Bondage of the Will,
6. Grace or no grace…but no middle ground – Packer & Johnston’s intro to Luther’s work does a good job tracing the historical developments of Erasmus’ Diatribe. They help show that Erasmus wasn’t super interested in doing that piece of writing, but he felt it was important to keep the church at peace, to find a middle ground where all the parties could stand. But it’s that middle ground where Luther pins him to the wall.
Erasmus would like to say that free will is able to do produce some endeavoring, some desire to keep the law. But he would also like to say that such desire and endeavor is really impossible without grace. It just doesn’t work. There are only two options: (1) Full-blow Pelagianism, where man is in complete control of his destiny and is fully able by himself to choose heaven or hell…or (2) Free-will is a myth, the smoke and mirrors of human pride. If you say that free-will needs grace, then free-will isn’t free (and fuzzy-wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, wuz he?).
As an example of his point, Luther offers Adam. Now here’s a man; if anyone could choose good, surely this Adam who walked with God. But he didn’t – and we, who are infinitely worse for it, do we think that we can supersede the first man’s ability to desire and endeavor for good?
7. Genesis 4:7, let the repetition begin – “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it." Erasmus believes that this, God’s Word to Cain, constitutes proof that the heart’s inclination toward evil can be overcome. Luther responds simply: if we can overcome evil, why do we need God? If we need God to overcome evil, how can we speak of our wills as completely free?
The point that must be grasped is this: God’s commandments imply duty, not ability. The mere presence of God’s law no more proves my ability to keep it than do my marriage vows automatically guarantee me to be the perfect husband.
8. Deuteronomy 30:19, let the repetition continue - I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live. The point above remains the main thought for Luther: duty doesn’t mean ability. But look at the history to see this proved: God’s people had His commandments, and how well did they choose life, how well did they endeavor for good? The Israelites of the old covenant are our living, breathing examples of the difference between duty and ability. They had it to do and they didn’t. They didn’t long enough and proved they couldn’t.
Erasmus, et al, may respond: the law is then a mockery of humanity. On the contrary, the law is a great gift of a good God. The real cruelty, the real mockery would be convincing people in prison that they weren’t trapped at all (instead of convincing them of their chains). It’s the knowledge of inability, the despair of bondage that will lead people to the cross of Christ.
Finally, Luther makes a wonderful point about grammar. Erasmus and his semi-Pelagian buddies keep taking an imperative and turning it into an indicative. They say “ought” proves “what”…which every grammar student knows isn’t the case. When God says we ought to do something, He is not making a commentary on what actually is the state of our ability. To get that what info, we must turn to other passages, such as Psalm 14, which tell of us our state, our abilities and disabilities.
9. Confusing law & gospel – that grammar confusion continues, working itself out theologically. Erasmus continues his arguments through various portions of law in the Old Testament, hoping to see in the imperative (“do!”) an indicative (“can”). In the end, those who desire to make much of man must make very, very little of the grace of God. Those who desperately want to keep free-will as the right of man must admit that grace really isn’t grace (or isn’t really undeserved).
On the opposite side, those who make much of God realize first that we cannot make much of man. Second, those who elevate God understand that all His law has the same purpose: to convince men of our inability to keep it and to force us to ask: where can I find that ability, where can I find forgiveness, who is able to keep such a law? So when God says, “I desire not the death of a sinner,” (Ezek. 18:23) He is making a wonderful gospel-call, not a statement of His inability to prevent death.
If, by ourselves, we are able to obey, the law is the gospel. But if we are unable, as Scripture seems to clearly say over and over, then the law is a tutor to lead us to the gospel, lead us to Jesus.