“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s best-Selling Pamphlet and the Existential Rapture March 6 and August 18, 2013
“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s best-Selling Pamphlet
and the Existential Rapture March 6 and August 18, 2013
Luther wrote one pamphlet after another in the movement that became the Reformation. He was the first author whose writing publications numbered in the millions especially when his New Testament came out in 1522 and when his translation of the whole Bible came out in 1534. Illiterate peasants learned how to read by reading it, while discovering that the old believing priests had never read it and did not know what was in it.
Luther never received any income from his many writings, while he kept printing presses humming in many cities and it seemed that the printers did not let his ink dry before they already took his work to their presses. They were making real money with Luther’s work. (My lecture, “Notes on a Rereading of the Freedom of a Christian” online in my website has gotten over 10,000 hits, but I have also not made any money with it.)
Other than the New Testament and the whole Bible, “The Freedom of a Christian” was Luther’s best-selling pamphlet. It came out in 38 editions in his life time. He noted that it contained the “whole sum of a Christian life.” Of the 38 editions, ten were in Latin and 22 were in German. It turns out that we only know the Latin version in the English translation, while the popular German one is shorter, more simple, spiritual, and direct, much like his Small Catechism. For example, you will find such gems such as
One who hears the word becomes like the word, pure, good, and just,
What is the word that gives such abundant grace and how shall I use it? The answer: it is nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the Gospel, spoken in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you!
Right now this version is only available in Philip and my book, Luther’s Spirituality.
Luther organizes his pamphlet into three parts:
Part One: Points 1-19: the inner person or the soul
Part Two: Points 19-24: the outer person or the body
Part Three: Points 25-30: the relation of outward persons.
Part Three undertakes describing the vision
and shape that Christianity would give to a society.
Luther begins right at the beginning with the tension of opposites. And these opposites bring about growth, development, and even movements in society. What was the Reformation itself but a religious, historical movement? Some opposites we can think about are men and women, church and state, – which are supposed to be opposites, but sometimes the church doesn’t challenge the state and the society the way it is supposed to.
Luther’s tension of opposites begins right at the start in his two contradictory statements presenting the tension between freedom and responsibility:
A Christian person is a free sovereign, above all things, subject to no one – [let me add by faith].
A Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things and subject to everyone – [let me add by love].
It is important to understand this tension of opposites and the growth, development, and movement it brings about, to later understand what I call the existential rapture.
Let me just highlight three themes that stand out in this Luther pamphlet: the one called the marvelous exchange; the second, more than just being Christians, Luther challenges us to become Christs to one another; and the third, the joyful economy.
In the marvelous exchange, Luther says that the gracious and righteous, bridegroom, Christ, and the bride, our dreadfully sinful soul, get married and become one body. In the exchange, we receive the sinless, virgin birth of Christ from his Mother Mary and he receives our sinful, human birth. We receive his immortality, while he takes on our mortality. So in exchange for our birth, we get the new birth of Christ, in exchange for our poverty, we get his riches, for our sin, we get his righteousness, in exchange for our hatred, we get his love, for our death, we get his eternal life. (Think of the way nuns wear a ring saying they are married to Christ. Luther has every believer’s soul as the bride married to Christ, the bridegroom.)
The tension of opposites again stands out, because Luther calls our soul a whore, whom the sinless and pure Christ takes as his wife, so that she becomes a wonderful woman, happy house-mother, and wife. Now not to be sexist, we could also say the whore-monger of our soul, through this exchange, becomes a wonderful man, happy house-father, and husband. You can see how Luther places extreme opposites into tension. Prof. Timothy Wengert from our Philadelphia seminary had a funny way of presenting the marvelous exchange. When as a student he married his wife, she had a beautiful new BMW and he was driving an old wreck. After their marriage, he drove the BMW and she drove the old wreck: a truly marvelous exchange.
Secondly, Luther does not only promote us into the priesthood of all believers, but into a Christhood of all believers. (I just read in this month’s Lutheran how Stephen P. Bouman up in ELCA Chicago offices now speaks of all believers being missionaries and our churches becoming centers of mission: He writes, “Every ELCA baptized missionary (each of us is one).” So more than just being Christians and wondering haphazardly what that could mean for today, we are challenged to grow and mature into the full stature of Christ.
As Christs we lay down our lives for our friends. We love our enemies. We don’t project our sins on others, but take their sins upon ourselves and act as if they were really our own. That is the genuine love, which is full of forgiveness, because in our divine vicarious suffering, evil and sin are overcome by the divine power of Christ. Like in the marvelous exchange, Luther is providing another description of how our sins become forgiven.
