The Freedom of a Christian

What’s the best book by Martin Luther to start with?  The answer is simple:   The Freedom of a Christian.  This is Luther at his very best, both in the brilliance of his writing and in his penetrating insight into the Word of God, the Gospel, and the Christian life.   “Freedom” lacks the harsh polemics that so often turns off modern readers, though all sides practiced it in the 16th century.  Like the best works of theology, it is stimulating both intellectually and spiritually and reading it is a profoundly devotional experience.  (Calvinists want you to start with the Bondage of the Will, which, they think, makes Luther sound like Calvin, though, as commentator Larry keeps pointing out,  really isn’t so.)

Most of all, “Freedom” gives us the most exhilarating applications of the Gospel, including Luther’s teachings on how Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners, that we are simultaneously free lords of all and servants of all, that the Christian life involves loving and serving our neighbors, that we are to be “little Christs” to each other, etc., etc.  (The book has recently been released in a new modern translation by Ed Engelbrecht from CPH:  Christian Freedom: Faith Working through Love.)  I bring this up because of a fascinating post from Mathew Block (head of communications at the Lutheran Church-Canada, which which the LCMS is in fellowship) at the First Things blog.

Rev. Block cites a podcast series from The Christian Humanist in which three Christian literary scholars discuss classic works of literature.  Recently, their featured book was Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian.  That is indeed a very good choice, and though Block thinks they do not quite understand Luther, they offer a good appreciation.  I like how Rev. Block describes Luther’s book:

The hosts recently encouraged their listeners to read Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian in preparation for this week’s episode on the same work. None of the three hosts are Lutheran, so I was curious to hear their thoughts. What would these three non-Lutherans make of this important early work by Luther?

The question is relevant, I think, as Luther is often more talked about by Christians than actually read. And when he is read, dabblers tend to stick to works like The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s reactionary tirade against Erasmus. While responses like The Bondage form an important part of Luther’s corpus, they’re hardly the only part. Readers who restrict themselves to such works are in danger of mistaking Luther’s negative hyperbole as if it were a fair representation of all his theology; one must also read the works in which he puts forth his ideas in a positive, rather than reactionary, way.

The Freedom of a Christian is just such a work, and is important in that it brings together in one place many of the theological topics which informed Luther’s theological writing throughout his life. Here Luther touches on the simultaneous sinner/saint state of Christians; explains Law and Gospel; argues justification by faith alone; defends the necessity of works as a fruit of faith; discusses what makes works “good”; expounds on the priesthood of all believers (both what it does and doesn’t mean); and delves into his theology of vocation, as well as hinting at the doctrine of the “two kingdoms.”

via Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes “Good Works” Good? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.youtube.com/ptmccain Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I would then put the Small Catechism as the next best thing Luther ever did.

    It is, in my opinion, the easiest to read and to understand basic explanation of the Christian Faith, hands down, in fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and make this assertion:

    Outside of the Sacred Scriptures themselves, Martin Luther’s explanation of the Apostles Creed is the finest thing ever written about the Christian Faith.

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  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    Is this another translation of “On Christian Liberty” or a separate work?

  • Larry

    I would agree with both Ds. Veith and McCain. It was a while before I got to the Sm. Cat. and memorizing it. But it has been a PLETHORA of food and thought once you get it in your mind and ponder on it. Dots connect left and right after a while. I think its under utilized/promoted so to speak.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    OK, we can quibble over whether it’s really “by Luther”, as obviously the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but my thought for a great introduction to the work of Luther is his translation of the Bible.

    Not accesssible to everyone, for obvious reasons, but IMO it’s the KJV of Germany.

  • Larry

    Bike,

    Not bad at all Bike! I’ve always wondered why Lutherans (to my knowledge and I could be wrong) have never taken the effort of translating his German translation into English with all its earthiness. It’s seems like an obvious thing to have done.

  • Steve Bauer

    ChrisB @2

    Yes.

  • http://www.capstewart.com Cap Stewart

    I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of The Freedom of a Christian! I loved Bondage of the Will (like a good semi-Calvinist), and I’m looking forward to all the FoaC has to offer–especially after reading Rev. Block’s description.

    Rev. McCain @1, I have Luther’s Small Catechism and I love the parts that I have read. I will need to dig into it more earnestly.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Larry, my take, having read the “erneuerung” (revision) a few times, is that if you translated Luther’s translation faithfully, you’d get pretty close to the KJV if you translated into Elizabethan, and pretty close to the ESV or NKJV in modern English. Once translators master the original languages and choose a translation theory, the results tend to look pretty similar, except for things that you’ll never “get” unless you learn at least a touch of the destination language.

    So you’ve got pretty much what you want. Hopefully this isn’t too much of a disappointment. :^)

  • http://sharonhenning.blogspot.com Sharon Henning

    I agree with Rev. McMain. I found the small catechism to be about the best source I’ve ever read for good solid Christian doctrine explained. I love how it deals with every topic from the Lord’s Prayer to the Apostle’s Creed starting with the question: “What does this mean?” Every Christian denomination should study such catechism.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    I probably won’t get a chance to read Luther’s “Freedom Of A Christian” but your mention of “Bondage Of The Will” reminds me of one of my favorite things Luther said. He argues at the end of the book against Free Will that either all of man was lost to sin and needs to be redeemed or just the least significant part is lost and that is sacrilege–I am going by memory here.

  • larry

    Bike,

    Not at all. It would just be nice to get the flavor away from Calvinistic glosses and Victorian sensitivities. That being said I’m not “KJV” or other only type of person. I do like the KJV and ESV just fine.

  • larry

    Freedom of the Christian is probably the most apropos however. Because it’s a shock that any religion actually frees you from works (implicitly or explicitly sold). One of the draws to Luther initially for many on the outside is his freedom. Now that gets falsely accused and you hear false accusations, “Oh so and so only converted to Lutheranism because they wanted to be able to drink beer.” Right. They accused Luther similarly. No its not so “I can just do X”. It’s because one is curious as to what kind of religious thinking is going on here. It’s sounds absurdly free. And its not because you are “looking for freedom” but what in the WORLD kind of religious thing could make one so brazenly free. It’s like you are hearing the shocking stumbling stone of the Cross of Christ but indirectly. You are curious as to what could make a man so free he’d even dare to act that way, even in a brazen exercise of it and bet his eternal existence on it. Because religion heretofore, outside or heterodoxies (sacramentarians or Rome) just does not operate like that. There’s an always “this will keep you in line” force on the conscience. So when you see Luther say, “plant a tree, drink more beer, sin boldly…etc…” its not that you look to do that its you are wondering, “Either this man Luther has lost ever loving mind or he believes something that is absolutely true and shockingly different than what I’ve believed”.

    I.e. the Freedom of the Christian attracts NOT because you want it or even need it. No, most coming in are quite conservative and these freedoms are not the first desire. In fact they are quite diligent in displines of themselves. Rather, you wonder, “What in the world is this guy hanging his eternity on!”

    It’s kind of like a bunch of terrorized people in a graveyard at night watching this guy suddenly stroll through without a care in the world whistling a happy tune and you all say, “What’s that fool so happy and comfortable about in here!” He’s either NUTS or you are missing something HUGE.

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