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.”