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!"

08 June 2005

Notes on Luther, 10

Bondage of the Will, Ch. 4, paragraphs 10-14

10. Letting God be God – To his credit, Luther doesn’t back away from the hard questions. Here, the hard question is: “Does the righteous Lord deplore the death of His people which He Himself works in them?” Luther embarks thus on a different line of reasoning, one borrowed by many since him – the difference between God revealed and God “in His own nature and majesty.”

In speaking & thinking about God, all we have to go on is what He’s told us about Himself – which is surely all true. But that information is also surely not comprehensive. We could never bear such knowledge. So we operate on the level that God gives to us, believing Him at His word and realizing that there’s much, so much, that we cannot comprehend – more majesty, more wisdom, more glory and beauty than we could imagine. So, in the area of eternal election, even in the area of predestination unto death, we will let God be God and trust that He is good and gracious altogether.

It is enough simply to know that there is in God an inscrutable will; what, why, and within what limits It wills, it is wholly unlawful to inquire, or wish to know, or be concerned about, or touch upon; we may only fear and adore! This reminds me of a story my seminary prof told us – as a younger Christian, he experienced the familiar “what about the African natives who’ve never heard the gospel?” dilemma and went to speak with his pastor. His pastor told him two valuable truths: (1) you are not the African native; you have heard the gospel and how you respond is vital. (2) You must now let God be God and trust that everything His Word reveals about Him is true – including that He is good and completely sovereign.

11. Deuteronomy 30:11-14, The repetition goes on – Now Luther, in responding to Erasmus’ comments on Dt. 30, returns to his mantra: command does not imply freewill, duty does not necessarily translate into ability. But Erasmus goes farther here – he says, “This passage declares that what is commanded is not only set within us, but is like falling off a log.” Wow. To think this whole time that obedience you’re striving for…well, it’s as easy as falling off a log. Luther is beside himself – how can such a monstrous thought ever be written. To claim obedience as possible (nevermind easy) apart from Christ and His Spirit completely does away with any need for regeneration, faith, repentance, and so on. Christ is made nothing by such human-idolatry.

Moses speaks in Dt. 30 of the law being “not above thee, neither is it far off”, that the law is near to you…which Erasmus takes to mean that we are able to keep it. Luther simply argues that “near” means “near.” Moses was telling the people that they had the law, that it wasn’t vague and unrevealed, but (literally) concrete and right before them. This in no way implies ability, but does clearly reveal the duty of those to whom the law is given.

12. Matthew 23:37, letting God be God, part 2 – Jesus said in Matthew 23, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” Erasmus takes this as solid proof of freewill, or else Christ’s tears are “useless.” [Note – to modernize this interpretation, this is exactly the position Open Theists would have us take towards such passages. Not good.]

Luther again calls the reader to allow God to be God. We are not given access to the Book of Life or any other secret decrees of God. To those who question whether such a distinction is Scriptural, he quotes Romans 9:19-20 – “Who are you you, O man, to answer back to God?...” When Christ speaks of wishing and cries true tears of hurt and distress, the humble believer will rejoice at the goodness and love of such a Savior, even while Arminians search here for something to support humanity’s freedom of will.

13. Matthew 19:17, the law illuminates inability & God’s salvation - And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." If there’s no free-will, Erasmus argues, how could Jesus say these words with a good conscience? Luther responds with two repeated arguments. First, an imperative/command does not imply ability. Second, if you force this verse to prove freewill, you have also constructed an argument for the uselessness of the cross of Jesus Christ. If I can enter life by keeping the commandments, what a useless death Jesus died!

But there’s another thought behind these verses, a promise of Christ’s. Luther rephrases the verse: “If thou art willing, if thou shalt be willing (that is if thou art such with God that He sees fit to give thee this will to keep the commandments), thou shalt be saved.” If such a view is adopted, God’s law doesn’t just show us our inability, it also serves as a promise of what He plans to do with our lives.

14. The purpose of New Testament commands - Doing some more repeating, Luther adds some more thoughts about New Testament commands. The main point he makes is that the commands of James, for example, are intended for the regenerate. So whenever we read the New Testament and see a command to obey, we ought to understand that the work of the Spirit is implied in the very giving of that command. Failure to see that implied work leads to a straight legalistic reading of Scripture.

[Note: I believe this applies to Old Testament commands as well. God’s law, wherever it’s found, ought to first drive us to the cross because of our inability to meet God’s holy standard, and, second, cause us to rejoice in God’s promised Spirit who works such grace into our lives.]

1 comment:

Kurt Fiech said...


When I read, "Does the righteous Lord deplore the death of His people which He Himself works in them?" I immediately thought of "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints"(Psalms 116:15) which is sufficient for me.