Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

The Liberty of a Gift: Luther on Faith and the Economy of Freedom

Martin Luther looking happier than usually depicted. 

Martin Luther looking happier than usually depicted. 

There have been more than a few arguments about the value of faith and works over the centuries.  They tend to consist of one group of people arguing that to say faith alone is to invite ethical indolence and another saying that allowing for the salvific power of works gives too much power to we human beings.  I'm not going to rehearse these debates.  Instead, I'm going to briefly look at how Martin Luther's account of faith informs his account of freedom, and how economic language can help us understand the emphasis he placed on the former in order to guarantee the latter.

In 'On Christian Liberty', Luther writes vehemently against the possibility that works might be relevant to a person's salvation.  He states that 'the person is justified and saved, not by works or laws, but by the Word of God, that is, by the promise of his grace, and by faith, [so] that the glory may remain God's.' (p43)  The question we should ask, I believe, is why he writes on this topic in a short treatise on freedom.

The answer seems to me to lie in the following lines: first, Luther writes that 'A man does not serve that he may put men under obligations. He does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward.' (p53)  Then: 'I fear, I say, that in all these we seek only our profit, thinking that through them our sins are purged away and that we find salvation in them. In this way Christian liberty perishes altogether.' (p60)  Finally, for the purposes of this paragraph, he states that 'our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.' (p65) 

The first striking feature of these passages is their reference to profit and debt, and the fact that we must attach neither of these to our works.  Luther is not here writing about faith over works in order to diminish their importance: he is writing in order to say that, in the context of faith, we cannot seek a profit for our works; we cannot place our neighbour in our debt on the basis of services rendered, nor can we think that by our works we have added credit to our spiritual account (the Doctrine of Heaven Credits).  Instead, because we have faith in Christ, we know that we need not seek gain from our works, for He has already bestowed upon us all the profit we could need.

This can be explicated by an analogy: a shopkeeper is leasing a shop.  They have a number of goods, and they must sell these goods at a profit in order to pay for their rent and their food.  One day, however, the landlady enters and says that she will support the shopkeeper from now on in all their needs, so that they need not worry about paying for either rent or food again.  The shopkeeper thus has no need to sell their goods at a profit, or indeed sell them at all: they are instead free to distribute the goods freely to their neighbours, safe in the knowledge that he is not bound by a need to make a profit.  They are, quite literally, free: free from the fear of default, and so free to offer what they have freely to others.

Here we can see a concept of freedom different to the usual concept of potency.  Typically, we understand being free as having the power to effect our own wills.  Here, however freedom can be understood in economic terms instead: being free means not costing anything to anyone: Faith makes us free for others, since we do not need to charge for our works.  We are also, moreover free for God, as we do not need to worry about paying our bills to him: our debts have instead been forgiven by His grace and mercy.  (This is especially pertinent given that Luther was attempting to inveigh against a Church he saw as convincing people they needed to buy their freedom through indulgences.)

This freedom does, of course, come with what can seem like a cost: the cost of discipleship can be measured in the value of our goods which we can no longer charge others.  To think of things in this way is, however, to construct a false economy: for what we have was never ours to sell anyway, and what we hope to gain was never to be bought either.

The effect of this freedom is that, by rendering our love free, it allows us to focus on living out the summary of the Law: we can begin to be 'guided in [our] works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that [we] may serve and benefit others in all that [we] do, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of [our] neighbour.' (p48)  We do not need to worry about our salvation, for what treasure there might be in heaven has already been guaranteed here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  We do not need to worry about payment for our love, and so we are free to love for love's sake.  

Of course, things are never quite so simple in practise.  We human beings are messy creatures, and our own individual messiness can be compounded by the fact that we grow up in a society that, often with the best intentions, teaches us a variety of contradictory lessons, not least the importance of one day making a profit.  Material concerns are still worthy of concern, moreover, and we must care for others as well.  This kind of freedom does not mean that should all become holy ascetics.  

It does, however, mean that whenever we are lost in the anxiety and worry that tends to plague us all, we can turn to the figure of Christ, on the Cross and in the Resurrection.  We can be reminded that in him love has already been given us as a guarantee, and so we are free to love freely.  We can remember that Christ's freedom was not constituted by his ability to bend the hearts of others to His will, but to offer Himself for us as a gift.  And so we can remember that the freedom given us through faith in Christ is not the freedom to do as we will, but the liberty of a gift; that faith frees us from having to do good works for our own sake, not in order to diminish to importance of living out love, but so that we can offer ourselves as free gifts to others.