At the very core of Martin Luther’s understanding of how Christians relate to God and to one another, there are two sentences:
Um, what? How can both be true? Luther readily admits that they seem to be in conflict with one another. How can a person be both free and bound? This devotion will start with the first sentence, and then next week take a look at the second.
In order to see why Christian freedom mattered so much to Martin Luther, we need some background on what was going on in the church in his community. At the time when Martin Luther became a monk and then a priest, the Roman Catholic church taught that a person worked with God in order to receive eternal life. They said that God generously and abundantly gave grace, and that it was the responsibility of the Christian to use that grace to keep the commandments and live without sin.
Imagine it’s a marathon. According to the teachings of the priests around Luther, baptism paid your registration fee and got you started on the race. Along the route, the church would be there to offer the sacraments, just like the people handing out gatorade and protein bars at a race. Ultimately, though, it’s the runner who has to get to the finish line. Oh, and the pace setter is Jesus Christ, who has set off at a rate the runners can’t hope to maintain.
Very few of us are marathon material, and none of us is live-life-without-sinning material. The priests and bishops around Luther found a solution to this problem: if a Christian didn’t quite measure up, they could “borrow” from the goodness of the saints who had lived extra-good lives. They’d just “owe” the church for that gift, which they could repay in cash. This created a system where everyday Christians were dependent on staying in the good graces of the local priest for their salvation.
When Martin Luther read in Ephesians that it is “by grace” we have been saved, and “not the result of works,” he began to realize that this marathon image just didn’t make sense. Jesus Christ already lived a perfect life, running the whole marathon. Christians aren’t just taking Jesus for a role model. Instead, Martin Luther found the metaphor of marriage throughout the New Testament. In Luther’s Germany, marriage meant a complete sharing of property between spouses. There was no prenup distinguishing her property from his. There was also no sense that everything belonged only to one spouse. All that was the wife’s was now also the husband’s, and all that was the husband’s was now the wife’s.
Luther applied this idea of marriage to the union between Christ and Christian. Everything that was Christ’s—life, holiness, and power over sin—was now the Christian’s, and everything that was the Christian’s—death, wickedness, and sin—was now Christ’s. Since Christ’s life and holiness are so much stronger than our death and sin, our sin is blotted away. We get the prize for winning the marathon without even running it!
Suddenly, complete freedom is in our grasp. Since all that is Christ’s is ours by faith, it doesn’t matter if we spend the whole race at the starting line— or wandering around looking for it! Our holiness and eternal life are given to us, free of any effort on our part. That saves us the burden of keeping track to make sure our good deeds outdo the bad ones, or fretting over whether it is more ethical to make one choice over another. We are completely free, in regard to sin, all because we are joined to Christ and his sinlessness.
Dear Jesus, thank you for making me completely free in you. Renew my faith, that I may always trust your life, your grace, and your goodness are enough for me. Amen.