My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

18 May 2005

Notes on Luther, 8

Bondage of the Will, Ch. 4, paragraphs 1-5

1. Why Erasmus' definition of free-will can't float - First off, here's how Erasmus defined "free-will": a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same. Despite wanting to use different terms (free-will is ambiguous at best), Luther spends time discussing this definition. Here, says Luther, are the parts that don't help: "apply", "turn away", "things that lead" - too mysterious.

Next, note that Erasmus would have free-will grasp eternal salvation. Eternity, by definition, is beyond the reach of humanity's capacity. 1 Corinthians 2:10 tells us that without the Spirit of God, man simply cannot know eternal things. Take a walk through history and look for the brightest minds, those who should have had the most "free-will" - the vast majority of them rejected God's wisdom, considering eternal life & the resurrection to be foolishness.

Another way of looking at Erasmus' definition is to consider what kind of power he grants to man. According to Erasmus, it is man who can find, achieve eternal life, it is within man's grasp to obey the law & believe the gospel. If man can choose life or death, man has replaced God, the only giver of life. Man has replaced the Spirit and grace. Luther, et al, aren't denying that man does things and chooses things, but that his doing and choosing is enslaved. Man's will, says Luther, is like a log; a log, by virtue of its weight, can always fall downward, but it can never rise beyond its current point without someone else lifting it.

2. Why Ecclesiasticus 15:14-17 won't help - Erasmus appealed to this passage (also called Sirach), found in the Apocrypha: Sirach 15:14-17 14 He himself made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his counsel; 15 If thou wilt, to keep the commandments, and to perform acceptable faithfulness. 16 He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt. 17 Before man is life and death; and whether him liketh shall be given him.

Luther mentions question of Ecclesiasticus’ status as canonical (a good book, but not properly part of Scripture), but he promises to deal with it rather than to debate the book’s merits. He deals with this more fully in paragraphs 4 & 5, but here he notes Erasmus' failure to find any passage that actually defines what free-will is or what it can do.

3. 3 Views of Free-will?
Erasmus sees 3 views of free-will:

  1. man cannot will good without special grace (this is where Erasmus places himself)
  2. man’s “free-will” can do nothing but will to sin, all good is from grace in us
  3. “free-will” is an empty term and a myth

Luther calls Erasmus on his logical misstep: in defining free-will, Erasmus said that man is able to exert something toward eternal salvation on his own. Here, however, he admits that man can do nothing of the sort without special grace from God. He now says free-will cannot actually accomplish good on its own, a position Luther is happy to agree with.

Luther grants that perhaps Erasmus conceives of a middle position, a pure “willing” without reference to good or evil. Not only is this a “logical fancy”, but Christ clearly denied it by saying there are only two positions in regard to God: for or against (Mt. 12:30). Getting back to the 3 views, Luther closes this paragraph by arguing that they are, in fact, three ways of saying the same thing. If you deny that man can will good on his own, you will necessarily end up at the third position after a couple minutes of thought. So, here Erasmus had beaten himself.

4. Back to the passage in question – At first glance, the passage in Sirach does seem to have some bearing on the question of free-will. But upon further examination, we find that, in the end, man is still subject to the law of God. What kind of freedom is it when one is obligated to a law?

Beyond that, this passage really doesn’t speak to “free” will, only to “will.” God puts His law before men with the command to obey and the promise of reward. Because of the structure, “if thou art willing”, there is really nothing proved toward man’s freedom to obey.

5. Command doesn’t imply ability to obey – Erasmus already replied to this last point, arguing that God giving a law that we can’t obey is like us telling a blind man, “If you’re willing to see, you will find the treasure.” In human terms, that does sound ridiculous.

Luther gives two responses; first, men do speak this way. Parents often ask their children to do something impossible for them, in order to show the children their need for mom and dad. Second, although it may be ridiculous in human terms, it’s exactly what God is doing. One of the uses of the law is to shut the mouths of men, to convince them of their inability, their lack of strength, their bondage of will – indeed, for God to command a law we are unable to obey may seem mean or joking, but if, in the end, a sinner is stripped of pride in his strength and forced to seek strength and grace outside himself, he is that much closer to the gospel of Christ.

To paraphrase Robert Reymond, God does not deal in ability, but responsibility. We are not able to keep the law, but we are responsible to keep the law. Thus, all the more clearly does Christ’s righteousness shine as our great hope!

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