CHRISTIANITY DAILY

Do We Have Free Will, or Are We Under the Bondage of Will? A Look at Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, Part I

Theses 1 through 12 deal with the question of our objective deeds: “What must a man do to be saved? How humans can advance on the path to righteousness?

For these questions, the theologian of glory answers that the good works of man are necessary for our righteousness before God, but Luther rejected these ideas of the theologian of glory. In theses 1~12, Luther makes it clear that the works of man, no matter how good, with or without the aid of Christ, cannot advance us on the path to righteousness. Thesis 13 begins the discussion of a different aspect of the problem.

While theses 1 through 12 discuss the question of our objective deeds, theses 13 through 18 deals with the subjective side of the question; the question of will: Can or does the will help to advance us to the way to righteousness? Do we actually will, that is, want, the righteousness that avails before God?

The question of the sovereign grace of God and the free will of man has always been a difficult one for biblical faith in relation to the problem of the soteriology. When it is asserted that we are saved by divine election, the protest is always raised: “We aren’t puppets, are we? If everything happens by divine will, how can we be held responsible? We just can’t accept such a God! There must be some freedom of choice!”

It came from Pelagius and Augustine that the question of the sovereign grace of God and the free will of the human being has been raised as the great theological controversy. Pelagius asserted the full ability and potential in the human will unaffected by Adam’s fall. With regards to salvation, he taught that man can eliminate sin from his life by an act of the will and earn eternal salvation. On the other hand, Augustine knew from Scripture that sinful man has a will, indeed, but his will is enslaved, and bent towards evil, and can do nothing except wickedness. He taught sinful man has lost all ability of will to perform any of the spiritual good which accompanies salvation. Therefore, for Augustine, God's grace alone is the only way for man to be saved.

Virtually all of Western Christendom, following St. Augustine, agreed that without the aid of grace the will is bound and can do nothing to merit salvation. However, the following question always rears its ugly head: When men are saved by grace alone, can we claim that the will must have at least a small part to play?

The controversy between the sovereign grace of God and the free will of man was re-echoed a millennium later in Erasmus’s, Diatribe, and Luther's answer in, The Bondage of the Will.

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”(E. Gordon Rupp, P. Watson, Luther And Erasmus: Free Will And Salvation, p. 47).

Erasmus attempts to answer the question how man is saved: Is it the work of God or the work of man according to his free will? Erasmus answers that it is not one or the other. Salvation does not have to be one or the other, for God and man cooperate.

By this depravity of the will, Erasmus does not mean that man can do no good. Because of the fall, the will is "inclined" to evil, but can still do good. In regard to salvation, God and man work together. Man has a free-will, but this will cannot attain salvation of itself. The will needs a boost from grace in order to merit eternal life.

On the other hand, Luther responded with The Bondage of the Will published in December of 1525. Martin Luther gives a thorough defense of the sovereign grace of God over against the "semi-Pelagianism" of Erasmus by going through much of Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will phrase by phrase.

For Luther, the freedom 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 good in the absence of grace” (De Servo Arbitrio in LW, vol. 33, 68)

Against the cooperating work of salvation defended by Erasmus, Luther attacks Erasmus at the very heart of the issue. Luther's thesis is that "freewill is a nonentity, a thing consisting of name alone" because man is a slave to sin. Therefore salvation is the sovereign work of God alone.

Therefore, for Luther, grace alone can save man. If man has a free will that cooperated with grace, this implies God is not omnipotent, controlling all of our actions. Freewill also implies that God makes mistakes and changes. This God is not God anymore.

Luther attempts to answer the question how man is saved: Is it the work of God or the work of man according to his free will? Luther answered this question very firmly with, “No.” Salvation cannot be accomplished not by the work and merit of man but God’s grace alone.

Then, here is the question that arises: If that is true what is the free will for man? We will examine that in the next article.

Jin O Jeong

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: jjeong@zionbelleville.org

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