Luther’s vision for all God’s people
by Dean Zweck
Luther was deeply concerned about people – like the ordinary people he regularly preached to from the pulpit in the parish church of St Mary. He saw how people were being damaged and fleeced by the trade in indulgences, so he spoke out. Hence the 95 Theses.
When he discovered the gospel in its fullness, he proclaimed it to the people in bold, clear and colourful language. He said, ‘If I, in my preaching, should have regard to Philip Melanchthon and other learned doctors, then should I do but little good. I preach in the simplest manner to ordinary folk, and that gives content to all’.
Luther wanted people to understand that life under the gospel is a completely new and wonderful way of life. Life is not about trying to earn enough merit to please God, nor is it about serving yourself. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’, said St Paul in Galatians 5:2. Luther picked up that message and proclaimed it clearly, powerfully and winsomely.
The Freedom of the Christian is one of the best things he ever wrote. He even sent a copy of it to Pope Leo X as a gift, saying that, although it is a small book, ‘it contains the whole of Christian life in a brief form’. His bold theme comes in a two-fold proposition:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
This understanding of the Christian life was, and is, truly liberating and empowering for all God’s people. For Luther, there are not two classes of Christians: a holy elite doing God’s holy work, and the also-rans, the ordinary people. No. In Christ we are all one holy people, because we are all justified by grace and we are all equally servants of God in the priesthood of the baptised (1 Pet 2:9). So, in Christ Jesus we are all wonderfully free and at the same time deeply bound to serve one another.
As Luther puts it: ‘As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbour through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.’
So in our particular calling, whatever it may be, and in all our relationships with others, we are to be free lords and ladies and willing servants – like Christ, in whom we become ‘little christs’.
With such a liberating and exalted view of what it means to be the people of God, it is no wonder that laypeople in the Lutheran movement soon began to blossom and show the fruits of faith in notable ways. Let’s consider four examples.
First, there is Katherina von Bora, Luther’s dear wife. He would jokingly call her ‘my lord Katie’ or ‘mistress of the house, doctor, and lady of the pig market at Wittenberg’, but there is more than a grain of truth in all those titles.