Selected Book Summaries From the REFORMATION & MODERN PERIOD_Martin Luther: On Christian Liberty, Justification, the Church Fathers and the Scriptures


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Luther, On Christian Liberty[1]

In his letter On Christian Liberty, Luther addresses Pope Leo X and

affirms that he has never thought any evil concerning his person, but regards him highly and his dispute is not over morals, but over the word of truth.  The Church of Rome “Babylon” doesn’t want reform, and the pope is as Daniel in that Satanically ruled city, the “seat of all pestilence”.  He views Luther’s chief nemesis, John Eccius, as the enemy of peace, evidenced by their exaltation of the Pope (i.e., only via his authority one can be saved, and he alone has the right to interpret Scripture).  Instead of trusting those who exalt him, Luther implores the Pope to trust the ones who humble him.

The Christian is the Freest Lord of All

For Luther, the Christian is the freest lord of all, and subject to none, but is also the most dutiful servant of all and subject to all (Paul’s example used: 1 Cor.9: 19; Rom.13:8).  He argues that mere outward pious acts do not make one justified or liberate the soul, but rather the risen Christ and his word (Jn.11: 25; Mt.4: 4).  The soul can do without everything but the word of God.  Through the word salvation is realized (Rom.1; 10:9; 10:4; 1:17) and the sinner liberated (Rom.3: 23).  This justification is by faith alone, hence, the Christian’s primary concern must be to grow, not in reliance on works, but in strengthening one’s faith.  Luther cites Jesus when confronted by the Jews what the work of God was, “to believe on Him whom He hath sent…” (Jn.6: 27-29).

Commands Teach Us What is Good, But They Do Not Help Us Obey

Precepts (commands) teach us what is good “thou shall not…” but it does not empower us to obey.  Once one understands the aforementioned, that person is ready to believe the promises of God, which by faith aids the obeying of commands, “the promises of God give that which the precepts exact” p.11 (see; 1 Tim.1: 9).  To disbelieve God’s promises is the highest form of insult toward Him, while the converse is the greatest honor toward the Almighty (1 Sam. 2:30).  Among other things Luther makes a case for the priesthood of all believers and sees the system that separates “laity” from “priest”,  “clergy” etc., as bad because the notion is not biblical.

Why Are Good Works Commanded?

To the objection: “if faith is everything, and by itself suffices for justification, why then are good works commanded?  Are we then to take our ease and do no works, content with faith?”  Luther affirms no!  Pertaining to his freedom, man is justified (inwardly) subject to none, but concerning his works (outwardly) he is subject to all and the servant of all.  For Luther, those who belong to Christ crucify the flesh (Gal. 5:24), in his words: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works” p.18 (Mt.7: 18).  He continues and asserts that good works prior to justification profit the non-believer nothing concerning salvation.  But Luther wholeheartedly embraced the doing and teaching of good works to the highest degree, especially directed toward others (Phil.2: 1-4) as imitators of Christ (Phil.2: 5-8).   The works, which overflow from the joy of being justified, the believer is not concerned with recognition or recompense from friend or foe.  Luther then uses the Virgin Mary, and St. Paul as examples of the aforesaid life.

Justification is the Grounds for Love

For Luther, the man justified by faith in Christ is the one who serves his neighbor by love.  The liberty of the justified is a freedom from all sins, laws, and commandments (1 Tim.1: 9), and a liberty from believing that good works makes one right before God.

 Luther, Table Talk on Justification[2]

In Luther’s Table Talk on Justification, he begins by asserting that it is impossible for the papist to understand this article.  One remains a child of God even though periodically he sin or be tempted, for he is the Shepherds lamb.  Christians make the best use of natural wisdom and understanding because through faith, their reason furthers their understanding of things divine, not so with the unregenerate.  Their understanding is darkened because it strives against faith.

For Luther, the workmen who continuously is improving his craft, is like the righteous who constantly strive to increase their faith.  Faith and Hope are distinguishable in that, among other things, the former; it looks to the word and promise of truth, whereas the latter; looks to that which the Word promises (i.e., the good or benefit).  Again, faith is necessary for salvation because man is justified by it before God through Christ the Lord.  Justification is the key doctrine for all theological disputation; one cannot merit it, it is an inheritance from the Father, it bears the fruit of generosity toward neighbor, it produces virtues (the greatest being patience) and good works in the believer.  Luther understands that a believer’s good works are incompletely good, because they proceed from a weak obedience.

Luther, Table Talk on the Church Fathers[3]

In Luther’s Table Talk on the church Fathers, he does not want to be too critical of the Fathers.  He considers Chrysostum a rhetorician whose exegesis goes awry concerning the message of the text.  On the one hand, Luther’s disgust with the following fathers are because justification is nowhere to be found: St. Jerome; for his writings are cold, Ambrose; for his books are poor, Augustine; for his inattention to faith in Galatians or Romans and his apparent siding with the Church’s authority.  On the other hand, Luther appreciates the writings of Epiphanius; who compiled a church history, and Prudentius; who is the best of Christian poets.

The Fathers must be read with caution.  Luther asserts this because: First, their exegetical methods draw attention away from the Gospel of Christ.  Second, their writings are used in a way that undervalues the teaching of Christ’s apostles.  Third, Augustine noted; the laws of the Jews brought less trouble to the church than the ordinances and traditions of the bishops.  For Luther, faithful Christians must heed the words of Christ and those who stray from them in their teaching, should be shunned.

Luther, Table Talk on the Scriptures[4]

In Luther’s Table Talk on the Scriptures, he views the Bible as the highest and best of all books.  He understands that rulers have tried to destroy the Bible, and its survival is seen as an act of God alone.  Luther compares it to the writings of Homer, Virgil, and the like, and concludes that there is no comparison, regardless of how fine and noble these antiquated books may be.  He is thankful that finally, the Bible is written in the German language for all to read and understand.

Part of the reason Luther sees the Bible as superior to the rest is because of it’s divine content of virtues and gift’s.  The Scriptures abound in comfort for those undergoing trials and tribulations.  They should be studied and judged not by mere reason alone, but in humility bathed with prayer.  Moreover, for Luther, the one who has mastered the principles of the text will not err in its interpretation, but will rather silence his adversaries.  He also affirms that the Bible is to trump the authority of the fathers, regardless of their value.  Again, Luther sees that the knowledge of God in Scripture supercedes any of the other sciences whether philosophers, or jurists for the effect it has on our eternal destiny.

Luther understands that there is no harder discipline of knowledge to master than that of divinity, even though worldly wisdom would hold the contrary position.  He sees the worse thing that could possibly happen to Christians is for the Word of God to be taken from them or falsified.  Among other things, Luther continues lauding the Scripture’s magnificence and comments on the many books of the Bible with the respective authors intended message (Judges, Proverbs, John, Paul, etc.), and the is a discussion on the different genres (example: Gospel parables).  For Luther, the ablest teacher of the Word is the one who so familiarizes with its every text, that the context, verse, and meaning of the passage are known.

[1] Concerning Christian Liberty: by Martin Luther 1520, “The Harvard Classics”, Volume 36 (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910, Pages 353-397)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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