Readings from Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Martin Luther remains one of the most influential men in Western History, as his attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church sparked nearly 500 years of debate and division within Western Christianity. It has been said that more has been written about Luther than any other person aside from Jesus of Nazareth, as vast amount of Luther’s writings and complexities concerning his life, teaching, and writing abound. In examining his Preface to the Latin Writings, the famous Ninety-Five Theses, and Freedom of the Christian, Luther presents a variety of concerns and ideas in the earliest stages of what is now called the Protestant Reformation, including his critique of institutionalized power, abuses concerning indulgences and the penitential system, the priesthood of the believer, proper Christian ethics, interpreting Romans 1.17 and justification by faith, and a variety of other theological tropes and concerns. Examining these writings as a whole, Luther’s main argument appears to be that God’s gift of faith should enable the Christian to live as both free from the necessity of works-based justification and the institutionalized penitential cycle as well as remaining duty-bound to love of neighbor and continued penitence for sin. Here we will look at each of these three accounts of or documents from Luther’s early reform program, drawing out their respective main concerns within the scope of Luther’s overall early reformation of the Church.

We begin with Luther’s Preface to the Latin Writings, which while written late in his life, provides Luther’s own account of the history of the early reformation. While many scholars remain critical of the chronology and historical accuracy in this account, Luther’s account of his “reformation breakthrough” warrants examination. Luther writes that the major theological shift involved his interpretation of Romans 1.17. Luther, as a professor at the University in Wittenberg, had been trained to understand the righteousness of God as a “formal or active righteousness… with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner” (11). This understanding gave rise to the late medieval penitential cycle of the Roman Catholic Church, by which Christians sough to expiate the punishment for sin by doing acts of penance and/or purchasing indulgences. However at some point Luther’s interpretation of the righteousness being spoken of in Romans 1.17 was transformed in such a way that he began to speak of God’s righteousness as that which enabled righteous living before God as a result of faith (11). Thus when Luther read that “the righteous will live by faith” it was not an argument concerning the faithful needing to expiate sin before becoming wholly righteous before God, but instead as an indication that God’s gift of faith made Christians appear righteous. Thereby Luther’s understanding of God was transformed from a vengeful deity demanding perfection to a merciful savior who granted faith to people that they may justified and made righteous (11). Because Luther’s new understanding argued that righteousness before God was obtained not by attempting to placate the righteous wrath of God that stemmed from sin but instead that righteousness and justification resulted from God’s merciful gift of faith, it had profound implications for his understanding of the sacrament of penance. Since one no longer needed to work to ‘earn’ favor with God concerning sin and one’s unrighteous position, much of the Roman Catholic penitential cycle become an obsolete form of “works righteousness” for Luther, though he maintained confession as an integral part of his own personal faith and practice, as well as continuing it in the churches, albeit not in a sacramental role.

Turning now to what may be Luther’s most well-known work, the Ninety-Five Theses, we must address Luther’s position concerning rigorist and laxist perspectives on the Christian faith. Theologically speaking, a laxist position entails that an expression of liberty or freedom concerning the Christian life may be followed with regard to confession and forgiveness of sin. Conversely, a rigorist position dictates strict guidelines for Christian faith and practice. Concerning sin and forgiveness, a laxist understanding accepts whatever a person can bring to confession, whereas a rigorist conception accepts only true contrition for sin as efficatious. In reading Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, it seems extremely difficult to classify him as either as a full rigorist or full laxist. A closer examination of his first two theses will demonstrate this complex understanding of man’s relationship with God. In the first thesis, Luther argues for essentially a rigorist position, writing that “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said repent, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.” Not only does this position seem to require an intense and whole-hearted life of contrition and penance, but he seems to center the actions of the entire Christian life within this milieu of repentance for sin. Certainly this thesis appears to argue for a rigorist (complete and true) position concerning confession and penitence. However, in the second thesis Luther seems to take a different position, as he argues that, “The word [repent] cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance….” Here Luther rejects the totality of the institutionalized factors pertaining to the penitential cycle and penance, arguing that the medieval process of confession, penance, and absolution did not adequately address the sacrament of penance.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Reading the second thesis in light of the first, Luther appears to have been more motivated by a personalized form of penitence than institutional mandates concerning the sacrament. Such an understanding appears to be fairly laxist in practice, as the veracity and efficacy of one’s personal penitence becomes more important than an institutionalized set of rules. Thus, Luther’s first thesis seems to make penitence central to the Christian life, and therefore seems rigorist, but his second thesis appears to de-institutionalize the practice of penance, thereby appearing to be relatively laxist in nature.[1] Others theses appear to follow a similar pattern, combining seemingly rigorist positions concerning private faith and practice (§ 30, 32 and 40) whilst simultaneously appearing laxist institutionally (§ 6, 52, and 62). One particular area of ecclesiology where Luther comes across as the most contextually laxist concerns the limits of papal and clerical power to remit sin. For while Luther allows church authorities to remit guilt and penalties imposed by tradition and canon law (§ 5), he remains firmly opposed to the notion of such authorities actually remitting sin, instead allowing them only the power to declare and confirm that such sin has been remitted by God (§ 6). Luther argues strongly against the “power of the keys” (§ 26), arguing that while the pope may grant remission of sin for those in purgatory based on the prayers of the faithful, the “power of the keys” remains ineffective concerning such souls, as the church’s power ends at death (§ 13). Luther also makes an interesting point in thesis 82, when he notes the conflagration caused by the pope not simply releasing souls from purgatory out of love, if in fact it is within his power to do so. To conclude that Luther was simply laxist or rigorist then would seem to confuse the issue, as his Ninety-Five Theses appear to have incorporated language of a personally rigorist position as well as an institutionally laxist perspective.

In Freedom of the Christian, one must make sense of Luther’s claim that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” From such apparently paradoxical statements, it seems that Luther’s understanding of the Christian life was one of balance between two seemingly opposed positions: First, as a saint and priest loved by God, whose sins have been forgiven, and who is subject to Christ and not the power and threats of men, government, and institution, the Christian is a free person, subject to God and not humanity (61-2). Not only are Christians justified by faith and not their works in relation to the world, but they are also elevated to the position of priest before God (61-2, 64). This priesthood impacts the second part of Luther’s program, as the Christian, by virtue of their freedom in Christ, is duty bound to let the love and power of God flow through them into other people, thereby making the Christian a servant of all (75-6). Because of this the moral duty a Christian should be governed by the love of God in Christ flowing through them and enabling Christian action, much in the same way that Christ has loved the Church (79-80). Luther is fond of using language of “flowing” to demonstrate how the love and service of God in Christ should pass through the Christian into their neighbors. He argues that Christ does not free the Christian from doing good works, but instead frees Christian morality from “false opinions concerning works” (81). Thus, Luther’s conception of Christian ethics and action, as demonstrated in Freedom of the Christian, necessitates understanding and acting upon the dual position of Christians as both totally free with regard to being justified by works and servants to all because of that justification and for the sake of the love of God flowing through them to their neighbors as a proper function of Christian love.

[1] These two theses must of course be read in the context of Matthew 4.17 in the Vulgate, but the laxist/rigorist complexity of Luther’s understanding remains.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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