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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 46. Christian Freedom.—Luther’s Last Letter to the Pope. October, 1520.


Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Wittenberg, 1520; often reprinted separately, and in the collected works of Luther. See Walch, XIX. 1206 sqq.; Erl. ed., XXVII. 173–200 (from the first ed.); Gerlach’s ed. V. 5–46. The Latin edition, De Libertate Christiana, was finished a little later, and has some additions; see Erl. ed. Opera Lat., IV. 206–255. Luther’s letter to the Pope in Latin and German is printed also in De Wette, I. 497–515. English version of the tract and the letter by Buchheim, l.c. 95–137.


Although Rome had already condemned Luther, the papal delegate Miltitz still entertained the hope of a peaceful settlement. He had extracted from Luther the promise to write to the Pope. He had a final interview with him and Melanchthon at Lichtenberg (now Lichtenburg, in the district of Torgau), in the convent of St. Antony, Oct. 11, 1520, a few days after Luther had seen the bull of excommunication. It was agreed that Luther should write a book, and a letter in Latin and German to Leo X., and assure him that he had never attacked his person, and that Dr. Eck was responsible for the whole trouble. The book was to be finished in twelve days, but. dated back to Sept. 6 in order to avoid the appearance of being occasioned by the Pope’s bull.

This is the origin of two of the most remarkable productions of Luther,—his little book on "Christian Freedom," and a dedicatory letter to Leo X.

The beautiful tract on "Christian Freedom" is a pearl among Luther’s writings. It presents a striking contrast to his polemic treatises against Rome, which were intended to break down the tyranny of popery. And yet it is a positive complement to them, and quite as necessary for a full understanding of his position. While opposing the Pope’s tyranny, Luther was far from advocating the opposite extreme of license. He was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Epistle to the Galatians, which protests against both extremes, and inspired the keynote to Luther’s Tract. He shows wherein true liberty consists. He means liberty according to the gospel; liberty in Christ, not from Christ; and offers this as a basis for reconciliation. He presents here a popular summary of Christian life. He keeps free from all polemics, and writes in the best spirit of that practical mysticism which connected him with Staupitz and Tauler.

The leading idea is: The Christian is the lord of all, and subject to none, by virtue of faith; he is the servant of all, and subject to every one, by virtue of love. Faith and love constitute the Christian: the one binds him to God, the other to his fellow-man. The idea is derived from St. Paul, who says, "Though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more" (1 Cor. 9:19); and "Owe no man any thing, save to love one another" (Rom. 13:8). It was carried out by Christ, who was Lord of all things, yet born of a woman, born under the law that he might redeem them who were under the law (Gal. 4:4); who was at once in the form of God, and in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6, 7). The Christian life is an imitation of the’ life of Christ,—a favorite idea of the mediaeval mystics.

Man is made free by faith, which alone justifies; but it manifests itself in love, and all good works. The person must first be good before good works can be done, and good works proceed from a good person; as Christ says, "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit" (Matt. 7:18). The fruit does not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on the fruit; but the tree bears the fruit, and the fruit grows on the tree. So it is in all handicrafts. A good or bad house does not make a good or bad builder, but the good or bad builder makes a good or bad house. Such is the case with the works of men. Such as the man himself is, whether in faith or in unbelief, such is his work; good if it is done in faith, bad if in unbelief. Faith, as it makes man a believer, so also it makes his works good; but works do not make a believing man, nor a justified man. We do not reject works; nay, we commend them, and teach them in the highest degree. It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of the perverse notion of seeking justification by them. "From faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord; and from love, a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbor voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss. Its object is not to lay men under obligations; nor does it distinguish between friends and enemies, or look to gratitude or ingratitude; but most freely and willingly it spends itself and its goods, whether it loses them through ingratitude, or gains good-will. For thus did its Father, distributing all things to all men abundantly and freely, making his sun to rise upon the just and the unjust. Thus, too, the child does and endures nothing except from the free joy with which it delights through Christ in God, the giver of such great gifts." ...

"Who, then, can comprehend the riches and glory of the Christian life? It can do all things, has all things, and is in want of nothing; is lord over sin, death, and hell, and, at the same time, is the obedient and useful servant of all. But alas! it is at this day unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached nor sought after, so that we are quite ignorant about our own name, why we are and are called Christians. We are certainly called so from Christ, who is not absent, but dwells among us, provided we believe in him; and are reciprocally and mutually one the Christ of the other, doing to our neighbor as Christ does to us. But now, in the doctrine of men, we are taught only to seek after merits, rewards, and things which are already ours; and we have made of Christ a task-master far more severe than Moses." ...

"We conclude, then, that a Christian man does not live in and for himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor, or else is no Christian; in Christ by faith, in his neighbor by love. By faith he is carried upwards above himself to God, and by love he descends below himself to his neighbor, still always abiding in God and his love; as Christ says, ’Verily I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ " (John 1:51

In the Latin text Luther adds some excellent remarks against those who misunderstand and distort spiritual liberty, turn it into an occasion of carnal license, and show their freedom by their contempt of ceremonies, traditions, and human laws. St. Paul teaches us to walk in the middle path, condemning either extreme, and saying, "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth" (Rom. 14:3). We must resist the hardened and obstinate ceremonialists, as Paul resisted the Judaizers who would compel Titus to be circumcised; and we must spare the weak who are not yet able to apprehend the liberty of faith. We must fight against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.

