Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Guest Blog: Bondage Of The Will


By Frank Marron (Lutheran)

Due primarily to the increasing pressures from the writings of Martin Luther stressing needed reform in the medieval church, supporters of the papacy turned to the most respected scholar of the period, Desiderius Erasmus, to come to the aid of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Erasmus was initially sympathetic with Luther's call for corrections within the medieval church, he was compelled to engage Luther to maintain his standing in the church. On September 1, 1524, Erasmus printed his Diatribe seu collatio de libero arbitrio (Discussion, or Collation, concerning Free-Will). Luther's response to this Diatribe was his treatise The Bondage Of The Will, appearing in December 1525. Martin Luther considered this treatise to be his finest writing and thanked Erasmus for getting straight to the heart of the most critical aspect of the Reformation: man's will in spiritual matters.

The Treatise contains reviews of the position of Erasmus and Luther's responses to such claims. The final sections deal with Luther's biblically based proofs that with respect to spiritual matters, man has no ability to even desire goodness or truth(1Cor 2:14). Luther skillfully utilizes Holy Scripture alone to make his case, claiming the superiority of the Word of God over human reason and philosophy. Luther emphasizes the plain words of Holy Scripture and criticizes the attempts of Erasmus to elevate human reason and logic over plain text of Holy Scripture in order to substantiate "free-will" on the part of unconverted man. Luther, consistent with our Lutheran Confessions, maintained that Christ is a higher authority than any early Church Father, such as Origen or Jerome, and that these men often erred in their teachings based upon the infallible Word of God. Luther maintained that men's ordinances cannot be observed together with the Word of God, and that the former bind consciences and the latter looses them. Luther maintained that brilliant minds in history searched for "truth" and yet they were not part of the True Church, which is hidden - that the appeal by Erasmus to such men, even early Church Fathers, proves nothing: the saints of God are hidden with Christ. They are the remnant of each generation(1Kings 19:18; Romans 9:27) led by the Spirit of God(Romans 8:14) - Christ abides with them until the end(Matthew 28:20).


Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. These "Theses" were a list of abuses which had crept into the medieval church and was a call for discussion




Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was a noted scholar and humanist. Luther highly appreciated his fine scholarship which resulted in a comprehensive Greek New Testament translation.



Based upon Holy Scripture alone, Luther demonstrates that all men are born in bondage to sin and that only through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit can man come to receive and believe in the true God, as revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ(John 1:12-13; 1Cor 2:10ff). Without the Holy Spirit, all attempts by man to understand spiritual truths fail. Indeed, everything man does prior to conversion is sinful in the eyes of God. The distinction is made between "free will" and "free choice". Only those converted to and abiding in Christ have "free choice", and with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit produce spiritual good works, referred to as "fruits of the Holy Spirit"(Galatians 5:22ff). Since unbelievers are in bondage to sin, the only "free will" they have is to will to sin. God is interested in a man's motives. Without the Holy Spirit all motives are self-centered and sinful, despite outward appearances. Another way of considering this is that unbelievers can perform "good works" in the temporal kingdom - the world, and even be recognized and rewarded for them. But from God's perspective in His Kingdom, all "good works" done without faith in Christ are still sinful(Hebrews 11:6). And of course, nothing except the sacrifice of Christ can atone for the sins of the world(John 3:16).

Luther stresses the words of Jesus in John's Gospel where we are told a man must be born again to enter God's Kingdom(John 3::3ff). Luther also references:

John 1:12-13
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Man is saved monergistically - by the Grace of God alone, not of his own will. Luther shows that through Baptism a man receives forgiveness of sins and is sealed with the Holy Spirit. According to the Scriptures, saving Faith comes through the Word of God, through Baptism, and the Lord's Supper.


Lucas Cranach Altar Panel painting depicting the administration of the Sacraments



Luther maintained that man is born in bondage to sin and apart from the Holy Spirit he goes on willing and desiring to do evil. That is why the Scriptures say that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh(Exodus). Pharaoh was in bondage to sin and without the Spirit he could only resist God and become hardened. Luther makes the interesting comparison that man's will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God goes(Psalm 73:22-23). If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. The riders themselves fight to decide who shall ride man. Man has no control over the situation.

Luther maintained that the Scriptures are perspicuous, both internally and externally. Internally believers have the Holy Spirit Who enables him to discern truth(1Cor 2:15). Externally there is the public ministry of the Word that administers the Sacraments and the Scriptures themselves interpret and clarify: Scripture interprets Scripture. Clear passages shed light upon cloudy ones.Whenever men claim the Scriptures are unclear, these are "maniacs' dreams". If the Scriptures are unclear, how are the teachings of men more clear?

Luther maintained that the Diatribe was not able to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. He used the terms "Imperative" and "Indicative". For example, Erasmus maintained that the following verse championed his theory of "free-will":

Deut. 30:19
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,

This verse is Law, not Gospel(Promise). This verse states what man ought to do(Imperative - Law), not what he is able to do(Indicative-Gospel). Many people today have similar difficulties understanding Scripture. They are unable to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. They do not know that the primary purpose of Law is to show man's sin(Romans 3:20), not to enable a man to keep the Law by his own strength! As Luther states: "…the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them proud, blind man may learn the plaque of his own impotence, should he try to do what is commanded….the work of Moses is…through the law to lay open to man his own wretchedness, so that, by thus breaking him down, and confounding him in his self-knowledge, he may make him ready for grace, and send him to Christ to be saved." Luther further maintained that the Diatribe could not distinguish between "God preached" and "God hidden". That man only knows what God has revealed to him in His Word. Therefore we know God desires all men to be saved(1Tim 2:4) and therefore it is our own fault if we perish. Why all men are not saved is part of the unrevealed, or hidden will of God and man should not question the Creator Who made him(Romans 9:20). Therefore, the Diatribe, by quoting passages of Scripture which are to be read in the Indicative, not Imperative, are making the same error as many early Church Fathers quoted by Erasmus. They fail to realize:

Mark 10:27
Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God."

