LUTHER AND ERASMUS: THE CONTROVERSY CONCERNING THE BONDAGE OF THE WILL
by Garrett J. Eriks
At the time of the Reformation, many hoped Martin Luther and Erasmus could unite against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther himself was tempted to unite with Erasmus because Erasmus was a great Renaissance scholar who studied the classics and the Greek New Testament. Examining the Roman Catholic Church, Erasmus was infuriated with the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, especially those of the clergy. These abuses are vividly described in the satire of his book, The Praise of Folly. Erasmus called for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus could have been a great help to the Reformation, so it seemed, by using the Renaissance in the service of the Reformation.
But a great chasm separated these two men. Luther loved the truth of God's Word as that was revealed to him through his own struggles with the assurance of salvation. Therefore Luther wanted true reformation in the church, which would be a reformation in doctrine and practice. Erasmus cared little about a right knowledge of truth. He simply wanted moral reform in the Roman Catholic Church. He did not want to leave the church, but remained supportive of the Pope.
This fundamental difference points out another difference between the two men. Martin Luther was bound by the Word of God. Therefore the content of the Scripture was of utmost importance to him. But Erasmus did not hold to this same high view of Scripture. Erasmus was a Renaissance rationalist who placed reason above Scripture. Therefore the truth of Scripture was not that important to him.
The two men could not have fellowship with each other, for the two movements which they represented were antithetical to each other. The fundamental differences came out especially in the debate over the freedom of the will.
From 1517 on, the chasm between Luther and Erasmus grew. The more Luther learned about Erasmus, the less he wanted anything to do with him. Melanchthon tried to play the mediator between Luther and Erasmus with no success. But many hated Erasmus because he was so outspoken against the church. These haters of Erasmus tried to discredit him by associating him with Luther, who was outside the church by this time. Erasmus continued to deny this unity, saying he did not know much about the writings of Luther. But as Luther took a stronger stand against the doctrinal abuses of Rome, Erasmus was forced either to agree with Luther or to dissociate himself from Luther. Erasmus chose the latter.
Many factors came together which finally caused Erasmus to wield his pen against Luther. Erasmus was under constant pressure from the Pope and later the king of England to refute the views of Luther. When Luther became more outspoken against Erasmus, Erasmus finally decided to write against him. On September 1, 1524, Erasmus published his treatise On the Freedom of the Will. In December of 1525, Luther responded with The Bondage of the Will.
Packer and Johnston call The Bondage of the Will "the greatest piece of theological writing that ever came from Luther's pen." Although Erasmus writes with eloquence, his writing cannot compare with that of Luther the theologian. Erasmus writes as one who cares little about the subject, while Luther writes with passion and conviction, giving glory to God. In his work, Luther defends the heart of the gospel over against the Pelagian error as defended by Erasmus. This controversy is of utmost importance.
In this paper, I will summarize both sides
of the controversy, looking at what each taught and defended. Secondly,
I will examine the biblical approach of each man. Finally, the main issues
will be pointed out and the implications of the controversy will be drawn
out for the church today.
Erasmus On the Freedom of the Will
Erasmus defines free-will or free choice as "a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation or turn away from them." By this, Erasmus means that man has voluntary or free power of himself to choose the way which leads to salvation apart from the grace of God.
Erasmus attempts to answer the question how man is saved: Is it the work of God or the work of man according to his free will? Erasmus answers that it is not one or the other. Salvation does not have to be one or the other, for God and man cooperate. On the one hand, Erasmus defines free-will, saying man can choose freely by himself, but on the other hand, he wants to retain the necessity of grace for salvation. Those who do good works by free-will do not attain the end they desire unless aided by God's grace. Therefore, in regard to salvation, man cooperates with God. Both must play their part in order for a man to be saved. Erasmus expresses it this way: "Those who support free choice nonetheless admit that a soul which is obstinate in evil cannot be softened into true repentance without the help of heavenly grace." Also, attributing all things to divine grace, Erasmus states,
And the upshot of it is that we should not arrogate anything to ourselves but attribute all things we have received to divine grace … that our will might be synergos (fellow-worker) with grace although grace is itself sufficient for all things and has no need of the assistance of any human will."In his work On the Freedom of the Will, Erasmus defends this synergistic view of salvation. According to Erasmus, God and man, nature and grace, cooperate together in the salvation of a man. With this view of salvation, Erasmus tries to steer clear of outright Pelagianism and denies the necessity of human action which Martin Luther defends.
