By Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
A colleague of mine once pointed out that Martin Luther wrote far more about freedom than he did about reform or reformation. Liberation in Christ through faith was the freedom that transformed Luther. This freedom is what he wrote about most frequently and most passionately. In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther makes the case that liberation in Christ is both a freedom from and a freedom for.
Freedom from is liberation from all spiritual bondage. We are set free from being trapped in ourselves, consumed by ourselves, from the belief and terror that we can and must save ourselves. That our self is the center of the universe. Life in Christ is not an inward-dwelling experience. We are free to get over ourselves.
Freedom from is liberation from the law’s accusation and judgment. We are liberated from terror and despair, which are soul crushing. We are liberated from the incessant and impossible task of measuring up.
Freedom from liberates us from estrangement from God and God’s creation. Caught in sin and standing before a God who demands righteousness when we believe that we are either responsible for or capable of affecting our own salvation, breeds resentment toward God and the objectification of others.
Luther says it simply in his Small Catechism: Jesus Christ “is my Lord … he has redeemed me … purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.”
Freedom for means that in Christ we are set free to love and serve others. Freedom is a relationship, not a new set of activities or the demand of a new law. Many activists and pietists move immediately to a set of activities to define freedom, but Luther stayed with relationships. In Christ the faithful are new creatures who are opened into newly reconciled and liberated relationships with God, with other creatures and even with oneself.
Luther put it this way: “Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. … And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown them this grace” (Luther’s Works, 35:370-1).
I believe that Luther turned the argument that freedom is the problem and that our free will is what got us expelled from the garden and into this world of hurt on its head. The argument goes that we have been given free will, we misuse or abuse that gift, and in this freedom we make poor choices. Our only hope is that we give up or renounce this freedom and submit ourselves to the rule of God. Only when we are captive to God’s will, will we find redemption.
This argument assumes that we are free and that we can will ourselves into cooperating with God’s saving work. Once again it becomes about us and about what we must do in order to be saved. Luther makes the shift that we start out captive to sin and, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are set free.
The problem isn’t too much freedom, it’s that we are not free. When we confess that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 95), it should be with a sense of relief!
Reformation scholar Timothy Wengert posed the question, “What am I going to do now that I don’t have to do anything?” Serve God and neighbor in beautiful freedom.
A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Her email address is: [email protected]. For more on The Freedom of a Christian, visit elca500.org.
This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s October 2020 issue. Reprinted with permission.