A Review of The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

Review by Kyle Rapinchuk

In honor of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses, I decided to post an old review I wrote of Luther’s classic work, The Bondage of the Will. Looking back on this, I would probably spend more time exploring the issue of God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, especially since my views on this topic have changed since the time I initially wrote this review. Nevertheless, I decided to leave the review in tact so that if no one else chooses to comment, I can debate with myself.

bondage of the willLuther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Translated by J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2005.

In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church; eight years later Luther published his work The Bondage of the Will in refutation of Erasmus’ work, The Freedom of the Will.  While the significance and consequences of the works may seem far different in scope, both are the product of a passion for truth and adherence to the words of God in Scripture.

The Bondage of the Will is a thorough, organized argument against the claims of Erasmus’ work.  In organizing his refutation, Luther comprises his work into seven parts, regularly quoting Erasmus.  He begins with an introduction, followed by a review of Erasmus’ preface, introduction, argument for free will, two sections of reviews of Erasmus’ treatment of texts that deny free will, and the biblical doctrine of the bondage of the will.

The introduction serves one main purpose: to introduce the sarcasm and ridicule that saturates the entirety of the book.  In the introduction, Luther suggests that Erasmus’ eloquent language and poor theology amount to dung on golden dishes.  Secondly, Luther jibes that Erasmus’ clearly incorrect view of free will has only served to strengthen Luther’s own belief in the bondage of the will.  Finally, Luther ends his introduction by retorting that if Erasmus will bear with his lack of rhetoric, then Luther will promise to bear with Erasmus’ want of knowledge.

Having now established his disgust with Erasmus’ work in the introduction, Luther moves on to address Erasmus’ preface. Luther argues against Erasmus’ claim that the Scriptures are obscure and hard to understand.  While granting that some passages are difficult, Luther argues that interpretive difficulties arise because of human deficiencies, not the loftiness of the subject.  Furthermore, where the words of Scripture are found to be difficult in one passage, in another they are clear.  Luther then addresses Erasmus’ claim that free will is a useless doctrine.  Erasmus argues that “it is irreligious, idle and superfluous to want to know whether our will effects anything in matters pertaining to eternal salvation” (76). However, Erasmus then asserts that free will can be described as striving of our own strength, and yet the will is ineffective apart from the grace of God.  Luther responds by asserting that Erasmus’ has now argued, against his previous statement, that the will is in some measure important in the process of salvation and can therefore no longer be deemed a useless teaching.

Luther then directs the discussion to God’s foreknowledge. Luther argues that “God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will” (80). Thus, Luther reasons that the will of man cannot act in opposition to God’s immutable will.  However, Luther qualifies his argument, suggesting that man sins by necessity, not by compulsion, which means that man can sin voluntarily and continue to sin by his own desire.  Luther’s review of Erasmus’ preface comes to a climax in his reasoning for the importance of discussing this doctrine.  Luther writes that “a man cannot be thoroughly humbled till he realises that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsels, efforts, will and works, and depends absolutely on the will, counsel, pleasure and work of Another–God alone” (80). Therefore, Luther makes a claim for the purpose of his entire work in this statement.  He refutes Erasmus’ view and declares his own because he believes it is necessary for the believer to humble man and give the glory in salvation to God alone.

In the next section, Luther reviews Erasmus’ introduction. In this section, Luther addresses two particular issues.  The first arises from his statement against Erasmus’ view of the obscurity of Scripture.  Luther writes, “Those who deny the perfect clarity and plainness of the Scriptures leave us nothing but darkness” (128). He continues by arguing that no part of Scripture can be called obscure.  He thus asserts that if free will is an obscure matter, then it is of no concern to Christians and should be ignored; conversely, if free will is to be of concern to Christians and is central in the Scriptures, then the teaching on free will must be clear and plain like the whole of Scripture.

The second particular issue that Luther addresses in his review of Erasmus’ introduction is in reply to Erasmus’ contention that if Scripture were clear then the teaching on free will would have been clearly interpreted throughout history. Since many men were blind in this area, Erasmus sees his argument of the obscurity of Scripture proven.  However, Luther responds that the blindness was for “the praise and the glory of ‘free will’” (132). He reiterates that ‘free-will’ is so under the tyranny of Satan that the Spirit must quicken a man’s will if he is to see any truth.

In the next section Luther moves on to review Erasmus’ argument concerning free will. Luther quotes Erasmus’ definition of free will in order to contextualize the discussion and directly refute Erasmus’ position.  Quoting Erasmus, Luther writes:  “Moreover, I conceive of ‘free-will’ in this context as a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same” (137). Here is laid the foundation for the whole discussion.  Now that Luther has outlined Erasmus’ viewpoint with a definition, he can begin to assess its shortcomings.  The most significant shortcoming of Erasmus’ argument is that he contradicts his earlier definition by asserting that man cannot will good without grace.  Luther responds that if free will were good enough to apply itself for the purpose of eternal salvation, then man would be in no need of grace.  Luther suggests that Erasmus’ contradiction is a careless error deriving from a lack of passion for the truth.

