The Final Word: Martin Luther's Freedom of a Christian for Today's Church

Dr. Timothy Wengert's final public lecture at LTSP: Tuesday, November 19, 2013

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Professor Timothy WengertTimothy Wengert’s final word: A pep talk from Luther for today’s Church

Perhaps New Jersey Pastor and LTSP alumnus Kent Klophaus best summarized Professor Timothy Wengert’s pre-retirement farewell remarks, a reflection for today’s church on Reformer Martin Luther’s most popular tract, The Freedom of a Christian. “That was a pep talk for the church’s rostered leaders,”Klophaus said, “a chance to regroup and get regrounded.” Prof. Wengert delivered the lecture to a full audience of past and current students, colleagues and community at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) on November 19, 2013.

Wengert, the Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor for Reformation History at the seminary, began by saying, “So it comes down to this: twenty four and a half years of teaching, 35 years since entering graduate school and 29 since completing my PhD, 36 since ordination, 40 years since I married my first wife, eight and one-half years happily married to my dearest Ingrid, 34 and 30 years, respectively, since the births of my children, and less than a month from the birth of my twin granddaughters. What a remarkable run! Without the prayers and support of many of the people in this room, that is, without God’s mercy, I could not have made it to this day.

“How does one end this phase of one’s calling to the church and begin anew?” Wengert continued. “In my case by going back to the beginning, to a tract of Luther’s to examine," as he put it, "What does Luther mean by freedom?" He explained he has been going through “Freedom of a Christian” meticulously, word-for word, as the editor of the first volume of Augsburg Fortress’s new six-volume collection of Luther’s works, The Essential Luther. He noted he had not begun to fully comprehend what Luther was saying in the tract until he went to translate it on his own and added that Luther intended to have the tract, published in October 1520, be his “last word” as he – excommunicated by the Pope – began to prepare to meet his doom in anticipating to appear as an accused heretic before the imperial parliament that was to meet in Worms in April 1521.

Hundreds of alumni and friends constituting an overflow audience crammed the Schaeffer-Ashmead Memorial Chapel and paid tribute to Wengert before and after his remarks with lengthy applause. “No matter how long your applause lasts my remarks will not be any shorter,” he quipped at the outset. No summary will do justice to Wengert’s carefully crafted 30-pages of remarks. Here are but a few highlights.

