Freedom of a Christian
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31, 344).
Perhaps few words pack more punch than “freedom.” Depending on one’s situation, freedom can mean a lot of things. To be honest, in a country that talks about freedom more than maybe any other, freedom can be harder to define in the United States of American than anywhere else. And so Christian freedom can be a dangerous topic.
What will people do if they’re free? How will we all live and work together in the church if we’re free? Won’t people sin if they don’t have to labor under the law to be saved? This isn’t a new struggle. It’s as old as the Gospel. In large measure, it’s what led Paul to write his epistles and to make them as thorough as he did. Christian freedom and Christian love form the spine and refrain of Paul’s message. As we consider the relationship between the two, though—Christian freedom and love—we do well consider what we’re free in, what we’re free from, and what we’re free for.
As Christians we are free in Christ. Christian freedom springs from the death and resurrection of Christ, Whose benefits are made our own in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and through preaching. This is not a willy-nilly, self-defined freedom. It’s a freedom rooted in the Gospel. It’s freedom declared through absolution. It’s freedom that comes with an external righteousness, not anything conjured up within ourselves or pronounced by us. God pronounces it for us, in Jesus, through the atoning sacrifice of the One in Whom we now live and love.
What does this Freedom look like?
We are free from sin. It no longer has a claim on us. It’s forgiven, blotted out, paid for, removed from us as far as the east is from the west. We are free from death. We have already died, crucified with Christ, and now live by the Spirit. Yes, we will fall asleep in Jesus when He calls us, unless He comes first, but death holds no sting for us any longer. We can taunt it, “You can’t kill me; I’m already dead.” We are free from the devil. Plague us as he might, tempt away, accuse, beguile, we belong to Christ, we are God’s baptized children. Satan’s head has been crushed by the bruised heel of our Redeemer. He can rage and cry all he wants, we rest in the hands of the One pierced for our transgressions.
Finally, we are free from ourselves. This is important. We are no longer turned inward on ourselves, wondering where we stack up with others or before God, trying to find the place we can put the thing that will finally satisfy us. We’re free to enjoy the world in a way we never before could, recognizing that it’s full of gifts, penultimate as they are, which we can enjoy as gifts and not turn into idols, as things that are ultimate. Luther warns about the danger of forgetting that, of looking again to our works, or to earthly things, for a salvation that can only be received as a gift, for any identity presumably greater than the greatest one we already have as sons and daughters of the Beggar-King, Who loved us and gave Himself for us when we were still His enemies:
“From this anyone can clearly see how a Christian is free from all things and over all things so that he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things. Should he grow so foolish, however, as to presume to become righteous, free, saved, and a Christian by means of some good work, he would instantly lose faith and all its benefits, a foolishness aptly illustrated in the fable of the dog who runs along a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth and, deceived by the reflection of meat in the water, opens his mouth to snap at it and so loses both the meat and the reflection” (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31, 356).
Finally, we are free for Christian love. In fact, Christian freedom and Christian love go together in a most wonderful way. I no longer need to keep score, cross things off the checklist, use my neighbor as a means to earn some credit with the great auditor in the sky. No, I can now see every sinner as I see myself, through God’s gift of faith, as one for whom Christ died and rose, one to whom God speaks promises of mercy and life, too. I am free to love him or her, whether he or she should be my spouse, my colleague, my friend, or somebody at the bus stop simply for the sake of love, spontaneously, as Christ and for Christ, Who doesn’t need my works but delights in them as if I’d done them for Him Himself when His loves spills over from me into the life of another.
From First to Last
In the end, this is all faith—faith in Christ—from first to last. So great is God’s love for me that He has saved me, cares for me, and now wears me, even as I wear His robe of righteousness, as a mask in this world, to be of service and usefulness even when I least expect or realize it, to bring an absolution, to offer a smile—to see, not my need, which has been met, but the needs of those around me. And even through this He is at work for me, Luther explains it like this. His is the same gracious Christ. He’s not measuring fruits, and neither should I.
“We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love…” (Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31, 371).
As we commemorate the Reformation in this Luther Year and especially with Reformation Day upon us, live freely, friends. Live freely in Christ, Who died and rose for you, Whose righteousness is declared through the Gospel, Whose love has taken you captive to release you from all that encumbered before, Who delights in even your most feeble works because they’ve been done by you, His dear child, and for those for whom He also hung on a tree and walked out of a tomb—done in freedom and in love.
Dr. Wade Johnston has degrees from Martin Luther College, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Central Michigan University, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. He serves as assistant professor of theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and served for ten years in parish ministry in Saginaw, Michigan.
Mark doesn’t waste words in his Gospel. His Jesus, the Jesus, is a man on a mission, determined, racing. Mark doesn’t waste words, but his words pack a punch and his brief descriptions beg for deep reflection. Like a passenger in a car driving quickly, we can easily miss the details of the landscape if we don’t pay careful attention. Mark sets us on a race, but it’s important to stop along the way.