So that we might understand what a Christian is and what freedom Christ has acquired and given them, I make these two assertions:

A Christian is completely free, subject to nothing and no one.
A Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to everyone.

These two assertions are clearly illustrated in 1 Corinthians 9:19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all.”

Likewise, in Romans 13:8, St. Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” Love, however, can be described as service and is subject to whatever one loves. For this reason, it is said of Christ in Galatians 4:4, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.”

These two contradictory sayings about freedom and service can be understood in view of the fact that every Christian has two natures—spiritual and physical. With regard to the soul, one is spiritual, new, and inward-facing. Regarding flesh and blood, one is physical, old, and outward-facing. I write of freedom and service in view of these seemingly contradictory distinctions.

We first consider the inward and spiritual part of a person and what makes them free and righteous. Clearly nothing external can make one free and righteous because this freedom and righteousness are not bodily or external. How does the soul benefit if the body is free? Alternatively, how does it harm the soul if the body is suffering? Neither of these things affect the soul. They do not free it, bind it, or make it righteous or wicked.

Additionally, the soul does not benefit if the body is adorned with liturgical garments like the clergy. Neither does it benefit just by being present in church, praying, fasting, going on a pilgrimage, or any other sort of good work that the body might do. Something entirely different must make the soul righteous and give it freedom, for all these things could just as well be done by a wicked person, a fraud, or a hypocrite. In fact, assuming these things make one righteous does nothing but create hypocrites.

Nothing on earth or in heaven is able to make the soul alive, righteous, free, and Christian apart from the Gospel, the Word of God preached by Christ. As Christ says in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So we can be certain that the soul can do without everything but the Word of God. Without the Word of God, nothing can help it. If it has the Word of God, it needs nothing else. It has everything it needs in the Word in abundance—happiness, peace, righteousness, truth, wisdom, and freedom.

The Word shows you how your entire life and pursuit of good works are nothing to God. They must forever be put to death, along with every other effort of yours.

You might ask, “What is the Word that provides such immeasurable grace, and how do I use it?” The answer is, “Nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the Gospel communicated in such a way that you hear God speaking to you.” The Word shows you how your entire life and pursuit of good works are nothing to God. They must forever be put to death, along with every other effort of yours. And when you really believe you are guilty and when you are in complete despair, you must confess that Hosea 13:9 is true of you: “O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper. It is only in me that you have your help.”(1) This is so you may be pulled away from yourself and your death. God then places his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, before you so that you are faced with the Word of life and comfort. You are to surrender to this Word with steadfast faith and trust in God, and all your sins will be forgiven. Victory will be yours, and you will be righteous and completely free. As St. Paul says in Romans 1:16, “The righteous shall live by faith,” and, in Romans 10:4, he explains, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

It is right, then, for every Christian to regard only the Word and Christ as their good work and spiritual discipline. Nothing else can make you a Christian. It is as Christ responds to the Jews (in John 6:29) when they ask him what they should do in order to perform good works. He says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” the only one whom God the Father set apart for that purpose.

Therefore, true faith in Christ is a priceless gift. It brings with it every blessing and removes all ungodliness. As it is written in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Paul writes in Romans 10:10, “For with the heart one believes and is justified.”

This is an excerpt from “The Freedom of the Christian” written by Martin Luther and translated and edited by Adam Francisco (1517 Publishing, 2020), pgs. 1-6. Used with permission.

The Freedom of the Christian is the theme for this year’s Here We Still Stand Conference.
To register for free for HWSS, click here.