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August 6, 2020

ELCA Commemorates 500th Anniversary of Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s treatise The Freedom of a Christian. To observe this milestone, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), invites the church to read, study and reflect on this Lutheran witness of the Christian faith.

In his work, Luther spoke of how God liberates us in Christ to live generously and courageously in service of our neighbor’s liberation, confident that God’s mercy will free us all.

“Christian[s] … do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian,” Luther wrote. “They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor — remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.”

To commemorate the anniversary, the ELCA has developed a study guide and other resources, available at elca500.org, to deepen readers’ engagement with the 500-year-old text. As a partner in this project, Fortress Press has generously made available a complimentary download of the treatise, available through 2020.

In her introduction to the study guide, Eaton writes, “In this treatise, Luther describes a ‘happy exchange’ wherein Christ sets us free by taking upon himself humankind’s sin, pain and judgment, and in return giving us his liberating life. … We are empowered in turn to use our freedom to serve our neighbors, whoever they may be. This message remains timely when voices that marginalize certain people, or preach contempt, hatred and violence, dominate our public discourse. How do we hear and trust this word from God today, and continue to serve God’s life-giving work?”

Luther’s purpose in writing The Freedom of a Christian was to present the core of his teaching about the Bible and the Christian faith to Pope Leo X. With an impending split between Luther and the official church, the treatise was a last attempt at reconciliation to prevent the fracturing of the church.

The Freedom of a Christian is such a beautiful, deep and simple exposition of the Christian faith that it is no surprise that, 500 years after Martin Luther first wrote it, we are still learning from it,” said the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos, director for ELCA theological diversity and engagement. Santos led the development of the ELCA’s initiative. “I pray that this study guide and case studies representing a wide diversity of perspectives will help many to rediscover the awesome freedom that we have in Christ and the joy of using that freedom to serve our neighbors. We also hope that people will feel inspired to contribute their own reflections inspired by The Freedom of a Christian.”

“Today, as in Luther’s day, our faithful response to the uncertainty and death-dealing forces in our world is to proclaim that which is sure and life-giving for all,” Eaton writes in her introduction. “Freed in Christ, we resist the temptation to turn inward in despair by turning outward in love and service to the world. Siblings in Christ, rejoice! We are no longer captive, but free.”

The Freedom of a Christian treatise, study guide, case studies and information about submitting contributions are available at elca500.org.

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