The Freedom to Live by Faith Alone


A Church for Our Time Conference
Ghost Ranch (July 1, 2005)

Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:14-17, and Rom. 3:28

Paul E. Capetz

Associate Professor of Historical Theology at
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

Our church stands in the tradition of Martin Luther and his followers in the 16th century, including John Calvin, who opposed the medieval church in the name of the freedom of the gospel. The gospel, according to Luther, is a message of freedom and the church has no right to enslave those whom Christ has set free.

What did Luther’s protest against the church mean? Why did he think that the church of his day was opposed to the gospel of freedom? What was this freedom that Luther believed was at the heart of the biblical message?

These questions are important to ask in order to determine whether our churches today still proclaim the gospel of freedom. In other words, claiming to be “Protestants” is pointless so long as we do not understand the events of the 16th century and their import. If we claim to be a “Reformed” tradition, then we have to ask whether the gospel is rightly preached by us today. And the way to answer this question is to gain clarity regarding what this gospel of freedom is all about that was at stake in the Middle Ages and that is still at stake today.

Luther began his career as a monk, since monasticism was considered by medieval Christians to be the chief expression of commitment to God. It was called the “religious” life as opposed to the “secular” life. Whereas the ordinary Christian would live in the world preoccupied with the tasks of earning a living and raising a family, the monk or nun could give undivided attention to the pursuit of holiness. Since the goal of the Christian life was sainthood, the nun or the monk was in a far better position to attain the required holiness than was the ordinary Christian whose time and energies were directed toward the world.

Luther’s “reformation” was nothing less than a wholesale rejection of this medieval understanding of Christian existence as the pursuit of holiness. Luther came to realize that his commitment to the monastic life was motivated by fear of God’s judgment. To avoid the possibility of eternal damnation, Luther entered the monastery, hoping thereby to evade God’s wrath against sinners. But soon he discovered that his efforts to be a saint led him to despair of himself. He confessed every impure thought that crossed his mind and engaged in ruthless self-examination to see whether he truly loved God with his whole heart and his neighbor as himself. Eventually, Luther concluded that his inherited understanding of the Christian life was at odds with the basic message of scripture which he believed to find in the teaching of the apostle Paul that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).

For Luther and his Protestant followers, the truth of the gospel is that we are freed from guilt, sin, and the fear of God’s judgment by faith alone. Faith is the confidence that enables the Christian to stand before God on Judgment Day with a good conscience. This good conscience is not the result of the Christian’s achievement of sainthood; on the contrary, the Christian knows that she or he stands before God only as one who is a sinner, as one who does not measure up to God’s demand for holiness. The paradox of the gospel, Luther discovered, is precisely that God accepts the sinner! This is the true meaning of “grace” as it has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Though we face the prospect of Judgment Day, we do so with the confidence that the righteous God mercifully accepts the sinful human being.

If one follows the logic of Luther’s reading of scripture, the gospel is a message of freedom. It is freedom from the condemnation of a guilty conscience that knows all too well its own inadequacy when measured according to the standard of God’s holy law. In that sense, the gospel frees us from the law. Yet the gospel is not only a negative freedom from sin, guilt, and the fear of eternal damnation. It is also a positive freedom for this world that God has created and in which we are placed by God to live as human beings who trust in and rely completely upon God’s mercy. For Luther, this meant that the Christian life was not to be lived apart from the world in a pursuit of holiness; Christians, rather, are called to live in the midst of this world with all its cares and woes, as well as its joys and wonders. When Luther came to hear the message of freedom speaking to him from the scriptures, he left the monastery to take up the secular life. He married a former nun and together they raised a family. His new conviction was that the medieval church did not teach the freedom of the gospel clearly and unambiguously; instead, the church sought to bind the guilty conscience to itself with threats of eternal damnation. Rather than encouraging the sinner to accept God’s mercy and to live in the freedom of faith alone, the church tried to turn the sinner into a saint. In the name of the gospel, Luther protested against this church and the theology it taught.

