RPM, Volume 14, Number 02, January 8 to January 14, 2012

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther


Section CV.

Sect. CV. — BUT it is worth while to hear the Diatribe make out, how it is that the argument of Paul does not exclude "Free-will" by that similitude: for it brings forward two absurd objections: the one taken from the Scriptures, the other from Reason. From the Scriptures it collects this objection.

— When Paul, 2 Tim. ii. 20, had said, that "in a great house there are vessels of gold and silver, wood and earth, some to honour and some to dishonour," he immediately adds, "If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, &c." (21.) — Then the Diatribe goes on to argue thus: — "What could be more ridiculous than for any one to say to an earthen chamber-convenience, If thou shalt purify thyself, thou shalt be a vessel unto honour? But this would be rightly said to a rational earthen vessel, which can, when admonished, form itself according to the will of the Lord." — By these observations it means to say, that the similitude is not in all respects applicable, and is so mistaken, that it effects nothing at all.

I answer: (not to cavil upon this point:) — that Paul does not say, if any one shall purify himself from his own filth, but "from these;" that is, from the vessels unto dishonour: so that the sense is, if any one shall remain separate, and shall not mingle himself with wicked teachers, he shall be a vessel unto honour. Let us grant also that this passage of Paul makes for the Diatribe just as it wishes: that is, that the similitude is not effective. But how will it prove, that Paul is here speaking on the same subject as he is in Rom. ix. 11-23, which is the passage in dispute? Is it enough to cite a different passage without at all regarding whether it have the same or a different tendency? There is not (as I have often shewn) a more easy or more frequent fall in the Scriptures, than the bringing together different Scripture passages as being of the same meaning. Hence, the similitude in those passages, of which the Diatribe boasts, makes less to its purpose than our similitude which it would refute.

But (not to be contentious), let us grant, that each passage of Paul is of the same tendency; and that a similitude does not always apply in all respects; (which is without controversy true; for otherwise, it would not be a similitude, nor a translation, but the thing itself; according to the proverb, ‘A similitude halts, and does not always go upon four feet;') yet the Diatribe errs and transgresses in this: — neglecting the scope of the similitude, which is to be most particularly observed, it contentiously catches at certain words of it: whereas, ‘the knowledge of what is said, (as Hilary observes,) is to be gained from the scope of what is said, not from certain detached words only.' Thus, the efficacy of a similitude depends upon the cause of the similitude. Why then does the Diatribe disregard that, for the purpose of which Paul uses this similitude, and catch at that, which he says is unconnected with the purport of the similitude? That is to say, it is an exhortation where he saith, "If a man purge himself from these;" but a point of doctrine where he saith, "In a great house, there are vessels of gold, &c." So that, from all the circumstances of the words and mind of Paul, you may understand that he is establishing the doctrine concerning the diversity and use of vessels.

The sense, therefore, is this: — seeing that so many depart from the faith, there is no comfort for us but the being certain that "the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His. And let every one that calleth upon the name of the Lord depart from evil." (2 Tim. ii. 19). This then is the cause and efficacy of the similitude — that God knows His own! Then follows the similitude — that there are different vessels, some to honour and some to dishonour. By this it is proved at once, that the vessels do not prepare themselves, but that the Master prepares them. And this is what Paul means, where he saith, "Hath not the potter power over the clay, &c." (Rom. ix. 21). Thus, the similitude of Paul stands most effective: and that to prove, that there is no such thing as "Free-will" in the sight of God.

After this, follows the exhortation: "If a man purify himself from these," &c. and for what purpose this is, may be clearly collected from what we have said already. It does not follow from this, that the man can purify himself. Nay, if any thing be proved hereby it is this: — that "Free-will" can purify itself without grace. For he does not say, if grace purify a man; but, "if a man purify himself." But concerning imperative and conditional passages, we have said enough. Moreover, the similitude is not set forth in conditional, but in indicative verbs — that the elect and the reprobate, are as vessels of honour and of dishonour. In a word, if this fetch stand good, the whole argument of Paul comes to nothing. For in vain does he introduce vessels murmuring against God as the potter, if the fault plainly appear to be in the vessel, and not in the potter. For who would murmur at hearing him damned, who merited damnation!

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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