In 1520, Martin Luther published a short book entitled, On the Freedom of a Christian, which he believed would contain “a summary of the entire Christian life.” Five-hundred years later, Luther’s teaching on the Christian life in this book speaks to us as clearly as if it were written today. Luther’s description of the Christian life as freedom and service calls us as believers to live faithfully not for ourselves but in service to others.
Luther explains in this little book that the entire Christian life is a paradoxical blend of lordship and service. He expresses this in his thesis for the work:
A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything.
A Christian is a servant of all, completely attendant to the needs of all.
Luther then explores what it means to be free and what it means to be a servant. Through faith, we have been liberated from slavery to the law, reconciled to God, and united with Christ. Through this freedom, Christ and we become one flesh, sharing everything in common like partners in a marriage. In the “happy exchange” of this union, Christ takes upon himself our sin, and we receive Christ’s own righteousness. This, says Luther, is true freedom: liberation from sin and its consequences and the freedom to belong to Christ alone.
We do nothing ourselves to gain such freedom. Our good works and free will do not contribute to it at all; it is a gift.
But if we are freed and reconciled to God by faith alone, then why should we do good works at all? The answer from Luther is obvious. In the Christian life, God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does. Since Jesus has done everything we need for salvation, we can focus our works and efforts on serving our neighbor.
“I will, therefore, give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me,” says Luther. “I will do nothing in this life except what is profitable for my neighbor since through faith, I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”
Since Jesus has done everything we need for salvation, we can focus our works and efforts on serving our neighbor.
This understanding of the Christian life has much to say to us as we navigate the difficult events from the past few months. In the midst of all of our weariness of continued isolation from friends, separation from fellow believers, and political debate, we should look first and foremost to the needs of those around us. This word seems as relevant for us today as it was in 1520.
In the last two weeks, we have observed protests, demonstrations, riots, and even violence following the death of George Floyd: a black man killed by a police officer in my own state of Minnesota. Since Floyd’s death—now ruled a homicide by the medical examiner—many across our nation in my home state are asking themselves how they should process these events and, consequently, how they should act.
How should we serve our neighbors in the context of American racism and its continued effects on people of color? Let me be even more specific. How can I, as a white male and as a Christian, love and serve my neighbors of color in today’s world?
Luther says, “Everyone should ‘put on’ the neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor’s place.” Putting ourselves in the neighbor’s place can lead us to a helpful response to racism. A solid first step in this process could be simply listening to those who have different backgrounds and experiences from our own.
As we hear the voices of black America speaking out, we should listen to them and, in so doing, learn about our neighbor, their needs, their hopes, and their fears. We should listen to their stories of what it is like to always wonder if they will be the targets of police action. We should listen to their stories of how centuries of racist history have formed their identity in America. Listening will help us better understand our neighbor, where they are coming from, and ultimately how we can serve them.
Luther’s words call us out of our own desires to the needs of others. “Therefore, says Luther, “we should be guided in all our works by this one thought alone—that we may serve and benefit others in everything that is done, having nothing else before our eyes except the need and advantage of the neighbor.”
We are not responsible to accomplish our own salvation. Christ has given us that as a gift. However, we are responsible for the care of our neighbors. Christian freedom doesn’t look like acting however we want for our own advantage. Because Christ has set us free from the slavery of sin and the law, we can serve our neighbor without the worry of our own benefit and our own justification. God doesn’t need our good works, but those around us—who suffer and grieve, who look different than we do, who both share our experiences or have experiences completely different from our own—sure do.