Skip to comments.Martin Luther: Saint and Sinner, Priest and King
Posted on 12/15/2009 2:44:49 PM PST by the_conscience
Martin Luther's Freedom of a Christian (1520) was one of the defining documents of the Protestant Reformation, and it remains one of the classic tracts of the Protestant tradition still today.9 Written on the eve of his excommunication from the Church, this was Luther's last ecumenical gesture toward Rome before making his incendiary exit. Much of the tract was written with a quiet gentility and piety that belied the heated polemics of the day and Luther's own ample perils of body and soul. Luther dedicated the tract to Pope Leo X, adorning it with a robust preface addressed to the "blessed father." He vowed that he had to date "spoken only good and honorable words" concerning Leo, and offered to retract anything that might have betrayed "indiscretion and impiety." "I am the kind of person," he wrote in seeming earnest, "who would wish you all good things eternally."10
Luther was concerned, however, that the papal office had saddled Leo with a false sense of dignity. "You are a servant of servants" (servus servorum) within the Church, Luther wrote to Leo, citing the classic title of the Bishop of Rome.11 And as a "servant of God for others, and over others, and for the sake of others," you properly enjoy a "sublime dignity" of office.12 But the "obsequious flatters" and "pestilential fellows" of your papal court do not regard you as a humble servant. Instead, they treat you as "a vicar of Christ," as "a demigod [who] may command and require whatever you wish." They "pretend that you are lord of the world, allow no one to be considered a Christian unless he accepts your authority, and prate that you have power over heaven, hell and purgatory." Surely, you do not believe any of this, Luther wrote to Leo, tongue near cheek. Surely, you can see that "they err who ascribe to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture" and "who exalt you above a council and the church universal." "Perhaps I am being presumptuous" to address you so, Luther allowed at the end of his preface. But when a fellow Christian, even a pope, is exposed to such "dangerous" teachings and trappings, God commands that a fellow brother offer him biblical counsel, without regard for his "dignity or lack of dignity."13
In later pages of the Freedom of a Christian and in several other writings in that same crucial year of 1520, Luther took aim at other persons who were "puffed up because of their dignity."14 He inveighed at greatest length against the lower clergy, who, in his view, used the "false power of fabricated sacraments" to "tyrannize the Christian conscience" and to "fleece the sheep" of Christendom.15 He criticized jurists for spinning the thick tangle of special benefits, privileges, exemptions, and immunities that elevated the clergy above the laity, and inoculated them from legal accountability to local magistrates.16 He was not much kinder to princes, nobles, and merchants -- those "harpies," as he later called them, "blinded by their arrogance," and trading on their office, pedigree, and wealth to lord it over the languishing commoner.17 What all these pretentious folks fail to see, Luther wrote, is that "there is no basic difference in status ... between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, religious and secular."18 Before God all are equal.
Luther's Freedom of a Christian thus became, in effect, his Dignitatis Humanae -- his bold new declaration on human nature and human freedom that described all Christians in his world regardless of their "dignity or lack of dignity," as conventionally defined. Pope and prince, noble and pauper, man and woman, slave and free -- all persons in Christendom, Luther declared, share equally in a doubly paradoxical nature. First, each person is at once a saint and a sinner, righteous and reprobate, saved and lost -- simul iustus et peccator, in Luther's signature phrase.19 Second, each person is at once a free lord who is subject to no one, and a dutiful servant who is subject to everyone. Only through these twin paradoxes, Luther wrote, can we "comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian."20
Every Christian "has a two fold nature," Luther argued in expounding his doctrine of simul iustus et peccator. We are at once body and soul, flesh and spirit, sinner and saint, "outer man and inner man." These "two men in the same man contradict each other" and remain perennially at war.21 On the one hand, as bodily creatures, we are born in sin and bound by sin. By our carnal natures, we are prone to lust and lasciviousness, evil and egoism, perversion and pathos of untold dimensions.22 Even the best of persons, even the titans of virtue in the Bible -- Abraham, David, Peter, and Paul -- sin all the time.23 In and of ourselves, we are all totally depraved and deserving of eternal death. On the other hand, as spiritual creatures, we are reborn in faith, and freed from sin. By our spiritual natures, we are prone to love and charity, goodness and sacrifice, virtue and peacefulness. Even the worst of persons, even the reprobate thief nailed on the next cross to Christ's, can be saved from sin. In spite of ourselves, we are all totally redeemed and assured of eternal life.24
It is through faith and hope in the Word of God, Luther argued, that a person moves from sinner to saint, from bondage to freedom. This was the essence of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone. No human work of any sort -- even worship, contemplation, meditation, charity, and other supposed meritorious conduct -- can make a person just and righteous before God. For sin holds the person fast, and perverts his or her every work. "One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom," Luther declared. "That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ."25 To put one's faith in this Word, to accept its gracious promise of eternal salvation, is to claim one's freedom from sin and from its attendant threat of eternal damnation. And it is to join the communion of saints that begins imperfectly in this life and continues perfectly in the life to come.
