The Paradox of Freedom and Servitude

Martin Luther’s “Treatise on Christian Liberty”

Imagine going to buy a new car, and the salesman says, “You can either pay thirty grand for this car, or you can take it for free.” What would you choose? What would all the other customers choose? How long would the dealership be in business? The world just doesn’t work like this. But, somehow, the Christian faith does.

The Christian faith is something of a mystery. At the heart of it is the doctrine of justification: God forgives your sins for Christ’s sake, and he declares you innocent. This gift is yours through faith alone. This necessarily means that it is not on the basis of good works (Eph. 2:9), and it is not according to the law (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16).

But if this is true, what becomes of good works? If God’s favor is free, why would anyone ever do a single good work? Martin Luther masterfully answers this in his Treatise on Christian Liberty. It is among Luther’s most influential writings. It’s also fairly short. And it’s in our library (hint, hint). In an open letter to Pope Leo X, Luther was even so bold as to say, “It contains the whole of the Christian life in a brief form” (LW 31, p. 343). This is a hard thing to accomplish, but if you read it, I think you will have to agree.

Luther puts forth this paradox that summarizes the Christian life:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

“A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” (LW 31, p. 344)

This looks like a contradiction. The “Law on Non-Contradiction” asserts that two contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way. But this is not a contradiction; it’s a paradox. In a paradox, two contradictory statements might both be true, and they might even be true at the same time, but they are true in different ways. Luther explains the different sense in which both of these statements are true.

One thing you will notice about the treatise is how thoroughly scriptural it is. Luther asserts nothing without proving it by Scripture. There are citations on almost every page. So this paradox is not Luther’s invention. He simply saw it in Scripture and explained it from Scripture. The two doctrines at work throughout the treatise are justification and vocation (though he does not use that word).

He starts with justification (see the above definition). Being justified freely for Christ sake, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” As regards his standing before God, no man can place any obligation on a Christian. He is truly free, whom Christ has set free (John 8:28). And he is truly an heir and king, whom God has declared an heir and king in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:29; 1 Peter 2:9). He is free from the Law. He is free from the traditions of men. He stands above all things, for he is in Christ.

This freedom is granted to the Christian through faith. And if it is by faith, then it cannot be by works. Faith and works are opposites. We might think that faith and unbelief are opposites, and I suppose this is true, but Luther demonstrates that seeking to be justified by works is really just a pious looking form of unbelief. It is probably the most common form of unbelief. Faith trusts in Christ for salvation. But if you bring your works to God (as if they are supposed to give you some benefit that Christ has not already given to you), you are really saying that Christ’s work is not enough. This sort of unbelief damns you before God. It is not really a lack of works that God condemns; it is a lack of faith. If all you have are some puny works (filthy rags, really), but you trust in Christ, then you have everything that belongs to Christ. But if you take those puny works and hold them up to God as if they are supposed to count for something, then you are on your own, and God condemns you.

By faith, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” From this it may sound like faith nullifies works, but the opposite is true. Faith is the beginning of good works. By faith God makes the Christian a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a new, inner man. With the creation of this new man comes the desire to obey God and serve our neighbors. Make the tree good and the fruits will be good (Matt. 12:33). So the new man undertakes the task of loving and serving those around him. In this way, he is constrained by faith to be “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The new, inner man does this freely and joyfully.

But this, I suspect is not really your experience. Perhaps some of the time it is, but not always, and never completely. That is because the old, sinful flesh stills dwells within you. The new man fights against the old constantly. So Luther identifies two reasons that remain for good works: First, to restrain the sinful flesh, and second, to serve our neighbor. This is the doctrine of vocation. Before God, works count for nothing, and faith in Christ is everything, so you are free. Before your neighbor, works are necessary, so you are a servant of all. May you have joy in both.

The peace of Christ be with you all,

Pastor Dan