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Faith and the Freedom to Serve: Martin Luther

The good news

A village was once plagued for years and years by a terrible dragon. Worn down by the tyranny of the vicious beast, the villagers were fearful of going outside and distrusted each other. Their homes became prisons with themselves as guards. One day a hero came and after a mighty battle defeated the villainous dragon. Those who had witnessed this event came to the village and proclaimed, ‘The dragon has been slain! You’re free!’ The villagers shook off the dust and spite from their bones and joyfully left their houses, celebrating together the fall of the wicked tyrant.

An old and dying man had amassed a vast fortune. Having no children of his own, the wealthy man arranged his will such that all his earthly belongings should be given to his nephew, an unpleasant man who lived far away and thought little of his uncle, or anyone else.

Martin Luther uses two similar examples to express that the gospel is ‘good news’ (euangelion) and an inheritance which comes to those who have done nothing to merit it. Upon hearing that David slew Goliath, the women in the villages came out and danced in the streets (1 Sam. 18.6). Jesus Christ, Luther explains, is a true David who rescued those in captivity to sin, afflicted with death and overpowered by the devil, giving them in turn righteousness, life and peace with their God.1 Likewise, Luther points out that another name for the gospel is ‘testament’, as in one’s Last Will and Testament. In this case, the emphasis is placed upon Christ promising us everything he has and sealing this promise with his death. The only difference between a testament and a promise, Luther notes, is that a testament involves the death of the giver.1 [1] [2]

The gospel is good news, a testament, a promise about who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us. The gospel announces to us and assures us that our sins are forgiven, that the great dragon is defeated and that death itself has been swallowed up. As with any promise or good news, the most one can do is trust and believe in the one who has promised these things; everything else has already been done.[3] Faith, then, means trusting that God is and will be faithful in his promises (Heb. 10.23).[4] It means being confident not in ourselves, but in the one who has spoken these promises. It would be strange to focus the action in the above stories not on the benefactors but instead on the reactions of the recipients: ‘I was the one who walked outside of my house when I heard the news about the dragon!’ or ‘I was the one who boldly said “yes” to all that money!’[5] But is receiving a promise or being given an inheritance an act which we could call our own?

Faith comes from hearing (Rom. 10.7), just as promises are spoken in words and wills are read aloud. These are not words or speech acts that we say to ourselves or invent in the quiet of our own hearts. These are noisy, physical and external words (verbum externum) that are spoken to us. Luther calls the sacraments ‘visible signs’, a kind of visible word inasmuch as the water, bread and cup take part in God’s promises to us.[6] Luther defines the preaching of Word and the sacraments as ‘external acts’, and the presence and working of the Holy Spirit inside the Christian as an ‘internal act’. So much emphasis is placed upon the embodied, physical reality of these words and promises that Luther can argue that ‘[t]he inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward’. [7] The promises of the gospel are spoken aloud and performed, and they concern me. They call me to trust and believe not myself, not even my own faith and belief, but to have confidence and gratitude in the one who promises.

A Christian has everything because Jesus Christ has promised and bequeathed everything. Having all, what is there left for the Christian to do? Luther’s answer in his 1520 treatise ‘The Freedom of a Christian’ is that the Christian’s life should be guided by this one thought alone: ‘that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor’.[8]

  • [1] Martin Luther, ‘Preface to the New Testament’, in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic TheologicalWritings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 112-117 (113).
  • [2] Martin Luther, ‘Babylonian Captivity of the Church’, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings,
  • [3] pp. 267-313 (294).
  • [4] Luther, ‘Babylonian Captivity’, p. 298.
  • [5] Luther, ‘Babylonian Captivity’, p. 303.
  • [6] That a sacrament needs such a ‘visible sign’ was even part of Luther’s argument that only baptism andthe Lord’s Supper are sacraments properly understood.
  • [7] Martin Luther, ‘Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and the Sacraments’, in ConradBergendoff (ed.), trans. Berhard Erling and Conrad Bergendoff, Luther Works, vol. 40 (Philadelphia:Muhlenberg Press, 1958), pp. 79-223 (146).
  • [8] Martin Luther, ‘Freedom of a Christian’, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, pp. 585-629 (617).
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