Editor's note: This article can be found at byFaithOnline and originally appeared in Covenant magazine, the quarterly magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary. © 2003 Covenant Theological Seminary.

The Reformation produced two classics on motivation in the Christian life, Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian (1520) and John Calvin’s chapter on “Christian Freedom” in the first edition ofThe Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Luther published his treatise with an open letter to Pope Leo X in the hope of reconciliation with Rome. Of this work author and theologian John Dillenberger remarks, “If one were to single out one short document representing the content and spirit of Luther’s faithThe Freedom of a Christian would undoubtedly be at the top.”

Luther’s aim was to defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone and to show its implications for the Christian life. “Our faith in Christ,” he wrote, “does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.”

The motive of proving oneself worthy of salvation Luther discerned to be self-serving and inhibiting. The gospel of justification by faith renders works unnecessary for acceptance by God. “Therefore [the Christian] should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor.”

For Calvin also, Christian freedom was a matter of intense pastoral concern. “Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God … that are perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or tormented about the use of things indifferent.” The doctrine of justification is the answer to the first problem, the doctrine of adoption the answer to the second, and the doctrine of creation the answer to the third.

Christian liberty and liberty of conscience are also subjects of a Westminster Confession of Faith chapter, the first paragraph of which is a particularly helpful summary of the doctrine articulated by Luther and Calvin in the preceding century. “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind" (20.1).

“Slavish fear” refers to conformity to moral law motivated by the threat of punishment. But this is not what the Bible means by obedience. As Augustine observed, “if the commandment be done through fear of penalty and not through love of righteousness, it is done in the temper of servitude not freedom — and therefore it is not done at all.” A “child-like love,” on the other hand, is motivated by the thought of pleasing one’s heavenly Father and so yields the true obedience of a willing mind. The gospel’s glory is that it creates such motivation, though not without internal struggle, as the apostle Paul himself attests (Romans 7:21-25).