There have been several essays on Luther recently in popular media, including the New Yorker, Religion News Service, The Christian Century (see also here), The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and others.
These have often focused – rightly – on Luther’s late and virulent anti-Semitism; virulent even for a time and place in which anti-Semitism had become normal. This 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation has been an appropriate time for raising popular awareness of the shocking, historic, and baleful effect Luther’s anti-Semitism has had in the past century.
This shock is, in part, a strong sign that many people now are themselves moving past our own culture’s anti-Semitism. I recall a phone call I got out of the blue several years ago from a young seminarian at a Lutheran seminary who had just learned about Luther’s vile rantings. She demanded to know right then how she could keep on not only in seminary but in a church that carried his name. I don’t recall everything I said to her, but I am glad to be able to say that she is now a talented pastor within that church.
There are many sins that can be laid at Luther’s feet (or cast at his head!), but we ought also to ask if there are any blessings that should also be traced back to him. We should do this not only in the interest of being honest with history, but also as a backstop to our own foolishness. While necessary, it’s also way too easy to condemn the sins of our ancestors. We so easily chalk up morality points for ourselves while failing to see the massive logs in our own eyes.
I don’t want to make an inventory of all these blessings – there are those far more qualified than me to do so. I’m not a Luther scholar. I get my intellectual and spiritual juice from Jesus far more than from Luther. (And wouldn’t Luther actually prefer it that way?) But I would like to put forward one blessing that Luther has left us.
Luther was the first in the modern era to make freedom one of the great priorities of the Christian life. By contrast, freedom (to be exact, free will) was just one among hundreds of questions Aquinas dealt with in his Summa. But Luther not only devoted a whole treatise to it (On the Freedom of a Christian), he also changed his name from Luder to Luther (or ‘Freeman’, as we might say in the US), and he liked to refer to Galatians as his Katie. It is, of course, in Galatians that Paul insists that “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
In this treatise Luther famously asserted, “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”
Now what idea is there that more defines modernity than the idea of freedom? As soon as we moderns hear the first part of Luther’s statement above, we thrill in recognition (even though the word ‘lord’ strikes us as anachronistic). So yes, Luther is truly one of the great ancestors of our modern love of freedom! Q.E.D.!
But then there’s that very weird second line, “a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Thud! The soaring balloon of our modern narcissistic self lands hard, and fast. ‘What duty? What servitude? What subjection? What can those possibly have to do with freedom?’ we modern barbarians demand to know.
Well, that’s just where things get all Christian. At the great risk of vastly oversimplifying Luther’s great treatise, such free duty, service, and subjection only become freedom in love activated through faith in Christ and, we might also say, through Christ’s faith in God and love of us. There can be no selfishness in true freedom because love is the height of human life (says Christ), and it is only in that love that we become free.
Let me quote the next few lines of Luther’s treatise:
Although these statements appear contradictory, yet, when they are found to agree together, they will be highly serviceable to my purpose. They are both the statements of Paul himself, who says: “Though I be free from all, yet have I made myself servant to all” (1 Cor. ix. 19), and: “Owe no one anything, but to love one another.” (Rom. xiii. 8.) Now love is by its own nature dutiful and obedient to the beloved object. Thus even Christ, though Lord of all things, was yet made of a woman; made under the law; at once free and a  servant; at once in the form of God and in the form of a servant. [my emphasis]
Luther was at great pains to argue that such divine love cannot be earned, but we can only get to it through faith in Christ. He was having to argue this in the face of one of the biggest salvation-for-money systems ever devised, and authorized by none other than the vicar of Christ on earth.
So we owe Luther both the duty to correct him for his sins (and there were more of them than his anti-Semitism) and also to hear his proclamation of Christian freedom. Although he goes on to talk much more about justification by faith in the rest of this essay, we also need to hear his teaching about how freedom is grounded in Christian love.
Because we moderns are not very much there. We have learned a lot about selfish freedom, irresponsible freedom, freedom from; and we’ve learned very little about the freedom of serving and of giving for others, freedom for. Take a look at the WSJ article, for example. Any love there? No. And our modern economics, politics, and culture are all so much the poorer for it.
I think Luther still has things to teach us in the gospel of Jesus Christ!