Copyright © 1994, Word & World, Luther Seminary.
Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 48-56.
First published in the Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin 68/1
(Winter 1988), pp. 3-11. Dr. Forell delivered it in lecture form at
the October, 1987, "Luther Symposium" at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Used with permission.
A Focus of Controversy
 While Luther probably never said "Here I
stand," and while it is doubtful
that he ever nailed the ninety-five theses on the door of the
castle church in Wittenberg, he
certainly wrote: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all,
subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all,
subject to all." As an Augustinian
theologian standing firmly in the western Christian tradition, the
issue of freedom and its theological meaning occupied him all his
 One of his major theological works, and in his own judgment
one of his best, was The Bondage of the Will, published in 1525, which
denies human beings any power to contribute to their own salvation.
In their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom at all.
Here we find the famous illustration that the human will is placed
between God and the devil like a beast of burden, "If God rides it,
it wills and goes where God wills....If Satan rides it, it wills
and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of
the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders contend for the
possession and control of it."
 This struggle between God and Satan is the key to Luther's
understanding of the human predicament so colorfully expressed in
his most famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God." He sings:
The old satanic foe has
sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight.
On earth is not his equal.
No strength of ours can match his might!
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God's only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.
 Because Heiko Oberman has articulated the importance of this
battle in Luther's thought so very clearly, his book, Luther: Man
between God and the Devil, is
probably the best book on Luther's theology produced in connection
with the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther's
birth. In this conflict between God and the devil, the issue of
freedom is central.
 So it is not surprising that Gerhard Ebeling speaks of
Luther's understanding of freedom as the "focus (Brennpunkt) of the
modern controversy about Luther." He
observes that while liberty is by no means a very clearly defined
concept in our time, it appears to be the "Grundwort und Grundwert
der Neuzeit," which means that liberty is seen as the "basic slogan
and the basic value of modernity." Our
colloquium with its theme "Luther and Liberation Theology" only
helps to bear out Ebeling's observation.
 It would lead us too far afield to rehearse all the
statements about Luther and liberty that have been made by famous
and infamous people. The significant point is that those who praise
Luther see him as a fighter for freedom, while those who condemn
him do so for restricting freedom to the interior of the person and
thus contributing to their enslavement more profoundly than even
the medieval church had managed to do. Here Karl Marx's
observations are paradigmatic. He observed in the context of his
critique of Hegel that Luther had freed human beings from the
outward fetters the church had forged but put their hearts into
chains. He wrote:
Luther, to be sure, overcame servitude based on devotion, but by
replacing it with servitude based on conviction. He shattered faith
in authority by restoring the authority of faith. He transformed
the priests into laymen by changing the laymen into priests. He
liberated man from external religiosity by making religiosity that
which is innermost to man. He freed the body of chains by putting
the heart in chains.
 To obtain some clarity on the subject assigned to us,
"Luther and liberty," we shall follow Ebeling and ask first of all
about the relationship between freedom and sin, freedom and
conscience, and freedom and ethics in Luther's
thought. Then we shall look
rather closely at Luther's famous pamphlet, The Freedom of a
Christian, to see what it can teach us about Luther and Christian
 Ebeling observes that all modern talk about liberty negates
the notion of sin. Sin, having been moralized and emptied of its
religious significance, has been incorporated into freedom. Since
the enlightenment, the fall in paradise has been seen as the
beginning of human freedom. The great German poet Friedrich
If we change the voice of God in Eden, which proscribed the tree
of knowledge, into the voice of instinct which kept the human being
from this tree, then the alleged disobedience to a divine command
is actually the turning against instinct. It is the first
expression of self-determination, the first act of daring on the
part of human reason, the beginning of humanity's moral existence
(Erster Anfang seines moralischen Daseyns). This fall of humanity
from instinct brought moral evil into creation but only in order to
make moral good possible. It is without doubt the happiest and
greatest event in human history. Human freedom is born at that
moment, the foundation of human morality is laid
 The sense of sin is the cause of bondage. It is significant
that Nietzsche calls Christianity the original sin. And it is obvious that
it is Luther's emphasis on sin and the justification of the sinner
which is the great obstacle to the acceptance of his theology in
 Luther's modern protestant critics (not to mention the
pop-religions of our day, the "new age" cults with their stress on
feeling good about oneself) find his emphasis on sin "medieval" and
understand it as an extreme form of Augustinianism. But Luther does not
really see the human predicament as caused by the actual sins which
had troubled medieval casuists, but rather by original sin, the sin
against the First Commandment, the root of all other sins, the
unwillingness to let God be God. The profound objection to Luther
comes from those who understand (correctly, to be sure) that he
insists that apart from faith even good works are sin.
