“It is not by working, but by believing, that we glorify God, and confess Him to be true.” –Martin Luther
As we end the month of October, Halloween and All Saints Day will soon show up in the next two days. Death takes center stage in American life, with one day taking on the undead and ghoulish creatures in the exchange for Reese’s and M&M’s. The other day brings to mind those dearly departed in the faith who join the “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12.
When I hear that if I place my hope in Jesus and trust in his promise of life — that I can be release from the chains of sin and death — that my friends is something to get excited about. As I wrote last week, when we are joined with Christ, then what is ours is his and his is ours. The sin that once plagued us will be swallowed up in victory, and death itself was conquered through the triumphant resurrection (I Corinthians 15:55-57). Luther would add, “for death is swallowed up in victory, not only the victory of Christ, but ours also, since by faith it becomes ours and in it we too conquer.” Through Jesus, death has been defanged and one day it will be tossed out of God’s creation.
It is my hope that by highlighting the hope of the Christian faith through the work of Martin Luther that you might might understand a little more clearly concerning this faith. I don’t want to see that this faith is a cerebral one, or a faith that will merely warm our hearts. Instead, I want him to be a Messiah for you and me both. That what “is said of him, and what he is called, may work in us.”
Christian liberty is rooted in the confession that “Jesus is Lord,” and once that has been planted in our lives, then indeed we will be free. Freest of all people, and yet servant to all.
One of the more awkward metaphors in Scripture for me to comprehend is the metaphor of marriage. Throughout the Bible (both the Old Testament and New Testament) we are given the illustration of God in a covenant/marriage with his people. Specifically in the New Testament, we are described as a bride adorned for Jesus. I don’t know about you, but as a man, that’s a bit of a stretch to get excited about!
However, Luther sees it differently. He sees it in the light that we are indeed united to Christ: what is ours is his, and his is ours. Much like my marriage with Kristen, we bring everything together into a union. But unlike my marriage, this union provides something better; all things are in common, both good and bad.
Think about that image for a moment—all that Christ has can be yours.
Sit with that for a moment.
He is full of grace, life, and salvation. He will take on all that we have in exchange for all these good things, he will take on all the sin, death, and condemnation that plagues us. Through this union, Christ provides us immeasurable benefits for his own good pleasure. He gives us his righteousness, though we don’t deserve it.
To close out this point, hear (or read) what Luther has to say when we take hold of the righteousness of Jesus by faith in him, since his life is more powerful than death:
“Christ, that rich and pious husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her form all her evils and supplying her with all his good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in him, and since she has in her husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying, ‘If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is his, and all his is mine,’ as it is written, ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his.’”
Martin Luther is arguably best known for his argument that the “just shall live by faith.” His creed sola fide captures this biblical principle and he raises it quite about in Concerning Christian Liberty.
For Luther, faith is an inward action: it is an action that is done within the person. Of course, they will outwardly confirm the inward reality through public confession (baptism, their life, and participation in Eucharist) and through a life that bears the fruit of the Spirit living within them (see Galatians 5:22-23).
Paul wrote in Romans 10:9, “For with the heart, one believes and is justified, and the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Out of the new life rooted in the heart of the Christian, they then confirm the inward reality to others. While they ought to live differently, no outer works can ever replace what happened inwardly.
Let me put it another way. Psalm 1 describes the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of living water. This tree, out of a place of health and growth from the living water, will then produce fruit and shade for others. Out of the tree’s health it then demonstrates that health through outer means.
Luther argued that the only work we need as a Christian is to lay aside our works and trust in the work of God in Jesus. As John 6:27, 29 asserts
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’…Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
If you don’t catch anything though, catch this: everything is dependent on faith. If you have faith, then you have everything. If you don’t have it, then you have nothing. Putting faith in Christ will lead to life and to all the blessings God promises his people. They will find rest in seas of turmoil and peace in the darkest valleys, for one day Christ will put this world to rights and will wipe away every tear. As Tullian Tchividjian put it recently in a book: Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
“One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as he says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me shall not die eternally (Jn 11:25),’ and also, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed (Jn 8:36),’ and, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Mt 6:4).’” -Martin Luther On Christian Liberty
This chapter of the Wisdom Wednesday series on Martin Luther will hopefully clear up some issues that I have wrestled with. Growing up in a church that emphasized the “word” made me feel confused every time I heard it. No one ever explained what that loaded word meant, so I hope Luther will help unpack this for us.
“Word” has a dual meaning within this passage, it can mean the language recorded on the page and it can also mean the Word (Logos, a Greek term that has an eternal meaning to it), of God. Jesus was described in John as the Logos, the Word of God that was given to the world (see John 1).
Words have power
Words have power, they mean something. If you have ever been lied to, or have fallen victim to believing an elaborate tale (only to find out later it was false), you know how broken words can leave you crushed. But please hear, this word of God gives a promise, it promises that if you trust in Jesus, you will have life. If you take hold of God’s word and the offer that Jesus gives to each one of us, then you will be free.
While the word of God (Scripture) is quite an expansive collection of books, Luther would tell his readers that the word of God that we can especially cling to is in the promise of life through Jesus, the incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit that sanctifies.
Through this Jesus (and the word/Scripture that testifies about him), salvation is brought to all who put their faith in him: For those who confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, then they shall be saved (Romans 10:9).
Faith in God is what will bring salvation, it is not about how hard you try.
How refreshing is it that all we have to do is trust in another instead of working our butt off to earn something?
For Luther, holding on to the promise of God is all that we can do. It is also through this faith that we are free yet servants to all. Freedom rooted in faith leads to a life of service to others.
(In honor of Reformation Day this month, Wisdom Wednesday will be looking into Martin Luther’s brief yet powerful work Concerning Christian Liberty)
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. -Martin Luther
The more I have been processing what sets Christianity apart from other world religions, the more I have become convinced that love differentiates it from the other great world religions.
Now please hear me out though, and hear what I am not saying.
I am neither saying that other religions lack an element of love in their message, nor am I saying other adherents do not love. What I am trying to say is that Christianity has sacrificial love at its core.
Luther is arguing in his work Concerning Christian Liberty that freedom is rooted in the sacrificial love of Christ. I highlighted this aspect in my Bonheoffer series previously, but for our purposes here, for those who follow Jesus, they are called to also follow Jesus by serving others.
Notice in the quote above how service flows out of identity. By being in Christ, they are most “free of all people”; yet out of this freedom they are called to serve others. Paul would phrase it that Christ knew his place, that all authority was given to him, and out of this position (which is huge!) he chose to empty himself (see Philippians 2:1-11).
I will never tire of saying this, but if you are in Christ, you are free. But if you are free, then the next step is to serve others.
Honestly, I don’t like hearing this, but Christians are called to be a different community, we are blessed to be a blessing. We are free from sin and death, oh please grasp that point.
If you are in Christ, you are free. You are free like the tree transplanted in good soil, free to flourish and produce beauty and fruit. Similarly, Christians are also planted in good soil and are free to flourish. They are free to bear fruit and bless others because they are free.
Follow Jesus and be free. Be free and serve all.