On the basis of an apocryphal passage (Ecclesiasticas 15:14-17), Erasmus begins his defense with the origin of free-will. Erasmus says that Adam, as he was created, had a free-will to choose good or to turn to evil. In Paradise, man's will was free and upright to choose. Adam did not depend upon the grace of God, but chose to do all things voluntarily. The question which follows is, "What happened to the will when Adam sinned; does man still retain this free-will?" Erasmus would answer, "Yes." Erasmus says that the will is born out of a man's reason. In the fall, man's reason was obscured but was not extinguished. Therefore the will, by which we choose, is depraved so that it cannot change its ways. The will serves sin. But this is qualified. Man's ability to choose freely or voluntarily is not hindered.
By this depravity of the will, Erasmus does not mean that man can do no good. Because of the fall, the will is "inclined" to evil, but can still do good. Notice, he says the will is only "inclined" to evil. Therefore the will can freely or voluntarily choose between good and evil. This is what he says in his definition: free-will is "a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation." Not only does the human will have power, although a little power, but the will has power by which a man merits salvation.
This free choice of man is necessary according to Erasmus in order for there to be sin. In order for a man to be guilty of sin, he must be able to know the difference between good and evil, and he must be able to choose between doing good and doing evil. A man is responsible only if he has the ability to choose good or evil. If the free-will of man is taken away, Erasmus says that man ceases to be a man.
For this freedom of the will, Erasmus claims to find much support in Scripture. According to Erasmus, when Scripture speaks of "choosing," it implies that man can freely choose. Also, whenever the Scripture uses commands, threats, exhortations, blessings, and cursings, it follows that man is capable of choosing whether or not he will obey.
Erasmus defines the work of man's will by which he can freely choose after the fall. Here he makes distinctions in his idea of a "threefold kind of law" which is made up of the "law of nature, law of works, and law of faith." First, this law of nature is in all men. By this law of nature, men do good by doing to others what they would want others to do to them. Having this law of nature, all men have a knowledge of God. By this law of nature, the will can choose good, but the will in this condition is useless for salvation. Therefore more is needed. The law of works is man's choice when he hears the threats of punishment which God gives. When a man hears these threats, he either continues to forsake God, or he desires God's grace. When a man desires God's grace, he then receives the law of faith which cures the sinful inclinations of his reason. A man has this law of faith only by divine grace.
In connection with this threefold kind of law, Erasmus distinguishes between three graces of God. First, in all men, even in those who remain in sin, a grace is implanted by God. But this grace is infected by sin. This grace arouses men by a certain knowledge of God to seek Him. The second grace is peculiar grace which arouses the sinner to repent. This does not involve the abolishing of sin or justification. But rather, a man becomes "a candidate for the highest grace." By this grace offered to all men, God invites all, and the sinner must come desiring God's grace. This grace helps the will to desire God. The final grace is the concluding grace which completes what was started. This is saving grace only for those who come by their free-will. Man begins on the path to salvation, after which God completes what man started. Along with man's natural abilities according to his will, God works by His grace. This is the synergos, or cooperation, which Erasmus defends.
Erasmus defends the free-will of man with a view to meriting salvation. This brings us to the heart of the matter. Erasmus begins with the premise that a man merits salvation. In order for a man to merit salvation, he cannot be completely carried by God, but he must have a free-will by which he chooses God voluntarily. Therefore, Erasmus concludes that by the exercise of his free-will, man merits salvation with God. When man obeys, God imputes this to his merit. Therefore Erasmus says, "This surely goes to show that it is not wrong to say that man does something…." Concerning the merit of man's works, Erasmus distinguishes with the Scholastics between congruent and condign merit. The former is that which a man performs by his own strength, making him a "fit subject for the gift of internal grace."  This work of man removed the barrier which keeps God from giving grace. The barrier removed is man's unworthiness for grace, which God gives only to those who are fit for it. With the gift of grace, man can do works which before he could not do. God rewards these gifts with salvation. Therefore, with the help or aid of the grace of God, a man merits eternal salvation.
Although he says a man merits salvation, Erasmus wants to say that salvation is by God's grace. In order to hold both the free-will of man and the grace of God in salvation, Erasmus tries to show the two are not opposed to each other. He says, "It is not wrong to say that man does something yet attributes the sum of all he does to God as the author."  Explaining the relationship between grace and free-will, Erasmus says that the grace of God and the free-will of man, as two causes, come together in one action "in such a way, however, that grace is the principle cause and the will secondary, which can do nothing apart from the principle cause since the principle is sufficient in itself." Therefore, in regard to salvation, God and man work together. Man has a free-will, but this will cannot attain salvation of itself. The will needs a boost from grace in order to merit eternal life.
