RPM, Volume 12, Number 31, August 1 to August 7 2010

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther


Section XXX.

Sect. XXX. — BUT I will easily prove to you the contrary of all this: — that such holy men as you boast of, whenever they approach God, either to pray or to do, approach Him, utterly forgetful of their own "Free-will" and despairing of themselves, crying unto Him for pure grace only, feeling at the same time that they deserve everything that is the contrary. In this state was Augustine often; and in the same state was Bernard, when, at the point of death, he said, "I have lost my time, because I have lived wrong." I do not see, here, that there was any power spoken of which could apply itself unto Grace, but that all power was condemned as being only averse; although those same saints, at the time when they disputed concerning "Free-will," spoke otherwise. And the same I see has happened unto all, that, when they are engaged in words and disputations, they are one thing; but another, when they come to experience and practice. In the former, they speak differently from what they felt before; in the latter, they feel differently from what they spoke before. But men, good as well as bad, are to be judged of, more from what they feel, than from what they say.

But we will indulge you still further. We will not require miracles, the Spirit, and sanctity. We return to the doctrine itself. We only require this of you: — that you would at least explain to us, what work, what word, what thought, that power of "Free-will" can move, attempt, or perform, in order to apply itself unto grace. For it is not enough to say, there is! there is! there is a certain power of "Free-will!" For what is more easily said than this? Nor does such a way of proceeding become men the most learned, and the most holy, who have been approved by so many ages, but must be called baby-like (as we say in a German proverb.) It must be defined, what that power is, what it can do, in what it is passive, and what takes place. To give you an example (for I shall press you most homely) this is what is required: — Whether that power must pray, or fast, or labour, or chastise the body, or give alms; or what other work of this kind it must do, or attempt. For if it be a power it must do some kind of work. But here you are more dumb than Seriphian frogs and fishes. And how should you give the definition, when, according to your own testimony, you are at an uncertainty about the power itself, at difference among each other, and inconsistent with yourselves? And what must become of the definition, when the thing to be defined has no consistency in itself?

But be it so, that since the time of Plato, you are at length agreed among yourselves concerning the power itself; and that its work may be defined to be praying, or fasting, or something of the same kind, which perhaps, still lies undiscovered in the ideas of Plato. Who shall certify us that such is truth, that it pleases God, and that we are doing right, in safety? Especially when you yourselves assert that there is a human cause which has not the testimony of the Spirit, because of its having been handled by philosophers, and having existed in the world before Christ came, and before the Spirit was sent down from heaven. It is most certain, then, that this doctrine was not sent down from heaven with the Spirit, but sprung from the earth long before: and therefore, there is need of weighty testimony, whereby it may be confirmed to be true and sure.

We will grant, therefore, that we are private individuals and few, and you public characters and many; we ignorant, and you the most learned: we stupid, and you the most acute: we creatures of yesterday, and you older than Deucalion; we never received, and you approved by so many ages; in a word, we sinners, carnal, and dolts, and you awe-striking to the very devils for your sanctity, spirit, and miracles. — Yet allow us the right at least of Turks and Jews, to ask of you that reason for your doctrine, which your favourite Peter has commanded you to give. We ask it of you in the most modest way: that is, we do not require it to be proved by sanctity, by the Spirit, and by miracles, (which however, we could do in our own right, seeing that you yourselves require that of others): nay, we even indulge you so far, as not to require you to produce any example of a work, a word, or a thought, in confirmation of your doctrine but only to explain to us the doctrine itself, and merely to tell us plainly, what you would have to be understood by it, and what the form of it is. If you will not, or cannot do this, then let us at least attempt to set forth an example of it ourselves. For you are as bad as the Pope himself, and his followers, who say, "You are to do as we say, but not to do, as we do." In the same manner you say, that that power requires a work to be done: and so, we shall be set on to work, while you remain at your ease. But will you not grant us this, that the more you are in numbers, the longer you are in standing, the greater you are, the farther you are on all accounts superior to us, the more disgraceful it is to you, that we, who in every respect are as nothing in your eyes, should desire to learn and practice your doctrine, and that you should not be able to prove it, either by any miracle, or by the killing of a louse, or by any the least motion of the Spirit, or by any the least work of sanctity, nor even to bring forth any example of it, either in work or word? And further, (a thing unheard of before) that you should not be able to tell us plainly of what form the doctrine is, and how it is to be understood? — O excellent teachers of "Free-will!" What are you, now, but "Sound only!" Who now, Erasmus, are they who "boast of the Spirit but shew it not forth?" Who "say only, and then wish men to believe them?" Are not your friends they, who are thus extolled to the skies, and who can say nothing, and yet, boast of, and exact such great things?

We entreat, therefore, you and yours, my friend Erasmus, that you will allow us to stand aloof and tremble with fear, alarmed at the peril of our conscience; or, at least, to wave our assenting to a doctrine, which, as you yourself see, even though you should succeed to the utmost, and all your arguments should be proved and established, is nothing but an empty term, and a sounding of these syllables — ‘There is a power of "Free-will!"' — There is a power of "Free-will!" — Moreover, it still remains an uncertainty among your own friends themselves, whether it be a term even, or not: for they differ from each other, and are inconsistent with themselves. It is most iniquitous, therefore, nay, the greatest of miseries, that our consciences, which Christ has redeemed by His blood, should be tormented by the ghost of one term, and that, a term which has no certainty in it. And yet, if we should not suffer ourselves to be thus tormented, we should be held as guilty of unheard-of pride, for disregarding so many fathers of so many ages, who have asserted "Free-will." Whereas, the truth is, as you see from what has been said, they never defined any thing what ever concerning "Free-will": but the doctrine of "Free-will" is erected under the covering, and upon the basis of their name: of which, nevertheless, they can shew no form, and for which, they can fix no term: and thus they delude the world with a term, that is a lie!

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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