The Will Still Bound 500 Years Later

Martin Luther believed that only a handful of his many, many writings were worth preserving. I beg to differ with the great Reformer on that point, but I certainly agree with him that of all his writings, The Bondage of the Will is certainly one of his best. (The other books Luther thought worth preserving, if you care, are Commentary on GalatiansCommentary on Deuteronomy, and On Christian Freedom.)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I probably don’t need to say much by way of introduction to Martin Luther, especially given the festivities taking place around the world for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. If you haven’t already, you should take some time and read up on the event. And if you’re looking for a place to start, I’ll throw some book recommendations up at the end of this post. Needless to say, we should all be thankful to God for His generous provision of a preacher who reminded the world of the Gospel and dispelled the darkness into which the church had fallen.

But what was the nature of this darkness? Anyone who has even briefly studied Luther or his writings knows about the contrast between justification by faith alone and the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith and love (or, as Luther would have described it, “justification by works”). Yet, Luther believed that this was in some ways only a surface discussion. It wasn’t until Erasmus released his defense of free will that Luther believed the true heart of the debate had been revealed.

Erasmus had argued that God would not have given us rules to keep if He didn’t think we were capable of keeping them. The resulting theology says that salvation must consist of Christ paying for our sins on the cross, but also of us choosing to accept that payment and living to the best of our abilities the life of obedience. To use a more modern jingle: Do your best and God will take care of the rest. Salvation becomes a team-up between us engaging our free will and God performing a mopping-up action. To be sure Erasmus and the Roman Catholic Church give their nods to the idea of ‘grace’, but it is most often a graciously provided opportunity for salvation, rather than a graciously provided effective salvation.

Luther’s reply is not really a philosophical response–for that, the world would have to wait for John Calvin and (especially) Jonathan Edwards (the latter dealt with here). Instead, Luther’s reply is deeply pastoral. For example, what are the implications if we assume that God does not actually save people, but instead merely provides the opportunity for us to accept the offered salvation? This is a question with pastoral implications not just for our free will, but for God’s sovereignty overall:

“It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will.” (80)
“For if you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises?” (83-84)

In other words, our wills are bound by God’s power and decree. Again, Calvin and Edwards would add nuance to this argument, as well as theological and philosophical support. But Luther’s pastoral point is the one that matters at the end of the day: either you are relying on your own will for your salvation, in which case God’s promises of salvation for His people are contingent on you and God’s sovereignty is nonexistent with regard to the central promises of the Bible; or our wills are bound and we need God to do all the work of saving us. In that case, the promises of God stand as they are fulfilled by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that sets God’s people free from sin. Exactly as God promised.

So go and read Luther on the bondage of the will, and rejoice in the joy of knowing that your salvation doesn’t hang on you, it rests on the promise of what God has done in His Son.

For more on Luther and the Reformation:

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he keeps the Reformation alive and thriving.

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