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Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (2)

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This article first appeared in the November 1, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.3), the second part of an article that began in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther. It was written by Prof. Russell Dykstra, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (2)

Luther's Bondage of the Will was a thorough refutation of the notion of a free will in fallen man as set forth by the world-renowned Desiderius Erasmus in his refined discourse entitled On the Freedom of the Will. This was the crucial issue in Luther's mind. He praised Erasmus because he alone among Luther's opponents had recognized that the doctrine of free will was "the grand turning point of the cause." Luther wrote, "You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned" (Section 168).*

As noted in the first part of this article (October 15, 2001 issue), Erasmus desired that the discussion be conducted peacefully. He affirmed his belief in Scripture, but insisted that at issue was the interpretation of Scripture. He claimed that Luther stood virtually alone in his position among theologians going back to the ancient fathers.

Erasmus' arguments in support of the doctrine of free will are mainly these:

1.The fact that God commands implies that man has the ability to obey the commands. 

2.If man does not have the free will to obey God and/or to believe, then God is unjust to demand it of man. 

3.Erasmus denies that natural man can only do evil. Even the pagans, he insists, do good.

4.Erasmus maintains that natural man's will is weak, but not powerless. Man's will needs grace to accomplish the good. He distinguishes several kinds of grace supposedly given to man to assist him.

5.Perhaps the most important element in Erasmus' apology for free will is that man can merit with God.

How, then, does Luther answer this brilliant scholar and defender of free will? In a word, Luther devastates Erasmus' arguments. First of all, Luther contemns Erasmus' efforts, so much so that he considered not even answering it. Writes Luther, "On so great a subject, you say nothing but what has been said before: therefore, you say less about, and attribute more unto 'Free-will,' than the Sophists have hitherto said and attributed." Luther contends that all these arguments have often been refuted. He adds, "I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash" (Introduction).

As to the dispute itself, Luther addresses Erasmus' desire that these discussions ought to be conducted without fighting. Luther points out that this is not the way of the history of the church, or of the spread of the gospel, because

[t]he world and its god cannot and will not bear the Word of the true God: and the true God cannot and will not keep silence. While, therefore, these two Gods are at war with each other, what can there be else in the whole world, but tumult?

Therefore, to wish to silence these tumults, is nothing else, than to wish to hinder the Word of God, and to take it out of the way.... And as to myself, if I did not see these tumults, I should say the Word of God was not in the world (Section 19).

Luther identifies the central issue, and its unspeakable importance. It is essential, he writes, "for a Christian to know, whether or not the will does any thing in those things which pertain unto Salvation. Nay, let me tell you, this is the very hinge upon which our discussion turns." That, because it involves knowing what God's power does, and thus knowing God Himself. If there is anyone who yet thinks that the issue of a free will is of no importance for the Christian faith, he must hear Luther:

But if I know not the distinction between our working and the power of God, I know not God Himself. And if I know not God, I cannot worship Him, praise Him, give Him thanks, nor serve Him; for I shall not know how much I ought to ascribe unto myself, and how much unto God (Section 7).

As to the term "free-will," Luther prefers that the term never be used, because it deceives people with "the most destructive mockery." It implies that men have the power of free choice in the matter of salvation, when the opposite is true. If the term must be used, Luther would have all to remember that man has

as to his goods and possessions the right of using, acting, and omitting, according to his "Free-will"; although, at the same time, that same "Free-will" is overruled by the Free-will of God alone, just as He pleases: but that, God-ward, or in things which pertain unto salvation or damnation, he has no "Free-will," but is a captive, slave, and servant, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan (Section 26).

