Martin Luther believed God’s word taught that men are justified freely from the demand of the law only by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. This is, of course, in contrast to being justified by works of the law. Those who are trying to justify themselves by the law are not at all free, but in bondage to the law. Luther rightly understands the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone and how this doctrine completely frees a Christian in order to do good works both for God and for their neighbor.
Only until we have freely received the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ will we ever be able to please God with any of our works. Any man who does not have faith in Christ will not do a single work for God or their neighbor to the glory of Christ. All non-Christian works are attempts to justify themselves before God and is ultimately self-serving. This is what Paul teaches in Romans 14:23 that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
I believe Luther gets it right. His teaching on Christian liberty is sound and extremely useful for the church. The two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor, but where does this love come from? It is only produced from a heart of faith in all that God has done for us in Christ. Genuine love for God and neighbor will never happen if we know in the back of our minds this love is needed to save us from God’s judgment. However, if we know that God’s judgment has been fully met and that we have been given Christ’s perfect righteous law-keeping, only then can we begin to truly love God and neighbor. “For the inner man, being conformed to God and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessings have been conferred on it, and hence has only this task before it: to serve God with joy and for nought in free love” (67).
I also believe Luther’s teaching about the word of God is the foundation for true Christian liberty. The word of God is divided into two words. Namely, it is divided into law and gospel. Understanding the proper distinction between the law and gospel is a crucial foundation for the biblical teaching on Christian freedom. The law can only show what the sanctified life looks like, but it does not carry any sanctifying power. We need the gospel of Jesus Christ to give us that power. This power comes when we know we have been freed from the threat of God’s law and are now free to do our acts of service because we truly want to do them. I believe this is exactly what Paul is teaching us in Galatians chapter five. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Free to do what? Paul says we are free to serve. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13-14). This is almost identical with Luther’s two propositions. Christians are both the freest and the most dutiful of all men. For we could never obey any of the law until we have been freed from it.
Luther did a masterful job at explaining the relationship between faith and works. His teaching about the middle path was excellent. He clearly set up the proper guardrails we need to not fall into legalism or license. For it is faith alone that saves, but that faith is never alone. True faith will always be accompanied by good works. This is exactly what we see James teaching in chapter 2 of his epistle. “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…faith apart from works is useless…faith was completed by his works” (2:17-22).
In sum, Luther understood Christian freedom to be the product of justification by faith alone, through grace and Christ alone. His teaching on this subject is excellent and needs to be wholeheartedly embraced in the church today.