On Christian Freedom

Continuing in the series of posts from Martin Luther as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I  share some highlights from Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian.  This treatise was dedicated to Pope Leo X, and was Luther’s final attempt to be reconcile to Rome.

One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ… Let us consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and where that Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul.  If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing, since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing. On the other hand, there is no more terrible disaster with which the wrath of God can afflict men than a famine of the hearing of his Word.

The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. So [the soul] is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith. Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to strengthen faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge, not of works, but of Christ Jesus, who suffered and rose for him. No other work makes a Christian.

To those who ask, “If faith does all things and is alone sufficient unto righteousness, why then are good works commanded?” Although a man is abundantly and sufficiently justified by faith inwardly, in his spirit, and so has all that he needs… yet he remains in this mortal life on earth.  In this life he must control his own body and have dealings with men.  Here the works begin, here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and to subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do if it is not held in check. Since by faith the soul is cleansed and made to love God, it desires that all things, and especially its own body, shall be purified so that all things may join with it in loving and praising God. Nevertheless the works themselves to not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.

The following statements are therefore true: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.

but to what end

“Conformed to the image of his Son”
(Romans 8:29)

A small miracle occurred yesterday. A lively, Christ-centered conversation was had at a presbytery committee meeting. That doesn’t always happen, but you can be thankful when it does.

The committee met to examine a statement of faith from a seminary student who is discerning a call to ministry. In that statement of faith, the clichéd and overused (though still very much true) quote about the church was cited, that “the church is reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.” I appreciated the fact that the quote included “according to the Word of God” – so many people leave that out – as if the church were just a changin’ and will keep on a changin’ without anything to guide it in that change. But the way the quote was used, however, necessitated a great follow-up question – “What’s the goal of all this reforming?”

Is the church reformed and always reforming so that it can become a more efficient, equitable, responsive organization that can adapt to survive?

Is the church reforming just to stay hip and relevant, jettisoning anything that might offend or upset just to make sure we still “have a voice?”

Is the church reforming just to make us better people, a better society, a more appealing crowd of sinners. If that’s the case, forget handing out Bibles, let’s hand out Thighmasters.

The purpose of the reformation was not political revolt. It was not the casting away of corruption and opulence, the shedding of heavy institutionalism for something less restrictive. Nor was the reformation an attempt at modernizing the church. Though all of that occurred, the reformation was rooted and grounded in a return to the Word of God. In a powerful awakening of the Spirit, men and women discovered the Word of God for themselves, read it with new eyes and new hearts, and were emblazoned with the love of Christ. As individuals were renewed by the Spirit, so was the Church. To put it simply, the reformation was about returning to the Word of God for the life and strength of the Christian, and for the Church as well.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the reformers were trying to recreate the primitive church, as if that were the model for a successful church. While there is great value applying the practices of the early church to the church today, we must also remember that most of the letters of the New Testament were written to correct the problems that were already showing up in these communities of faith.

So, back to the first question, “What is the goal of all this reforming?” In Romans 12, the Spirit teaches us that we are “not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind”… but to what end? This transformation, this reformation, of the Church, of the Christian, has a goal – a very specific goal. Again, in Romans 8, we are told, that “those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” That is the goal of any biblical reformation, that we might begin to look more like Christ.

The reformation of the soul, of the church, will certainly address the besetting sins that keep us from growing in the likeness of Christ. The reformation of the soul, of the church, will certainly jettison the “tradition for tradition sake” mentality of an institution while contending for the faith that has been entrusted from one generation to the next so that the church may continue to grow in the likeness of Christ. The reformation of the soul, of the church, will hear the cries of a lost and broken world and respond in love and truth that the world may see in it the likeness of Christ. The reformation of the soul, of the church, will continue to return to a heartfelt commitment to hearing and obeying the Word of God, not to refashion itself in the form of a long-lost idyll, but to be recreated in the likeness of Christ.

The reformation is not here to make us better people, but an altogether new creation; one that is born again in Christ, raised to new life in Christ, transformed and shaped by Christ, and destined to be with Christ forever.