Erasmus uses many pictures to describe the relationship between works and grace. He calls grace an "advisor," "helper," and "architect."  Just as the builder of a house needs the architect to show him what to do and to set him straight when he does something wrong, so also man needs the assistance of God to help him where he is lacking. The free-will of man is aided by a necessary helper: grace. Therefore Erasmus says, "as we show a boy an apple and he runs for it ... so God knocks at our soul with His grace and we willingly embrace it." In this example, we are like a boy who cannot walk. The boy wants the apple, but he needs his father to assist him in obtaining the apple. So also, we need the assistance of God's grace. Man has a free-will by which he can seek after God, but this is not enough for him to merit salvation. By embracing God's grace with his free-will, man merits God's grace so that by his free-will and the help of God's grace he merits eternal life. This is a summary of what Erasmus defends.
Erasmus also deals with the relationship of God's foreknowledge and man's free-will. On the one hand, God does what he wills, but, on the other hand, God's will does not impose anything on man's will, for then man's will would not be free or voluntary. Therefore God's foreknowledge is not determinative, but He simply knows what man will choose. Men deserve punishment from eternity simply because God knows they will not choose the good, but will choose the evil. Man can resist the ordained will of God. The only thing man cannot resist is when God wills in miracles. When God performs some "supernatural" work, this cannot be resisted by men. For example, when Jesus performed a miracle, the man whose sight returned could not refuse to be healed. According to Erasmus, because man's will is free, God's will and foreknowledge depend on man's will except when He performs miracles.
This is a summary of what Erasmus taught in
his treatise On the Freedom of the Will. In response to this treatise,
Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will. We turn to this book of Luther.
Luther's Arguments Against Erasmus
Martin Luther gives a thorough defense of the sovereign grace of God over against the "semi-Pelagianism" of Erasmus by going through much of Erasmus' On the Freedom of the Will phrase by phrase. Against the cooperating work of salvation defended by Erasmus, Luther attacks Erasmus at the very heart of the issue. Luther's thesis is that "free-will is a nonentity, a thing consisting of name alone" because man is a slave to sin.  Therefore salvation is the sovereign work of God alone.
In the "Diatribe," Luther says, Erasmus makes no sense. It seems Erasmus speaks out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he says that man's will cannot will any good, yet on the other hand, he says man has a free-will. Other contradictions also exist in Erasmus' thought. Erasmus says that man has the power to choose good, but he also says that man needs grace to do good. Opposing Erasmus, Luther rightly points out that if there is free-will, there is no need for grace. Because of these contradictions in Erasmus, Luther says Erasmus "argues like a man drunk or asleep, blurting out between snores, 'Yes,' 'No.' " Not only does this view of Erasmus not make sense, but this is not what Scripture says concerning the will of man and the grace of God.
According to Luther, Erasmus does not prove his point, namely, the idea that man with his free-will cooperates in salvation with God. Throughout his work, Luther shows that Erasmus supports and agrees with the Pelagians. In fact, Erasmus' view is more despicable than Pelagianism because he is not honest and because the grace of God is cheapened. Only a small work is needed in order for a man to merit the grace of God.
Because Erasmus does not take up the question of what man can actually do of himself as fallen in Adam, Luther takes up the question of the ability of man. Here, Luther comes to the heart of his critique of the Diatribe in which he denies free-will and shows that God must be and is sovereign in salvation. Luther's arguments follow two lines: first, he shows that man is enslaved to sin and does not have a free-will; secondly, he shows that the truth of God's sovereign rule, by which He accomplishes His will according to His counsel, is opposed to free-will.
First, Luther successfully defends the thesis that there is no such entity as free-will because the will is enslaved to sin. Luther often says there is no such thing as free-will. The will of man without the grace of God "is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil since it cannot turn itself to good."  The free-will lost its freedom in the fall so that now the will is a slave to sin. This means the will can will no good. Therefore man does and wills sin "necessarily."  Luther further describes the condition of man's will when he explains a passage from Ezekiel: "It cannot but fall into a worse condition, and add to its sins despair and impenitence unless God comes straightway to its help and calls it back and raises it up by the word of His promise."
Luther makes a crucial distinction in explaining what he means when he says man sins "necessarily." This does not mean "compulsion." A man without the Spirit is not forced, kicking and screaming, to sin but voluntarily does evil. Nevertheless, because man is enslaved to sin, his will cannot change itself. He only wills or chooses to sin of himself. He cannot change this willingness of his: he wills and desires evil. Man is wholly evil, thinking nothing but evil thoughts. Therefore there is no free-will.