According to Luther, Erasmus also argues for free will from an argument of human reason. He suggests that if man were only capable of choosing evil, then God’s commands to turn away from evil and do good would be mockery on the part of God.  Luther again rejects Erasmus’ argument on two levels.  The first is a warning that arguing from human wisdom is not a worthy cause; God is too superior to man for humans to judge God’s actions from the standpoint of human wisdom.  The second response is a theological one, derived from Luther’s understanding of the role of the prophets and of the Law.  He argues that God’s commandments, which are not in our ability to accomplish, serve to show us our weakness and our need for grace, rather than mock us.

A third argument of Erasmus which Luther rebuts is the understanding of John 1:12, which reads, “To them gave He power to become the sons of God.” Erasmus asks how we can have the power of becoming sons if not for the freedom of our will to choose that which leads to eternal salvation.  Luther’s response is that the power being conferred is not in man’s ability but in God’s gift of regeneration.  He argues linguistically that man is passive in the context, thus not doing anything, but, by the grace of God and the renewal from the Spirit, becoming something.  He concludes his argument by suggesting that the Apostle John is seeking to humble man in his knowledge of sin that he might be prepared to receive the grace freely given by God.

Luther’s review of Erasmus’ arguments in favor of free will leads into his discussion of Erasmus’ arguments against those passages which seem to deny free will. God’s hardening, seen in the example of Pharaoh, is the main argument set forth in this section Erasmus understands God’s hardening to be a long-suffering forbearance of sin.  Luther points out that God’s long-suffering, however, will only make things worse for man.  He asserts that Erasmus’ own comment that man’s will is in need of grace to do good means man cannot choose good merely by receiving more time in which to choose the good.  Furthermore, Luther reasons that if God’s long-suffering is equal in all men and there is no grace by which we are changed, then there can be no resolution to how some can attain grace for salvation while others do not attain it.  Moreover, Luther argues that if long-suffering is the definition of hardening, then all men can be said to have been hardened by God because all men sin.  This conclusion is impossible for Luther, so he argues that Pharaoh’s hardening must be something distinct.

Luther has much to say about Erasmus’ incorrect conclusions on texts that “deny” free will, so he devotes the next section of his book to the same discussion. He continues rebutting Erasmus’ position with an example from Genesis 6:5 and 8:21.  Both passages speak of the imagination of man’s heart and its inclination to evil from his youth and its intent on evil continually.  In response, Erasmus first concludes that the scope is only most men, not all; second, that human inclination to evil does not wholly take away free will.  Luther responds by arguing that both before and after the flood the Lord declares man’s heart to be evil, so Erasmus’ claim is invalid.  Second, Luther argues that the Hebrew word rendered prone or intent is more appropriately translated “wholly” or “only.”  He renders Genesis 6:5 as such:  “Every imagination of the thought of the heart is only evil every day” (243). Consequently, the passages describe a heart that is wholly evil and only conceives of evil, except, according to Luther, the heart is transformed by God’s gracious work.

Luther then proceeds to Erasmus’ treatment of Luther’s “Achillean weapon,” which is John 15:5 and reads, “Without me you can do nothing.” Erasmus concludes that “‘nothing’ may mean the same as ‘a little imperfect something’” (260). Luther immediately shows how this change in meaning of nothing is impossible when applied to other texts as well, which would be necessary to make Erasmus’ particular translation valid.  His first example is John 1:3, “Without him nothing was made.”  Essentially, God made a little something, though imperfect.  Second is Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, God is not.”  Luther argues that this would mean that the fools do believe in God, but an imperfect one.  Or third, Psalm 100:3, “He hath made us and not we ourselves.”[1]  According to Erasmus’ translation, we would be required to have made a little something, albeit imperfect.  Luther continues, but he considers this argument sufficient to refute Erasmus’ paltry attempt to overthrow his Achilles.

The final section of Luther’s work is devoted to what he calls “The Bible Doctrine of the Bondage of the Will.” One of Luther’s primary arguments in this section is that the universality of sin is an argument against free will.  If one argues that man has free will to choose that which is good, why does God not exclude any man by including Jews and Greeks in Romans 3:9?  Luther continues with Paul’s progression in Romans 3 by quoting verses 19 and 20:  “That every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.”  Luther argues that every mouth being stopped requires that there is no ability in us.  Furthermore, if free will is capable of good, then Paul is wrong in writing that the whole world is guilty and must answer to God.  Luther disagrees, and he continues to argue against free will in the midst of universal sin.

