Review: The Bondage of the Will

Martin Luther, Baker, 1525/1957, 322 pages, 5 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 5.19.57 PMEarly in the 16th century, two great minds collided on a topic with tremendous implications. On one side was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a humanist scholar of unsurpassed learning. No one in Europe could rival his deftness in linguistics. His witty tongue was evident in his best-selling satire In Praise of Folly.

Though Erasmus was an ardent Roman Catholic, he was not a theologian, nor did he care to be. And the amicable Erasmus would rather do his fighting behind a desk than brawl behind a pulpit. As one author put it, he could never stand contra mundum.

It would be difficult to find an equal mind with greater dissimilarity than Martin Luther. He was the antithesis of everything Erasmus valued. Bombastic and brash, Luther had been convinced monasticism was the surest way to heaven—that is, until he found the Gospel in Romans 1:17. His Ninety-Five Theses, previously idling in the parking lot, would now be parked just outside the Vatican. 

Where Erasmus would appease, Luther would aggravate. As his books began rolling off the presses, Luther’s doctrinal distinctions from the pope became more pronounced. No one, it was thought, had the scholastic prowess to assuage this “wild boar” as could Erasmus. Finally, and wholly reluctantly, Erasmus authored “a little book on free-will.” The debate had begun.

NATURE OF THE DEBATE

Two questions fenced the debate: (1) Is “free-will” important and (2) Is man’s will enslaved?

Luther and Erasmus disagreed as to the actual importance of this matter. For Erasmus, the nature of the will was not a significant issue. Because he saw peace and morality as having the greatest value, his defense of free will was brief and superficial—comprising only a quarter of what Luther wrote. He counted free will among the “useless doctrines that we can do without.”

In hopes of satisfying both sides, Erasmus employed a brush a meter wide, calling free will the power by which “a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation” (137). But because Erasmus failed to explain what he meant by these terms, Luther exposed him with ceaseless sarcasm. The reformer called this a “bare definition”, giving “no account of any of its parts.” For Luther, “to define obscurely is simply to define nothing at all” (138).

Conversely, Luther was a first class systematic theologian who saw the importance of doctrinal precision. In his view, Christianity stood as a dogmatic religion firmly resting upon carefully formulated assertions.

If the will were free to come to Christ on its own, the church would forfeit the Gospel. In Bondage of the Will, Luther fights tirelessly to defend the enslaved nature of the mankind’s reasoning faculty. He would later call this book his greatest work.

Second, is the will in bondage? Luther denied free-will, affirming that the human will lies helpless before God. Fallen man can do nothing but sin. Man “has not ‘free-will’, but is a captive, prisoner and bond-slave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan” (107). Therefore, salvation is not based on anything man does, but is wholly dependent on God’s grace.

For Erasmus, God’s grace was distributed to all, thus repairing the will. Man now had a small bit of power within himself to come to God. Erasmus was guilty of thinking too little of Christ and his sovereign grace and too much of man’s ability. Luther railed on this approach, telling Erasmus: “You do not mention Christ in a single letter… this is weak stuff, Erasmus” (74).

When the debate turns to the texts of Scriptures, Luther is the easy victor. He culls every corner of God’s Word, from the impotence of man in Jeremiah 10:23 (“the way of man is not in himself”) to the hatred of light-giving truth in John 3:19 (“men hate light”), to man’s stubbornness in Matthew 23:37 (“how often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not!”).

CONCLUSION

Should Christians still read this classic work 500 years later? Yes, for three reasons.

First, read Bondage of the Will because doctrine still matters. For Erasmus, doctrine was not worth an argument. For Luther, it was worth death. In our post-modern world, churches reflect an Erasmian worldview. Slippery definitions void of clear doctrinal lines are more common than Lutheran precision. In this book, Luther was denouncing doctrinal duplicity as much as he was defending orthodoxy.

Second, read Bondage of the Will because it touches the heart of the Gospel. Those who believe humanity can take even the first step toward an effectual grasp of salvation in turn depreciate the depravity of man. Though “the sons of the world are wiser than the sons of light”, no man will ever come to Christ until God sovereignly and gloriously opens his eyes to the beauty of the Gospel message.

Third, read Bondage of the Will because it is exhilarating. Luther is anything but boring. He is direct and often crass in his dialogue with Erasmus. On one occasion, when observing Erasmus’ book, Luther said, “I thought it outrageous to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry … dung” (63).

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