by Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mumme


what-is-a-lutheranHow free can one be? According to Martin Luther, human beings can be fully free toward God and toward one another. This freedom means a rightly ordered existence, lived outside of oneself, with God and others. “[A] Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and his neighbor. … He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.”[1]

Full freedom toward God and one’s fellow human beings begins with a divinely induced recognition that one is, in fact, not free, but bound – so deeply bound to a state of separation from God and one’s fellow human beings, that one cannot even begin to will one’s way out of this bondage. True freedom begins with the recognition that human beings are in total bondage to sin, to what sin earns (death), and to sin’s author (Satan).[2]

This full freedom is only possible when human beings are set free, liberated. God liberates human beings through a particular human being, namely Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Thus full freedom is and only is Christian freedom, for only in Christ is human bondage to sin and its wages exchanged for forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is “the joyous exchange” that the Christian soul experiences when it is wed to Christ.[3] Only in Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, is full freedom toward God and one’s fellow human beings communicated.

ref-getinvolvedHuman beings’ de facto bearing, in their bondage to separation from God and one another, is to use one another instrumentally to achieve standing, status, and recognition. To put it another way, separated from God and one another, human beings use each other and make each other instruments in efforts at self-justification. When people do not enjoy the standing and status for which they were created (which is total goodness and righteousness and full-recognition in the sight of God), then they use one another as instruments to attain that status whose void they cannot but feel. This means that unless people are reconciled to and justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One–unless they are freed to a right relationship with God–they cannot be free toward one another. People cannot actually serve and love one another until they are freed to a status of love and righteousness before God by the servant-like work of Jesus Christ.

luthers-sealTrusting Jesus Christ as Liberator toward God, which is faith, Christian people find themselves liberated to serve others, which is love. Thus Christian freedom is a freedom of passive faith toward God and active love toward one’s fellow human beings. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” Luther explains. That is, he needs no one to serve and nothing to do in order to be who he is before God. This being true, he enjoys the Christ-like freedom to be a perfect servant of his fellow human beings, whom he does not now need to instrumentalize toward God, but serves as proper ends in themselves: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[4]


The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mumme is an assistant professor of theology at Concordia University-Wisconsin.


[1] “The Freedom of a Christian,” LW 31:371.

[2] See Luther’s 13th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation (LW  31:40) as well as his 1525 treatise, On the Bondage of the Will (LW ). Cf. SA III,i; further AC XVIII and FC II.

[3] WA 7:25,34 (“Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen”).

[4] LW 31:344.