If you’re looking for a book review of something hot off the press, you’re in the wrong place with this post. Today I completed the brief treatise by Martin Luther written in 1520 called Concerning Christian Liberty, also called On the Freedom of a Christian. I downloaded the free Kindle version a while back not knowing how long it was and was quite surprised to find that it is only a few dozen pages long. In this final of three treatises by Luther in 1520, he writes about the Christian’s freedom from the law (i.e., Christian liberty) once justified by faith, and that the Christian should have a desire to serve and do good works from the motivation of love and service to one’s neighbor rather than as a means to earn favor with God.
I’m not of a mind to critique the contents of this or any book by Martin Luther. I am deeply indebted to him as a Protestant. I am aware of the criticisms that some have against a few of his views and actions, especially from his later years, but those do not negatively reflect on his core writings which were of great significance in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. For the very valuable truths contained in the writing, I suggest you take the short amount of time it takes to read it yourself.
Instead, I want to share here some reactions to reading a significant document nearly 500 years old.
1. It is refreshing to read people who write what they think and who are not afraid to offend, even if speaking the truth is offensive.
For example, in this treatise, Luther prefaces the main body of work with a letter to Pope Leo X in which he repeatedly speaks well of the pope’s personal character, but in which he clearly condemns the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church:
These things are clearer than the light to all men; and the Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all Churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.
Come on, Marty, tell us what you really think! It should not come as a surprise that Luther was excommunicated from the Church a few months after sending this to Pope Leo X and only a few weeks after setting fire to the papal bull (edict) from the summer of 1520 in which Leo warned Luther of excommunication unless Luther recanted many of his statements.
This frankness with which writers used to say what they think, even in the sometimes lengthy and pointed titles they gave to their writings, is refreshing. We could use a little more of that today. I appreciate the frankness, even if I don’t always agree with the statements of those who exhibit it.
2. There is great value in being reminded of the historical roots of one’s faith.
Too many modern “Christians” think that what they believe is up to them alone, that the ultimate judge and jury of right and wrong is their personal conviction, whatever they decide to define as truth. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Scriptures are authoritative in all matters of faith and practice as Luther reminded his generation, then truth is not subject to the whims of nations or small bodies of believers or any individual’s interpretation, and it certainly isn’t determined by 21st century American political correctness.
To go back to the Scriptures and find truth that is soundly preached by Luther 1500 years later and still soundly preached now (at least by some) 500 years after Luther, provides a consistency that serves to remind modern believers that we are not in this alone. Others have gone before and, if the world continues, others will come behind to always hold forth a light of truth and hope for the world until such day as its Creator decides to bring it to completion.
3. It takes immense courage to go against powerful authorities.
After years of speaking and writing according to what the Bible taught, and with full knowledge of the implications of his opposition to the papacy, Luther was pointedly asked at the Diet of Worms (a formal deliberative assembly held in the town of Worms, Germany) in 1521 whether the writings laid out before him on a table were his and whether he stood by their contents. His eventual reply was:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. (p. 460 of Martin Luther by Martin Brecht, Fortress Press, 1985-93)
Whether those authorities are in the church, government, business or other parts of culture and society, it is no small task to buck the system. You have to be deeply committed to your cause and willing to suffer the consequences that come with crossing lines vehemently guarded by others. Not everyone who does so lives to tell about it, yet those who are so compelled couldn’t live with themselves if they failed to try. Sometimes the paths we walk are lined with the remains and efforts of those who tried that path before us.
4. Worthwhile writings last.
It’s also true that some worthless and harmful writings last, but I’ll file that fact under “Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.” That I can go to the Web or the Kindle store and download for free or little cost complete writings centuries old is amazing and one that more of us ought to take advantage of. A decade ago I would not have dreamed that I would be passing time in a doctor’s office earlier this week reading Martin Luther on a smartphone. Such writings have lasted because they are significant and we should read them for the same reason. Given the relative ease with which technology gives us access, we have no barrier stopping us if we are interested.
As I stated above, this isn’t a book review so much as a reflection on a few takeaways from reading the book. As I continue my goal of reading and blogging about a book every other week throughout 2013, I intend to continue the pattern of alternating between work-related professional books and a variety of other topics of more personal interest. Next up will be another professional book.
What have you read lately? What’s on your list to read next?