Justification and Freedom:
Exploring Luther's big ideas
by Sue Maric
Last year marked the 500th anniversary of a historically seminal moment: Luther’s assertion of his 95 Theses in Wittenberg. Luther was a driving force in what became the Protestant church, now as diverse in expression as it is IN geographicAL spread – and yet, it is still committed to key ideas which are articulated by Luther and which hold the family in its diversity, together. In dialogue with significant Luther texts, minister at Thornbury Church of Christ and Stirling student Sue Maric, reflects on the impact of Luther’s key revelation: of justification by faith, and its impact on the individual and the church, in expression as freedom and responsibility.
In 1545 Luther recounts a life-altering experience of grace after prolonged internal turmoil over a just and righteous God unappeased by a perpetually sinful conscience such as his. This personal revelation, of salvation by faith alone, became a platform for ecclesial renewal and reform. Luther’s driving theme of reform is that righteousness is achieved by faith not works; this new doctrine shifts the paradigm completely for the individual, releasing freedom and direct access to God through faith, therefore relieving burdensome penances and continuous salvific practices. The late medieval Church came under enormous pressure to reform its authority and its preaching of the gospel, having allowed widespread legalistic extortion. This article will discuss the implications of Luther’s ethical stance as framed around four foci: justification by faith, its impact on the individual and the church, and the responsibility invoked by this freedom, in dialogue with three key Luther texts. Christian freedom and responsibility seem somewhat antithetical but are drawn together by Luther in a complimentary embrace.
Justification by Faith
In Luther’s early training, the theological principle that God would not reward someone unless they earnt it, resonated; however due to incongruent teaching between individual theologians, theological schools and the official teaching of the church, confusion reigned. Heavily influenced by the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and supremely focused on the Bible as the source of Christian theology, rather than scholastic tradition or Aristotle, Luther embodied an innate desire for righteousness. He was diligent in his duties, confessed his sin consistently but was left despairingly filled with guilt. Immersed over several years in the Epistle to the Romans, Luther began to find peace and ‘liberating certainty’ in the basic principle that would ultimately touch the world, that of justification by faith alone.[6,7] Faith is simply trust in God; the individual benefits from the promise found in Christ, of sharing in Christ’s righteousness. This is described in Luther’s ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness’, as coming from another outside ourselves; this alien righteousness from God makes no demands apart from faith.
Impact on the Individual
Within Luther’s rediscovery, the individual and their relationship with God becomes central; this appealed to the growing individualist culture and challenged the early medieval worldview of the Church’s central mediating role. Luther attacks the notion that human exertion could ever achieve reconciliation with God in his ‘Heidelberg Disputation’, stating that anyone who believes that they can attain God’s grace by themselves effectively doubles their sin. He expounds this warning to the individual in his later letter to Pope Leo X, calling those who erroneously load righteousness on to good works as deceived and even blasphemous, bidding to steal God’s glory.
Luther notes that the perverse notion concerning works was compounded by tradition and deceitful teachers pontificating on penitence, confession and satisfaction without teaching about faith—law without gospel. Rather, an individual can enter a relationship with God directly by trusting in Christ and his death and resurrection, consequently removing the need for mediators and the role of the church in matters of salvation. This levels the playing field, returning the onus of responsibility to the individual; all believers now share this common priesthood. This revelation rumbled the late medieval church foundations by questioning the purpose of purgatory and exposing systemic exploitation of its people.
Impact on the Church
This ethical stance also held serious implications for the already criticized church practice of indulgence selling. The ninety-five theses, posted in October 1517, gathered increasing public interest throughout Europe despite a slow response from Church hierarchy. Due to the political climate, official condemnation of the theses came over two and a half years later in the papal bull Exsurge Domine May 1520.
Luther was a prolific writer and published many pamphlets and tracts that called for a radical overhaul of the German Church and instructed Christian living. Many of these works were presented at the Diet of Worms in 1521 where Luther was summoned and requested to recant, to which he refused. Long held criticisms and broad resentment surrounding church practices, such as fees for sacramental offices, tithes and immunities, fuelled Luther’s call for a complete renovation of Church life. Luther’s approach to the Word of God elevated Scripture over Church hierarchy adding challenge to the already questioned Catholic authority of tradition and Scripture; sola scriptura became the Protestant watchword. Luther’s influence was largely spread by his use of the common language to appeal to all believers—the ordinary and marginalised—enabling them to interpret Scripture and exercise their power and freedom which their ‘common priesthood entitled them’.
4. Freedom’s Responsibility
After exploring the impact of justification by faith on the individual and the wider church, we now arrive at Luther’s explanation of Christian freedom. Luther alleviates concerns of unrestrained liberty and pious extremes potentially stemming from misreadings of his assertion of justification by faith in his irenic, Treatise on Christian Liberty. The seeming contradiction of Luther’s opening proposition is that ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none’ and ‘A Christian is perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’; yet paradoxically, these are held together as a complementing pair. Through the old religious scale, works were attributed varying levels of merit; with Luther’s doctrine, faith unshackles works from redeemable merit giving freedom to serve out of love. Christian disciplines and public works continue as before, undiminished; however, they are renewed in purpose, done without the hope of reward and as an expression of joyful, willing submission and servitude out of the fullness and wealth of faith. Luther cautions against religious extremes; once again driven back to Scripture, we are exhorted to take the middle course and in all things, remain humble and theodidacti, as taught by God.
For Luther, no amount of human ingenuity or legal compliance can accomplish righteousness. This righteousness we seek does not originate in us but comes from outside as otherwise or alien and is offered as gift through faith. Luther scolds the teaching in Church tradition for distorting the gospel by reinforcing law while neglecting faith, and for coming between people and God. His writing repositions the individual into direct responsibility before God. With already rising public discontent, Luther’s stance challenged the Church to self-examination and reform. Along with the political climate and access to the printing press, Luther gained the support needed to shake the very foundations of the Church, calling into question its theology and its true source of authority and practice. Keeping Scripture at the forefront and using the vernacular, Luther worked to give every believer the opportunity to read and interpret Scripture for themselves. Luther’s theology reorients works, disconnecting them from righteous attainment and effectively removing the bondage of legalism. As works are freed from this bondage to become authentic response, this is the source of true freedom for the believer.
As a twenty something office worker dabbling in spirituality, it was Scripture that repeatedly read my situation and alerted me to something other. As a complete stranger to Christian faith and church tradition it was the vernacular that enabled me to seek and understand initially without formal instruction. Much has been learned since then including an unfolding reality of the gift of grace in Christ. Christian freedom as Luther describes continues to be walked out daily, on display to the world, where Christ can be found by all.
Sue Maric is the minister at Thornbury Church of Christ and is studying a B.Theol. at Stirling Theological College. She is married to Branko and they have three children.
 Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545), trans. Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, accessed February 21, 2018, http://www.bluffton.edu/courses/humanities/2/ml-1545.htm.
 Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 41.
 Two Kinds of Righteousness, The Heidelberg Disputation, Concerning Christian Liberty (An Open Letter to Pope Leo X).
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 Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought (London: Collins, 1970), 32.
 Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 45.
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 Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive moments in the history of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), Kindle location 3148.
 Timothy F. Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), 615.
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