Monday, December 03, 2018

Luther: "If any man ascribes anything of salvation, even the very least thing, to the free will of man, he knows nothing of grace, and he has not learned Jesus Christ rightly"

I was asked about the authenticity of this quote:

This image above is typical of the many presentations of this quote. A simple Google search demonstrates its popularity; it's been cut-and-pasted endlessly. What I found interesting is that I didn't come across a lot of Lutheran websites using the quote. Rather, it appears to be most popular with those of a Calvinistic bent. Similarly, many of Luther's comments about free-will are more popular with Calvinists than Lutherans, at least that's been my experience... that's a topic though for another day. However pithy, witty, or heartwarming (particularly to Calvinists) this quote may be,  I'm not convinced Luther penned it.

The English form of the quote is easy enough to track down. It comes from the sermon, Free Will a Slave by C.H. Spurgeon.  Commenting on John 5:40, Spurgeon states:
This is one of the great guns of the Arminians, mounted upon the top of their walls, and often discharged with terrible noise against the poor Christians called Calvinists. I intend to spike the gun this morning, or, rather, to turn it on the enemy, for it was never theirs; it was never cast at their foundry at all, but was intended to teach the very opposite doctrine to that which they assert. Usually, when the text is taken, the divisions are: First, that man has a will. Secondly, that he is entirely free. Thirdly, that men must make themselves willing to come to Christ, otherwise they will not be saved. Now, we shall have no such divisions; but we will endeavour to take a more calm look at the text; and not, because there happen to be the words "will," or "will not" in it, run away with the conclusion that it teaches the doctrine of free-will. It has already been proved beyond all controversy that free-will is nonsense. Freedom cannot belong to will any more than ponderability can belong to electricity. They are altogether different things. Free agency we may believe in, but free-will is simply ridiculous. The will is well known by all to be directed by the understanding, to be moved by motives, to be guided by other parts of the soul, and to be a secondary thing. Philosophy and religion both discard at once the very thought of free-will; and I will go as far as Martin Luther, in that strong assertion of his, where he says, "If any man doth ascribe aught of salvation, even the very least, to the free-will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright." It may seem a harsh sentiment; but he who in his soul believes that man does of his own free-will turn to God, cannot have been taught of God, for that is one of the first principles taught us when God begins with us, that we have neither will nor power, but that he gives both; that he is "Alpha and Omega" in the salvation of men.
The Spurgeon Center cites the date of the sermon as December 2, 1855. The date is relevant in trying to determine where Spurgeon took the quote from. Spurgeon's primary language was English. During this time period, there was only a limited pool of Luther's writings available in English. I think it's safe to rule out Spurgeon reading Luther in German; Spurgeon's education was limited, and I don't think he knew German. This is not to imply that Spurgeon was not intelligent or intellectual. I've read that he may have had a photographic memory. This website states, "Spurgeon had no formal education beyond Newmarket Academy, which he attended from August 1849 to June 1850, but he was very well-read in Puritan theology, natural history, and Latin and Victorian literature." Christian History says he was tutored in Greek and "his personal library eventually exceeded 12,000 volumes." Spurgeon's autobiography states his study of Latin began in 1845. So, it's possible Spurgeon could have read Luther in Latin. 

The pool, therefore, of  where Spurgeon could have taken the quote, even excluding German texts, is rather large: Luther's Latin writings, or perhaps a secondary source which simply cited it. It could have easily been something he picked up from a secondary Puritan source.  Despite this mountain of possible texts, in English, there are two specific books from Luther that discuss "free will" both very popular, and available to Spurgeon in 1855. 

The first is Henry Cole's 1823 English translation of Luther's De Servo Arbitrio (On The Bondage of the Will). There's nothing exactly matching the quote in question, but Luther does say to Erasmus, "While you establish Free-will, you make Christ void, and bring the whole scripture to destruction(p. 360), and also that the advocates for free-will deny Christ (p.357).  He states also,

First, God has promised certainly His grace to the humbled: that is, to the self-deploring and despairing. But a man cannot be thoroughly humbled, until he comes to know that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsel, endeavours, will, and works, and absolutely depending on the will, counsel, pleasure, and work of another, that is, of God only. For if, as long as he has any persuasion that he can do even the least thing himself towards his own salvation, he retain a confidence in himself and do not utterly despair in himself, so long he is not humbled before God; but he proposes to himself some place, some time, or some work, whereby he may at length attain unto salvation. But he who hesitates not to depend wholly upon the good-will of God, he totally despairs in himself, chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work in him; and such an one, is the nearest unto grace, that he might be saved (p.56-57).
The second book is Luther's Table Talk. This anthology of second-hand statements from Luther was widely available in English during Spurgeon's lifetime. One of the chapters is specifically dedicated to Luther's comments on Free will. If Luther actually said what's attributed to him by Spurgeon, I believe Spurgeon may have been summarizing the following Table Talk passage. Note the sentence in bold lettering below.

