If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
Sometime back in elementary school, I remember a unit on cause-and-effect. It was one of those early science classes, helping us understand the world around us. We had to come up with cause-effect sentences, using “if-then” or “because-therefore” format. Here’s a few examples: “If someone dials my phone number, then the phone rings.” “Because I didn’t finish my homework, therefore I had to do it during recess.” “If I flip the switch, the lights turn off.” You know the idea.
One of the important lessons in this unit was to distinguish between the cause and the effect. Dialing a number makes the phone ring, not the other way around. That ringing phone might then cause someone to go and answer it, creating a chain reaction of cause and effect.
At the heart of Martin Luther’s understanding of Christian salvation and freedom are some cause and effect statements:
Because of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the power of sin and death are broken.
Because of God’s gift of faith, Christians are joined to the death and life of Jesus Christ.
Because salvation is completely accomplished by faith (or trust) in Jesus Christ, Christians do not have to do or accomplish any good works in order to be saved.
Because good works do not lead to salvation, Christians must not trust in their own actions to make them a good person.
Because Christians show “good fruit” from the Holy Spirit planted in them by faith, they must show the same love to the people around them as God shows to them.
Because faithful Christians live lives of complete love to their neighbors, anyone looking at their actions should be able to see that they put the needs of their neighbors ahead of their own.
For Martin Luther, like for my elementary school teacher, it’s really important to keep causes and effects distinct. God causes faith; faith causes salvation; salvation causes the Christian to love their neighbor; love for neighbor causes good works with the interests of others in mind.
That’s what The Freedom of a Christian is all about. Martin Luther was focused, almost obsessively, with making sure that Christians, especially preachers, got the cause-and-effect in the right order. Why?
Well, imagine a person who has done everything “right” in their life. They have a good job, and they give away enough money that you can find their name on a list of donors for various non-profits in their community. Everyone speaks well of them. Now, imagine a person who has done everything “wrong” in their life. They go aimlessly from one thing to another. Perhaps they have a criminal record. They have hobbies, relationships, spending habits, or a personal style you find troubling.
Which person is better in God’s eyes?
If you’ve been paying attention to those cause-and-effects, you know it’s a trick question. A person’s actions do not and cannot make them good or bad in God’s eyes. Only being joined to the death and life of Jesus Christ by faith can make us good in God’s eyes.
This means that in addition to being free from the power of sin and death, we are also free from judging others or ourselves to see how good we are. What a relief! It’s much easier to live with one another when we know judgment is off the table.
God, in you and you alone we find forgiveness of sin and freedom from death. Teach us to see you alone as the cause of our faith, and our good works as the effect. Amen.