RPM, Volume 13, Number 27, July 3 to July 9, 2011

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther


Section LXXVIII.

Sect. LXXVIII. — THIS miserable scape-gap of tropes, therefore, profits the Diatribe nothing. But this Proteus of ours must here be held fast, and compelled to satisfy us fully concerning the trope in this passage; and that, by Scriptures the most clear, or by miracles the most evident. For as to its mere opinion, even though supported by the laboured industry of all ages, we give no credit to that whatever. But we urge on and press it home, that there can be here no trope whatever, but that the Word of God is to be understood according to the plain meaning of the words. For it is not given unto us (as the Diatribe persuades itself to turn the words of God backwards and forwards according to our own lust: if that were the case, what is there in the whole Scripture, that might not be resolved into the philosophy of Anaxagoras — ‘that any thing might be made from any thing?' And thus I will say, "God created the heavens and the earth:" that is, He stationed them, but did not make them out of nothing. Or, "He created the heavens and the earth;" that is, the angels and the devils; or the just and the wicked. Who, I ask, if this were the case, might not become a theologian at the first opening of a book?

Let this, therefore, be a fixed and settled point: — that since the Diatribe cannot prove, that there is a trope in these our passages which it utterly destroys, it is compelled to cede to us, that the words are to be understood according to their plain meaning; even though it should prove, that the same trope is contained in all the other passages of Scripture, and used in common by every one. And by the gaining of this one point, all our arguments are at the same time defended, which the Diatribe designed to refute; and thus, its refutation is found to effect nothing, to do nothing, and to be nothing.

Whenever, therefore, this passage of Moses, "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh," is interpreted thus: — My long-suffering, by which I bear with the sinner, leads, indeed, others unto repentance, but it shall render Pharaoh more hardened in iniquity: — it is a pretty interpretation, but it is not proved that it ought to be so interpreted. But I am not content with what is said, I must have the proof.

And that also of Paul, "He hath mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth, "(Rom. ix. 18,) is plausibly interpreted thus: — that is, God hardens when He does not immediately punish the sinner; and he has mercy when He immediately invites to repentance by afflictions. — But how is this interpretation proved?

And also that of Isaiah lxiii. 17, "Why hast Thou made us to err from Thy ways and hardened our heart from Thy fear?" Be it so, that Jerome interprets it thus from Origen: — He is said to ‘make to err' who does not immediately recall from error. But who shall certify us that Jerome and Origen interpret rightly? It is, therefore, a settled determination with me, not to argue upon the authority of any teacher whatever, but upon that of the Scripture alone. What Origens and Jeromes does the Diatribe, then, forgetting its own determination, set before us! especially when, among all the ecclesiastical writers, there are scarcely any who have handled the Holy Scriptures less to the purpose, and more absurdly, than Origen and Jerome.

In a word: this liberty of interpretation, by a new and unheard-of kind of grammar, goes to confound all things. So that, when God saith, "I will harden the heart of Pharaoh," you are to change the persons and understand it thus: — Pharaoh hardens himself by My long-suffering. God hardeneth our hearts; — that is, we harden ourselves by God's deferring the punishment. Thou, O Lord, has made us to err; — that is, we have made ourselves to err by Thy not punishing us. So also, God's having mercy, no longer signifies His giving grace, or showing mercy, or forgiving sin, or justifying, or delivering from evil, but, on the contrary, signifies bringing on evil and punishing.

In fact, by these tropes matters will come to this: — you may say, that God had mercy upon the children of Israel when He sent them into Assyria and to Babylon; because, He there punished the sinners, and there invited them, by afflictions, to repentance: and that, on the other hand, when He delivered them and brought them back, He had not then mercy upon them, but hardened them; that is, by His long-suffering and mercy He gave them an occasion of becoming hardened. And also, God's sending the Saviour Christ into the world, will not be said to be the mercy, but the hardening of God; because, by this mercy, He gave men an occasion of hardening themselves. On the other hand, His destroying Jerusalem, and scattering the Jews even unto this day, is His having mercy on them; because, He punishes the sinners and invites them to repentance. Moreover, His carrying the saints away into heaven at the day of judgment, will not be in mercy, but in hardening; because, by His long-suffering, He will give them an occasion of abusing it. But His thrusting the wicked down to hell, will be His mercy; because, He punishes the sinners. — Who, I pray you, ever heard of such examples of the mercy and wrath of God as these?

And be it so, that good men are made better both by the long-suffering and by the severity of God; yet, when we are speaking of the good and the bad promiscuously, these tropes, by an utter perversion of the common manner of speaking, will make, out of the mercy of God His wrath, and His wrath out of His mercy; seeing that, they call it the wrath of God when He does good, and His mercy when He afflicts.

Moreover, if God be said then to harden, when He does good and endures with long-suffering, and then to have mercy when He afflicts and punishes, why is He more particularly said to harden Pharaoh than to harden the children of Israel, or than the whole world? Did He not do good to the children of Israel? Does He not do good to the whole world? Does He not bear with the wicked? Does He not rain upon the evil and upon the good? Why is He rather said to have mercy upon the children of Israel than upon Pharaoh? Did He not afflict the children of Israel in Egypt, and in the desert? — And be it so, that some abuse, and some rightly use, the goodness and the wrath of God; yet, according to your definition, to harden, is the same as, to indulge the wicked by long-suffering and goodness; and to have mercy, is, not to indulge, but to visit and punish. Therefore, with reference to God, He, by His continual goodness, does nothing but harden; and by His perpetual punishment, does nothing but shew mercy.

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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