Luther on the Term “Free Will”

If you know a few things about Martin Luther, you probably know that he wrote Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus’ book about the freedom of the will (Discussion Concerning Free Will).  Luther argued from Scripture that man, since Adam’s fall, is born in sin, dead in sin, and in bondage to sin.  This means because his nature is corrupt and his will is sinful, an unregenerate person cannot obey and please God.  A bad tree brings forth bad fruit.  Luther did not like the term “free will” since it implies that fallen man is free to choose what is good and pleasing to God:

“This false idea of ‘free-will’ is a real threat to salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences.”

In other words, if man’s will even plays a little part in salvation, it robs God of glory and exalts man in a very unbiblical way.  Luther did make a minor concession, however.  He did say if we want to keep the term “free will,” we should use it differently than the semi-Pelagians or Pelagians use it:

“If we do not want to drop this term altogether – which would really be the safest and most Christian thing to do – we may still in good faith teach people to use it to credit man with ‘free-will’ in respect, not of what is above him, but of what is below him.  That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own ‘free-will’ – though that very ‘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’, but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.”

Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, p. 106-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Luther and ‘By the Law Comes Knowledge of Sin’

Martin Luther’s classic, De servo arbitrio (On The Enslaved Will; a.k.a. The Bondage of the Will) is – as many of you know – a response written to the great humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus’ (d. 1536) Diatribe seu collation de libero arbitrio (Discussion or Dialoge Concerning Free Will).

This is one of those “must read” books.  I know people say as much about every book that comes along, but in the words of Packer and Johnston (in the introduction), “To accept the principles which Martin Luther vindicates in The Bondage of the Will would certainly involve a mental and spiritual revolution for many Christians at the present time.  It would involve a radically different approach to preaching and the practice of evangelism, and to most other departments of theology and pastoral work as well.  God centered thinking is out of fashion today, and its recovery will involve something of a Copernican revolution in our outlook on many matters.” (p. 60).  The Bondage of the Will is that “Copernican revolution;” this is no overstatement.

Here is a splendid quote by Luther on the commandments of God: “…  The words of the law are spoken, not to assert the power of the will, but to eliminate the blindness of reason, so that it may see that its own light is nothing, and the power of the will is nothing. ‘By the law is knowledge of sin’, says Paul (Rom. 3.20).  He does not say: abolition, or avoidance, of sin.”

The entire design and power of the law is just to give knowledge, and that of nothing but sin; not to display or confer any power.  This knowledge is not power, nor does it bring power; but it teaches and displays that there is here no power, and great weakness.  What can ‘knowledge of sin’ be, but knowledge of our weakness and badness?  He does not say: ‘by the law comes knowledge of power or goodness’!  All that the law does, on Paul’s testimony, is to make sin known” (p. 158).

Note: you can read Luther’s Bondage of the Will here on Google.  Though I couldn’t find Erasmus’ Diatribe there, he does have other stuff on Google.

shane lems

sunnyside wa