Another important passage that Luther uses to support the bondage of the will is John 1:12-13. This passage reads:  “But as many as received him, to them gave the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:  which were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”  Luther’s argument focuses on the statement that no measure of blood or the will of flesh can achieve the kingdom by his own right.  Blood, he argues, refers to Jews, for they expect to receive blessing based on their lineage.  The will of the flesh, Luther suggests, refers to carnal men without the spirit who engage in only evil endeavors.  Finally, the will man, Luther writes, is the efforts of all men, from any nation whether those under the law or those without it.  His summary of this passage proceeds as thus:  “The sons of God became such, not by carnal birth, nor by zeal for the law, nor by any other human effort, but only by being born of God” (303). Therefore, free will has no bearing in the discussion of how the sons of God became such, and Luther’s argument for the bondage of the will is made.

It is difficult to consider a critique upon a book that has withstood the test of almost four hundred years and countless theological studies. Nevertheless, there are many aspects of Luther’s work that are worthy of discussion and critique, and are beneficial in endeavoring to grapple with the magnitude of his argument.  First, Luther’s argument for the bondage of the will from Scripture is a very difficult doctrine to refute.  I began reading this book with the same attitude as Luther, namely that man’s will is incapable of assisting in any good work apart from God’s action.  Luther’s thorough rebuttals of Erasmus’ position, as well as the presentation of his own, only served to strengthen my personal belief in this doctrine.

There are two main factors that contribute to the strength of Luther’s position. The first is that he reasons from the Scriptures, taking into consideration the whole teaching of the Bible as well as the context of each passage.  No discussion of doctrine should arise merely by human reasoning or philosophy, but must be centered on the truths presented in Scripture, and Luther’s work does so in every way.  Second, Luther’s systematic structuring of his work serves to address the issue of man’s will in several different ways.  He argues in support of his view from Scripture and in refutation against a competing position by Erasmus.  Moreover, Luther states Erasmus’ arguments against his own understanding, refutes them, and then gives his view, setting forth his view with minimal argument because he has already attended to possible “problem texts” that his view must reconcile.

Though his systematic approach and solid biblical argument have strengthened my understanding of and belief in the bondage of the will, Luther does make some arguments that I would either disagree with or wish to clarify in my own position. As I discussed earlier in this essay, Luther argues that Scripture is clear and capable of being understood (129). On this point I would naturally agree.  However, I would clarify his statement that no part of Scripture is obscure.  Luther’s statement may be more easily accepted if the reader were to understand how he would view prophecy such as Revelation.  Luther does not seem to argue in this passage that Revelation is easy to understand, but that certain truths of the book are easily accessible and that it does not contradict other Scriptures.  If this is his understanding, a recognition of the difficulty of some passages without requiring that they are obscure would be a helpful addition.

The second area that I would question is his argument that “the thing which God foreknows is necessarily brought to pass” (213). He later makes a similar argument that “necessity of consequence ensures that if God foreknows a thing, it necessarily takes place” (222). While I believe that God has ordained the things which will come to pass, and that man cannot make choices apart from his will, I do not agree with Luther’s use of the term foreknowledge. The use of his terms requires that God could not know a free choice in advance.  Likewise, there is the danger of one reading his comments and thinking that because God knew in advance that Judas would betray Jesus that it had to happen, rather than God having ordained it prior to a foreknowledge of Judas’ “choice.”  Now, without getting into a full discussion on this issue, it will suffice to say that I agree with Luther’s conclusion that God’s will comes to pass without exception, and that God is not required to know a free choice in advance because he has ordained it himself.  However, for purposes of his argument it would be better to use the idea of God’s immutable will, rather than foreknowledge, to argue his point.

The final critique of his argument comes in his discussion of Romans 3:23 as a text that proves the universal reign of sin. Again, I do not disagree with his conclusion, nor with the argument that all men sin.  However, Luther asserts that “all” in this passage “does not exempt any, in any place, at any time, in any work, in any effort” (290). If this is the case, does not the natural progression of the text argue that the same subject, “all”, will be “justified by his grace as a gift” (ESV)?  If Luther wished to show the universal (as in every single individual without exception) nature of sin, it would be better to have come to his same conclusion from this section while discussing Romans 3:10-11 only pages earlier.  This passage, which reads, “None is righteous, no, not one,” is a more all-encompassing statement for the universal reign of sin.

Nonetheless, in such a lengthy, thorough argument for the bondage of the will, these minor clarifications are of little consequence to the overall message of Luther’s work, and after four hundred years it stands as the greatest argument for this doctrine.

[1] All biblical quotations cited in this paragraph are quoted directly from Luther on page 260.

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