Posted by: gmscan | May 8, 2014

Bondage of the Will

My men’s group has been reading Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.” The version we have was published in 1957 and translated by James I. Packer and O.R. Johnson.

It’s quite a slog and we have discovered what limited vocabularies we have. I’m afraid the translators also like to show off how erudite they are, using obscure words when simpler one would do just fine. Plus, they use King James for all the Scripture quotations and that is alien to our ears these days. So, in reading the book we needed three hands – one for the book, another for the Bible, and a third for a dictionary.

Still, I’m glad we are doing it. This is one of the most important books of Christian theology ever written. It anchors the Reformation’s understanding of justification and salvation and contrasts starkly with the Roman Catholic tradition then and now.

In fact, just the other day I heard Bill O’Reilly explain that he performs good deeds in order to earn his way to Heaven (that isn’t quite how he put it, but close enough). I would wager that most modern Christians share his view – God rewards you for being good in life. The better you are, the more certain your reward.

It is fascinating that this is precisely the attitude Luther was contending with 500 years ago. His book is entirely a rebuttal of another book, the “Diatribe” by Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was a moderate reformer, and thought Luther was going too far, both in theology and manner. As the translators note in their very useful explanation of the controversy, Erasmus believed Luther was a “destroyer of civil, religious and cultural harmony and order.”

And so he was. Luther’s book goes well beyond being just a theological explanation of his views, to insulting and demeaning Erasmus on nearly every page. Luther is a master of sarcasm and he is contemptuous of the “harmony and order” Erasmus was defending.

You can see the sarcasm and contempt clearly in Luther’s response to Erasmus on this very issue of harmony and order. He writes –

“What a fulsome speaker you are! — but utterly ignorant of what you are talking about. In a word, you treat this discussion as if the issue at stake between us was the recovery of a debt or some other trivial item, the loss of which matters far less than the public peace…. You make it clear that this carnal peace and quiet seems to you far more important than faith, conscience, salvation, the Word of God, the glory of Christ, and God himself. Let me tell you, therefore – and I beg you to let this sink deep into your mind – I hold that a solemn and vital truth, of eternal consequence, is at stake in this discussion….”

When it came to speaking the truth of the Gospel, Luther had no interest in sugar coating or sanitizing his views to avoid offending people.

And what are those views? First and importantly, Luther was not saying man has no free will at all. He writes —

“… man should realize that in regard to his money or possessions he has a right to use them, to do or leave undone according to his own free will — though that free will is overruled by the free will of God alone, according to His own pleasure. However, with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no free will and is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God or to the will of Satan.”

In other words, you are perfectly free to decide what you will have for lunch today or what movie you will go to tonight, though God may call you to do something else. But you are completely unable to save yourself from damnation. Only God may do that.

This idea raised quite a bit of debate among our men. Some of us can’t shake the feeling that we have to do something to earn our salvation. At a minimum, we have to answer when God calls. But Luther says, no, not even that – the only reason we say yes rather than no to God’s call is because the Holy Spirit has already infected us and given us the ability to say yes.  Without that, we would go on our merry way and pay no attention to the calling.

What, then is the point of Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth? Aren’t we educating people about the Good News and preparing them to accept God’s call? Yes, perhaps, but we are only the Lord’s instrument. People are receptive to the preaching only because God has already made them receptive. It has nothing to do with us, or our powers of persuasion.

This is so hard for us modern Americans to accept, accustomed as we are to think of hard work as the way to get ahead in the world and enjoying the rewards that come from it. This is why my favorite parable is Jesus’ description of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Some got to work early in the morning, others showed up around noon, and still others didn’t start until just before quitting time, but the boss paid them all the same wages. This would be no way to run a business. It makes no sense in the world. But Jesus isn’t talking about the world, but the kingdom of Heaven. The reward of salvation is available to all no matter how hard they work. It is not their effort but God’s grace that determines the reward.

This difficulty is not confined to modern Americans. Luther quotes Erasmus as asking, “If there is no freedom of will, what place is there for merit? If there is no place for merit, what place is there for reward? To what will it be ascribed, if man is justified without merit?”  Luther cites Paul in his answer – “There is no such thing as merit at all, but all that are justified are justified freely, and this is ascribed to nothing but the grace of God.” 

Now, Luther also says there is nothing wrong with doing good, in fact it is commendable. But it is a grave mistake to think it equates with God’s righteousness –

“I should grant that free will by its endeavors can advance in some direction, namely in the direction of good works, or the righteousness of civil or moral law, yet it does not advance towards God’s righteousness, nor does God deem its efforts in any respect worthy to gain His righteousness.”

And, again –

“We know that man was made lord over things below him, and that he has a right and a free will with respect to them, that they should obey him and do as he wills and thinks. But our question is this: whether he has free will God-ward, that God should obey man and do what man wills, or whether God has not rather a free will with respect to man, that man should will and do what God wills….”

As the beasts are to us, we are to God.

At the end of the book, Luther answers Bill O’Reilly almost directly –

“I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want free will to be given to me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers and adversities and assaults of devils I could not stand my ground… but because even if there were no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labor with no guarantee of success….  If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach confortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether he required something more.”

Adam’s (and Lucifer’s) sin was to think he could be like God and make his own decisions about good and evil, right and wrong, salvation and damnation.  Humans still think we can go out and find God of our own effort. That is what most religions believe. Luther knew we cannot, which is precisely why Christ came to us. And that is the essence of Christianity.

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Responses

  1. Arminianism versus Calvinism: That is the question. Many great minds have tended toward Calvinism, and with good reason. I think that had God intended for the matter to be simple, He could have provided more in the Bible to settle the issue. Then, there is the book of James (really Jacob in the original Jewish).

    But isn’t it intellectually rewarding to partake in the great debate, knowing that you are God’s creation and child?

    • Yes, amen to that. It is a feast and I am blessed to have come upon it, even at this late stage of my life.

  2. The writer seems to imply that man has free will for the things below and no free will for the things above
    For salvation or the things above we are totally dependent on God ‘s grace
    From my Jewish perspective this is way too passive
    Even if we assume salvation is not earned by works how can we be assured by faith when we know faith without works is dead
    One cannot separate faith from
    Works
    They the tail and head of a coin
    Don Levit


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