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How Free are We?

Martin Luther had some very strong feelings about our free will or lack thereof. Below is a short essay I wrote concerning his work Bondage of the Will.

In Bondage of the Will, Luther is responding to Erasmus’ writing of The Freedom of the Will from a number of different perspectives with appropriate arguments for each. What Luther keeps returning to however, is his Augustinian heritage. Augustine taught that sin was a curving in or turning in toward oneself.[1] That being the case, the human will was infected with evil and unable to choose correctly. Luther states unequivocally that “…free choice is a pure fiction.[2]

Luther supports his response to Erasmus’ arguments using the scripture and reason. Arguing from Pauline epistles, Luther states that according to Paul, “Universal sinfulness nullifies free choice.”[3] His argument follows that all are under God’s wrath, even the very best philosphers and religious people, Jew and Gentile alike. That being the case, Luther writes, that since all are deemed corrupt by God, “Where now is the power of free choice to attempt anything good? Paul represents it as deserving the wrath of God, and pronounces it ungodly and wicked… [it] strives and prevails against grace, not for grace.”[4] He continually returns throughout the document to this theme. If the will is corrupt, it cannot please God. Any striving or willing by our own will works against God’s grace. For Luther, the crux of Paul’s argument is that because of humanity’s rebellion against God, we are unable to come to God, therefore each person needs God’s grace. “But if they were able to initiate anything of themselves, there would be no need of grace.”[5] Our efforts cannot please God in any way. Redemption and justification of sinful human beings must be God’s work of grace.

Luther’s Pauline argument continues stating that perhaps by our will the works of the Law can be done, but that does not mean that we are fulfilling the Law.[6] In this section, Luther appeals primarily to Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians where Paul so thoroughly teaches regarding the inability of the Law to save anyone. Again, Luther uses Paul’s arguments that non-Jews were found righteous without the Law (Rom 3:21-25). He continues that God finds no distinction between Jewish or Gentile believers in Christ.[7] In Christ, all are made righteous apart from works of the Law, apart from our own doing, apart from our will. It is all due to God’s grace, not our effort.

Luther’s argument continues with Paul’s example of Abraham’s faith, distinguishing a righteousness of works versus that of faith.[8] Luther’s case is that Abraham was justified by grace as a gift. If we look to our “free wills,” then grace and gift are mere empty, meaningless words. Without freedom of choice, there is no room for merits.[9] Luther’s interpretation of Paul is very cut and dry: one is justified by God’s grace or if one tries to justify oneself by one’s will, then it is no longer God’s gift of grace. One cannot have it both ways.

Luther appeals to John as well. In this section, Luther appears to be quite dualistic. There are two kingdoms: one is Christ’s and one is Satan’s. Free choice is equated with the world and the flesh, which belong in Satan’s kingdom while grace is by faith through Christ. They are understood as polar opposites.[10]

In the section entitled The Mercy and Justice of God in the Light of Nature, Grace, and Glory, Luther’s argument compares humanity’s understanding, strength, power etc. are nothing at all compared to the majesty, wisdom, and power of God almighty.[11] He refers to three “lights,” that of nature, of grace, and of glory.[12] Concerning issues of theodicy, humankind is unable to understand God’s purposes by simply the lights of nature and grace. In the light of glory however, we understand God’s righteous and perfect judgments.[13] Again we have the distinction of the human viewpoint (free choice) compared to the divine (grace).

To summarize, Luther’s argument is as follows: sin incapacitates us from working out our own salvation. We are all alike condemned. The human will is so severely affected by the Fall that we only will to do evil. Unredeemed humanity is dominated by the devil. When redeemed, the entire person is redeemed. We are thereby liberated to serve God. Truly, free will is non-existent for Luther. The whole gospel of grace is bound up in the decision we make concerning “free will.”

This is a theme that runs throughout Luther’s teaching, that of God’s grace that does for us what we are utterly incapable of doing for ourselves. In Luther’s later work, The Small Catechism, he succinctly sums up his position on our power to save ourselves in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him…”[14] That, in a nutshell, is the gist of Luther on free choice. I must agree with him. I can appreciate Erasmus’ position. It is a tempting one, but I believe Luther’s argument holds.

[1] Dr. Gerald Christianson, The Early Church and its Creeds lecture.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Second Edition, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 168.

[3] Ibid., 169.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 173.

[6] Ibid., 174.

[7] Ibid., 178.

[8] Ibid., 182.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 192.

[11] Ibid., 193.

[12] Ibid., 194.

[13] Ibid., 195.

[14] Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Second Edition, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 323.

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Jeff Branch said…
Great topic as I have heard some different things on this recently. Would love to read this without all the code in the way!
Ivy said…
Yeah, I basically copied and pasted it from an essay for class for which I needed the footnotes.

It was a revelation to me however, when I studied Luther's work on the will. So often, as Christians, we think we have such free will. We don't realize how deeply scarred we are by sin.


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