A saint by faith remains a sinner by nature, Luther insisted, and the paradox of good and evil within the same person remains until death. But there is "a difference between sinners and sinners," Luther wrote. "There are some sinners who confess that they have sinned but do not long to be justified; instead, they give up hope and go on sinning so that when they die they despair, and while they live, they are enslaved to the world. There are other sinners who confess that they sin and have sinned, but they are sorry for this, hate themselves for it, long to be justified, and under groaning constantly pray to God for righteousness. This is the people of God," the saints who are saved, despite their sin.26
This brought Luther to a related paradox of human nature -- that each Christian is at once a lord who is subject to no one, and a priest who is servant to everyone. On the one hand, Luther argued, "every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, he is [a] lord."27 As a redeemed saint, as an "inner man," a Christian is utterly free in his conscience, utterly free in his innermost being. He is like the greatest king on earth, who is above and beyond the power of everyone. No earthly authority -- whether pope, prince, or parent -- can impose "a single syllable of the law" upon him.28 No earthly authority can intrude upon the sanctuary of his conscience, can endanger his assurance and comfort of eternal life. This is "the splendid privilege," the "inestimable power and liberty" that every Christian enjoys.29
On the other hand, Luther wrote, every Christian is a priest, who freely performs good works in service of his or her neighbor and in glorification of God.30 "Christ has made it possible for us, provided we believe in him, to be not only his brethren, co-heirs, and fellow-kings, but also his fellow-priests," Luther wrote. And thus, in imitation of Christ, we freely serve our neighbors, offering instruction, charity, prayer, admonition, and sacrifice even to the point of death.31 We abide by the law of God so far as we are able so that others may see our good work and be similarly impelled to seek God's grace. We freely discipline and drive ourselves to do as much as good as we are able, not so that we may be saved but so that others may be served. "A man does not live for himself alone," Luther wrote, "he lives only for others."32 The precise nature of our priestly service to others depends upon our gifts and upon the vocation in which God calls us to use them.33 But we are all to serve freely and fully as God's priests.
"Who can then comprehend the lofty dignity of the Christian?" Luther wrote. "By virtue of his royal power he rules over all things, death, life, and sin." The person is entirely free from the necessity of doing good works and fully immune from the authority of any one. But by virtue of "his priestly glory, he is omnipotent with God because he does the things which God asks and requires."34 He devotes himself entirely to doing good works for his neighbor, he submits himself completely to the needs of others.
Such are the paradoxes of the Christian life in Luther's view. We are at once sinners and saints; we are at once lords and servants. We can do nothing good; we can do nothing but good. We are utterly free; we are everywhere bound. The more a person thinks himself a saint, the more sinful in fact he becomes. The more a person thinks herself a sinner, the more saintly she in fact becomes. The more a person acts like a lord, the more he is called to be a servant. The more a person acts as a servant, the more in fact she has become a lord. This is the paradoxical nature of human life. And this is the essence of human dignity.
9 De Libertate Christiana (1520), inD. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: H. Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1883-), 7:49-73 [hereafter WA], translated in Jaroslav Pelikan et al., eds., Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955-), 31:327-377 [hereafter LW]. A shorter German edition, Die Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, appears in WA 7:20-38.
10 LW 31:334-336.
11 LW 31:341.
12 LW 31:341, 342. The quote is from Luther: Lectures on Romans [1515-1516], trans. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 8. Many of the teachings from these Lectures are repeated in Luther's Freedom of a Christian.
13 LW 31:341-342. See similar sentiments in Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), LW 44:123-217, at 136.
14 Quotation is from Luthers Lectures on Genesis 38-44 (1544), LW 7:182.
15 See esp. LW 44:126-155; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), LW 36:11-126; Treatise on Good Works (1520), LW 44:21-114, at 87-94, with expansion in The Keys (1530), LW 40:321-370. In LW 44:158, Luther recommended that a new imperial law be passed against papal appointments of clergy so that "no confirmation of any dignity whatsoever shall henceforth be secured from Rome." In LW 44:129 and LW 36:117, Luther attacked the notion that the clergy were special because of the "indelible mark" of their ordination, terming this "a laughingstock."
16 LW 44:157ff., 202ff.
17 LW 7:182ff.; LW 44:203ff. See also Luther's fuller statement in Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed (1523), in LW 45:75-129.