 It is Luther's emphasis on the utter helplessness of human
beings apart from God which is the scandal of his theology for
modern men and women. He writes: "Free choice without the grace of
God is not free at all, but immutably the captive and slave of
evil, since it cannot of itself turn to the good." Again, the liberum
arbitrium, free will or free choice, "is plainly a divine term
(divinum nomen), and can be properly applied to none but the Divine
Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does...whatever he pleases
in heaven and on earth."
Christian liberty is not freedom of choice or freedom of the will
but it means instead to have been justified as a sinner. It means
to be freed from the curse of sin, liberated from the obsession
with the self, from being turned into the self (incurvatus in se),
and instead, having become absolutely dependent on God. In Paul's
terms, it is having become "a slave of Jesus Christ" (Rom 1:1)
which is a phrase utterly abhorrent to contemporary theology and
 Much of modern religion and contemporary theology has more
in common with elements of ancient and medieval religiosity than
with Luther. Gnosticism and Pelagianism, not Luther, are the
godparents of modern religious thought. One can easily shift from
"death of God" to polytheism, pantheism, witchcraft, and
devil-worship if one has lost hold of the basic human problem, the
sickness unto death, the pervasiveness and power of sin.
 But what about freedom and conscience? To quote Ebeling
again: "In the long history of the concept of conscience since the
days of classical antiquity the phrase 'freedom of conscience'
appears first, if I am right, in Luther. It affects as a rallying
cry the battle for freedom in the modern world including the idea
of human rights."
 Of course, Luther was hardly the originator of the quest
for individual freedom so basic for the modern world, even though
some people have made such assertions. But the reason for their
claim is obvious. In his most important political appearance, when
he confronted Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he talked
about his absolute commitment to God in the language of conscience
saying, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God," and again,
"It is neither safe nor right to go against
conscience." He expressed eloquently
the need to obey his conscience come what may. But there was a
difference. As Ebeling puts it: "Gewissensfreiheit wird hier nicht
als ein Recht gefordert, sondern als eine Macht
gelebt" or "Here freedom of
conscience is not claimed as a right but lived as power." While in
the classical tradition conscience was bound to outside rules, to
tradition, if you please (e.g., Antigone and her obligation to bury
her brother), and scholastic theology talked about a right
conscience, namely, a conscience formed by the law, Luther sees
himself as captured by the word of God. In his language this means
he must obey because of the gospel rather than the law.
 The rule of law is changed into a personal relationship to
God in Christ. A clear conscience does not result from obedience to
the law, from doing good works, but from the justification of the
sinner, in spite of conscience, death, and devil. As Luther wrote
in his Judgment on Monastic Vows of 1521:
Christian or evangelical freedom, then, is a freedom of
conscience (libertas conscientiae) which liberates the conscience
from works. Not that no works are done, but no faith is put in
them....Christ has freed this conscience from works through the
gospel and teaches this conscience not to trust in works, but to
rely only on his mercy.
 Luther's entire perspective is almost incomprehensible to
modern men and women. For them God does not justify; he needs
justification. He is justified in the opinion of some because he
makes people obey the law. You may actually not believe in God but
in order to support certain ethical values, certain just causes,
you may become religious, go through religious motions, and join
religious institutions. Christianity has become morality. The
sequence attributed to Luther that Christian ethics starts with
faith which is active in love, has been completely reversed. Today
we tend to use God as a traditional fiction to support the many
causes in which we have much more confidence than in God. We do
believe in our liberty but not as a gift of God, dependent every
moment on God's grace, but as a right that makes us into autonomous
beings for whom faith in God is an option. This is part of our
religious liberty as are atheism, witchcraft, and belief in
unidentified flying objects.
The Freedom of the Christian
 Against this background we shall try to learn what Luther
means by Christian liberty by carefully looking at one of his most
popular writings dealing precisely with this topic. We repeat the
basic propositions: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all
subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all,
subject to all." As always his indebtedness to Paul is obvious and
here especially to 1 Cor 9:19: "For though I am free with respect
to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more
 It appears at first that Luther tries to resolve the
apparent contradiction between "free lord" and the "dutiful
servant" with the device common to western thought, the distinction
between the two aspects of the human being, the spiritual and the
bodily. He writes: "According to the spiritual nature, which men
refer to as the soul, he is called a spiritual, inner, or new man.
