RPM, Volume 12, Number 52, December 26, 2010 to January 1, 2011

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther


Section LI.

Sect. LI. — LET us now come to that passage in Ecclesiasticus, and also with it compare that first ‘probable opinion.' The opinion saith, ‘Freewill cannot will good.' The passage in Ecclesiasticus is adduced to prove, that "Free-will" is something, and can do something. Therefore, the opinion which is to be proved by Ecclesiasticus, asserts one thing; and Ecclesiasticus, which is adduced to prove it, asserts another. This is just as if any one, setting about to prove that Christ was the Messiah, should adduce a passage which proves that Pilate was governor of Syria, or any thing else equally discordant. It is in the same way that "Free-will" is here proved. But, not to mention my having above made it manifest, that nothing clear or certain can be said or proved concerning "Free-will," as to what it is, or what it can do, it is worth while to examine the whole passage thoroughly.

First he saith, "God made man in the beginning.'' Here he speaks of the creation of man; nor does he say any thing, as yet, concerning either "Free-will" or the commandments.

Then he goes on, "and left him in the hand of his own counsel." And what is here? Is "Freewill" built upon this? But there is not here any mention of commandments, for the doing of which "Free-will" is required; nor do we read any thing of this kind in the creation of man. If any thing be understood by "the hand of his own counsel," that should rather be understood which is in Genesis i. and ii.: that man was made lord of all things that he might freely exercise dominion over them: and as Moses saith, "Let us make man, and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea:" nor can any thing else be proved from those words: for it is in these things only that man may act of his own will, as being subject unto him. And moreover, he calls this man's counsel, in contradiction as it were to the counsel of God. But after this, when He has said, that man was made and left thus in the hand of his own counsel — he adds,

"He added moreover His commandments and His precepts." Unto what did He add them? Certainly unto that counsel and will of man, and over and above unto that constituting of His dominion over other things. By which commandments He took from man the dominion over one part of His creatures, (that is, over the tree of knowledge of good and evil,) and willed rather that he should not be free. — Having added the commandments, He then comes to the will of man towards God and towards the things of God.

"If thou wilt keep the commandments they shall preserve thee," &c. From this part, therefore, "If thou wilt," begins the question concerning "Free-will." So that, from Ecclesiasticus we learn, that man is constituted as divided into two kingdoms. — The one, is that in which he is led according to his own will and counsel, without the precepts and the commandments of God: that is, in those things which are beneath him. Here he has dominion and is lord, as "left in the hand of his own counsel." Not that God so leaves him to himself, as that He does not co-operate with him; but He commits unto him the free use of things according to his own will, without prohibiting him by any laws or injunctions. As we may say, by way of similitude, the Gospel has left us in the hands of our own counsel, that we may use, and have dominion over all things as we will. But Moses and the Pope left us not in that counsel, but restrained us by laws, and subjected us rather to their own will. — But in the other kingdom, he is not left in the hand of his own counsel, but is directed and led according to the Will and Counsel of God. And as, in his own kingdom, he is led according to his own will, without the precepts of another; so, in the kingdom of God, he is led according to the precepts of another, without his own will. And this is what Ecclesiasticus means, when he says, "He added moreover His commandments and His precepts: saying, If thou wilt," &c.

If, therefore, these things be satisfactorily clear, I have made it fully evident, that this passage of Ecclesiasticus does not make for "Freewill," but directly against it: seeing that, it subjects man to the precepts and will of God, and takes from him his "Free-will." But if they be not satisfactorily clear, I have at least made it manifest, that this passage cannot make for "Freewill;" seeing that, it may be understood in a sense different from that which they put upon it, that is, in my sense already stated, which is not absurd, but most holy and in harmony with the whole Scripture. Whereas, their sense militates against the whole Scripture, and is fetched from this one passage only, contrary to the tenor of the whole Scripture. I stand therefore, secure in the good sense, the negative of "Free-will," until they shall have confirmed their strained and forced affirmative.

When, therefore, Ecclesiasticus says, "If thou wilt keep the commandments, and keep the faith that pleaseth Me, they shall preserve thee," I do not see that "Free-will" can be proved from those words. For, "if thou wilt," is a verb of the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing: as the logicians say, ‘a conditional asserts nothing indicatively:' such as, if the devil be God, he is deservedly worshipped: if an ass fly, an ass has wings, so also, if there be "Free-will," grace is nothing at all. Therefore, if Ecclesiasticus had wished to assert "Free-will," he ought to have spoken thus: — man is able to keep the commandments of God, or, man, has the power to keep the commandments.

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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