The clash between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus over the issue of free will is “one of the most famous exchanges in western intellectual history”. On September 1, 1524, Erasmus published his treatise On the Freedom of the Will. In his treatise, Erasmus emphasized Human Free Will in cooperation with Grace: “By free choice in this place we mean a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them”. On the other hand, Luther responded with The Bondage of the Will published in December of 1525. For Luther, the free of the will can never do anything for salvation: “that we do everything by necessity, and nothing by free choice, since the power of free choice is nothing and neither does nor can do well in the absence of grace.”
Packer and Johnston call The Bondage of the Will "the greatest piece of theological writing that ever came from Luther's pen." In his work, Luther defends the heart of justification by only faith over against the salvation by free will with grace argued by Erasmus.
This controversy, which carries on into the present day, is of utmost importance. Ignoring the contemporary relevance and implications of these crucially important topics will not be possible, if we should think about our approach to the modern reformation of the church, our evangelism. In this paper, I will examine how Luther taught and defended the doctrine of salvation by grace alone in his Bondage of the Will. And then, the implications of these issues will be drawn out for a congregation’s practice of evangelism in the context of the Korean Church.
II. The freedom of the Christian
Apart from the free will of Human, Luther also dealt with Christian Liberty. It does not mean free choice or free will, but Coram Deo’s freedom Christ gave to the Christian. It points out the spiritual state, being freed from sin and not fearing the wrath of God. This liberty means only Coram Deo’s freedom, not political or physical freedom. It includes the final freedom that is to come, which will put a glorious, powerful body on our weak body by Christ.
Luther first asks what can make a man a “justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, a spiritual, new, and inward man.” Only the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ can do that, the gospel “concerning His Son, incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit, the sanctifier.”
He explained what true Christian liberty is. In general, there are two radically different interpretations of Luther's Christian liberty. One believes that for Luther, Christian liberty means only Coram Deo’s freedom, not political freedom. On the other hand, some people insist that it means only political freedom, not Coram Deo’s freedom. However, unlike the above two positions, I think that we need to synthesize both perspectives to understand the meaning of Luther's Christian liberty. For Luther's Christian liberty means political freedom from the completely depraved Roman Church as well as Coram Deo’s freedom from the ungodly Roman Church by faith in God's Word.
Ⅲ. The Free of the Will and The Bondage of the Will
For Luther, the word, “Free Will”, is a divine term. It cannot be applied for the Human, but only for God. God alone has free will. This means only God can will or not will the law, gospel, sin, and death. God does not act out of necessity, but freely. He alone is independent in all He decrees and does.
The great error of free-willism is that it ascribes divinity to man. If man has a free-will, this implies God is not omnipotent, controlling all of our actions; the divinity of God would be endowed to God. This would be the greatest possible sacrilege.
The reason as it found in man after the fall of Adam contributes to the understanding of an essential difference between man and other living beings, indeed everything else. It is certain that the capability of reason is the great ability for man. However, Luther insisted the total incapability of mans’ will, in that the capability of man to reason can do nothing for his salvation.
Like this, Luther completely denies the fact that free will exists in man. If free will exists in man, it is not the freedom man controls himself, but the will of the slave under the will of either God or Satan. If we are captives through the Holy Spirit, we can willingly do the good that God wants. However, if we are under the god of this world, we just have the captor's will which leads us to commit the sin that Satan wants, apart from the will of the God. To explain this slaved will, Luther compares this struggle to a horse having two riders: “Thus the human will is placed between the two like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills … If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills.”
He is always under the power either of God or of Satan. The corrupted will of the human does not have the ability which can decide and perform something by will itself. Therefore the human will is standing on neutral ground.
Ⅳ. Freewill and Justification
According to Luther, if man has free will, it is enslaved to sin until God breaks the power of sin. The will of man without the grace of God is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bond slave of evil since it cannot turn itself to good. Free-will lost its freedom in the fall so that now the will is a slave to sin. Because man is enslaved to sin, his will cannot change itself. He only wills or chooses to sin of himself. He cannot change this willingness of his: he wills and desires evil. Man is wholly evil, thinking nothing but evil thoughts.
The salvation of a man depends upon the free work of God, who alone is sovereign and able to save men. Luther proclaims the sovereignty of God in salvation. God is sovereign over all things. He is sovereign in salvation. Is salvation a work of God and man? Luther says, “No”. God alone saves. Therefore salvation cannot be based on the merits of men's works. Man's obedience does not obtain salvation. Grace does not come by our own effort, but by the grace of Jesus Christ. To deny grace is to deny Jesus Christ. For Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Therefore, Justification is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ apart from all works and merit of the sinner (cf. Rom 1:18–3:28). In the Middle Age, the scholastics said that “with this gift of grace, you begin performing 'grace assisted acts of love.'" Others said that since we merit justification by love of God by the help of grace, that sinners also earn the initial grace by “doing what is in them”, or “doing their best” to love God without the help of grace. But Luther believed that justification never happened in that way. The most important of which, for Luther, was the doctrine of justification — God's act of declaring a sinner righteous — through God's grace alone by faith alone. Luther always teaches that justification is free gift of God's grace for sinners. It is attainable only through faith in Jesus. That’s why Lutherans always emphasizes the slogan, “Sola Gracia”(Grace Alone). It means that all have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
In the next piece, I will discuss the implications this has for the Korean church.
Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org