I wrote these reflections on Luther's famous work about year ago, and since then have found myself constantly going back it, in particular the section I highlight below on union with Christ. The edition I read is from CCEL and can be found here.
Concerning Christian Liberty is a great statement of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. In two main sections, Luther expounds his paradoxical opening statement that “a Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” The two sections correspond to faith and works respectively.
Luther first asks what can make a man a “justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, a spiritual, new, and inward man.” Only the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ can do that, the gospel “concerning His Son, incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit, the sanctifier.” In the gospel we are offered salvation, and only faith – not works – can grasp hold of this word. To be sure we are commanded to do works in the Scriptures, but the purpose of the commands is to show us what we cannot do, thus preparing us to receive the promise of God in the gospel.
Luther discusses three great “virtues” of faith. Firstly, faith gives us true Christian liberty: we are free from the law and works as regards our justification and salvation. Secondly, faith honours God because in believing His promise it ascribes truth and righteousness to Him. Thus to not believe the word of the gospel would be to make God a liar. Thirdly, faith unites the soul to Christ. Believing in Christ is compared simply and stunningly to the marriage of a king and a prostitute, where both share equally what each brings to the union, for example: “Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul.”
In the second section, Luther argues for the place of works in the life of the Christian. Never a means to justification before God, works are, firstly, for the purpose of subduing “the lusts of the body” and secondly, the outworking of love to others. It is necessary that the person be made good before they are able to do good works, and not the other way round.
Evaluation and Questions
The great strength of Concerning Christian Liberty is of course its brilliant articulation of justification by faith alone. It is important that Luther begins with the Word: strictly speaking, we are justified not through faith alone, but through the word of the gospel, received by faith alone. This avoids the danger of treating faith as a “work” that we need to do, and hence we look inside us to see how much faith we have rather than look outside ourselves to Christ and His work. The central section about union with Christ is deeply moving in the assurance it gives to the person who trusts in Christ. I found the following paragraph particularly striking in the way it makes me look out of myself to what Christ has done on my behalf:
…Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils, and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying: “If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine.”
This section on union with Christ does raise one question, though, which is the relationship between the union of the individual believer with Christ and the marriage of Christ and the church. Does Scripture actually use the marriage analogy for the individual believer’s relationship to Christ?
I am not certain that Luther has done the best job he could have done on the place of works in the Christian life. At one point, he suggests that God commands Adam (and by analogy the Christian) works to give him something to do, otherwise he’d be idle! The emphases on battling against the lusts of the flesh and working out of love for neighbour are really good, and he clearly shows that Christian liberty does not lead to licence, but he does not really articulate God’s purpose in saving us for good works; works being God’s purpose in creation and re-creation.
I have recently found the Gospel Coalition’s discussion of two ways of summarising the gospel very helpful (see their 'Theological Vision for Ministry' statement, section II 'How should we read the Bible?): on the one hand, creation - fall - redemption - restoration (in biblical theological categories) gives the big picture and emphasises the purpose of creating a new humanity and renewing creation for God’s glory. On the other hand, God-sin-Christ-faith (in systematic theological categories) focuses on the detailed means of individual salvation, namely substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone. Both ‘axes’ work together to articulate the gospel comprehensively, but the tendency is to emphasise one at the expense of the other.
What strikes as me as particularly important about Concerning Christian Liberty is that it is a deep and brilliant exposition of one of those central aspects of the gospel, namely, justification by faith. It can only help to go deeper; not that justification is all the gospel, as I have just said, but it is at the heart of the gospel. My suspicion, from experience, is that the gospel is often reduced to something very minimal, or assumed as merely the entry point to the Christian faith, before passing on to other things. We need to be able to articulate more clearly and more deeply this central doctrine, and Luther can only help in this regard. Studying Luther on this has brought me greater clarity on what Scripture teaches about the gospel.
Concerning Christian Liberty also shows that it is not sufficient to emphasise grace as being central to the gospel if you are not simultaneously showing how that grace is worked out in justification by the gospel word received by faith alone. The Roman Catholic gospel, for example, also includes grace.
On a personal note, Concerning Christian Liberty has helped me to understand more clearly what it means to trust in Christ, that is, to look outside of myself to the finished work of Christ in the Gospel Word, and not at how much faith or how little faith I have. As justification by faith alone is a doctrine with great practical application in many areas of the Christian life, I trust that the Lord will help me to continue to grow in applying this truth to my life.