Luther answers the charge that he is opposed by the church of all ages, which would mean, if Luther is correct, that God allowed His church to be in error for centuries. First of all, Luther asserts that Augustine is very much in his corner, a fact that Luther demonstrates repeatedly. Secondly, he points out that the church, externally considered, from Israel to Luther's day, often did err. Yet, he insists that the church of God and the members are hidden, and that God was pleased to preserve His saints even through those times. The calling, therefore, is to try the spirits. This every Christian can and must do because, on the one hand, he has the Spirit, and, on the other hand, the Scriptures are clear. Luther demonstrates this by quoting copiously from Scripture itself. He asks rhetorically, "[I]f the Scripture be obscure or ambiguous, what need was there for its being sent down from heaven?" Then he turns the argument back on Erasmus—"And why do you also, Erasmus, prescribe to us a form of Christianity, if the Scriptures be obscure to you!" (Section 36).

It is worth noting that Luther demands logical consistency in the formulation of doctrine. He shreds Erasmus' arguments by exposing the contradictions found throughout. He notes that Erasmus' definition of free will is hopelessly vague and thus open to various interpretations. Erasmus claims that man has a will able to choose the good without grace, and in other places maintains that man can will nothing good without the grace of God. Writes Luther, "Hence then, Erasmus, outstripping all others, has two 'Free-wills'; and they, militating against each other!" (Section 48).

What then of the many conditional statements in Scripture adduced by Erasmus—"If thou wilt hear" or "if thou wilt do"? Do these prove that man has a free will to do or to hear? Or is it so, that by these God mocks man, because man cannot obey them anyway? Luther rejects those conclusions. He writes, "Why is this not rather drawn as a conclusion—therefore, God tries us, that by His law He might bring us to a knowledge of our impotency, if we be His friends; or, He thereby righteously and deservedly insults and derides us, if we be His proud enemies" (Section 52).

Similarly, Luther dismisses the Pelagian error that the various commandments of God imply that man has the ability to keep them.

And this is the place, where I take occasion to enforce this my general reply:—that man, by the words of the law, is admonished and taught what he ought to do, not what he can do: that is, that he is brought to know his sin, but not to believe that he has any strength in himself. Wherefore, friend Erasmus, as often as you throw in my teeth the Words of the law, so often I throw in yours that of Paul, "By the law is the knowledge of sin,"—not of the power of the will. Heap together, therefore, out of the large Concordances all the imperative words into one chaos, provided that, they be not words of the promise but of the requirement of the law only, and I will immediately declare, that by them is always shewn what men ought to do, not what they can do, or do do (Section 56).

Furthermore, Luther takes pains to show that Erasmus proves too much. If all these conditional sentences and commands indicate that man can will to do what God enjoins, it necessarily follows that the same statements prove that man can actually do what God commands. Repeatedly Luther reminds Erasmus of the necessary implications—there is no need for the Spirit or grace of God to work in man. He can keep the commandments; he can save himself. Indeed, there is no need even of Christ or the cross.

Luther is quick to remind Erasmus that the Scriptures present a very different picture, namely, "a man, who is not only bound, miserable, captive, sick, and dead, but who, by the operation of his lord, Satan, to his other miseries, adds that of blindness: so that he believes he is free, happy, at liberty, powerful, whole, and alive" (Section 58).

The question naturally arises, why then do some believe and obey, and others do not, if all men are in bondage. Luther asserts that this is due to the "SECRET AND TO BE FEARED WILL OF GOD, who, according to His own counsel, ordains whom, and such as He will, to be receivers and partakers of the preached and offered mercy" (Section 64). Even the conditional sentences must be understood in light of predestination. Writes Luther,

"If thou wilt": that is, if thou be such with God, that he shall deign to give thee this will to keep the commandments, thou shalt be saved. According to which manner of speaking, it is given us to understand both truths—that we can do nothing ourselves; and that, if we do any thing, God works that in us (Section 68).

Luther takes on the giant—the issue of merit. Luther rejects Erasmus' conclusion that the promises of reward prove that the will can merit with God. He reminds Erasmus that the promises are exactly that—gracious promises of what God will do. In addition, he points out that these are promises to God's people, and the promise is no longer to the supposed free will of fallen man, but to men "raised above 'Free-will' in grace, and justified" (Section 69).

