albeit temporary. Starting with the right foundation is essential because of how it informs the last part of the redemptive narrative: new creation. If one does not start with the right foundation, then their trajectory will be off.
Namely, the eschatological orientation of life (that God’s people are headed to embodied existence with him because the physical life still matters) along with the present implications of faith (that God’s people should not merely look forward to death, but serving God and neighbor now) will be non-existent because that person does not know God’s intended purpose for humanity.
Again, Luther did not have to concern himself with these questions in this treatise, but what is not taught can be more transformative than what is taught.
Miltitz’s intentions for reconciliation never solidified, even 500 years later. The Roman Catholic Church did not concede their framework for understanding faith and works. Thankfully, the Protestant church did not concede either. This issue was not merely a theological nuance that does not have any bearing on faith, for Luther rightfully noted that the freedom of the Christian was at stake. Faith and works must be properly understood for the sake of Christian freedom.
This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Robbie Griggs in Spirit, Church & Last Things at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.