  • Wengert cited the paradoxical sentences of Luther’s in the tract, “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful slave to all, subject to all.” He went on to discuss the freedom of faith and then talked about works of love.
  • Luther’s primary audience consisted of working pastors of the church of his day.
  • Freedom of a Christian should be read once you are in the trenches, slogging through the mud,”Wengert said. The freedom message of the tract implies a rejection of the definition of priest or cleric in Luther’s day “or frankly our own.” Such leaders, Luther noted, are called to be “serving others with the ministry of the Word in order to teach the faith of Christ and the freedom of the faithful.”  Luther upends the power politics that wounded the church of his time and ours, Wengert said. “Think of those who dream of the pastor as CEO or spiritual guru or ultimate fixer of everything wrong with our congregation, community or world. What an irony! The very ones who are free in Christ to serve the neighbor and who are entrusted with sharing this good news with others are the ones who would be anything but servant.” As a result of this perversity, Luther noted in his writing, “the knowledge of Christian grace, faith, freedom and Christ has perished entirely, only to be replaced by an intolerable captivity to human works and laws.”
  • On preaching, Wengert noted the kinds of practices Luther goes after: “Story-telling – that condemns Christ to the detritus of history and makes him simply an example, a law, of how to live our lives; self-centeredness – whether relying on human authorities and stories to give us preaching clout or, something Luther could not imagine but is so common today, talking about ourselves and our spiritual journeys; emotional manipulation – which is the sum and substance of most of what passes as preaching on the airways and in the “purpose-driven” McChurches of our day.” Preaching in a nutshell, according to Luther, promotes faith in Christ, and not simply Christ, but “Christ for you and me,” Luther wrote in the tract. The fruits of such preaching teach that “the presence of Christ’s righteousness swallows up every sin…So the heart learns with the Apostle to scoff at death and sin and to say, ‘Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. For death is swallowed up in victory – not only Christ’s but ours – because through faith it becomes our victory and is in us and we are conquerers.”  “If you have any cross-stitchers in your congregations, get them to cross-stitch that, I don’t know, on your underwear. Or, if there are any tattoo artists, ink it where the sun shines,” Wengert said.
  • An aside: “I am sick and tired of Lutherans and others who complain that Lutherans do not do good works, even blaming the grace and mercy of God for it. Our little cadre of Lutherans has built the largest private social service network in the country – not the wealthier or larger denominations which are so addicted to talking about works. Moreover, the teaching of Christian vocation in the world means that we can measure good works by how many diapers are changed and how much manure is hauled, not by all the foolishness that passes for good works in our churches today. And then, in a particularly silly book about the third use of the law, some masquerade their legalism under a concern for morality, accusing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of abandoning Biblical sexual ethics for – I don’t know what – wild orgies, I suppose, when in fact our social statement on sexuality identifies the true culprits: not homosexuals in life-long committed relationships but the commodification of sexuality and its coercive use inside and outside of marriage.”
  • On good works, citing Luther, Wengert remarked: “If works are coupled with righteousness…and you presume to be justified through them, then they become absolutely compulsory and extinguish freedom along with faith. By this kind of linkage such works are no longer good but instead truly damnable. For they are not free, and they blaspheme against the grace of God, to whom alone belongs justification and salvation through faith.”
  • On the Roman Catholic Church: “When I started working on this talk there was a different bishop in Rome. I have more hope for our churches than ever before. One can only hope Pope Francis survives given how many risks he takes. I wish I could sneak a copy of Freedom of a Christian onto his nightstand in the Vatican, so that he might read and believe. Finally, once again, the spirit of the Vatican II Council, which held 500 years ago would have drawn the Roman Church back to Luther’s proclamation and theology, blows through the churches of our separated brothers and sisters.”
  • On the tract itself: “What is so remarkable is not only the appendix or the chief intended audience but its content. Like the Augsburg Confession, here is an early Lutheran document shorn of almost all polemic and name-calling, sent with a brilliant cover letter to Pope Leo X, and filled, nay, rather, bursting at the seams with the universal, law-free gospel of God’s mercy and therefore justification by grace through faith on account of Christ alone.”
  • Prof. Wengert with current and former studentsOn faith, Wengert first cited a sentence from Luther: “Many people view the Christian faith as something easy, and quite a few people even count it as if it were related to the virtues. They do this because they have not judged faith in light of any experience, nor have they ever tasted its great power.” Wengert went on to note: “Here we are in the middle of a country obsessed – from the most liberal theologian to the most conservative, from Roman Catholic to Methodist to Mennonite and beyond – to the freedom of the will and the notion that faith is a human decision or commitment that we bring to the religious table to set the gears of God’s grace in motion. Such an approach to faith is not freedom but the worst kind of bondage – leaving people stuck wondering whether they have done enough, decided enough or gotten serious enough about God. Well, how are you doing? Faith is not an Aristotelian virtue cooked up by the soul. No, Luther insists, it is an experience. It is what happens when water and the Word hit that infant’s or adult’s head, when the wine and bread strike their tongue while the words ‘for you’ ring in their ears, or when, as in the case of my mother, standing at a trolley stop in Milwaukee, Pastor Beiderwieden’s words suddenly penetrate your heart and you are left in tears: ‘He died for me.’ Yes, Janet, her pastor replied, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
  • Quoting Luther: “You may be asking, however, how it comes about that faith alone justifies and how it confers so many treasures without works, given that so many works, ceremonies and laws are prescribed in the Scriptures. I answer this way. Before all else, remember what has been said above, namely, that faith alone without works justifies, frees and saves…The entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commands and promises. Commands, to be sure, teach what is good, but what is taught is not thereby done. For the commands show what we ought to do but do not give the power to do it. They were instead established for this: so that they may reveal individuals to themselves. Through the commands they know their inability to do good, and they despair of their own powers…Believe in Christ, in whom grace, righteousness, peace, freedom and all things are promised to you. If you believe, you will have these things. If you do not believe, you will lack them. God alone commands and God alone fulfills.”
  • On works using a personal illustration:  “We don’t have to earn anything; we don’t have to worry about whether we please God or not. After all, we do not please God except in Christ, who makes us kings and priests and gives us what we are not. Suddenly, with the burden of works and living up to God’s expectations lifted, we have all this time on our hands. It’s like, I don’t know, retiring early and being free to edit a Dictionary of Luther and the Luther Traditions, volume one of the six-volume Essential Luther, help the Metropolitan Museum of Art prepare an exhibition on the Reformation, help the Kessler Collection at Emory with the same thing, write an intellectual biography of Melanchthon. The Christian life, you see, is really like retirement: waking up each morning and saying to yourself: “What am I going to do now that I don’t have to do anything.”
  • In summary Wengert noted concluding words by Luther in the tract: “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into the neighbor – remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.”

Wengert was introduced by the Rev. Dr. John Hoffmeyer, associate professor of systematic theology at the seminary. Hoffmeyer paid tribute to Wengert as an internationally foremost scholar of Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s close Reformation era colleague; as a leader of the task force leading to the approval of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church-wide social statement on Human Sexuality (2009); and as a “teacher of the church” from whom many students learned for the first time in seminary that “God loves them unconditionally.” Hoffmeyer said that in his travels across the church “no classroom teacher’s name comes up as often as does Tim Wengert’s.”

The Rev. Ingrid Wengert and Prof. Wengert presenting their gift to the library.At the conclusion of his remarks, Wengert announced a gift for the seminary. He had discovered in his collection of books an old volume that was bound using scrap paper that contained a copy of the 1542 Luther Small Catechism. He had the scrap pieces exquisitely framed for the seminary’s Krauth Memorial Library collection, and with his wife the Rev. Ingrid Wengert presented the framed gift to Dr. Karl Krueger, director of the library. 

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert is the Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Church History at LTSP, teaching primarily in the fields of Reformation history and the Lutheran Confessions, and will be retiring at the end of 2013. A parish pastor for over seven years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, he received his doctorate from Duke University in 1984 and joined Philadelphia's faculty in 1989. Read more on Dr. Wengert's biography page.

- article written by seminary writer Mark Staples


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