Martin Luther’s favourite and most important literary work of his ministry, The Bondage of the Will, is a necessary corrective to the deviant theology of our time. It would shock the cassocks off the clergy of our day, and burst their clerical collars. It would disclose most ministry as a worthless sham in an era when we so need the pure word of God to convict and convert stubborn sinners who have no apprehension of their depravity and danger. No one should enter ministry without opening Luther’s indispensable book – especially Anglican ministry (Article 10). SIN, in real terms, is a forgotten phenomenon in our modern religion. Its deadly effects in our moral impotency is hardly suspected. The contemporary Church propounds an illusion concerning the human condition and the character of a holy God. When the Diocese of Atlanta seeks to reinstate Pelagius as a worthy doctor of the Church every effort should be made to counter the influence of the fifth century heretic whose errors pervade the entire Church and even reign in the thinking of many evangelicals. Pelagius and his views on human ability to please God, gain his approval, and win salvation, are rife within Christendom under various guises. Until we come to a full acknowledgement of the enslaved sinner (the bound will) and an electing God (his sovereign will) we come nowhere near to the true Gospel of Christ. We are mere pulpit prattlers unworthy of our divine calling. We are propping people up in their false confidence in self and what they can do in playing a part in what is exclusively the work of God – salvation is of the Lord. It is his action on behalf of men and his gift to men from the first glimmer of spiritual concern to the consummation of salvation in glory. Man does nothing until he receives divine enabling and the liberation and renewal of his will. Our preference for sin is our prison. Our freedom comes from outside ourselves when God breaks the bars of our sin and bursts the chains of our evil affections. We love self, serve Satan, and hate God. Where could any inclination to desire or love him come from except from his grace? Law (doing what we ought) is a futile thing to rely on when an antipathy to law dominates the heart and there is not a scintilla of yearning for righteousness.
Luther’s denial of free will in relation to God and matters concerning him was the basis of his theology of salvation. It (this denial) causes us to renounce self and throw ourselves upon his compassion. We are brought to that point of self abandonment by the operations of the Holy Spirit in our heart, and through his mercy we exercise humble reliance upon the good promises of God fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are destitute of all power and virtue and place our confidence in the power and virtue of Christ.
Luther’s great opponent in the debate on the nature of man’s predicament and the nature of his salvation was the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam. His view was that man could make effort and endeavours that prepared him for grace. Man did all that he could and God made up the deficit. A portion of man’s restoration to righteousness and God was attributed to the sinner. He strove and he chose to depart from evil. But how does an evil nature will what is contrary to it? How does the sinner overcome the mastery of his own desires and overthrow his preferred master, the devil. How does an unconverted, unregenerate person reach out for the God his heart rejects (Romans 8: 5-8)? Such a transformation is impossible apart from the intervention of God. He must start what we cannot begin. The initiative is wholly his. Until he exercises it we are inert. We must be raised from spiritual death before there is any evidence of spiritual life. The account of Lazarus coming forth from the tomb and bound with linen strips is illustrative of this fact (John 11: 38-44). Lazarus could do nothing. The enlivening call of Christ drew him forth from the grave. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Until Christ commands our submission to him Luther’s accurate observation is true, “Satan, who cast Adam down by temptation alone, at a time when he was not yet Adam’s ruler, now reigns in us with complete power over us”.* We freely follow our will but we are unable to change it to a good will. That event is precisely the essence of the salvation that God achieves on our behalf. He saves us from our mad, recalcitrant selves.
Erasmus would please men with a doctrine they would like, a doctrine that left them self confident and not wholly dependent on God. Luther referred to his “cautious, peace-loving theology” that causes no offence to the arrogance, self-righteousness, arrogance, and presumptuousness of man that listens to the word with calm indifference (I once heard an eminent gentleman saying as he left church, ‘Well, we just heard about that fella called God’). Natural man has no sense of his smallness and sinfulness before the Most High and Majestic God. He has no inkling that he lives under the sovereign dispensations of the Almighty Lord. His assumptions as to his free will and what it can do are blasphemous and opposed to the way of salvation. The teaching of Scripture on man’s corruption and God’s sovereign grace need to be noted and fathomed through study and prayer. Only our self despair can compel us to call on God with familiar words that take on a fresh and urgent meaning; “Lord, have mercy! For those charged with the preaching of the Gospel, Luther’s Bondage of the Will is the indispensable and definitive declaration of the doctrines of grace and the helpless depravity of human nature – red meat theology indeed!
*The Bondage of the Will, translated by J. I. Packer & O.R. Johnston
The Doctrines That Divide, Erwin Lutzer
On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Gerhard O. Forde