Martin Luther placed, “the justification of the sinner,” at the heart of his preaching and teaching because he believed the righteousness—the justified nature—of those who had revolted against God in sin constituted the heart of the Biblical recital of God’s interaction with human creatures after the Fall into sin. We usually associate a description of the Atonement as the vicarious satisfaction of the Law’s demand for the death of the sinner (Romans 6:23a) with Luther’s doctrine of justification. Indeed, forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death formed an essential element at the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification. But his use of Romans 4:25, “Christ was handed over into death because of our sin and rose to restore our righteousness,” often with the application of that death and resurrection to the baptized in Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:11-15, opened up a number of other expressions of how the work of Christ results in the restoration of our existence as God’s children. For, at its heart, Luther’s understanding of “justification” meant a restoration of the perfect trust and love Adam and Eve enjoyed at the core of their nature as human beings in Eden. For Luther, justification is “humanization,” the restoration of our true humanity.
One of those other expressions found form in the reformer’s proclamation that Jesus Christ has set us free from all those persons or things which trap and imprison us, bind us from fully exercising the humanity God gives as our Creator. “Freedom” is an important word in North American society today. Discontent arises quickly when we feel we are being deprived of the opportunity to live life as we think it ought to be lived. The informal national anthem of the United States, Frank Sinatra’s, “I did it my way,” expresses the ideal driving us again and again into dissatisfaction and discouragement. In our efforts to be free of all restraints and limits on our ability to do it the way we want and think best, we propel ourselves ever deeper into ourselves. We exploit and then alienate ourselves from others when their wishes do not accord with our own. Dissatisfaction and loneliness within our consciousness are just as deadly for human joy and peace as were the guilt and terror Luther felt in relationship to God. He felt imprisoned or trapped by his own incapacity to be God’s perfect child, by his conviction that God’s wrath condemned him to eternal death after the sufferings of physical death. He felt constricted and caged by his inability to escape being the Devil’s plaything and playmate. We feel entrapped by our failures to forge proper relationships with others, our failures to succeed at being all we think we could be in our family, school, workplace, and circle of friends.
Then Luther discovered how, because Christ had set him free from everything and every person who was trying to separate him from the Author of Life, he was free indeed. In 1520, in his most important treatise on the justification of sinners, On Christian Freedom, he was reacting to charges of antinomianism. So, he spoke of his freedom in terms of liberation from sin, death, and the Law’s condemnation. This freedom from evils of all kinds let him be bound or, rather, bonded him to his neighbor in love and service. Under other circumstances he might have labeled this bondedness freedom for truly human living—which results from liberation from those things driving us into ourselves as we try to do it our own way.
This restoration to righteousness that results in our freedom for loving and supporting other people whom God places within our reach takes place, Luther believed, through Christ’s liberating victory over Satan. Among his dramatic descriptions of the battle between the Devil and the Savior are comments in a sermon on Mark 16 in his “Summer Postil” of 1526. With his resurrection, Christ strangled the Serpent and tramped on his head (Genesis 3:15). Like Christ, believers, “overcome death, the Devil, sin, and every misfortune,” through His victory. For Christ has taken possession of their sins and smothered them to death (D. Martin Luther’s Werke, Weimar edition, vol. 10,1:220-221). In his commentary on Galatians (1535), Luther spoke of Christ’s confrontation with Satan on the battlefield of human death, which is the fair wage for sin according to Saint Paul (Romans 6:23a). Luther labeled the tomb the place of a, “magnificent duel,” between Christ and Satan. Taking on the Devil face to face, “Christ abolishes the Law, kills my sin, destroys my death in His body, and empties Hell thereby; He judges the Devil and crucifies and casts him down into Hell… everything that once tormented and oppressed me Christ has eliminated. He disarmed it all and put it on public display (Colossians 2:15). He triumphed over these things so they cannot lord it over me but are compelled to serve me” (LW 26:160-161). He defeated every enemy that tyrannizes sinners, freeing His people as He moves them out from life under the Devil’s rule into His own domain. “Living in me, Christ destroys the Law, damns my sin, murders my death, because they are unable to continue to exist in His presence. Christ is my eternal peace, consolation, righteousness and life. Therefore, the terror of the Law, melancholy of the soul, sin, Hell, and death cannot do anything else but give way to Him” (LW 26:167). Christ’s resurrection frees believers from the accusation of the Law and guilt, for He has slain them (LW 26:159-160). Sin exercised a mighty and brutal tyranny over the world, but it could not withstand the assault of Christ’s eternal, immoral, invincible righteousness. “[Sin] assaults Christ and wants to gobble Him down along with all other human beings. But sin did not perceive that this person is invincible and eternal righteousness. Thus, in this duel it was inevitable that sin be conquered and killed and that righteousness conquer and live. Thus, in Christ all sin is conquered, executed, and buried. Righteousness remains the victor and the ruler forever” (LW 26:281). Christ now terrorizes the Devil, with His victory over sin, death, and Satan, has destroyed His rule, and continues to preserve and protect His people against the Gates of Hell itself” (Matthew 16:18) (LW 26:224).
In his Large Catechism, Luther explained what it means that Jesus is Lord. He is the one who, “has liberated and released me from sin, from the Devil, from death, and from all misfortune. Before this I had no lord or king but was captive under the power of the Devil. I was condemned to death and entangled in sin and blindness… under God's wrath and displeasure, sentenced to eternal damnation, as we had merited it and deserved it. There was no source of strength, no help, no comfort for us until this only and eternal Son of God, in His unfathomable goodness, had mercy on us because of our misery and distress and came from Heaven to help us.” Luther continued: “Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed, and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness, and every good and blessing. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of Hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father's favor and grace. As His own possession He has taken us under His protection and shelter, in order that He may rule us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.” This liberator, “has brought us back from the Devil to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and keeps us there… He rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death, and finally ascended into Heaven and assumed dominion at the right hand of the Father. The Devil and all his powers must be subject to Him and lie beneath His feet until finally, at the Last Day, He will completely divide and separate us from the wicked world, the Devil, death, sin, etc.” (Second Article of the Creed, The Book of Concord, Minneapolis 2000, 434).
As Luther explained, in On Christian Freedom, this freedom from everything which rendered us less than the children God had created Adam and Eve to be, permits us to exercise the humanity God intended for us. This humanity is not turned in upon itself but is open to the world. It is free to enjoy and find peace and true satisfaction in mutual love, service, assistance, and care. For the faith that trusts Christ has set us free wants to act as a liberated child of the Creator. The sharp distinction between the terms “justification” and “sanctification” (which indeed makes a vital point) comes not from Luther’s usage, but was introduced later into Lutheran vocabulary. He certainly distinguished justification by faith from the sanctified life it produces, but he did not dwell on that point in 1520. In On Christian Freedom, he stressed the natural connection faith in Christ makes between trusting Christ’s word of liberating forgiveness and living the liberated life which enjoys doing God’s will in praising Him and serving His creatures. Recognizing Christ has freed us from sin, death, Satan, God’s wrath, the Law’s condemnation, and all else oppressing us—whether it is our own sin, or our sense of estrangement and loneliness, or our failure to meet our own expectations and/or the expectations of others—truly frees us to take our natural human shape once more. For freed by Christ, we are free indeed.