Without the Holy Spirit man can do nothing. The Diatribe reads Scripture as statements what unregenerated man can do, rather than descriptions of the status of believers abiding in Christ. He is the vine, believers are the branches - without Him we can do nothing(John15:1ff). Nevertheless, unbelievers continue to demand that God should act according to their idea of right!

Luther maintained that man always attempts to reconcile God's will with his own, and therefore even those in hell still complain to God! Man simply cannot let God be God and realize he cannot possibly understand everything about God, such as His foreknowledge. Man can only understand what God has chosen to reveal to him in His Word. Although many learned men and early Church Fathers, such as Jerome and Origen, have attempted to reconcile the hidden will of God with their own logic and reasoning, these men have erred. Erasmus and men like him, by quoting Jerome rather than Holy Scripture, have also erred. The fact that God determined the elder shall serve the younger(Jacob and Essau - Romans 9:12) is simply the hidden will of God. Paul teaches that faith and unbelief come to us by no work of our own, but through the love and hatred of God. When faith has come to men, He exhorts them to persevere, lest they be cut off. But exhortation establishes only what we ought to do, and not what we can.

Luther concludes by restating his position:

-All men are born into sin and are in bondage to it. Without enlightenment of the Holy Spirit it is impossible for any man to know spiritual truth(Romans 5:12; 1Cor 2:14)

-No man can come to God unless he draws man to Himself(John 6:44).

-The world is ignorant of sin, but the Holy Spirit reproves the world of sin(John 16:19). Therefore it is sin not to believe in Christ.

-Man must be born again of Spirit and water to enter His Kingdom(Baptism)(John 3:5ff)

-"Free-Will" denies the Grace of God and the absolute necessity of the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to receive Christ and saving Faith

-All believers are New Creations by the Holy Spirit, neither male nor female, slave nor free, but one in Christ(Galatians 3:28; Gal 6:15; 2Cor 5:7).

-Although the Church is hidden, on the Last Day it shall be revealed(Col 3:4)-The appeal by Erasmus to ancient writings and the authority of early Church Fathers is folly. Only Holy Scripture is infallible and is to be the standard by which we know spiritual truth


Read More From Frank Marron:

Guest Blogger: Frank Marron (Lutheran)

Guest Blog: Law & Gospel

Guest Blog: The Word Of The Lord Endures forever, Not The words Of Martin Luther!

Guest Blog:Why Are There So Many Christian Denominations?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Paul L. Says:

June 7th, 2006 at 3:28 pm
Hi Frank, do you know if Luther’s Dung Hill story is a myth. I called in to a local Christian Talk Host who is also a Lutheran pastor and was told it was an (urban?) legend. Paul.

James Swan said...

Hi Paul,

Frank may have his own take on this, but i've never seen an actual quote on this.

It does seem to me like something Luther could've said:

“Into the world that we might live through Him. This is an emphatic statement, since the kingdoms of the devil, by which the elect are oppressed, are in the world. Consider the inestimable love of God, and show me a religion that could proclaim a similar mystery. Therefore let us embrace Christ, who was delivered for us, and His righteousness; but let us regard our righteousnesses as dung, so that we, having died to sins, may live to God alone." (LW 30:294)

"Explanation of Martin Luther: It is customary to ask whether it is permissible for a man to glory in the righteousness of the law and the performance of his duty, as Paul glories, although our righteousness is imperfect, yes, dung and uncleanness before God. I say that it is so." (LW 34:178)

"Explanation of Martin Luther: I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so. It does not hurt the sun, because it sends its rays into the sewer." (LW 34: 184)

Note that the emphasis for Luther is the comparison between our righteousness and Christ's. This is key with Luther. He reveled in contrast and comparison. It would be something Luther would’ve probably said, but probably only to point out the comparison between our righteousness and Christ’s.

FM483 said...

I think you have it James. According to Luther, the Lutheran Confessions, and Holy Scripture, only the alien Righteousness imputed to man through the vehicle of faith counts. Everything else, although it might avail much in the temporal realm, the world, is actually worthless as far as salvation is concerned. In fact, in Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, written in 1518, which shows him really breaking from Roman Catholicism, he sees the “good works” of men as mortal sin if they are not viewed as such! The point being made was: whenever you consider a good work as totally sinless and perfect, it has automatically become mortal sin. It separates you from the beautiful Gospel by attempting to contribute to your approval before a Just God on account of your works, however little that may be. Absolutely nothing must come between you and God except the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Consider these verses:

Philip. 3:8-9
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, [9] And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:



Notice the KJV translation uses the word “dung” in verse 8.


Hope this contributes something! FrankMarron

Anonymous said...

Thanks guys, I appreciate your feedback and I am enjoying your articles very much. Paul.