Luther, God’s Law and Uncle Rico Syndrome

One function of God's law is to (kindly) disabuse us of our confidence in our ability to throw moral footballs over metaphorical mountains

Luther’s response in his 1525 Bondage of the Will takes cognizance of how high Scripture actually sets the bar for man’s moral conduct (“You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matt. 5.48) as well as rather clear biblical statements that reflect man’s spiritual depravity and (hence) inability to clear that bar (“Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” John 8.34). The Reformer’s response also, however, employs a very careful explanation for why God apparently commands sinful man to do things that sinful man has no ability to do. 

 

In 1524 Desiderius Erasmus, who until then had proven reluctant to challenge Martin Luther publically, finally caved to pressure from Rome to employ his literary talent against the impudent German Reformer who had caused, and was still causing, the institutional church of his day such problems. Erasmus chose to attack Luther where he believed the Reformer to be most vulnerable; he chose, that is, to challenge Luther’s assertion that sinful man was wholly unable to contribute anything to his own salvation, and for such required not only Christ’s atoning work on his behalf, but also the Holy Spirit’s work of enabling him to believe in Christ and so appropriate Christ and his benefits.

Erasmus’s defense of human free will — his defense, that is, of man’s innate ability to cooperate with God in his own salvation — employed a well-worn Pelagian argument. The humanist scholar argued that biblical commandments imply an ability on (sinful) man’s part to actually fulfill said commandments. So, for instance, appealing to Deut. 30:19 (“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”), Erasmus commented: “What could be put more plainly? God shows what is good, [and] what is evil, shows the different rewards of life and death, [and] leaves man free to choose. It would be ridiculous to say, ‘Choose,’ if the power of turning one way or the other were not present, as though one should say to a man standing at a crossroad: ‘You see these two roads, take which you like’ … when only one was open to him!”

To be sure, Erasmus’s argument has a certain logic to it. One would hardly excuse me as a parent if I ordered my three year old daughter Geneva to change the oil in the family car and then punished her when she failed to fulfill the required task(s). Commandments to fulfill impossible tasks, and subsequent consequences for failure to deliver, do seem cruel. Surely, then, God would not order man to “choose life” if such a choice genuinely lay beyond man’s ability.

Luther’s response in his 1525 Bondage of the Will takes cognizance of how high Scripture actually sets the bar for man’s moral conduct (“You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matt. 5.48) as well as rather clear biblical statements that reflect man’s spiritual depravity and (hence) inability to clear that bar (“Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” John 8.34). The Reformer’s response also, however, employs a very careful explanation for why God apparently commands sinful man to do things that sinful man has no ability to do.

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