Basel: Adam Petri, 1521.
Quarto: 19.8 x 14.5 cm.  lvs. (- final blank). Collation: A-D4 (-D4 blank)
FIRST BASEL EDITION. (1st ed. Wittenberg 1520)
Bound in modern blind-ruled vellum. A good if worn copy, contents soiled, especially the opening leaves; small tape repair to blank verso of title, one blank corner with small chip (not affecting the text), gatherings guarded in the gutter.
One of Luther’s three landmark works of 1520, here in the original German-language version, which preceded Luther’s Latin edition. The Latin contained a letter to Pope Leo X while the German has in its place a preface addressed to Hermann Mühlpfort.
“The differences between the two tracts [the Latin and the German] arose in part out of the slightly different audiences for them: the one is addressed to theologians, clerics, and church leaders (for whom Latin was the common language), and one addressed to the German- speaking public, which included the nobility, townsfolk, the lesser clergy, and others who could read (or have Luther’s writings read to them.)” (Wengert)
“The Freedom of a Christian Man” is the third and final of Martin Luther’s tracts of 1520 in which the Reformer sets forth the principles of his Reformation theology. In the first, “An Address to the Nobility of the German Nation”, Luther challenged the Church’s power in secular matters and called upon the laity, the “priesthood of all believers”, to take an active role in bringing about the reformation of the Church. In the second work, “Prelude to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, Luther attacked the legitimacy of the papacy, denying that the pope was Christ’s representative on earth, and published his radical critique of the sacramental system.
In this third work, Luther explains that a Christian is dependent not on the Church or good works for his salvation but only on the Word of God (sola scriptura), which he must receive in faith, for it is only through faith (sola fide) that a person can be saved. It is, in many ways, Luther’s “enchiridion”, a handbook of the core principles that should guide a Christian’s conduct. In his introductory letter to Leo X, Luther writes of his book, “It is a small book if you look to its size but, unless I am mistaken, it is a summary of the Christian life put together in small compass, if you apprehend its meaning.”
In “The Freedom of a Christian Man,” Luther reveals the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be “an emancipation, through faith, of the individual Christian from the bondage of external works”. Luther is quick to emphasize, however, that although the individual does not need to perform works to attain salvation, he is still obliged to work in service of his fellow man, selflessly and without a desire for reward.
“If faith alone justifies, why concern ourselves with works? If, Luther replies, man were a purely spiritual being works would, indeed, be superfluous. He would forthwith attain by faith to the fullness of the inner, spiritual life. But he is a being of flesh and blood, not of pure spirit, and can only advance in the spiritual life by the practice of self-discipline and service for others…
“He considers the subject from the point of the individual and from that of the individual in relation to others. Individual self-discipline is an essential of the Christian life. But here, too, the motive principle must be faith, which creates the aspiration and lends the inspiration to do what is pleasing to God. Works of this kind are to be done solely in this spirit and with this object, not with a view to justification and not as merits to this end…
“In discussing the subject from the point of view of the relation of the individual to others, he gives expression to a splendid Christian altruism. It would, indeed, be difficult to find a finer expression of it. Faith works by love and of this love service for the common benefit is an instinctive, inherent element, though here again he warns against the tendency to do this service in a wrong spirit and for a wrong object:
“Lastly we shall speak of those works which we are to exercise towards our neighbor. For man lives not for himself alone in the works that he does in this mortal life, but for all men on earth, yea he lives only for others and not for himself. For to this end he subjects his body in order that he may be able the more freely and wholeheartedly to serve others, as Paul says in Romans xiv. : ‘For none of us liveth to himself and none dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord.’ It is not possible, therefore, to take his ease in this life and abstain from works towards his neighbor. For, as has been said, he must perforce live and have converse with men, as Christ, made in the likeness of men and found in fashion as a man, lived among and had intercourse with men. . . . To this end the Christian must have a care for his own body and strive to maintain it in health and fitness in order to be able to minister to the help of those who are in need, so that the strong may serve the weak and we may be sons of God, caring and laboring the one for the other, mutually bearing each others’ burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Behold this is the truly Christian life –which with joy and love makes itself profitable in the freest service, serving feely and willingly, providing abundantly out of the fullness and riches of its faith.”(Mackinnon, “Luther and the Reformation,” Vol II).
VD16 L 7200; Benzing 746; Knaake I, 194; Hieronymus, Schwabe/Petri 97a