According to the bodily nature, which men refer to as flesh, he is
called a carnal, outward, or old man." He adds that because of
this diversity the scriptures assert contradictory things
concerning the same human being, since these two are at odds. As an
example he quotes Gal 5:17, "For the desires of the flesh are
against the Spirit and the desires of the Spirit against the
 At first glance this may appear to be the same kind of
argument that allowed Plato's Socrates to speak of the body as the
prison of the soul and to think of human liberation as liberation
from the world of shadows, the material world, into the world of
ideas, the spiritual world. This is a notion repeated throughout
the history of western thought, articulated by mystics and
expressed in a multitude of versions by idealistic philosophers and
gnostic wise men and women (e. g., Mary Baker Eddy).
 But nothing could be further from Luther's intention. He
never sees the human being in isolation. The Christian who is the
subject of this treatise is what he or she is only because of a
relationship to Christ. Christian liberty is completely dependent
on this relationship and has nothing to do with the sort of
questions raised by modern behavioristic psychology and its
determinism. The difference is not
"matter" and "spirit," in the customary philosophical and religious
sense, but the person without Christ and the person with Christ. He
One thing, and only one
thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom.
That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ,
as Christ says, John 11[:25], "I am the resurrection and the life:
he who believes in me, though he die yet shall he live"; and John
8[:36], "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free
 For Luther, Christian liberty is a gift given to men and
women through the word, which is, as he adds immediately, nothing
else but "the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh,
suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit
who sanctifies." To preach Christ means
to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it,
provided it believes the preaching. Faith in the promises of God,
trusting God's word, gives the human being everything which God's
law demands, but which people cannot produce through their good
works. Following the imagery of Ephesians [5:31-32] and less
explicitly, Bernard of Clairvaux in his commentary on the Song of
Songs, he asserts that faith
unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her
bridegroom....Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are
one flesh and there is between them a true marriage-indeed the most
perfect of all marriages...it follows that everything they have
they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.
 Here occurs the "joyous exchange" (fröhlicher
Wechsel), that is so much a part of Luther's theology that it has
permeated the hymns of the church. Nicolaus Herman (1480-1561)
Er wechselt mit uns wunderlich, Fleisch und Blut nimmt er
Und giebt uns in seins Vaters Reich Die klare Gottheit dran.
Er wird ein Knecht und ich ein Herr, Das mag ein Wechsel
Wie konnt er doch sein freundlicher, Das Herze
 Luther writes:
Christ is full of grace,
life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and
damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and
damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life, and salvation will
be the soul's; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon
himself the things which are his bride's and bestow upon her things
that are his.
 He uses the whole armory of christological speech to
demonstrate the salvation of human beings.
Christ is God and man in one person. He neither sinned nor died,
and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his
righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal,
omnipotent by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins,
death, and pains of hell which are his bride's.
 Christian liberty is the direct result of this divine
intervention: "Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of
its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins,
secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal
righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its
 Luther continues in the most colorful language to describe
the royal marriage between this "rich and divine bridegroom" and
this "poor and wicked harlot." Christian liberty is simply one
aspect of the alien righteousness granted to Christians by grace
alone. It is the result of having been bound to Christ in this
royal marriage. Indeed Christians are free because they are bound
to Christ and share in everything he is and has. For this reason,
the Christian "needs neither law nor good works but, on the
contrary, is injured by them if he believes that he is justified by
 But he adds immediately that all this is an eschatological
reality and applies to the Christian as saint, while he or she is
at the same time sinner. To those who have read thus far and now
say: "We will take our ease and do no works and be content with
faith," Luther answers:
Not so, dear friend, not so. That would indeed be proper if we
were wholly inner and perfectly spiritual human beings. But such we
shall be only at the last day, the day of the resurrection of the
dead. As long as we live in the flesh we only begin to make some
progress in that which shall be perfected in the future
 The ethical consequences of the liberation of the human
being resulting from justification by faith and described with the
help of the image of the marriage of the soul to Christ are treated
in the last part of the booklet. Here Luther deals with the second
proposition, "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all,
subject to all." This servanthood of the liberated person has
actually two aspects, control of one's own body and major changes
in one's dealings with other people. The
justified person, Luther claims, "meets a contrary will in his own
flesh which strives to serve the world and seeks its own
 The Christian life is therefore a life of conflict; one
experiences the assaults of the devil, the famous Anfechtungen
which troubled Luther all his life. Again Paul serves as his
resource and he quotes Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians to make
his point. He does not rule out some success in this battle. Indeed
he claims that the life of the believer is in some ways analogous
to the life of Adam and Eve in paradise. "Through his faith he has
been restored to Paradise and created anew, he has no need of works
that he may become or be righteous; but that he may not be idle and
may provide for and keep his body, he must do such works freely
only to please God."
