When was the last time you found yourself in an ethical dilemma? Maybe it was while you were doing your taxes or in a situation at school or at work. Perhaps it was at a hospital or doctor’s office, dealing with a medical crisis. Maybe it was in an offhand conversation with a friend, where suddenly you found yourself wondering about the right thing to say. Sometimes we know what the right thing is and just don’t want to do it. At other times we don’t even know what’s “right.” There might be two rights, but which one is “right-er”? Or maybe there are only two wrongs, but which option is less-wrong?
Our life in community—human life in general—is messy and complicated. We deeply desire clear rules and uniform behavior, but instead we get exceptions, aberrations and irregularities.
Most of us want to be “ethical” people—we want to be good and do right. Lutherans know that trying to live by unbreakable moral rules rarely works out, simply because we are broken people in a broken world, and no amount of moral effort can put us back together again—only Christ can do that. Nevertheless, we are called to life in the world, so indecision and moral paralysis simply aren’t long-term options. In the face of moral quandaries and ethical predicaments, we are called to do something, say something—but what?
Christians bound by two-sided freedom
Lutherans do have a clear theological principle on which we can ground ethical speech and actions, a principle that comes from Martin Luther—freedom. And it’s two-sided: freedom from fear and anxiety, and a freedom for bold, risk-taking action.
One of Luther’s most famous treatises is On the Freedom of a Christian, written in 1520. Reformation historian Timothy Wengert calls it “a nonpolemical tract describing the heart of his beliefs” (The Annotated Luther; Fortress Press, 2015). In this treatise, Luther asserts: “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Far from being contradictory, these two assertions sum up the entire life of a Christian and indicate exactly how we are to live our life. The first is the “freedom from”—let’s call this the grounding freedom of a Christian’s life. The second is the “freedom for”—let’s call this the driving freedom of a Christian’s life.
“The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Grounding freedom, essential for the “inner person,” emphasizes that we Christians are entirely free from the wrenching, paralyzing anxiety that we must first please God so that God might love, forgive and save us. On the contrary, realized Luther, in Christ we already have been justified, reconciled with God, and therefore can do nothing to earn righteousness and salvation. All that is needful already has been done for us, and therefore neither our salvation nor anyone else’s is at stake in any ethical decision we make.
The end of Romans 8 says nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”—not even a bad ethical decision! Therefore, the first ethical principle for Lutherans is that our decisions are neither governed nor motivated by a desire to prove to God or anyone else that we are “good enough” for salvation. Our ethical choices aren’t the proof of our salvation or our good standing as Christians.
The other side of Luther’s twofold coin of Christian liberty is the “freedom for”—the very reason God has set us free. Luther was clear that the grounding inner freedom is meant to be lived out and expressed in the “outer person.” Grounded in Christ’s freedom, we are driven to express faith through love for the neighbor.
Our overriding concern in making ethical decisions then is: What best serves the flourishing of our neighbor? In Luther’s words again: “For this reason, in all of one’s works a person should … be shaped by and contemplate this thought alone: to serve and benefit others in everything that may be done, having nothing else in view except the need and advantage of the neighbor.”
The joy of freedom: Being Christs to each other
Grounded in God’s love and driven to serve the neighbor, we can live joyfully even when faced with vexing ethical decisions and dilemmas. Luther expresses one of his most well-known ideas—the exhortation to be as Christ toward one another: “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.”
“I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.”
We see a mandate that is both unequivocally clear and still allows maximum flexibility. Depending on the need and the situation of the neighbor at any given time, our discernment and actions might vary—but the core principle of neighbor-love remains the same.
Of course, this does not solve all our problems. People don’t always agree on who their neighbor is in a specific situation, nor does everyone understand the flourishing of the neighbor in the same way. Both as individuals and as a community, our brokenness will not be fully healed until the eschaton (the final event in the divine plan). Yet, freedom in Christ is a start—and a good place to start at that. Luther reminds us that because we already have been saved, justified and redeemed, we can act with daring and boldness for the sake of neighbor, even if such action makes us look foolish or brings criticism.
What do we care if we are sometimes misunderstood? We know our calling—to live joyfully in Christ for one another!
The author gives a “shout out” to Fortress Press, which is providing every seminarian and faculty member at ELCA seminaries a free copy of Luther’s treatise, excerpted from volume one of its new six-volume series, The Annotated Luther.