Luther’s Theology: The Will’s Bondage

The Bondage of the Will is one of Martin Luther’s most important and enduring works

“Luther rejects the idea that man stands in the middle and can choose between a good spirit or bad flesh, or that original sin has only partially hindered man’s ability to perform acts of righteousness. Instead, he looks to Christ’s words John 3:6 that what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

 

The Bondage of the Will is one of Martin Luther’s most important and enduring works. It represents his greatest defense of the doctrine of predestination and was written as a response to Erasmus of Rotterdam. I have previously described the relationship between these two men and the circumstances that led them to write. I would now like to provide a brief introduction to The Bondage of the Will for those who wish to tackle this book. Luther tended to think in terms of dichotomies, so I will describe four such contrasts that are critical to his overall argument.

Creator vs. Creature

This seems to be the most fundamental dichotomy underlying all the others. “Your thoughts about God are all too human,” Luther tells Erasmus.[1] Luther’s firm belief in this categorical distinction between the divine and the human translates into how he views the entire narrative of salvation history and the process of justification. “We are not disputing about nature but about grace, and we are not asking what we are on earth, but what we are in heaven before God.”[2] Luther will not allow God to be bound by any human formulation or analogy. “We know quite well that God does not love or hate as we do, since we are mutable in both our loving and hating, whereas he loves and hates in accord with his eternal and immutable nature, so that passing moods and feelings do not arise in him.”[3] Thus, The Bondage of the Will could also be titled “The Unbinding of God”: we must not dictate to our Creator.

Hidden God vs. Revealed God

A closely related comparison is God as he exists eternally in his glory and as he is revealed in his Word. Luther had established this concept in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”[4] Luther applies this principle to those who attempt to pry into God’s secret will regarding election, accusing Erasmus of relying on flawed human reason while ignoring the principles laid out in scripture. “Here we do not search, but there, where he has forbidden us to search, we do nothing but search, with never-ending temerity, not to say blasphemy.”[5] He concludes that “how it is just that he damns the undeserving is incomprehensible now, except only to faith, until the Son of Man shall be revealed.”[6]

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