Local News: This Thursday, February 7, Mission Mississippi will hosts its prayer breakfast at the B.C. Rogers Student Center on the campus of Mississippi College in Clinton from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. The purpose of these bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater unity across racial and denominational lines in the Body of Christ in the metro-Jackson area and throughout Mississippi. For more information, go to www.missionmississippi.org.
In 1520, Martin Luther penned a small treatise, Concerning Christian Liberty, and dedicated it to Pope Leo X. The purpose of the document, which came very early in the history of the Reformation, was to outline Luther’s understanding of Christian freedom, and more specifically, how people are freed by Christ from their sins, but with a freedom that enables them to serve. The work is available, in its entirety, on Project Gutenberg at www.gutenberg.org/files/1911/1911-h/1911-h.htm.
In the opening, Luther makes the paradoxical statement, “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.” To explain the apparent contradiction, Luther explains that Christians are free in the sense that they stand before God as redeemed sons and daughters, void of any slavery the devil might impose upon them. Christians are subject to none in that no human can bind another’s conscience in the sight of God. Christians are dutiful servants of all, though, in the sense that the debt of love is one we owe to all people and it’s impossible to ever “satisfy” the debt.
Luther spends the remainder of the treatise fleshing this idea out. To emphasize just how free a Christian truly is, he labors the point of just how freely we are saved by God in the first place. Here, better than anything else Luther went on to pen, the doctrine that we are saved purely by grace, with nothing in ourselves to commend us to God, shines through. “To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching,” he says. To “preach Christ”, Luther says, specifically means to preach the Gospel concerning the Son of God, “incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified, through the Spirit, the Sanctifier.”
Our own efforts do not win us favor with God, nor do they cancel out our sins. If our works were capable of doing that for us, Luther said, there would be no need for faith or the Gospel. Furthermore, we mustn’t think of our works as something that supplements our faith, as if the Gospel begins our salvation, but our own efforts are needed to complete it. “For this would be to halt between two opinions, to worship Baal, and to kiss the hand to him,” Luther said.
Why can’t our own efforts at least play a part, however small, in our being acceptable to God? Luther says it is because we are by nature sinful, and therefore, until we are born again by God’s Spirit, all our works bear the taint of sin. “When you begin to believe,” he said, “you learn at the same time that all that is in you is utterly guilty, sinful, and damnable, according to that saying, ‘All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3. 23).”
The painful awareness of our desperate state before God makes the Gospel all the sweeter. “When you have learnt this,” he said, “you will know that Christ is necessary for you, since He has suffered and risen again for you, that, believing on Him, you might by this faith become another man, all your sins being remitted, and you being justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.”
If our standing before God is entirely secure in Christ, what’s the motivation for us to do good to our neighbors? The works aren’t “needed”, at least not by us—we have all the righteousness we need in Christ. The works, Luther said, are needed by our neighbor. The Gospel is the doorway, he says, into real altruism. Once we understand how free we are in Christ, we are free to serve our neighbor, not because of anything we can gain through such service, but just because serving them is the right, Christ-like thing to do. Christ offered himself to us, in obedience to God’s will, not because of anything he had to gain, but solely to benefit us. Similarly, we are to serve our neighbors, with no thought to what’s in it for us, but focusing on how bless them. Luther says Christians are not keeping score, trying to meet a “good works quota”, but should be intent to serve as long as there’s a need. To reach this deep level of self-giving, sacrificial living (as is described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13) we’ll need the Spirit’s help. It doesn’t come “natural” at all.
What Luther is prescribing is serving our neighbor in a new way, what C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity called a “less worried” way—not doing certain things in order to gain entrance to Heaven, but “inevitably wanting to behave in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”