Luther's Two Theses about What a Christian Is

Two Theses

I want to set forth two theses so that we may have a fundamental understanding of what a Christian is and what was done [to attain] this freedom that Christ has won for him and given to him, about which Saint Paul has written a good deal:

A Christian is a free lord of everything and subject to no one.

A Christian is a willing servant of everything and subject to everyone.

These two theses are clearly in Saint Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19, “I am free in all things and have made myself a servant of everyone,” and Romans 13:8, “You are to be obligated to no one apart from that you love each other.” Love serves and subjects itself to that which it loves. Thus, Paul said also of Christ, Galatians 4:4, “God sent his Son, born of a woman and made him subject to the law.”

The Freedom of a Christian

Martin Luther

Originally published in 1520, The Freedom of a Christian is one of Martin Luther’s most well-known and enduring treatises, examining Christian ethics and how justification by faith alone impacts the liberty of believers. 

Two Natures

To take these two contradictory aphorisms regarding freedom and servitude in hand, we should remember that every Christian has two natures, a spiritual nature and a bodily nature. In regard to the soul, a person is called a spiritual, new, inner person, and in regard to flesh and blood is he1 called a bodily, old, and outward person. And because of the differences between the two, it is said of the Christian in Scripture that there are these two opposites, as I said, freedom and servitude.

Let us then consider the inner spiritual human being, what his characteristics are, that he is and is called upright, free, a Christian. Thus, it is clear that no outward thing makes him free, or upright, or however it be described, for his uprightness and freedom, likewise his wickedness and bondage, are not external, a matter of the body. What good does it do the soul if the body is not bound, is vigorous and healthy, eats, drinks, lives as it wants to. On the other hand, what does it harm the soul if the body is bound, sick, and exhausted, or is hungry or thirsty or suffering—what no one wants under any conditions. These things do not touch the soul in any way, either to make it free or to make it captive, either to make it upright or to make it wicked.

Therefore, it does not help the soul at all if the body wears holy garments, as priests and others in holy orders do, nor does it help if the body is inside the church or in some holy places. Going about its tasks with holy objects provides no special benefit. It makes no difference, either, if a person devotes his body to praying, fasting, a pilgrimage, and all kinds of good works, which may happen through and in the body till the end of time. It must be something completely different that delivers and bestows uprightness and freedom on the soul. For all these things just named, these works and ways, may be performed by a wicked person, a hypocrite and dissembler. Again, it does the soul no harm at all if the body wears clothing that is not holy; is in places that are not holy; eats, drinks, goes on a pilgrimage, or prays, or refrains from all the works that the hypocrite just mentioned performs.

It is proper that the only activity and effort of every Christian is to mold the image of the word and Christ into his heart . . .

The soul has nothing else, neither in heaven nor on earth, in which it lives and is upright, free, and Christian, other than the holy gospel, the word of God proclaimed by Christ. As he himself said in John 11:25, “I am the life and the resurrection; whoever believes in me lives eternally.” So also in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Also in Matthew 4:4, “A person does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Therefore, we must be assured that the soul can get along without everything except God’s Word, and it finds no help in anything apart from God’s word. But when it has the word, it needs nothing else. It has in the word all that it needs: nourishment, joy, peace, light, understanding, righteousness, truth, wisdom, freedom, and everything good in great abundance. Thus, we read in the Psalter, especially in Psalm 119, that the prophet2 does nothing else than cry out for the word of God. Furthermore, in Scripture the greatest plague and exhibition of God’s wrath is considered to be when he withholds his word from human beings (Amos 8:11–12). On the other hand, there is no greater grace than when he sends his word, as Psalm 107:20 states, “He sent forth his word in order to provide help.” And Christ has come to fulfill no other task than to proclaim the word of God. Also all apostles, bishops, priests, and the entire clerical walk of life are called and placed in office only because of the word, although things are moving rapidly in the opposite direction [in our time].

The Image of Christ

You ask, “Which is this word that bestows such great grace, and how shall I use it?” Answer: It is nothing other than the proclamation that Christ delivered [sinners], as contained in the gospel, in which you are to hear your God speaking to you, what has to be and what has been done. [It tells you] that your entire life and all you do is nothing in God’s sight but you on your own way to eternal ruin with everything in you. If you really believe that, that you are guilty, you must despair of yourself and confess that what Hosea said is true: “O Israel, in you is nothing other than ruin. Only in me is there any help for you” (Hos. 13:9). In order for you to get away from yourself, that is, from your ruin, he places before you his dear Son Jesus Christ and has him say to you through his living word of comfort that you are to give yourself to him in firm faith and brashly trust in him. In this way, for the sake of this very faith, your sins are forgiven, your entire ruin is overcome, and you are righteous, faithful, set at peace, upright, and have fulfilled all the commandments. You are free from all things. As Saint Paul says in Romans 1:17, “A justified Christian lives only by faith,” and Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end and the fulfillment of all the commandments for all who believe in him.”

Therefore, it is proper that the only activity and effort of every Christian is to mold the image of the word and Christ into his heart, and continually practice and strengthen this faith. For no other activity produces a Christian. It is as Christ said to the Jews in John 6:28–29, when they asked what kind of activity they should perform to be doing something godly and Christian. He said, “This is the only godly activity, that you believe in him whom God has sent,” the only one whom the Father has appointed. Therefore, it is indeed a treasure overflowing to have true faith in Christ, for faith brings with it all blessing and takes away all misfortune. As it states in the last chapter of Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever does not believe will be damned.” Therefore, the prophet in Isaiah 10:22 saw what a treasure this faith is and said, “God will make a speedy reckoning on earth, and this reckoning will, like a deluge, gush out righteousness”—that is, faith, for therein all the commandments are simply fulfilled. It will bestow righteousness in abundance on all who have this faith so that they need nothing more to be righteous and upright. Thus Saint Paul says in Romans 10:10 that the fact that “a person believes from the heart makes him righteous and upright.”


  1. This translation follows Luther’s German literally and refers to all Christians with the singular pronoun in the masculine gender. Luther regarded all Christians, male and female, as equal in God’s sight as recipients of his grace and called to the same life of worship and witness.
  2. Luther regarded David not only as a king and a psalmist but also as a prophet, who with his psalms had proclaimed God’s word to Israel.

This article is adapted from The Freedom of a Christian: A New Translation by Martin Luther.

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