Because this is the condition of man, he cannot merit eternal life. The enslaved will cannot merit anything with God because it can do no good. The only thing which man deserves is eternal punishment. By this, Luther also shows that there is no free-will.
In connection with man's merit, Luther describes the true biblical uses of the law. The purpose of the law of God is not to show men how they can merit salvation, but the law is given so that men might see their sinfulness and their own unworthiness. The law condemns the works of man, for when he judges himself according to the law, man sees that he can do no good. Therefore, he is driven to the cross. The law also serves as a guide for what the believer should do. But the law does not say anything about the ability of man to obey it.
Not only should the idea of free-will be rejected because man is enslaved to sin, but also because of who God is and the relationship between God and man. A man cannot act independently of God. Analyzing what Erasmus said, Luther says that God is not God, but He is an idol, because the freedom of man rules.  Everything depends on man for salvation. Therefore man can merit salvation apart from God. A God that depends on man is not God.
Denying this horrible view of Erasmus, Luther proclaims the sovereignty of God in salvation. Because God is sovereign in all things and especially in salvation, there is no free-will.
Luther begins with the fact that God alone has a free-will. This means only God can will or not will the law, gospel, sin, and death. God does not act out of necessity, but freely. He alone is independent in all He decrees and does. Therefore man cannot have a free-will by which he acts independently of God, because God is immutable, omnipotent, and sovereign over all. Luther says that God is omnipotent, knowing all. Therefore we do nothing of ourselves. We can only act according to God's infallible, immutable counsel.
The great error of free-willism is that it ascribes divinity to man's free-will. God is not God anymore. If man has a free-will, this implies God is not omnipotent, controlling all of our actions. Free-will also implies that God makes mistakes and changes. Man must then fix the mistakes. Over against this, Luther says there can be no free-will because we are under the "mastery of God." We can do nothing apart from God by our own strength because we are enslaved to sin.
Luther also understands the difficulties which follow from saying that God is sovereign so that all things happen necessarily. Luther states: "If God foreknows a thing, it necessarily happens." The problem between God's foreknowledge and man's freedom cannot be completely solved. God sovereignly decrees all things that happen, and they happen as He has decreed them necessarily. Does this mean that when a man sins, he sins because God has decreed that sin? Luther would answer, Yes. But God does not act contrary to what man is. Man cannot will good, but he only seeks after sinful lusts. The nature of man is corrupted, so that he is turned from God. But God works in men and in Satan according to what they are. The sinner is still under the control of the omnipotent God, "which means, since they are evil and perverted themselves, that when they are impelled to action by this movement of Divine omnipotence they do only that which is perverted or evil." When God works in evil men, evil results. But God is not evil. He is good. He does not do evil, but He uses evil instruments. The sin is the fault of those evil instruments and not the fault of God.
Luther asks himself the question, Why then did God let Adam fall so all men have his sin? The sovereignty of God must not be questioned, because God's will is beyond any earthly standard. Nothing is equal to God and His will. Answering the question above, Luther replies, "What God wills is not right because He ought or was bound, so to will, on the contrary, what takes place must be right because He so wills it." This is the hidden mystery of God's absolute sovereignty over all things.
God is sovereign over all things. He is sovereign in salvation. Is salvation a work of God and man? Luther answers negatively. God alone saves. Therefore salvation cannot be based on the merits of men's works. Man's obedience does not obtain salvation, according to Luther. Some become the sons of God "not by carnal birth, nor by zeal for the law, nor by any other human effort, but only by being born of God." Grace does not come by our own effort, but by the grace of Jesus Christ. To deny grace is to deny Jesus Christ. For Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Free-will says that it is the way, the truth, and the life. Therefore free-will denies Jesus Christ. This is a serious error.
God saves by His grace and Spirit in such away that the will is turned by Him. Only when the will is changed can it will and desire the good. Luther describes a struggle between God and Satan. Erasmus says man stands between God and Satan, who are as spectators waiting for man to make his choice. But Luther compares this struggle to a horse having two riders. "If God rides, it wills and goes where God goes…. If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan goes." The horse does not have the choice of which rider it wants. We have Satan riding us until God throws him off. In the same way, we are enslaved to sin until God breaks the power of sin. The salvation of a man depends upon the free work of God, who alone is sovereign and able to save men. Therefore this work in the will by God is a radical change whereby the willing of the soul is freed from sin. This beautiful truth stands over against Erasmus' grace, which gives man a booster shot in what he can do of himself.
