The Freedom of a Christian – Informal Theology Essay
Of all the great schisms dividing those belonging to the Christian faith, few are so strong and create a greater rift than the issue of the way to salvation—the issue of faith vs. works. In the world of Martin Luther, the
Catholic Church had for centuries built itself up as an institution providing the way of salvation through teaching and performing works—ceremonies, laws, ritual, etc.
Although there is much ceremonial instruction in the scriptures, much of the traditions to that point were based not on scriptural support but long-standing custom and ritual. Luther, however, advocates not the focus on works such as these as a means of attaining salvation, but on faith in the Word of God. To demonstrate that there is a reason for the constant discussion of works in the scriptures, even though they are not a way to salvation, Luther explains that their purpose is twofold—to explain to us the standards and characteristics of God, and to show us that although we cannot achieve those standards, He has promised us that we may be saved through faith in Christ.
The whole canon of scripture, Luther explains, “is divided into two parts: commandments and promises” (282). The Old Testament, the earliest record of the prophets and the word of God to His people, contains the commandments and thus is centrally concerned with works—the ceremonies and laws that God requires of us. These laws are absolute and definite; they do not give any leeway or room for excuse or pardon. When one has gone against these laws—and here we speak centrally of the Ten Commandments—one has sinned. Moreover, Luther elucidates, it is impossible to keep these standards all of the time. They define the perfect person—one with no sin or error, and no man save Christ has ever been perfect. He quotes Paul as teaching that all of us have sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God. Therefore, we all are imperfect and do not live up to the standards given in the Old Testament. For example, Luther gives the example of “Thou shalt not covet” (282). He teaches that none of us are free from that sin, and we cannot be, no matter how hard we try. Understanding the tenets of the Old Testament is a revelation of our identity as human—to know sin is to know our inability to live up to the standards of God.
So we despair and sorrow that we are imperfect and cannot ever become perfect, and then the harsh Scripture of God fades into New Testament and we are introduced to the promises of the scriptures. Because no man will ever live so that he never betrays the standards introduced in the Old Testament, God has provided Jesus Christ to save us from our fallen state. The promise of God is outlined in the New Testament. It is this—that Christ has provided a way to salvation for us, and it is only through faith in him, and no other way, that we can be saved. Therefore, the works and ceremonial ritual in the scriptures are not the way to salvation—they are standards that demonstrate a God-like life—standards which we will never fully live up to until the life to come. So we are promised salvation, if we have faith in Christ—if we believe what He has said—if we believe in his power to save us. Good works, then, are a natural outpouring of a man with faith in Christ, but those good works alone are not what saves that man.
We are saved by the Word of God. Martin Luther teaches us that the meaning of Word of God is the fundamental gospel—the promise that through faith in Christ we can attain salvation. Salvation is a free gift; to accept it we must believe in the words of God and show that we place God in the position of highest trustworthiness. Although there are those that would take the words of Luther and the spirit of the “saved by faith” principle to a decadent extreme, Luther truly shows that he is a scholar of the scriptures and understands their true purpose in their application to our salvation.