 It is apparent that Christian liberty has ethical
consequences; it affects the daily life of the Christian. This is
particularly true in relation to other human beings, for Christian
liberty frees Christians from their obsession with themselves and
their own salvation to act in the true interest of the neighbor.
Insofar as I act as a justified sinner, I am free to act without
any concern for my own self‑interest. God has taken care of
me so that I might he empowered to care for my neighbor.
 Again Christ is the model. And here Luther comes to the
most daring assertions of this little book. The Christian ought to
think, he says,
Although I am an unworthy and condemned person, my God has given
me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without
any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on
I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why
should I not therefore freely, joyfully with all my heart, and with
an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and
acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his
inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my
neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing
in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and
salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of
all good things in Christ.
 We have received freedom in order to serve those in
Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we
abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence,
as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we
also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its
works and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other
that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in
all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.
 If we ask how this might be accomplished, Luther suggests
as the prominent example of liberation the blessed Virgin Mary, who
"out of free and willing love...submitted to the law like other
women that she might not offend or despise them. She was not
justified by this work, but being righteous she did it freely and
 For Luther, Christian liberty is not a human achievement
but a gift of God's grace. But it is an empowering gift because it
enables the recipient to be freed from self‑concern, the
obsession with his or her own interest, for the real needs of
others. Christian ethics in the more restricted sense is only
possible on the basis of this liberation. There are all kinds of
good works that people can do. They are works of the law which may
contribute to the earthly welfare of human beings. But the life
that makes a woman or a man into a Christ to others is only
possible for those who have been made one with him and thus can say
with Paul: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me"
(Gal 2:20). For Luther this alone is Christian liberty.
© January 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 1
 LW 32:113.
 Cf. Erwin Iserloh, The Theses Were
Not Posted: Luther between Reform and Reformation (Boston: Beacon,
 The Freedom of a Christian (1520),
 LW 33:15-295.
 LW 33:65-66. Note the footnote
concerning the history of this illustration and Luther's
 Lutheran Book of Worship
(Minneapolis: Augsburg; Philadelphia: Board of Publication, LCA,
1978) Hymn 229. Hereafter, LBW.
 Heiko Oberman, Luther, Man between
God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University, 1989).
 Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3
vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1971-1989) 3:375. The chapter is a
reprint of Ebeling's Heidelberg lecture of 1982, "Zum Gegensatz von
Luther-Enthusiasmus and Luther-Fremdheit in der Neuzeit."
 Ibid., 376.
 Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's
"Philosophy of Right," ed. Joseph O'Malley (Cambridge: Cambridge
University, 1970) 138.
 To the following, see Ebeling,
 Friedrich Schiller, "Etwas
über die erste Menschengesellschaft nach dem Leitfaden der
mosaischen Urkunde" (1790), as quoted in Ebeling, Lutherstudien,
 F. Nietzsche, Der Antichrist
(1888), 61, as quoted in Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:381.
 For appropriate quotations from
Dilthey and Troeltsch, see Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:381-92.
 The Bondage of the Will (1525),
 Ibid., 68.
 Ebeling, Lutherstudien,
 LW 32:112.
 Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 3:387
 LW 44:298.
 LW 31:344.
 Cf. B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom
and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1971).
 The Freedom of a Christian
(1520), LW 31:345.
 Ibid., 346.
 Ibid., 351.
 LBW translation: "He undertakes a
great exchange, Puts on our human frame. And in return gives us his
realm, His glory and his name. He is a servant I a lord: how great
a mystery! How strong the tender Christchild's love! No truer
friend then he" (Hymn 47).
 LW 31:351.
 Ibid., 351-52.
 Ibid., 352.
 Ibid., 358.
 Ibid.; translation altered.
Luther does not write, "you wicked men," but rather, "Lieber
 Ibid., 359.
 Ibid., 360.
 Ibid., 367 (emphasis added).
 Ibid., 367-68 (emphasis
 Ibid., 368.