18 LW 44:129.
19 LW 31:344-347, 358-361. The theme recurs repeatedly in Luther's later writings. See, e.g., LW 12:328, 27:230ff., 32:173; WA 39/1:21, 492, 552.
20 LW 31:355.
21 LW 31:344.
22 LW 31:344, 358-361; see also LW 25:120-130, 204-213.
23 See, e.g., LW 19:47-48, LW 23:146.
24 LW 31:344-354, 368-377.
25 LW 31:345.
26 Lectures on Romans, 120. See also LW 23:146; LW 12:328-330; LW 8:9-12.
27 LW 31:354.
28 LW 36:70, echoing LW 31:344-346.
29 LW 31:355-358.
30 LW 31:355-356; see also LW 36:112-116, 138-140, LW 40:21-23; LW 13:152, and esp. the long diatribe in LW 39:137-224.
31 LW 31:355; see also LW 36:241.
32 LW 31:364-5; see also LW 51:86-87.
33 LW 38:188; LW 28:171-172.
34 LW 31:355; see also LW 17:209ff.
Luther wrote to Leo, citing the classic title of the Bishop of Rome.11 And as a "servant of God for others, and over others, and for the sake of others," you properly enjoy a "sublime dignity" of office.12 But the "obsequious flatters" and "pestilential fellows" of your papal court do not regard you as a humble servant. Instead, they treat you as "a vicar of Christ," as "a demigod [who] may command and require whatever you wish." They "pretend that you are lord of the world, allow no one to be considered a Christian unless he accepts your authority, and prate that you have power over heaven, hell and purgatory." Surely, you do not believe any of this, Luther wrote to Leo, tongue near cheek. Surely, you can see that "they err who ascribe to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture" and "who exalt you above a council and the church universal."
Useful links concerning Luther:
Here’s one ex-Cath Lutheran who appreciates you posting that! (A Missouri synod Lutheran, mind you, not an off-the-rails liberal one)
What an excellent read.. Thanks for the posting
from one that is both saint and sinner
...and now Protestands have come full circle!
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther criticized the Pope and his associates for determining who can be classified as christians and not.
....now it is the Protestants that have usurped from God the right to declare who is acceptable and not to Christ!
Beware who you judge as unchristian be they Mormon, Jehova Witness, Seventhday Adventist or others .....remember, WITH THAT SAME JUDGEMENT WHICH YE JUDGE, SO SHAL YE BE JUDGED!
The above is what happens when we have more faith in men than God. I believe the original independent churches with a congregational structure and all the mess that follows, because of the decentralized local control, works best. In the end we have to have faith in God to straighten us out when we get off track.
Martin Luther writing to Leo X in 1518:
Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am.
Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. He is blessed forever. Amen.
May He have you too forever in His keeping. Amen.
Luther was a kiss a$$ until he didn’t get what he wanted.
Luther was a sick demented individual, haunted by personal demons.
Marantha--Come, Lord Jesus!
As the Coen brothers wrote in their latest movie, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you...Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil."
The only demon in Luther's life was the papacy, and God kindly freed him from its grasp.
Someone who tried to spend six hours in the confessional (not hearing confessions either -- attempting to make his!) had serious emotional and psychological issues, and becoming a heretic doesn't cure those.
His obsession with bathroom functions is another indication that something was not quite right with ol'Marty.
When God finally brought Luther's mind to the understanding that only Christ can redeem our corrupted natures, he found peace.
As God wills.
"By the law is the knowledge of sin' [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair." -- Luther, "Bondage of the Will."
. . .I have often said that there are two kinds of faith. First, a faith in which you indeed believe that Christ is such a man as he is described and proclaimed here and in all the Gospels, but do not believe that he is such a man for you, and are in doubt whether you have any part in him and think: Yes, he is such a man to others, to Peter, Paul, and the blessed saints; but who knows that he is such to me and that I may expect the same from him and may confide in it, as those saints did?
Behold, this faith is nothing, it does not receive Christ nor enjoy him, neither can it feel any love and affection for him or from him. It is a faith about Christ and not in or of Christ, a faith which the devils also have as well as evil men . . . .
. . .That alone can be called Christian faith, which believes without wavering that Christ is the Saviour not only to Peter and to the saints but also to you. Your salvation does not depend on the fact that you believe Christ to be the Saviour of the godly, but that he is a Saviour to you and has become your own.
Such a faith will work in you love for Christ and joy in him, and good works will naturally follow. If they do not, faith is surely not present; for where faith is, there the Holy Ghost is and must work love and good works.
[from Lenker, J.N., ed. Luther's Church Postil. 1. Baker Books, 1995. 21-22.]