Written by the iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty is a treatise on the nature of the Christian’s life; or as Luther puts it, “a summary of the Christian life put together in small compass.”
The treatise itself is an attachment to a letter written by Luther to Pope Leo X in which he attempts to point out various corruptions within Rome. The treatise, apart from serving the purpose of summarizing the Christian life, is also meant as a gift to the Pope “By this you may perceive in what pursuits I should prefer and be able to occupy myself to more profit, if I were allowed, or had been hitherto allowed, by your impious flatterers.” It is meant as an example of the work to which Luther would pursue if not under attack by others within the church.
The goal of the treatise is to address the question of Christian liberty. During the time which Luther wrote the church was filled with those teaching a works righteousness, that one must observe the precepts of the church in order to gain salvation and thereby placing the believer in a sort of bondage. Luther makes it his task to refute this idea and to proclaim the wonders of salvation by faith alone and putting works into the proper place in the Christian life.
The treatise is divided into three parts. The first is regarding “the subject of the inward man, that we may see by what means a man becomes justified, free, and a true Christian.” The second “[Giving] an answer to all those who, taking offence at the word of faith and at what I have asserted, say, “If faith does everything, and by itself suffices for justification, why then are good works commanded? Are we then to take our ease and do no works, content with faith?” The third answering the objection of from those who “when they hear of this liberty of faith, straightway turn it into an occasion of licence.”
Throughout this effort Martin Luther masterfully lays out the right relationship of the Law to the work of Christ, and in turn the right relationship of works to faith. “[The precepts] show us what we ought to do, but do not give us the power to do it. They were ordained, however, for the purpose of showing man to himself, that through them he may learn his own impotence for good and may despair of his own strength…Then comes in that other part of Scripture, the promises of God, which declare the glory of God, and say, ‘If you wish to fulfill the law, and, as the law requires, not to covet, lo! believe in Christ, in whom are promised to you grace, justification, peace, and liberty.'”
Yet this freedom is not a freedom from works nor a license to sin, for “It is not from works that we are set free by the faith of Christ, but from the belief in works, that is from foolishly presuming to seek justification through works.”
There is nothing more which can be said, to restate the words of Luther are the best service which can be done. The treatise may serve not only as a deep devotional message, but a deep theological one as well; it is the message presented here which reformed the Christian faith and is indeed the heart of that faith.
“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 every one.”
-“Thus the promises of God give that which the precepts exact, and fulfil what the law commands; so that all is of God alone, both the precepts and their fulfilment. He alone commands; He alone also fulfils.”
-“It is certainly true that, in the sight of men, a man becomes good or evil by his works; but here “becoming” means that it is thus shown and recognised who is good or evil, as Christ says, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. vii. 20).”
-“It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he may be enabled to labour, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.”
“Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.“
I have no criticisms of this text to offer, instead I’ll simply point out something which I find noteworthy, which is the passage stating: “Returning to the subject which we had begun, I think it is made clear by these considerations that it is not sufficient, nor a Christian course, to preach the works, life, and words of Christ in a historic manner, as facts which it suffices to know as an example how to frame our life, as do those who are now held the best preachers, and much less so to keep silence altogether on these things and to teach in their stead the laws of men and the decrees of the Fathers. There are now not a few persons who preach and read about Christ with the object of moving the human affections to sympathise with Christ, to indignation against the Jews, and other childish and womanish absurdities of that kind… But alas! it is at this day unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached nor sought after, so that we are quite ignorant about our own name, why we are and are called Christians.”
Here Luther addresses the dominant messages of his day as regards Christianity, including: work-righteousness, using Christ as merely an example for good living, or as merely an individual to sympathize with. It is these same fallacies which ever crop up, these same heresies against which Machen and Chesterton fought under the guise of Liberalism and Modernism, which we fight today under some manifestations of Postmodernism and the Emergent Church.
Even further there is the statement that the truth is being neither preached nor sought after in his day such that individuals are ignorant to what Christianity even is; indeed, this is the same problem which the church has always faced, which the church fathers faced, which Spurgeon lamented, which Machen up through those today continue to fight against.
We like to make it a point of pointing towards the past and asking for a revival in spirit as what was seen in those days, and yet in the days of Luther, in the days of Spurgeon, in the days of Machen, all were facing these same issues.