Within the writings of The Book of Concord, or the confessional documents of the Lutheran tradition, none of Luther’s writings are recommended or praised as highly as De Servo Arbitrio, or On the Bound Will. The reformer himself confessed that On the Bound Will was one of two books he’d keep tucked under his arm as he walked through the pearly gates, and it’s one that has endured in popularity to this day. It is a defining work of Lutheran theology and sets apart Lutheranism from Rome, the East, and all the Protestant sects. Its chief and radical claim is rather simple: your will is not free to strive after God but is, in fact, bound in sin. Man does not contribute anything to his salvation except this sin and resistance. Salvation depends entirely on the mercy and the will of God, who alone works all in all. These claims are easy to understand grammatically and drawn from clear texts in the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Pauline Epistles. However, a man like Erasmus of Rotterdam, a well known Roman Catholic Biblical scholar and Luther’s contemporary, could not abide by them. As I’ve been reading, reflecting, and teaching on this great work of Luther’s, I’ve wondered how alone Erasmus would be today in objecting to such claims.
In Erasmus’ Diatribe, he concludes his preface by objecting that even if Luther is correct about the captive will and the work of God in us for salvation, that this “good news” should not be published among the common folk. What’s more, he claims this information would be harmful to them! Erasmus writes, “What a flood-gate of iniquity would the spread of such news open to the people! What wicked man would amend his life? Who would believe that God loved him? Who would fight against his flesh?” (Packer, The Bondage of the Will, 97). In other words, if people knew that their salvation was free, by grace alone, not a result of works, people would go around sinning and living licentiously!
Sadly this same fear is regularly voiced by Christians today. The concern is that if you tell people they are free, they will by nature, behave lawlessly. Yet Scripture is clear that man’s will is bound and in need of Christ crucified - not moral reform and personal progress as Erasmus believed - to truly be free from sin. Without the sturdy foundation of sola scriptura, Christian theology naturally becomes an exercise in dogmatic and ethical philosophy. Where Erasmus saw fear and collapse, Luther saw the never-ending comfort of Christ and his gospel. As we navigate this conundrum today, it would do us well to go “back to the sources” and see what Erasmus’ concerns were and how Luther addressed them.
Where Erasmus saw fear and collapse, Luther saw the never-ending comfort of Christ and his gospel.
Luther first responds to the objection that grace leads to lawlessness Socratically: where does the doctrine of a bound will come from? If it is a mere invention of men, Luther asks, “Why do you oppose them? Why get so heated?” (Bondage, 97) However, if this doctrine doesn’t originate with Luther, but rather has its origin in God and his word, then a very different posture is required, namely, the fear of God. Furthermore, if this doctrine is of God, then Luther posits that Erasmus’ true objection is that “there is no information more useless than God’s Word!” and that, “[the] Creator must learn from you [Erasmus], his creature, what may usefully be preached and what not” (Bondage, 97). Luther points out that this use of Scripture allows Erasmus to base the worth God’s word on man’s feeling, rather than God’s authority. The end result of this kind of Erasmian thinking does not help the masses, but leads them straight into despising God and his word. “If God has willed that these things should be openly proclaimed and published, who are you to forbid it?” responds Luther (Bondage, 98). God is the creator and you his creature, not the other way around.
Luther’s reply to the rest of Erasmus’ objection concerning the reality of the bound will is even bolder. Who will try and reform his life? Luther’s reply: “Nobody! Nobody can! God has no time for your practitioners of self-reformation, for they are hypocrites. The elect, who fear God, will be reformed by the Holy Spirit” (Bondage, 99). Who will believe that God loves him? Answer: “Nobody! Nobody can! But the elect shall believe it and the rest shall perish without believing it, raging and blaspheming, as you describe them” (Bondage, 99). What about the flood-gate of iniquity that is opened by this doctrine? Luther’s reply: “So be it. Ungodly men are part of that evil leprosy aforementioned, which we must endure.
Nevertheless, these are the very doctrines which throw open to the elect, who fear God, a gateway to righteousness, an entrance into heaven, and a road to God!” (Bondage, 99). While Erasmus objects to the lack of action the doctrine of the bound will impose on people, Luther doubles down on the fact that our action has nothing to do with God’s saving work. Luther repeatedly shows that he won’t let fear - or human reason alone - sway him. Instead, his will is captive to the word of God alone as the foundation of doctrine and life.
We see in all three of these replies how the bondage of the will shapes Luther’s view of works and the gospel. For Luther, you have just as little to do with your sanctification as you do with your justification. “The fear of God claims of us everything” and “all good in us is to be ascribed to God,” not our efforts of self-reformation (Bondage, 78). We hear this even more succinctly in Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Creed. Here he confesses, “I believe that I cannot...believe in Jesus Christ...or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” The Holy Spirit is the one who calls, gathers, and sanctifies while we ourselves are powerless to do so. In this way, the Holy Spirit also works in us true humility which Luther says is only achieved when the Christian has despaired of everything in him/her and clings to Christ and his work alone.
The Holy Spirit is the one who calls, gathers, and sanctifies while we ourselves are powerless to do so.
This being said, we can sympathize with Erasmus because God doesn’t operate in ways that we would necessarily expect. To address this concern, Luther notes that the work of God is always hidden under the form of opposites. “When God quickens, He does so by killing; when He justifies, He does so by pronouncing guilty; when He carries up to heaven, He does so by bringing down to hell” (Bondage, 101). The work of God may look like darkness or, indeed, lawlessness; it even looked like a Jewish heretic who preached and taught as if he was God himself and was crucified as a criminal outside of Jerusalem. But faith pierces the darkness and sees the light of God’s promise revealed in Scriptures. As Luther wrote of Abraham in his commentary on Genesis, “With closed eyes, he hid himself in the darkness of faith, and there he found eternal light.” In the eternal light of faith in Christ, we find comfort and assurance in the fact that we are not responsible for our own salvation and life, but these depend wholly on another who is greater than us. We are completely in the arms of Christ, and it’s here where we find rest from all of our travails and worry.