Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) lived and served in what is today Wittenberg, Germany at the University of Wittenberg. Martin Luther published countless treatises, commentaries, sermons, lectures, confessional statements, and other writings, many of which can be found in Luther’s Works: American Edition. Melanchthon, known as the Praeceptor Germaniae or Teacher of Germany, authored the Augsburg Confession and its Apology in 1530, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and his Loci Communes, among other writings. Through the work of Luther and Melanchthon, the Lord changed the course of history and reformed the Christian church.
Since the passing of the Luther Year in 2017, each subsequent year has provided other 500th anniversaries to celebrate. 2018 saw the 500th anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation, where Luther clarified his views on justification and laid out the scriptural teaching of the theology of the cross. 2019 saw the 500th anniversary of the Leipzig Debate, where Luther publicly articulated that popes, councils, and theologians can err, leaving Scripture as the supreme authority in all things theological. 2020 noted not an event, but rather the 500th anniversary of four of Luther’s most important treatises—Treatise on Good Works; To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation; On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and On the Freedom of a Christian.
Of Luther’s 1520 treatises, On the Freedom of a Christian is unique. One could describe its style as more devotional and less polemic than the other treatises. This may be because Luther also dedicated On the Freedom of a Christian to Pope Leo X, even sending the pope a copy of the treatise, which he likely never read. Yet what is most unique about On the Freedom of a Christian is the two simple propositions on which the entire treatise is based—“A Christian is the freest lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” (48) While these propositions may at first strike the reader as contradictory, in reality, “In this text Luther presents justification through faith alone as complete and total freedom from the obligation of having to do works in order to earn salvation. This freedom releases the Christian for unencumbered service to others.” Luther’s exposition on these two propositions is nothing short of masterful as he lays out the glorious beauty that we are set free from the slavery of sin and Satan by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Because we have been set free, we are now free to serve our neighbor whom God puts in our path to serve in our unique, God-given vocations.
Christian Freedom: Faith Working Through Love – A Reader’s Edition was not written for the 500th anniversary of On the Freedom of the Christian. Concordia Publishing House actually published it in 2011. However, what Luther has to tell us in his treatise on Christian freedom is particularly appropriate for today in light of all the talk about liberty and freedom in this time of pandemic, unrest, and political uncertainty. A healthy dose of Scriptural, Lutheran understanding of our freedom in Christ and what that means for us, living each day for our God-given neighbors, can go a long way towards a true understanding of freedom.
Christian Freedom is a small volume packed with a wealth of scriptural, Lutheran goodness. As a reader’s edition, the book contains vivid illustrations, accessible historical and theological introductions, helpful footnotes, glossaries, and indices, and a clear focus on the freedom we have in Christ. The volume offers a “Forty-Day Reading Guide,” giving the reader the opportunity to devotionally read through about 3-5 pages of the book per day. Weekly prayers are provided from The Lord Will Answer—Concordia’s 2004 daily prayer catechism. The editors then provide a detailed Reformation timeline of 1500-1524, followed by an excellent introduction on the broader context of the struggle for freedom in the Middle Ages to the Reformation and the narrower context of Luther’s search for spiritual freedom found in Christ, all of which lays the groundwork for the fresh translation of the Luther’s treatise on Christian freedom.
A fine translation of On the Freedom of a Christian can be found in Luther’s Works: American Edition, Vol. 13, so why the need for a new translation? The translation found in Luther’s Works is based off of the shorter Latin edition, while Luther’s German edition actually includes a nine-paragraph addendum on ceremonies—a subject which is particularly apropos for a discussion on Christian freedom. This translation is based on the German edition. The translators have provided a very readable translation that makes Luther speak English well. This translation alone makes the volume worth the price, but there is much more!
Because many since the Reformation have misunderstood or misapplied Luther’s teaching on freedom, a number of selections from Luther’s writings on freedom have been included. Nearly 80 pages of material from sermons, lectures, and commentaries from Luther’s early years to the end of his life “illustrate and amplify the ideas he presented in Christian Freedom.” (89) Luther’s pastoral heart is evident throughout these selections, as is his desire to keep Christ and the freedom we have in Christ before his students, hearers, or readers. Luther speaks to our freedom as applied to our callings in the kingdoms of church and state (105-106); our freedom to hear and heed God’s Word (126); and the need to have spiritual freedom in order to responsibly live in physical freedom (135-141). Yet time and again, he returns to his original 1520 propositions, as he does in his 1523 commentary on 1 Corinthians, “All things are free to you with God through faith; but with men you are the servant of every man through love” (113).
In addition to Luther’s writings on Christian freedom, this volume also includes Locus 24 – Christian Liberty from Philip Melanchthon’s 1559 Loci Communes. This was a fascinating read not just for what Melanchthon says about the Christian’s spiritual freedom and how that relates to the matter of adiaphora, but also what he does not say about adiaphora. This was written near the end of his life after the time of the Interims and the worst of the Adiaphoristic Controversy. He admits no error from the time of the Interims, though what took place then would eventually result in Article X of the Formula of Concord. Nonetheless, what he does write about Christian freedom and adiaphora is beneficial.
The book concludes with three appendices on 1) the use of “man” in Luther’s treatise; 2) English editions of Luther’s Christian Freedom; and 3) Melanchthon’s advice for reading Luther, in addition to helpful glossaries and indices.
All in all, this reviewer cannot recommend this book highly enough. It needs to be read by called workers and laypeople alike, especially in a time when there is so much misunderstanding of freedom, even among Christians. The devotional guide provides a helpful way for readers to read through this brief volume during the 40 days of Lent. Prof. Jim Danell in his WLS Symposium paper on Luther’s Christian Freedom recommended that the treatise be used the basis for a Bible study. That would be a worthwhile endeavor for any congregation, ministry staff, or congregational leadership study, especially if they use this volume. This helpful reader’s edition will be a true blessing to any who read or study through it.
 Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary devoted their 2020 Symposium to Luther’s 1520 treatises. The reader would be wise to spend time with these essays available at https://www.wisluthsem.org/2020-symposium/
 James Danell. The Freedom of a Christian and Treatise on Good Works. Presented at the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium on Luther’s 1520 Treatises, Mequon, WI. 22 September 2020. 2-3. https://www.wisluthsem.org/rmdevser_wls/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Treatise-on-Good-Works-and-On-the-Freedom-of-a-Christian-Danell.pdf