For Erasmus of Rotterdam, Christianity was essentially about morality; a philosophy of Christ that guided life according to the moral law as it was modeled and signified by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Martin Luther, conversely, held that true religion was foremost a matter of faith.
It was thus of the utmost importance for Luther that he kept the dispute from becoming an exclusively pedantic matter. Instead, he wanted to present his theses plainly for the sake of preaching and teaching and have them printed in German. In this way, the dispute would be pastoral, for the public defense of the faith against the devil, and not merely an academic exercise. Luther’s response to Erasmus, therefore, was to a large extent pastoral.
At its heart, The Bondage of the Will expressed Luther’s understanding of the proper distinction of law and the gospel in the proclamation of God's word to sinful men.
Luther’s response to Erasmus, therefore, was to a large extent pastoral.
Luther’s purpose in writing The Bondage of the Will was not to stress predestination, as some wrongly think, but to set forth the way of salvation. His concern was to indicate how the misrepresentation of passages dealing with predestination can be avoided. Predestination or no predestination, the gospel must be preached!
For him, God’s speech alone overcame the horrors of a God who predestines. In light of the cross, God in Christ is always making himself known as the one at work in every moment. For Luther, God is at work, sending his preachers to sinners to preach the word of Christ’s death and resurrection in hostile opposition to the kind of Christian philosophy Erasmus espoused. But Luther also understood God’s word brought conflict with it.
As he writes, “The world and its god cannot and will not endure the word of the true God, and the true God neither will nor can keep silence; so when these two Gods are at war with one another, what can there be but tumult in the whole world?”
Where Erasmus argued that Luther's defense of the bondage of the will offered a morally questionable paradox, Luther heard a man who did not understand the difference between the law and the gospel.
Theologically, Erasmus believed grace alone saved. However, when explaining that sinners were saved by grace alone Erasmus would not go so far as to say that the reception of God’s grace erased human responsibility.
When it came time to settle up accounts, individuals would be held responsible for the sin and evil they committed. The question for Erasmus was how could God hold anyone responsible for right and wrong, virtue and vice, sin and sanctity of life if creatures did not possess at least some freedom to choose between one and the other?
For example, Erasmus wrote that “if we are entangled in sins, let us strive with all our might and have recourse to the remedy of penitence, that by all means we may entreat the mercy of the Lord without which no human will or endeavor is effective; and what is evil in us, let us impute to ourselves and what is good, let is ascribe wholly to divine benevolence.”
When explaining that sinners were saved by grace alone Erasmus would not go so far as to say that the reception of God’s grace erased human responsibility.
For Erasmus, if people were not to be manipulated like puppets in God’s great plan for salvation one must be able to turn away, to some degree, from evil and seek after the good. According to Erasmus, for Christianity to make sense, there has to be a little bit of free choice in matters of salvation even though creatures are fallen.
Whenever the Scripture set forth exhortations such as “Return to me with all your heart,” “Let everyone turn from his evil ways,” and, “Recall it to mind you transgressors,” human beings must have the ability to do so, even if one can turn only by the help of the grace of God.
In the exhortations of Scripture, Erasmus believed he had clearly established that with the help of divine grace, which always accompanied human effort one could continue in the right way toward salvation. On the other hand, any other passages in Scripture which described God’s election, such as ‘the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart,’ and, ‘Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated,’ Erasmus exposited as figurative statements.
Contradictory statements such as these ought to be interpreted figuratively because they were murky and did not agree with the logic of free choice. For Erasmus, the logic of free choice served the common good in both a theologically edifying and practical way. That is, as Luther scholar, Brian Gerrish wrote, Erasmus wanted to unite human effort and grace, because, “grace and freedom belong together. This is the guarantee that grace shall be grace, inviting without compelling."