This Irenicon must meet with the approval of every true Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant. It breathes the spirit of a genuine disciple of St. Paul. It is full of heroic faith and childlike simplicity. It takes rank with the best books of Luther, and rises far above the angry controversies of his age, during which he composed it, in the full possession of the positive truth and peace of the religion of Christ.246246    Köstlin(Mart. Luth., vol. I. 395 sq.):"Die Schrift von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen ist ein tief-religiöser Traktat .... Sie ist ein ruhiges, positives Zeugnis der Wahrheit, vor welcher die Waffen und Bande der Finsternis von selbst zu nichte werden müssen. Sie zeigt uns den tiefsten Grund des christlichen Bewusstseins und Lebens in einer edlen, seligen Ruhe und Sicherheit, welche die über ihm hingehenden Wogen und Stürme des Kampfes nicht zu erschüttern vermögen. Sie zeigt zugleich, wie fest Luther selbst auf diesem Grunde stand, indem er eben im Höhepunkt des Kampfgedränges sie zu verfassen fähig war." It is perhaps characteristic that Janssen, who gives one-sided extracts from the two other reformatory works of Luther, passes the tract on "Christian Liberty" in complete silence. Cardinal Hergenröther likewise ignores it.

Luther sent the book to Pope Leo X., who was too worldly-minded a man to appreciate it; and accompanied the same with a most singular and undiplomatic, yet powerful polemic letter, which, if the Pope ever read it, must have filled him with mingled feelings of indignation and disgust. In his first letter to the Pope (1518), Luther had thrown himself at his feet as an obedient son of the vicar of Christ; in his second letter (1519), he still had addressed him as a humble subject, yet refusing to recant his conscientious convictions: in his third and last letter he addressed him as an equal, speaking to him with great respect for his personal character (even beyond his deserts), but denouncing in the severest terms the Roman See, and comparing him to a lamb among wolves, and to Daniel in the den of lions. The Popes, he says, are vicars of Christ because Christ is absent from Rome.247247    "Ein Statthalter ist in Abwesenheit seines Herrn ein Statthalter." Miltitz and the Augustinian brethren, who urged him to write an apologetic letter to Leo, must have been sorely disappointed; for it destroyed all prospects of reconciliation, if they had not been destroyed already.

After some complimentary words about Leo, and protesting that he had never spoken disrespectfully of his person, Luther goes on to say, —


"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.

"Meanwhile you, Leo, are sitting like a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and, with Ezekiel, you dwell among scorpions. What opposition can you alone make to these monstrous evils? Take to yourself three or four of the most learned and best of the cardinals. What are these among so many? You would all perish by poison, before you could undertake to decide on a remedy. It is all over with the court of Rome: the wrath of God has come upon her to the uttermost. She hates Councils, she dreads to be reformed, she cannot restrain the madness of her impiety; she fills up the sentence passed on her mother, of whom it is said, ’We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed; let us forsake her.’ It had been your duty, and that of your cardinals, to apply a remedy to these evils; but this gout laughs at the physician’s hand, and the chariot does not obey the reins. Under the influence of these feelings I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made pontiff in this. For the Roman court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.

"Oh, would that, having laid aside that glory which your most abandoned enemies declare to be yours, you were living rather in the office of a private priest, or on your paternal inheritance! In that glory none are worthy to glory, except the race of Iscariot, the children of perdition. For what happens in your court, Leo, except that, the more wicked and execrable any man is, the more prosperously he can use your name and authority for the ruin of the property and souls of men, for the multiplication of crimes, for the oppression of faith and truth, and of the whole Church of God? O Leo! in reality most unfortunate, and sitting on a most perilous throne: verily I tell you the truth, because I wish you well; for if Bernard felt compassion for his Anastasius at a time when the Roman See, though even then most corrupt, was as yet ruling with better hope than now, why should not we lament, to whom so much additional corruption and ruin has happened in three hundred years?

Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful, than the court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now a sort of open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, under the urgent wrath of God, can not be blocked up; one course alone being left to us wretched men,—to call back and save some few, if we can, from that Roman gulf.

"Behold, Leo my father, with what purpose and on what principle it is that I have stormed against that seat of pestilence. I am so far from having felt any rage against your person, that I even hoped to gain favor with you and to aid in your welfare, by striking actively and vigorously at that your prison, nay, your hell. For, whatever the efforts of all intellects can contrive against the confusion of that impious court will be advantageous to you and to your welfare, and to many others with you. Those who do harm to her are doing your work; those who in every way abhor her are glorifying Christ; in short, those are Christians who are not Romans ....

"In fine, that I may not approach your Holiness empty-handed, I bring with me this little book,248248    De Libertate Christiana. published under your name, as a good omen of the establishment of peace and of good hope. By this you may perceive in what pursuits I should prefer and be able to occupy myself to more profit, if I were allowed, or had been hitherto allowed, by your impious flatterers. It is a small book, if you look to the paper; but, unless I mistake, it is a summary of the Christian life put together in small compass, if you apprehend its meaning. I, in my poverty, have no other present to make you; nor do you need any thing else than to be enriched by a spiritual gift. I commend myself to your Holiness, whom may the Lord Jesus preserve for ever. Amen.

"Wittenberg, 6th September, 1520."



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