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The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

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  • The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

    The following quotes come from, what Luther saw as his most important work,"The Bondage of the Will".

    For context, Luther, is responding to some of Erasmus' assertions in support of our natural moral ability to obey the gospel. Erasmus presupposed that all of God's commands to obey proved that we had the "free-will" to do so. Luther, with great wit and irony exposes why free will is an erroneous, unscriptural doctrine which, ultimately, undermines the gospel itself.

    These quotes hit the crux of the issue: whether grace alone saves or whether salvation is a mixture of nature with little sprinkling of grace. This is still extremely relevant for today's Christian, for many of us carry the that unbiblical assumption that Erasmus held, which concludes any command from God to believe or obey the gospel, must somewhow imply the moral ability to to do so. Large numbers of evangelicals today make this same jump in logic and build a whole theology on it ...assuming God's commands somehow automatically implies moral ability (this belief includes, ironically, many Lutherans), but as Dr. Luther said to Erasmus, "when you are finished with all your commands and exhortations ... I’ll write Ro.3:20 over the top of it all" ("...through the law comes knowledge of sin."). In other words, the commands exist to show what we cannot do rather than what we can do and our inability to repay our debt to God does not take away our accountablity to do so.

    This includes God's command of all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, an impossible act of will apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ. Only the quicking grace of Jesus Christ applied by the Spirit can illumine The Text in such a way (to open blind eyes and deaf ears) wherein we and able to see Christ's beauty and excellency. Those who are unregenerate cannot see Christ's excellency and thus have no capacity to love what is spiritual and so are not partly but wholly dependent on God to translate them from darkness to light. The following are some quotes from Dr. Luther to this end:

    "For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?" Martin Luther BW pg. 149

    "...'if thou art willing' is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing...a conditional statement asserts nothing indicatively." "if thou art willing", "if thou hear", "if thou do" declare, not man's ability, but his duty. pg 157

    "the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded." pg. 160 Speaking to Erasmus, "Throughout your treatment you forget that you said that 'free-will' can do nothing without grace, and you prove that 'free-will' can do all things without grace! Your inferences and analogies "For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?" Martin Luther BW pg. 149

    "Even grammarians and schoolboys on street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by words in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? pg 159

    "The passages of Scripture you cite are imperative; and they prove and establish nothing about the ability of man, but only lay down what is and what not to be done." pg 161

    "Does it follow from: 'turn ye' that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from "'Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart' (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the 'free-will' does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power...But it does not follow from this that man is converted by his own power, nor do the words say so; they simply say: "if thou wilt turn, telling man what he should do. When he knows it, and sees that he cannot do it, he will ask whence he may find ability to do it..." 164

    "By the law is the knowledge of sin' [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair." pg. 168

    As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace...[this is the] hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive
    and partake of the mercy preached and offered." pg. 169

    The "imperative or hypothetical passages, or wishes, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do...but what we ought to do, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be given to us." 174

    God Incarnate says; 'I would, and thou wouldst not." God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer and offer to all me, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. As John says: "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness com comprehendeth it not' (John
    1.5)

    And again: "He came unto his own, and His own received Him not. (v. 11)"The law indicates the impotence of man and the saving power of God..."if any man will come after me': 'he that wills to save his life'; 'if ye love me'; 'if ye shall continue'. In sum, as I have said-let every occurrence of the conjunction 'if', and all imperative verbs, be collected together (so we may help the Diatribe...) [indicating that all commands to believe or follow Christ are conditional, not stating man's ability]

    Let all the 'free-will' in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength." p. 202

    "omnipotence and foreknowledge of God, I repeat, utterly destroy the doctrine of 'free-will'...doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though He delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. it seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been such a stumbling block to so many great men down through the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was, and how close to grace.)" Luther BW pg. 217

    "...it was not of the merits of Jacob or Esau, 'but of Him that Calleth that it was said of Sara: the elder shall serve the younger' Paul is discussing whether they attained to what was spoken of them by the power or merits of
    'free-will"; and he proves they they did not, but that Jacob attained what Esau did not solely by the grace of "Him that Calleth"224

    Now, since on God's own testimony, men are 'flesh', they can savour of nothing but the flesh; therefore 'free-will can avail only to sin. And if, while the Spirit of God is calling and teaching among them, they go from bad to worse, what could they do when left to themselves, without the Spirit of God? Your [Erasmus] observation that Moses is speaking of the men of that age is not to the point at all. The same is true of all men, for all are 'flesh'; as Christ says, 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh' (john 3:6) How grave a defect this is, He Himself there teaches, when he says: 'Except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (v. 5)...I call a man ungodly if he is without the Spirit of God; for Scripture says that the Spirit is given to justify the ungodly. As Christ distinguished the Spirit from the flesh, saying: "that which is born of the flesh is flesh', and adds that which is born of the flesh cannot enter the kingdom of God', it obviously follows that whatever is flesh is ungodly, under God's wrath, and a stranger to His kingdom. And if it is a stranger to God's kingdom and Spirit, it follows of necessity that it is under the kingdom and spirit of Satan. For there is no middle kingdom between the kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, which are ever at war with each other. 241, 253

    "I say that man without the grace of God nonetheless remains the general omnipotence of God who effects, and moves and impels all things in a necessary, infallible course; but the effect of man's being carried along is nothing--that is, avails nothing in God's sight, nor is reckoned to be anything but sin. 265

    "the Baptist's word means that man can receive nothing unless given him from above; so that free-will is nothing!"

    I say that man, before he is renewed into the new creation of the Spirit's kingdom, does and endeavours nothing to prepare himself for that new creation and kingdom, and when he is re-created has does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone works both blessings in us, regenerating us, and preserving us when regenerate, without ourselves..." 268

    "All the passages in the Holy Scriptures that mention assistance are they that do away with "free-will", and these are countless...For grace is needed, and the help of grace is given, because "free-will" can do nothing."
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