It is difficult for many modern people to appreciate the religious significance of the Protestant Reformation, mostly because we are no longer asking Luther’s questions. Yet, ironically, that is testimony to the fact that we take Luther’s achievement so much for granted. So if we want to get a sense of what he meant by the freedom to live by faith alone, we need to find a modern parallel to Luther’s story that will put the radical character of his message in sharp relief. We can find such a parallel, I believe, in the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany when Hitler came to power in the 1930s. He was a leader of a group of Protestants who called themselves the “Confessing Church” because they sought to maintain the purity of the church’s preaching in the face of pressure from the government to use the pulpit as an instrument of Nazi propaganda. This was an important act of resistance in itself, but Bonhoeffer was to take yet a further step in the resistance to the Nazi regime by joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s involvement was controversial, primarily because he was a pastor and the plot against Hitler’s life was not within the limits of the Confessing Church’s theological concern to preserve the purity of the gospel. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that he couldn’t let religious scruples prevent him from doing what he believed absolutely had to be done, if Germany and Europe were to be saved from the evils of National Socialism. Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators were not church people, yet he discerned in these “secular” comrades the responsibility to do what needed to be done in the crucial moment of Germany’s history. Even if his own salvation were to be imperiled by his involvement in the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer could not stand on the sidelines and watch others do the right thing in order that he might keep his own conscience pure by not violating the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

Of course, Hitler was not assassinated. The conspiracy failed, and the conspirators were arrested and eventually executed, including Pastor Bonhoeffer himself. His execution occurred less than a month before the defeat of Germany by the allied forces. During his time in prison prior to his execution, Bonhoeffer wrote many letters that have been preserved for us by his friends and family. These letters allow us a glimpse into Bonhoeffer’s thoughts in those last months of his life, especially about the relation between Christian faith and his decision to become involved in the conspiracy. Some of these thoughts are particularly helpful to us as we reflect on the ongoing significance of the Reformation and what Luther’s teaching about the freedom of the gospel might mean in the modern world.

In prison Bonhoeffer became interested in what he called the “worldliness” of Christian existence. He contrasted this Christian worldliness with what he called the “religious” desire to escape from the world. The contrast arises from reflection upon the question, Why was it that those people in Germany who actively sought to put a stop to Hitler’s evil were not Christians whereas those Christians in the Confessing Church who were so concerned about the purity of the gospel refused to get involved in the political struggle against Hitler? This is what Bonhoeffer meant when he contrasted a secular willingness to assume responsibility for what had to be done and a religious unwillingness to soil one’s hands with the moral ambiguity involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. What Bonhoeffer was looking for in prison was the possibility of a “Christian worldliness” or what he also called a secular, “non-religious interpretation of the gospel” that would call Christians forth into the heart of the world’s turmoil instead of removing them from it.

In one letter from prison Bonhoeffer made this observation:

I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.”  While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people—because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)—to people with no religion I can on occasion mention [God] by name quite calmly and as a matter of course (letter of April 30, 1944).

In another letter, he wrote:

[The Christian] must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. [The Christian] must live a “secular” life… [The Christian] may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself  (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint)…but to be a [human being]….The “religious act” is always something partial; “faith” is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls [people] not to a new religion, but to life (letter of July 18, 1944). 

In clarifying this distinction between “faith” and “religion,” Bonhoeffer went on to write:

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a [religious type], but simply a [human being], as Jesus was a human being….I don’t mean the shallow or banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense (emphasis mine).

I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it’s quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn’t realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it….

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman….By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God….That, I think, is faith…and that is how one becomes a [human being] and a Christian (letter of July 21, 1944).

It’s striking that Bonhoeffer appeals to Luther’s example here. I think Bonhoeffer correctly grasped the radical character of Luther’s message about the freedom of the gospel and that he translated it into action in a dramatic way in the context of the modern world. Here was a person who set aside religious scruples to be a human being in solidarity with his fellow human beings and was willing to get his hands dirty with the moral ambiguities of life in this world. Because of his confidence that God accepts the sinner, Bonhoeffer knew that he had no higher calling than to be a human being—not a saint, not a religious type, but a human being, living a secular life in the midst of a godless world. He understood, as did Luther before him, that the gospel frees the conscience to act boldly in the face of life’s tasks. He realized, as did Luther before him, that the gospel frees us from pre-occupation with our own salvation so that we need not (indeed, must not!) withdraw from the world with its all-too-human sorrows and failures as well as its oh-so-human joys and wonders.

God created the world and called it good (Gen. 1:31). God put the human being in this good world to live in it and to cultivate it. The human being as a sinner falls far short of God’s intention. But sin does not have the last word about the human being, at least not according to the “good news” spoken in Jesus Christ. Yes, the human being is a sinner and, as such, stands under God’s righteous judgment. Nevertheless, the gospel frees the human being to live in this world with the bold confidence that God accepts the sinner and, therefore, the sinner can trust in God’s grace. This is the gospel of freedom. This is the enduring legacy of the Reformation according to which we must test the authenticity of our own preaching. As the apostle Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

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