Luther’s Bondage of the Will: An Uncompromising Gospel

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Luther’s Bondage of the Will has made people uncomfortable since he wrote it, even people in his inner circle. Luther didn’t set out to write it on his own. He might have never written it, in fact, had he not been prodded. Bondage of the Will is a reply to a challenge from the most noted humanist of his day, one of the most learned men in Europe, whose work Luther himself had used and valued. Desiderius Erasmus and many humanists had for a while held out hope for Luther’s call for reform and many of the reformers were themselves, to some degree, humanists. Humanists, in short, studied the humanities. They treasured language and speech, art and architecture, politics, history and especially antiquity. They called for a return to the sources, to writings in their original languages, to works patterned after the genius of the Greeks and Romans. When it came to theology, this meant a renewed emphasis on the study of the Scriptures and early church fathers and, even more, a return to the Greek and Hebrew in which the Scriptures were first written.

Erasmus hadn’t wanted to write against Luther. He was urged to do so, though, because he needed to show where he stood vis-à-vis the Reformation. Erasmus largely wanted moral reform and renewal within the institutions of the church. Luther was calling for doctrinal reform and questioning the very foundations of the Roman Church. Erasmus therefore wrote against him and picked what he thought wouldn’t be a very controversial issue: the human will and whether or not, or to what extent, it’s free. In so doing, he espoused an approach to salvation and convictions about free will that aren’t all that different from what many American Christians might hold today. He acknowledged our need for grace and the importance of faith, but he insisted that we—that our will and works—play some role in our salvation. We aren’t purely passive, he held. God may save a man lost in a forest, but that man surely took some steps to make his way out or to find shelter or water. God deserves most of the credit, but the man wasn’t entirely powerless or without effort.

Luther replied to Erasmus, after much delay, and after a lot of encouragement to reply from his wife and friends, with a pastoral response, although blunt. He was worried for Erasmus’ soul. He wrote in the typical style of debate for his day, and so Bondage of the Will can be a tough read if one doesn’t understand the arrangement. He first summarized and demonstrated his understanding of Erasmus’ arguments and dismantled them. He then set forth his own position. Some have suggested, for this reason, that readers first read it backwards, which isn’t a bad idea.

Even some of Luther’s closest friends weren’t fond of this work, including Philipp Melanchthon, who feared it might undermine human responsibility and lead some to think God was a cause of evil. Luther, however, held this work up as one of his most important, perhaps the most important, throughout his life. In addition, the Formula of Concord, the last Lutheran confession, appeals to it. This is for good reason, because here more than in many of his other writings, Luther’s Gospel comes through most uncompromisingly, clearly, and unrelentingly. Christ is set forth as the sole and complete Savior of mankind. Faith, the gift of God, is the beggarly hand which alone receives the benefits of Christ’s work. God’s choosing, not ours, becomes the source of our comfort, and the reason for the hope that we have. Christ’s cross becomes the central proof of the love of God and the Means of Grace, the Gospel in Word in Sacrament, the means through which the fruits of that cross are delivered to us.

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Luther argued that the human will is bound, that there is no free will—at least not in things above, that is, in things pertaining to salvation. While people recoil at this, because we want to be free, because we want to play some role in our salvation, there is real freedom in recognizing our bondage and in receiving our salvation entirely as gift, by promise, as dead men and women brought to life like Lazarus in the tomb. We can’t mess it up. It doesn’t depend on us. We don’t live under a yoke or burden any longer—anxious, busy, fearful, desperate to even out the scales of justice. No, we’re set free to live as those loved, redeemed, and given a world back as gift, to be enjoyed and used for our neighbor.

Luther does grant we have freedom in things below. We can choose a Ford or Chevy, a Big Mac or a Whopper, Apple or Microsoft, apples or oranges. When it comes to our salvation, though, our freedom comes from Christ’s free will, from the fact that He freely chose to become Man, to suffer, die, and rise for us to live and move and have our being in Him, by grace, with joy and peace, even in suffering. Trying to work our way back into our salvation, therefore, is to undermine and under-appreciate Christ’s work. Serving so that He will love us is to insult His love, which already is ours, was ours even when we were His enemies. To seek freedom in slavery, slavery to sin, our natural human condition, where we freely choose how to sin, perhaps, but nevertheless can only sin, even with our best works, or to seek it in naturally human religion, which knows only the ways of the law and fallen reason, is to fail to understand and embrace the true freedom Christ was bound, beaten, nailed to a tree, and died to give us.

In the Wingin’ It session of Let the Bird Fly! linked below, I discuss the importance of Luther’s Bondage of the Will and explain why it played such an important role in my book, An Uncompromising Gospel. I hope you enjoy it and maybe it even moves you to consider picking up Luther’s Bondage of the Will yourself sometime, whether alone or with some friends or with your pastor.

You can find the podcast here: https://www.letthebirdfly.com/2017/06/30/wingin-it-14-1-luthers-on-the-bondage-of-the-will/