Another Discourse of Free-will.
 Ah, Lord God ! (saith Luther) why should we boast of our free-will, as if it were able to do any thing in divine and spiritual matters, were they never so small? For when we consider what horrible miseries the devil hath brought upon us through sin (which are innumerable and monstrous), then we might shame ourselves to death. 
For, first, free-will did lead us into original sin, and brought death upon us: afterwards, upon sin followed not only death, but all manner of mischiefs, as we daily find in the world; such as murder, lying, deceiving, stealing, and other evils, insomuch that no man is in safety the twinkling of an eye, neither in body nor goods, which always do hover and stand in danger. 
And, besides these evils, there is yet a greater (as is noted in the gospel), namely, that people are possessed of the devil, who maketh them mad and raging, so that, by reason of sin, the generation of mankind is nothing else but a stinking and filthy privy and habitation of devils. For there lieth on our necks everlasting death and God's wrath. Moreover, we are never in quiet but are plagued here on earth, both in body and soul. Now (said Luther) what goodness can such a spoiled and poisoned creature think, much less perform, that might be pleasing to God, in divine and spiritual matters which concern the salvation of our souls? 
In temporal things which pertain to body and wealth, and to this life, as to govern land and people, to rule in house-keeping, &c., free-will may do something that hath a shew and respect before men; but every thing that proccedeth not out of faith is sin, saith St. Paul. 
We know not rightly what we became after the fall of our first parents; what from our mothers we have brought with us. For we have brought altogether a confounded, a spoiled, and a poisoned nature, both in body and soul: and throughout the whole of man is nothing that is good, as the Scripture saith.
And this is my absolute opinion: (said Luther) he that will maintain and defend man's free-will, that it is able to do or work any thing in spiritual causes, (be they never so small) the same hath denied Christ. This I have always maintained in my writings, especially in those which I wrote against Erasmus Roterodamus; (one of the principal learned men in the whole world) and thereby will I remain, for I know it to be the truth: and though all the world should be against it, and otherwise conclude, yet the decree of the Divine Majesty must stand fast against the gates of hell. 
Touching this point, I find myself much wronged by some, (especially by the Synergists) who prate and allege, that I had altered my harsh opinion concerning free-will, and had mollified the same, (as they term it) seeing it is directly against their errors, and they falsely give out that they are my disciples. 
I confess that mankind hath a free will, but it is to milk kine, to build houses, &c., and no further: for so long as a man is at ease and in safety, and is in no want, so long he thinketh he hath a free will which is able to do something; but when want and need appeareth, so that there is neither meat, drink, nor money, where is then free-will? It is utterly lost, and cannot stand when it cometh to the pinch. But faith only standeth fast and sure, and seeketh Christ. 
Therefore faith is far another thing than free-will ; nay, free- will is nothing at all, but faith is all in all. 
I pray (said Luther) put it to the trial; art thou thou bold and stout, and canst thou carry it lustily with thy free-will when plague, wars, and times of dearth and famine are at hand? In the time of plague thou knowest not what to do for fear; then thou wishest thyself a hundred miles off. In time of dearth thou thinkest, Where shall I have to eat? Thy will cannot so much as give thy heart the smallest comfort in these times of need, but the longer thou strivest, the more it maketh thy heart faint and feeble, insomuch as it is affrighted even at the rushing and shaking of a leaf. These are the valiant acts which our free-will can do and achieve. 
But, on the contrary, faith is the Domina and empress: and although it be but small and weak, yet it standeth, and suffereth not itself to be utterly dejected. Faith hath great and mighty parts, as we see in holy Scripture, and on the loving disciples; waves, winds, seas, and all manner of misfortune do appear even unto death: who in such a case would not be affrighted? But faith (how weak soever) standeth like a wall, and little David- like assaulteth Goliah; that is, it fighteth against sin, death, and all danger, especially it fighteth valiantly when it is a strong and complete faith: a weak faith striveth well, but it is not so bold as strong faith.
Spurgeon's sermons were taken down by "loyal transcriptionists" and then "personally edited" by Spurgeon himself (source). Of the versions of Spurgeon's sermon I checked, the words attributed to Luther are always placed in quotes. It is possible though that Spurgeon may have been summarizing Luther rather than directly quoting Luther.

While I couldn't find anything that exactly matched this quote, it does reflect something Luther would have believed or stated. It surprises me though that such a clever quote, if it's really Luther's, would be so difficult to locate. I do not think Rev. Spurgeon concocted a Luther quote; rather he either was summarizing Luther, quoting someone quoting Luther, or perhaps he simply was mistaken that Luther said it (it was one of the Puritans, for instance). I'm open to correction. If someone has a better passage from Luther that fits what Spurgeon cited, please leave a comment.


Don Stein said...

It has overtones of the Heidelberg Disputation, and I wonder if he didn't say something very nearly like it in his later letters with Erasmus? If I didn't have finals to study for, I'd check out their discussions.

James Swan said...

Hi Don: I suspect "no" in regard to the HD. I skimmed through it a few days ago, and nothing jumped out.

I have not checked Luther's letters, the reason why is I'm not entirely sure what Spurgeon would have had access to. I do not recall any English collections of Luther's letters being available during the time Spurgeon preached this sermon. On the other hand, Spurgeon could be relying on a source that quoted Luther.