The Way of the Cross XIV: Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis XIV

Thesis 14.
“Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can do evil in an active capacity.”


“An illustration will make the meaning of this thesis clear. Just as a dead man can do something toward life only in a passive capacity, so can he do something toward death in an active manner while he lives. Free will, however, is dead, as demonstrated by the dead whom the Lord has raised up, as the holy teachers of the church say. St. Augustine, moreover, proves this same thesis in his various writings against the Pelagians.”(LW: 31:49)

In the previous thesis, Luther boldly asserted that the will after the fall of Adam was captive and subjected to sin; it exists in name only, and as long as it does, what it is able to do, it commits mortal sins.

However, the question quite naturally follows: “If the will is nothing and is not determined, what can be said about the power of the will in us? If we are not puppets, what then, is in us? What sort of capacity do we have?"

Theses 14 is an attempt to define a little more closely what sort of ability may be ascribed to the will. For this, Luther used the theory of passive power and active power, which is an important part of the doctrine of Aristotelian Scholasticism. What does this mean?

Aristotelian Scholastic theologians in Middle Ages, including Thomas Aquinas, defined the will through Aristotle’s theories of appetite. Aristotle, in his De Anima iii, said: “It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement” (De Anima iii 10, 433a31–b1). Aristotle defines the desire as a thing which can be passively moved.

On the basis of Aristotle’s theories of appetite, Aquinas describes the will as a rational appetite and explains that the will is the power of the human soul for the sake of something. “Rational appetite is one that follows the apprehension of reason. This is called the motion of reason and is nothing other than act of the will”. (In sent. II 24.3-1): “It is evident that appetite is for the sake of something. For it is foolish to say someone desires for the sake of desiring, since to desire is a certain movement tending toward something else” (Sententia libri de anima III 15.821).

If we associate the will with the concept of movement, it inevitably raises the question of potentia passiva (passive power) and potential activa (active power). This is because the movement is always understood by the relationship between the mover and the thing being moved.

Here Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile Aristotle’s passive concept of the will with the free will as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

Following Augustine, Thomas Aquinas admitted that God gave all human beings free will because of His love for humanity. Therefore, Aquinas was thinking about how he can defend the concept of free will as a fundamental Christian doctrine, without throwing out the framework of Aristotelian philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas was trying to resolve this problem by two concepts of the will: those that are the interior act of the will and the exterior act of the will.

The interior act is the act of the reason and the will, and the exterior act is revealed by the external behavior. According to Aquinas, “With regard to the interior act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover.”

Here, the will is defined as a passive relationship with regard to the action of God. On the other hand, with regard to the exterior act, the will is a mover as well as a thing moved. Here, the will is understood as active. For this, Aquinas states:

“Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good, ... But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (Question 17, Article 9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will.” (S.Th, I-II,q.111.a.2)

According to Aquinas, by the grace of God, the will turns from evil and does good, which is called the interior act. Here the will is only passive. However, in order to do good, humans must do the specific external action. Here, the will is active in that the will cooperates with the grace of God. As a result, these good works by humans cooperate with the grace of God, leading humans to gain the merit to be saved.

Here, Luther accepted the theory of passive power and active power as an important part of the doctrine of Aristotelian Scholasticism. However, Luther explains its meaning in a completely different manner than that of Aristotelian Scholasticism.

While Thomas Aquinas argued that with active power by free will, human beings can accumulate merits to be saved, Luther argued that there is no longer power that can do good works for salvation inside human beings.

Will can do good only when acted upon from without (i.e. not in active power). Therefore, everything done by human beings with active capacity can do evil. This is because there is nothing in human beings to be saved. However, the will can do good only by divine power. Thus, Luther states that the will can always do good, only in a passive capacity.

For this, Luther offers the analogy of the dead. A dead man could be said to have a passive capacity for life because he can be raised from the dead. Of course, it is not in their own power, not in an active capacity. The capacity they have is strictly passive. They can be raised only by divine power. On the other hand, it is of course true that while people live they have the active capacity to do something about life and death. However, they cannot create or give life.

Since will after the fall is dead and bound to commit deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death, but could only be commanded from without, by our Lord. In other words, human beings can be saved only by God’s grace (Sola Gracia); not by our own will.

In the proof of the thesis, Luther said that St. Augustine also proves this same thesis in his writings against the Pelagians. In his writing, A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius, Augustine wrote:

“But that free will, whereby man corrupted his own self, was sufficient for his passing into sin; but to return to righteousness, he has need of a Physician, since he is out of health; he has need of a Vivifier, because he is dead. Now about such grace as this he says not a word, as if he were able to cure himself by his own will, since this alone was able to ruin him.” (A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius, Ch. 25)

Thus, after the fall, the will is strictly a passive capacity, not an active one. That means that it can be saved, but it will not save itself. To be saved, it will have to be accessed “from without.” So we are again pointed toward the cross. The bold claim for the free will of human beings will be explained in more detail in Thesis 15.

Jin O Jeong

Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for the 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:

Web Analytics