Posted on Leave a comment

Man’s Inability and the Bondage of the Will

Man’s Inability and the Bondage of the Willby Charles Fry /

LUTHER’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE GOSPEL, Part 5

Man’s Inability and the Bondage of the Will

It was September of 1524 when the great Humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, published Diatribe, which we mentioned briefly previously in this series. This was Erasmus’ first public attack on Luther’s teaching. In it, he opposed Luther’s view of free will. Erasmus believed that Christian conduct—good morals and right behavior—was the primary way by which people could please God, and he downplayed Luther’s emphasis on salvation being a matter of God’s grace, not man’s works. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston have observed that Erasmus did not even consider free will to be an especially significant issue. Instead, Erasmus believed that Luther had blown the doctrine’s importance out of proportion.[i] In other words, Erasmus accused Luther of making much ado about nothing.

Erasmus’ approach seemed humble and self-deprecating, which is often how false teaching comes across as reasonable and acceptable to the general public. But Luther found Erasmus’ attack and his trivialization of free will infuriating. In response, Luther cast off all restraint: he responded by writing his blistering work, On the Bondage of the Will, which attacked the teaching that man’s will is free with respect to salvation.

Three Problems with Free Will

Salvation by works. Luther understood free will as being at the very heart of the gospel. He realized that if man’s will is truly free, then man is capable of keeping God’s law perfectly and thus earning a right standing with God.

Remember that Luther had tried himself to behave perfectly before God, and failed. Every monk he had ever known had failed. Every Jew in the Old Testament—indeed, every person in the Bible, except Jesus, had failed. To Luther, Scripture itself explained why free will was a false notion, and therefore why every person other than Jesus has always failed and will always fail to behave in a way that God finds acceptable.

In other words, Luther realized that if man’s will is free, he can save himself through works, without any help from the perfect life and sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.

Read all the posts published to date in this extended series on the life and theology of Martin Luther, as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of the Reformation.

Salvation by decision. Luther also recognized a second, separate, fundamental problem: if man has free will he can choose to believe. This means that a person with free will can—indeed, he must—contribute to his own salvation. Such a choice thus becomes a necessary element of every Christian’s salvation. A person’s eternal destiny thus comes to rest in his or her own decision, rather than in the sovereign decree of the Triune God.

Shared glory. Finally, Luther noted that if one held to the doctrine of free will, glory does not go to God alone. It is shared with man who has chosen God.

For all these reasons, Luther thought the concept of free will established man as judge and arbiter over God. He keenly observed that Erasmus’s thoughts started with man and not with God. Therefore, in writing to Erasmus he stated, “Your thoughts of God are too human.”[ii]

Two Fruits of Rejecting Free Will

If man does not have free will with respect to salvation, then we must consider his will in this area to be bound. In On the Bondage of the Will, Luther gave two reasons why the doctrine of man’s bound will is critical to understanding the nature of the gospel.

Humility. First, when man comes to see his will as bound, his pride is humbled and he comes to understand grace:

God has surely promised his grace to the humbled: that is, to those who mourn over and despair of themselves. But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realises that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will, and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure, and work of another—God alone.[iii]

Faith. Second, the teaching that man’s will is bound safeguards the nature of faith: man must walk by faith and not by sight, by what God has declared rather than by what he thinks should be true. “Faith’s object is things unseen. That there may be room for faith, therefore, all that is believed must be hidden… Thus, when God quickens, He does so by killing; when He justifies, He does so by pronouncing guilty; when He carries up to heaven, He does so by bringing down to hell.”[iv] The scriptural teaching of man’s will being bound forces one either to humbly trust God’s wisdom or to rely on man’s own reasoning.

“Am I of the Elect?”

Luther knew that the teaching of the bondage of the will, along with predestination (that before the creation of the universe God had already selected specific individuals to be saved) should be handled pastorally. For those who wondered if they were of the elect (that is, predestined), he warned against trying to answer this question by looking at predestination; if one did this, he would be driven to endless despair and caught in a firestorm of anguish and doubt. Rather, look at Christ and the gospel promise. Hear the good news and believe!

A World Upside Down; Four Essays on the Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. FryIt’s actually not complicated: if you want Christ and the gospel, you are one of his elect. This is how you will know if you are God’s child. To start instead with predestination would be to try to climb into heaven and see the hidden counsel of God, which will crush a person. One should not build his or her assurance on the hidden counsel of God—that is, by starting with the question, “Am I elect?” Rather, Luther counseled to begin with Christ and his being freely offered and known by the promise of the gospel offer.

It would be disastrous and absurd to build one’s faith and assurance on the secret counsel of God’s predestination. Rather, build on the foundation: Christ. Here, the Lord is freely offered and freely known. Only by starting with Christ the foundation can one move on to knowing that one is predestined.

Luther’s younger contemporary, John Calvin, was of one heart with Luther regarding this counsel. Calvin went to great length in his Institutes in pastorally handling predestination and urged one to look only at Christ to know if one was saved. The only safe way one could consider his own election was by looking at Jesus and the free gospel offer.

He who believes has everlasting life. Don’t look at anything from within you. Don’t try to discover the hidden counsel of God. Rather, simply believe the good news of great joy. The promise of the gospel is the primary way, Calvin taught, that one can be assured that he or she is elect.

The bondage of the will was a treasured theme for Luther that went back to his early years as a reformer—to 1518, when he wrote his Heidelberg Disputation (this work will be more fully discussed in future posts). He considered the truth of man’s bound will to be a doctrine that gave all glory to God and humbled man’s pride; it safeguarded grace (theses 13­18 of the Disputation) and let God be God. Indeed, this theme was precious to Luther and appeared in his teaching to the end of his days.

Part 14 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.

Charles E. Fry

Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.

[i] J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (eds.), Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will 1525 (Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957), 41.

[ii] Ibid, 87.

[iii] Ibid., 100.

[iv] Ibid., 101.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *