The crux of the matter: bondage of the will

In his treatise, On the Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther stated that the dispute over “free choice” was the ultimate issue for the church. In fact, Luther thanked his sixteenth century pen pal Erasmus for opposing him on this specific point of doctrine: “Moreover, I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles . . . .” As quoted in E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation 333 (1969).

While Luther argues persuasively from scripture and examines passages carefully, his conclusion regarding free choice follows from two basic premises.

  1. God is omnipotent. If God were not omnipotent, he would be a “ridiculous” God.
  2. God’s foreknowledge is perfect. God’s promises are perfect. He cannot err or be deceived.

Therefore, because God is omnipotent and because God’s foreknowledge is perfect, it must follow that human free choice is a fiction. By free choice, of course, Luther means the human capacity to accept or reject the gospel (“good news” of Christ). The God who knits you together in your mother’s womb and numbers the hairs on your head is the same God who raises up pharaohs and kings. Certainly this God is not subject to the preferences of a mere mortal.

After making a detailed and well-stated case for divine election, Luther admitted that he would prefer his salvation to be in God’s hands rather than his own.

For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation.

. . .

But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him.

E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation 328-29 (1969).

Luther quite clearly understood that resting on the merits of Christ is both theologically correct and profoundly comforting. This is the crux of the issue. Sadly, many Protestants through the ages have missed this point. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

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