ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY
by Martin Luther
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a Professor of Theology at Wittenberg University in
Germany. Like many churchmen at the time, he vigorously opposed the Church’s
practice of selling indulgences, licenses that gave people time off from Purgatory in
return for a cash payment. In 1517 he sent his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the
Archbishop of Mainz (and also nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg). These
theses were fairly typical of protests in the 1510s, but Luther quickly got caught up in
confrontations with the authorities. Luther refused to retract his arguments despite being
excommunicated in 1520, and in 1521 he defied the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Luther’s religious protest now got mixed up with resistance to Charles V and popular
anger against landlords. By the mid-1520s religious wars were breaking out all over
northern Europe and peasant rebels were claiming him as their leader.
On Christian Liberty
was written as a letter to Pope Leo X in 1520, explaining
Christian faith has seemed to many to be an easy thing; nay, no few even reckon it among
the social virtues, as it were; and this they do because they have not made proof of it
experimentally, and have never tasted of what efficacy it is. For it is not possible for any
man to write well about it, or to understand well what is rightly written, who has not at
some time tasted of its spirit, under the pressure of tribulation; while he who has tasted of
it, even to a very small extent, can never write, speak, think, or hear about it sufficiently.
For it is a living fountain springing up unto eternal life, as Christ calls it in John iv.
Now, though I cannot boast of my abundance, and though I know how poorly I
am furnished, yet I hope that, after having been vexed by various temptations, I have
attained some little drop of faith, and that I can speak of this matter, if not with more
elegance, certainly with more solidity, than those literal and too subtle disputants who
have hitherto discoursed upon it without understanding their own words. That I may open
then an easier way for the ignorant—for these alone I am trying to serve—I first lay down
these two propositions, concerning spiritual liberty and servitude:
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.
Although these statements appear contradictory, yet, when they are found to agree
together, they will make excellently for my purpose. . . .
Let us examine the subject on a deeper and less simple principle. Man is
composed of a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily. As regards the spiritual nature,
which they name the soul, he is called the spiritual, inward, new man; as regards the
bodily nature, which they name the flesh, he is called the fleshly, outward, old man. The
Apostle speaks of this: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed
day by day " (2 Cor. iv. 16). The result of this diversity is that in the Scriptures opposing