FOUND: First Edition of Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian”



So the first edition of Luther’s classic 1520 treatise, which opens with an address to Pope Leo X, still the Reformer’s “most blessed father,” was lurking in a library in France.

It includes around 50 notes written in red by Luther himself, indicating changes he wanted for a second edition.

The American who made the discovery, James Hirsten, said it gave an important insight into Luther’s thinking at the time.

The annotated edition was found in The Humanist Library in Selestat, in the north-east of France.

Have those notes ever been published? If not, how long before we see an English edition? (Would be funny if the notes ran along the lines of “Dammit, I can’t read my own writing!” “What was I, drunk?” “Is that even a word?” “Less irenic, more invective!”)

And to think that Medici X — determined to stop the Great Reform by any means necessary — would excommunicate Luther the very next year, and after Luther had gone out of his way to flatter that jackanapes:

Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful than the Court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now a sort of open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, under the urgent wrath of God, cannot be blocked up; one course alone being left to us wretched men, to call back and save some few, if we can, from that Roman gulf.

It was not meant to be taken personally…

It is in this treatise that we find Luther’s famous dictum: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”

Luther also clarifies what he means by the priesthood of all believers:

Here you will ask: “If all who are in the Church are priests by what character are those, whom we now call priests, to be distinguished from the laity? ” I reply: By the use of these words, “priest,” “clergy,” “spiritual person,” “ecclesiastic,” an injustice has been done, since they have been transferred from the remaining body of Christians to those few, who are now, by a hurtful custom, called ecclesiastics. For Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, except that those, who are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords, it calls ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the Word, for teaching the faith of Christ [117] and the liberty of believers. For though it is true that we are all equally priests, yet we cannot, nor, if we could, ought we all to minister and teach publicly. Thus Paul says “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor. iv. 1.)

This bad system has now issued in such a pompous display of power, and such a terrible tyranny, that no earthly government can be compared to it, as if the laity were something else than Christians. Through this perversion of things it has happened that the knowledge of Christian grace, of faith, of liberty, and altogether of Christ, has utterly perished, and has been succeeded by an intolerable bondage to human works and laws; and, according to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, we have become the slaves of the vilest men on earth, who abuse our misery to all the disgraceful and ignominious purposes of their own will.

And his reply to those who accuse him of denying the value of personal discipline?

Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith, having all that lie requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day, even till the future life; still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body, and have intercourse with men. Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labour, and other moderate discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do if it is not kept under. For the inner man, being conformed to God, and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessings have been conferred on it; and hence has only this task before it, to serve God with joy and for nought in free love. …

These works, however, must not be done with any notion that by them a man can be justified before God — for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, will not bear with this false notion — but solely with this purpose, that the body may be brought into subjection, and be purified from its evil lusts, so that our eyes may be turned only to purging away those lusts. For when the soul has been cleansed by faith and made to love God, it would have all things to be cleansed in like manner; and especially in its own body, so that all things might unite with it in the love and praise of God. Thus it comes that from the requirements of his own body a man cannot take his ease, but is compelled on its account to do many good works, that he may bring it into subjection. Yet these works are not the means of his justification before God, he does them out of disinterested love to the service of God; looking to no other end than to do what is well-pleasing to Him whom he desires to obey dutifully in all things.

On this principle every man may easily instruct himself in what measure, and with what distinctions, he ought to chasten his own body. He will fast, watch, and labour, just as much as he sees to suffice for keeping down the wantonness and concupiscence of the body. But those who pretend to be justified by works are looking, not to the mortification of their lusts, but only to the works themselves; thinking that, if they can accomplish as many works and as great ones as possible, all is well with them, and they are justified. Sometimes they even injure their brain, and extinguish nature, or at least make it useless. This is enormous folly, and ignorance of Christian life and faith, when a man seeks, without faith, to be justified and saved by works.

In this vein, he counters the charge that he rejects the doing of good works:

True then are these two sayings: Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. Bad works do not make a bad man, but a bad man does bad works. Thus it is always necessary that the substance or person should be good before any good works can be done, and that good works should follow and proceed from a good person. As Christ says: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Matt. vii. 18) Now it is clear that the fruit does not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on the fruit; but, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruit and the fruit grows on the trees.

As then trees must exist before their fruit, and as the fruit does not make the tree either good or bad, but, on the contrary, a tree of either kind produces fruit of the same kind; so must first the person of the man be good or bad, before he can do either a good or a bad work; and his works do not make him tad or good, but he himself makes his works either bad or good. …

From all this it is easy to perceive on what principle good works are to be cast aside or embraced, and by what rule all teachings put forth concerning works are to be understood. For if works are brought forward as grounds of justification, and are done under the false persuasion that we can pretend to be justified by them, they lay on us the yoke of necessity, and extinguish liberty along with faith, and by this very addition to their use, they become no longer good, but really worthy of condemnation. For such works are not free, but blaspheme the grace of God, to which alone it belongs to justify and save through faith. Works cannot accomplish this, and yet, with impious presumption, through our folly, they take it on themselves to do so; and thus break in with violence upon the office and glory of grace.

We do not then reject good works; nay, we embrace them and teach them in the highest degree. It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of this impious addition to them, and the perverse notion of seeking justification by them. These things cause them to be only good in outward show, but in reality not good; since by them men are deceived and deceive others, like ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Getting back to the theme of freedom in the face of obligation, Luther puts forward the example of Christ:

Christ also, when His disciples were asked for the tribute money, asked of Peter, whether the children of a king were not free from taxes. Peter agreed to this; yet Jesus commanded him to go to the sea, saying: “Lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou bast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money; that take, and give unto them for me and thee.” (Matt. xvii. 27.)

This example is very much to our purpose; for here Christ calls Himself and His disciples free men, and children of a king, in want of nothing; and yet He voluntarily submits and pays the tax. Just as far then as this work was necessary or useful to Christ for justification or salvation, so far do all His other works or those of His disciples avail for justification. They are really free and subsequent to justification, and only done to serve others and set them an example.

Such are the works which Paul inculcated; that Christians should be subject to principalities and powers, and ready to every good work (Tit. iii. 1); not that they may be justified by these things, for they are already justified by faith, but that in liberty of spirit they may thus be the servants of others, and subject to powers, obeying their will out of gratuitous love.

Gratuitous love may as well be the motto of the Reformation. If you fail to understand what this means, first vertically — from God to us through Christ — and then horizontally — from us to our neighbor — then the Reformation remains little more than a political act, a revolt against a certain kind of authority, and not a clarion call to heed the words of Christ: “Do not be afraid.” The Reformation freed Christians to realize our vocations in the world as divine callings and to exhibit a reckless generosity, not out of obligation but in the recognition that God has already given us all things in Christ, freely.


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