Thirdly, Luther declares the Freedom of a Christian from the Babylonian Captivity of our Church. The third part of his pamphlet is his sociological section and in it Luther describes the internal Kingdom of Christian Freedom in terms of the circulation of grace for the common good in the joyful economy of abundance. (That’s a mouthful! It comes from my dissertation.) We have an economy of scarcity, while the giving and sharing taught us by Christ lead to a joyful economy of abundance. That is why we gather around the Table of the Lord for Holy Communion. The circulation of grace means that whatever Christ has done for us, we do for our neighbor. Christ of course suffered and died for us. Even the new selves that we become in Christ are not for ourselves but for those in need. Our righteousness is not our own but belongs to our sinful neighbor, whose sins we try to cover in order to forgive. Having died to ourselves in our baptisms, all we have, all our possessions, even our own lives now belong to God and we are now free in the Holy Spirit to share them where needed, because we have so much more and all our needs are provided for by God. So Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” actually declares the Good News that Christ leads us out of our Babylonians Captivity into the heavenly Kingdom of freedom; except, don’t forget the tension of our earthly state with all its duties and responsibilities.
Finally, the existential rapture is about our inner persons or souls, which Luther places in tension with our bodies, our external selves. This rapture is what we mean when we say in the Great Thanksgiving: “Lift up your hearts!” So what I am describing from Luther’s pamphlet is not at all like the rapture where you are lifted up and out of here, like in Hal Lindsey’s Late and Great Planet Earth. But one where we are promoted right here in our responsibilities and the contributions we make in our lives. We are being lifted up in our internal selves, spiritually, for a strengthening to undergo suffering for the sake of the love, ministry, and service that we provide for others. The saints are like the stars, who grow from being invisible to the naked eye, to sixth, fifth, fourth, and ever greater magnitudes of brightness, from glory to glory, as St. Paul would word “the magnitude of stars” in the Bible (2 Cor 12:18).
So in the tension of opposites we grow and mature from one level of maturity to another. Carl Gustav Jung, the great psychologist, talks about the tension of opposites bringing a transcendent function that overcomes our psychological problems and brings about our health. Now the ascent comes about through faith and the descent comes about through love and that’s why we speak of falling in love. Faith makes us into a king, while love makes us into a slave to the one we love. Remember the song? “If they made me a king, I’d still be a slave to you!”
According to Luther in our ascent we first receive the first-born status. That is good for me since I’m the eleventh child and you will receive it too, even if you are the baby in your family. Next in our ascent, we receive the nobility of the spirit. In our spiritual royalty we become kings and queens; today we would say mayors, governors, and presidents. At one point we could not even take care of ourselves, but we grow and provide for a family, then a congregation, perhaps, then watch over and shepherd a whole city, guide a nation, become a leader of countries in the world, just like John Kerry now that he has become the Secretary of State. Next we ascend into the priesthood. Luther saw priests as higher than nobility, because they interceded for others in prayer and God listened to them. From priesthood one ascends up into being a Christ for others and then one goes up into God. Talk about having self-esteem. If you ever feel low and down and out, just remember that! Luther maintained that coming out of baptism, every believer became more than a priest, bishop, and even a pope.
But then we descend falling in love through all these levels until we arrive below the least of these, finding ourselves emptying the bed pan of an elderly person in a hospital, bending down to tie the shoe laces of a child. The ascent takes place to give us the strength to love and suffer and serve. Paul and Silas are in prison, beaten and bruised, chained with their feet in stocks. Ascending above themselves in faith, they started praying and singing hymns while the prisoners listened to them. Then, when the earthquake shook open all the doors, the jailer, the prison warden was about to commit suicide, Paul shouted to him not to harm himself because they were all still there and no one had tried to escape. The warden knelt trembling before them and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” and became a believer in God. He then washed their wounds, gave them food, and ate together with them. This is the strength that we receive from on high.
Luther begins his pamphlet by saying that we are completely sovereign and full of freedom and completely enslaved and subject to everyone at one and the same time. He ends his pamphlet with the famous words:
Christians do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor—in Christ through faith one ascends above oneself into God. From God one descends through love again below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love. As Christ says, in John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Now that paragraph concludes the popular version of “The Freedom of a Christian” while it is buried two thirds of the way into the more intellectual Latin version of this Luther writing. A long discussion about ceremonies follows this paragraph in the more scholarly Latin versions that we know.
 This edition of “The Freedom of a Christian” is available in Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 268n.
Ibid., p. 72.
 Stephen P. Bouman, “Blinded by the Light: We Must Be like Paul,” The Lutheran, March 2013, Vol. 26 No. 3, p. 17.
 Acts 16:16-34.
 Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, page 90.