Martin Luther’s treatise on Christian liberty begins with one of his most notable and quotable paradoxes of the Christian faith:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Martin Luther. Christian Liberty. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, 7)
The Scriptures, the Reformation, and our Christian life are condensed in these two magnificent sentences. But do not let its brevity fool you. This is no fast-food, happy-meal theology. In The Freedom of the Christian, Luther dishes up a feast of rich theological food. Justification. Sanctification. And, yes, even the imagination. Christian freedom – the kind that Luther writes about in this tome – affects our justification, sanctification, and our imagination.
To be sure, when Luther wrote this treatise in 1520, he was not writing about God’s gift of the imagination. Nevertheless, whenever Luther taught, preached, or wrote, he could not help but use his imagination. The same is true for us; our imagination is active in everything we think, do, and say.
Luther imaginatively portrays our justification as a royal wedding. “Here this rich and divine Bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness” (Luther, 15).
He uses similar illustrative language in teaching us about sanctification. In writing about the good works that grow out of our freedom won for us in Christ, Luther paraphrases Jesus’s metaphor of the good tree that bears good fruit. “A good or bad house does not make a good or a bad builder; but a good or bad builder makes a good or bad house” (Luther, 14).
For Luther, justification and sanctification were not theoretical concepts. The freedom of the Christian was not a hypothetical reality. Justification, the salvation and freedom won for us in Jesus, is concrete. Justification looks like the bleeding, suffering, dying Son of God in human flesh hanging upon the cross for you.
Sanctification, our life in Christ and Christ in us is, likewise, concrete. Sanctification looks a Christian living daily in their baptism; a mother homeschooling her children, a father changing diapers, a child sending a card to Oma or Opa. For Luther, Christian freedom was not abstract, but concrete, and cruciform. Christ crucified is at the heart of both our freedom from sin and death and our freedom to serve and love our neighbor.
Justification looks like the bleeding, suffering, dying Son of God in human flesh hanging upon the cross for you. Sanctification looks a Christian living daily in their baptism.
For Luther to teach and write and speak the way he did, he was continually using his God-given imagination in service to the neighbor. We are no different. We are justified freely by grace, through faith in Christ crucified. Our justification in Christ is the grand miracle, the happy ending to our sad story that we could never have imagined. And yet it is true. It happened.
We are also sanctified by God’s grace in Christ crucified. His touchable, tangible, receivable gifts in words, water, bread and wine continue to bestow the fruits of Jesus’ salvation that we might continue to bear the fruits of sanctification. As Luther writes, we are perfectly free lords of all, set free from sin and death. And we are perfectly dutiful servants of all, free to serve our neighbors in Christ. We love because Christ first loved us. We bear fruits of good works, all the while using our imagination because Christ has first planted the seed of his word and fruits of faith within us.
Luther’s writing, then, does more than reveal his own imagination. In writing about justification, sanctification, and the freedom of the Christian, Luther also reveals the joyful truth that our body and soul – including our imagination – is justified and is sanctified in Christ. When Christ redeems us, he saves and frees the whole person – body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason, and all our senses. And that includes our imagination.
In Christ, the Christian imagination has been redeemed, liberated, and sanctified. In Christ, God’s gift of faith fills our imagination with the fruit of good works. In Christ, our imagination is set free to be a creative workshop of goodness, truth, and beauty that glorifies God and serves our neighbor.
For the Christian, good works begin in the redeemed, liberated, and sanctified imagination, saved and made holy in Jesus. A Christian cannot help but use their imagination in everything said, done, and thought, just as a good tree cannot help but bear good fruit. And, as God’s gift of faith bears fruit in us in good works, so too, God’s gift of the imagination bears an abundant harvest in our daily life. This is especially true in our vocations, our callings in life.
We may not be giants of the imagination like J.RR. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Martin Luther, and that is fine by our Lord. God’s gift of our imagination is found in the ordinariness of our daily lives. God has given us each of us unique callings and imaginations. Just think of your many and various vocations at home, in the world, and at your church. In each of our callings in life, God’s gift of imagination is at work. Think of musicians and mathematicians, artists and architects, farmers and firefighters, teachers and tailors, and the list could go on. We use our imaginations every single day.
For Christians, there is a unique joy in knowing that our imagination has also been redeemed, sanctified, and set free by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is God who justifies. It is God who sanctifies. It is God who sets us and our imaginations free to love and serve our neighbor. Imagine all the possibilities!
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).