As far as anyone ever being worthy of reward, that is impossible, Luther maintains. For if "Free-will" cannot of itself will good, but wills good by grace alone, (for we are speaking of "Free-will" apart from grace and inquiring into the power which properly belongs to each) who does not see, that that good will, merit, and reward, belong to grace alone (Section 70).

On the other hand, Luther draws the logical consequence that if it be allowed that man can by free will choose the good, then God is "robbed of His power and wisdom to elect." He adds:

Nay, we shall at length come to this: that men may be saved and damned without God's knowing anything at all about it; as not having determined by certain election who should be saved and who should be damned; but having set before all men in general His hardening goodness and long-suffering, and His mercy shewing correction and punishment, and left them to choose for themselves whether they would be saved or damned (Section 81).

Not only so, but Luther points to other considerations which absolutely rule out the possibility of a free will in man, namely, God's sovereignty and His foreknowledge. God is omnipotent, otherwise "He would be a ridiculous God." At the same time, God "knows and foreknows all things, and neither can err nor be deceived." The "inevitable consequence" is that there is no such thing as a free will. Luther recognizes that this is an offense to man, "that the God, who is set forth as being so full of mercy and goodness, should, of His mere will, leave men, harden them, and damn them, as though He delighted in the sins, and in the great and eternal torments of the miserable." Luther's response?

And who would not be offended? I myself have been offended more than once, even unto the deepest abyss of desperation; nay, so far, as even to wish that I had never been born a man; that is, before I was brought to know how healthful that desperation was, and how near it was unto grace (Section 94).

But that man should be offended does not lead Luther to tamper with the truth of Scripture. God is sovereign and omniscient. Man is not free, though his sins are his own, not God's, for man is not forced to sin.

Having demolished the arguments of Erasmus, Luther contends for the grace of God against free will. He demonstrates the truth from Scripture that all men are depraved, guilty, and incapable of doing or willing good. Man's salvation is all of grace. Man merits nothing. His righteousness is from Christ, imputed freely and by grace.

Hence Luther reveals the seriousness of the matter when he writes, "And I would also, that the advocates for 'Free-will' be admonished in this place, that when they assert 'Free-will,' they are deniers of Christ. For if I obtain grace by my own endeavours, what need have I of the grace of Christ for the receiving of my grace?" (Section 157). And again, "And thus, while you establish 'Free-will,' you make Christ void, and bring the whole Scripture to destruction. And though you may pretend, verbally, that you confess Christ; yet, in reality and in heart, you deny Him" (Section 159).

So far Luther, defender of the irresistible, saving grace of God in Christ. * All quotations from The Bondage of the Will are taken from the translation by Henry Cole, printed by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1976.


1. Luther's Works, vol. 26, pp. 403, 404, "Lecture on Galatians 4:9."

2. Luther's Works, vol. 31, p. 40, "Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 16." An excellent analysis of the "Heidelberg Disputation" is found in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans: 1997).

3. Luther's Works, vol. 34, p. 114, "Theses Concerning Faith, 69, 70."

4. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p. 63.

5. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, ed. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (London: James Clarke: 1957), pp. 103, 104

6. Luther's Works, vol. 31, p. 40, "Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 25, 26." Quoted from Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, pp. 103-110.

7. Luther's Works, vol. 24, pp. 264, 265, "Sermon on John 15:17, 18."

8. Quoted from Leaver, Luther on Justification, p. 81, note 55.

9. Luther's Works, vol. 29, p. 224, "Lectures on Hebrews (10:19)."

10. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1988), p. 54.

11. Luther's Works, vol. 51, p. 282, "Sermon on the Sum of the Christian Life."

12. Luther's Works, vol. 14, pp. 37, 38, "Sermon on Psalm 117."

13. Luther's Works, vol. 54, p. 340, "Table Talk."

Last modified on 20 February 2017
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Dykstra, Russell J.

Prof. Russell Dykstra (Wife: Carol)

Ordained: September 1986

Pastorates: Doon, IA - 1986; Hope, Walker, MI - 1995; PR Seminary - 1996

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