Predestination and Freewill: On the Bondage of the Will, Part II

This post is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther also argues that if the potter and clay in Romans 9 do not refer to God and man in salvation, “Paul’s whole argument in defense of grace is meaningless. For the whole purpose of his epistle is to show that we can do nothing, even when we seem to be doing well, just as he says in the same chapter that Israel in pursuing righteousness did not attain to righteousness, while the Gentiles attained to it without pursuing it.”[1] In Luther’s interpretation, Paul “uses [the image of potter and clay] in his own spirit against free choice. But as for the idea that freedom of choice is not lost if we are as clay in God’s hands when he afflicts us, I do not see the point of it or why [Erasmus] contends for it, since there is no doubt that afflictions come upon us from God against our will, and put us under the necessity of bearing them willy-nilly, not is it in our power to avert them, although we are exhorted to bear them willingly.”[2] Luther equates free choice with the flesh, which he believes that “Paul in Romans 8 (:7) says cannot submit to God (as we shall see in that passage), and in which [Erasmus] says can will nothing good.”[3] Thus, whereas Erasmus understands Paul as a champion of free choice, Luther understands Paul’s doctrine of universal sinfulness to nullify free choice.[4]

For Luther, the Law functions as humanity’s judge, as it shows them their wickedness and need of healing.[5] Mainly Luther argues that Paul opposes free choice: “In Romans 8, where he divides the human race into two types, namely, flesh and spirit, he says: ‘Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’ That Paul here calls carnal all who are not spiritual is evident both from this very partition and opposition between spirit and flesh, and from his own subsequent statement: ‘You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him’ (Rom. 8:9). What else is the meaning of ‘You are not in the flesh if the Spirit of God is in you’ but that those who do not have the Spirit are necessarily in the flesh? And if anyone does not belong to Christ, to whom else does he belong but Satan? Clearly, then, those who lack the Spirit are in the flesh and subject to Satan.”[6] Clearly then, Luther equates Paul’s understanding of free choice with the sinful flesh that remains controlled by Satan and has not been transformed by the grace of God. Luther goes so far as to say that “So little can grace tolerate the power of free choice or even the slightest hint of it.”[7]

Luther concludes his treatise by arguing that “If we believe it to be true that God foreknows and predestines all things (Rom. 8:29), that he can neither be mistaken in his foreknowledge nor hindered in his predestination, and that nothing takes place but as he wills it (as reason itself is forced to admit), then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature,”[8] highlighting Luther’s overall emphasis in interpreting Romans as a justification centered letter and once again highlighting his central argument in the interpretation of Romans 7-9, that the foreknowledge of God necessitates all human willing and action. Admittedly, Luther’s argument in On the Bondage of the Will includes a plethora of Biblical references, citations, and inferences that do not stem from his reading of Romans 7-9. However, in reviewing his soteriological constructions from that section, we see several key tenets of his system emerge. First, Luther interprets Paul’s purpose in Romans as a justification-centered letter destroying wisdom of the flesh and affirming the justifying grace of God. Second, Luther understands Romans as strongly affirming the foreknowledge of God, which for him means that all human willing and action are necessarily dictated by God’s knowing something will happen. Third, Luther views Paul’s metaphor of potter and clay as an importantly applicable passage for soteriological construction, that all of humanity’s willing and actions are nothing more than clay in the hands of an omnipotent God. Fourth, the Law’s purpose consists of showing humanity their sinfulness of the flesh. Fifth, Luther remains concerned with the issue of certainty, and desires a theology that allows for the certainty of the faithful. All of these factors combined, especially Luther’s emphasis on the importance of certainty and the necessitating influence of God’s foreknowledge, lead Luther to interpret the passages of Romans 7-9 in manner that leaves no room for human choice to have any form of impact on eternal salvation.

While Luther and Erasmus cite pastoral concerns and issues of certainty as key for their understanding of the human will and employ similar or identical resources, their overall projects end with vastly different views on the role of the human will within the salvation process. As we noted earlier, the theological stakes in this debate are different for Luther and Erasmus. Luther places a great deal upon his unique interpretation of Romans as a justification centered book, whereas Erasmus relies more on a historically oriented traditional understanding that would seem to be more solid were his arguments for free choice somehow defeated. To sum up the respective positions of each, Erasmus understands Paul’s presentation of soteriological material in Romans 7-9 to present a balanced understanding of God’s grace and man’s graciously given free choice, a perspective that allows for human responsibility in choosing or rejecting salvation under the grace and power of God. Conversely, Luther understands Romans as a justification driven book and uses his interpretation of Romans 7-9 to strongly affirm the importance of Christian certainty based upon God’s necessitating foreknowledge that leads to a strong emphasis on the power and grace of God excluding any meaningful human choice.


 

[1] Ibid., 245. [2] Ibid., 255. [3] Ibid., 265. [4] Ibid., 293-301. [5] Ibid., 306. [6] Ibid., 316. [7] Ibid., 321; Luther also makes an interesting move later in On the Bondage of the Will, when he writes “For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation….. Even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainly and to fight as one beating the air, since even if I loved and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God.” (328-9). This position seems suspicious at best, as Luther seems to admit that personal concerns may have induced a certain interpretation and construction of scripture. [8] Ibid., 332.

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