Erasmus versus Luther: Bound to Be Free (Part 8)

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Erasmus sought to find meaning behind the words of Scripture in order to make an ultimate claim. Luther, on the other hand, found the Gospel to be meaningless outside of Christ and his Cross.

For Luther, it followed that the exclusivity of God’s work and everything that results from his death and resurrection - the preaching of law and the gospel and the giving away of the Sacraments - cannot be subjected to metaphysical tinkering. Since,

Christ is said to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14.6), and that categorically, so that whatever is not Christ is not the way, but error, not truth, but untruth, not life, but death, it follows of necessity that ‘free-will’, inasmuch as it neither is Christ, nor is in Christ, is fast bound in error, and untruth, and death. (Packer, The Bondage of The Will, 307.)

Outside of Christ himself there is nothing but Satan, wrath, darkness, error, lies, and death. One must conclude, Luther writes, that “every statement concerning Christ is a direct testimony against ‘free-will’. (Packer, 312.)

“In the one, Satan reigns,” and, “holds captive at his will all that are not wrested from him by the Spirit of Christ; nor does he allow them to be plucked away by any other power but the Spirit of God, as Christ tells us in the parable of the strong man armed keeping his palace in peace.” In the other kingdom Christ reigns. “His kingdom continually resists and wars against that of Satan; and we are translated into His kingdom, not by our own power, but by the grace of God, which delivers us from this present evil world and tears us away from the power of darkness.” The knowledge and confession of this reality, writes Luther, is repeated and confessed plainly enough by, “The common man,” “his proverbs, prayers, efforts and entire life.” (Packer, 312.)

It was not human freedom but God’s freedom that was finally the problem for Erasmus. God’s election of sinners on account of Christ’s work was the problem and the impediment to free will. That God had taken on the problem of bondage, freedom, and salvation apart from human choice meant that Erasmus did not see a loving merciful God. Erasmus sought to find meaning behind the words of Scripture in order to make an ultimate claim. Luther, on the other hand, found the Gospel to be meaningless outside of Christ and his Cross.

In Christ, all the promises of God are fulfilled. The Word of God heals, forgives, saves, and finally frees sinners to forego the necessity of finding significance in the gospel. Instead, God preaches a concrete word, in the present tense, that Christ is God’s mercy pro nobis. God is really God when he translates sinners through his Word, revealing just exactly who God will be for us.

Luther does not, like Augustine and his modern counterparts, divide between pious Christians and those sinners who are in bondage and forced to commit evil acts. Unlike Augustine who wanted to divide humanity into the elect and non-elect, Luther abandoned such a division. He expressed instead the reality that elect and non-elect alike are in bondage to sin. Even those who are justified for Christ’s sake are in bondage and have no free will, for the Old Adam was still active under and against the Spirit of the new Christ. For Luther, when one spoke of the good which was produced by sinners, the good one did was a work of God since God is at work in the Old Adam to produce a good work. This thesis, central to his argument in The Bondage of the Will has been all but ignored by most Christians.

What has been missed by modern Luther scholars in The Bondage of the Will was how, for Luther, the Holy Spirit solved the problem posed by the bondage of the will. The solution for Luther to the bound will was the work of the Holy Spirit through preaching: the preaching of the Cross whereby “the God who rules all things by necessity reveals what it is that he necessarily wills.”

Therefore, whosoever loses Christ, who has the revealed God, also loses the hidden God who is not revealed.