This truth of the sovereignty of God in salvation
is comforting to us. When man trusts in himself, he has no comfort that
he is saved. Because man is enslaved to sin and because God is the sovereign,
controlling all things according to His sovereign, immutable will, there
is no free-will. The free-will of man does not save him. God alone saves.
The Battle of the Biblical Texts
The battle begins with the fundamental difference separating Luther and Erasmus in regard to the doctrine of Scripture. Erasmus defends the obscurity of Scripture. Basically, Erasmus says man cannot know with certainty many of the things in Scripture. Some things in God's Word are plain, while many are not. He applies the obscurity of Scripture to the controversy concerning the freedom of the will. In the camp of the hidden things of God, which include the hour of our death and when the last judgment will occur, Erasmus places "whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to salvation." Because Scripture is unclear about these things, what one believes about these matters is not important. Erasmus did not want controversy, but he wanted peace. For him, the discussion of the hidden things is worthless because it causes the church to lose her love and unity.
Against this idea of the obscurity of Scripture, Luther defends the perspicuity of Scripture. Luther defines perspicuity as being twofold. The external word itself is clear, as that which God has written for His people. But man cannot understand this word of himself. Therefore Scripture is clear to God's people only by the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
The authority of Scripture is found in God Himself. God's Word must not be measured by man, for this leads to paradoxes, of which Erasmus is a case in point. By saying Scripture is paradoxical, Erasmus denies the authority of God's Word.
Luther does not deny that some passages are difficult to understand. This is not because the Word is unclear or because the work of the Holy Spirit is weak. Rather, we do not understand some passages because of our own weakness.
If Scripture is obscure, then this opposes what God is doing in revelation. Scripture is light which reveals the truth. If it is obscure, then why did God give it to us? According to Luther, not even the difficult to understand doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the unpardonable sin are obscure. Therefore the issue of the freedom of the will is not obscure. If the Scripture is unclear about the doctrine of the will of man, then this doctrine is not from Scripture.
Because Scripture is clear, Luther strongly attacks Erasmus on this fundamental point. Luther says, "The Scriptures are perfectly clear in their teaching, and that by their help such a defense of our position may be made that our adversaries cannot resist." This is what Luther hoped to show to Erasmus. The teaching of Scripture is fundamental. On this point of perspicuity, Luther has Erasmus by the horns. Erasmus says Scripture is not clear on this matter of the freedom of the will, yet he appeals to the church fathers for support. The church fathers base their doctrine of the free-will on Scripture. On the basis of the perspicuity of Scripture, Luther challenges Erasmus to find even one passage that supports his view of free-will. Luther emphasizes that not one can be found.
Luther also attacks Erasmus when he says what one believes concerning the freedom of the will does not matter. Luther sums up Erasmus' position this way: "In a word, what you say comes to this: that you do not think it matters a scrap what any one believes anywhere, as long as the world is at peace." Erasmus says the knowledge of free-will is useless and non-essential. Over against this, Luther says, "then neither God, Christ, Gospel, faith, nor anything else even of Judaism, let alone Christianity, is left!" Positively, Luther says about the importance of the truth: "I hold that a solemn and vital truth, of eternal consequences, is at stake in the discussion." Luther was willing to defend the truth even to death because of its importance as that which is taught in Scripture.
A word must also be said about the differing views of the interpretation of Scripture. Erasmus was not an exegete. He was a great scholar of the languages, but this did not make him an able exegete. Erasmus does not rely on the Word of God of itself, but he turns to the church fathers and to reason for the interpretation of Scripture. In regard to the passage out of Ecclesiasticas which Erasmus uses, Luther says the dispute there is not over the teaching of Scripture, but over human reason. Erasmus generalizes from a particular case, saying that since a passage mentions willing, this must mean a man has a free-will. In this regard, Luther also says that Erasmus "fashions and refashions the words of God as he pleases." Erasmus was concerned not with what God says in His Word, but with what he wanted God to say.
Not only does Erasmus use his own reason to interpret Scripture, but following in the Roman Catholic tradition he goes back to the church fathers. His work is filled with many quotes from the church fathers' interpretation of different passages. The idea is that the church alone has the authority to interpret Scripture. Erasmus goes so far in this that Luther accuses Erasmus of placing the fathers above the inspired apostle Paul.
In contrast to Erasmus, Luther interprets Scripture with Scripture. Seeing the Word of God as inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luther also trusts in the work of the Holy Spirit to interpret that Word. One of the fundamental points of Reformed hermeneutics is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Luther follows this. When Luther deals with a passage, he does not take it out of context as Erasmus does. Instead, he examines the context and checks other passages which use the same words.
Also, Luther does not add figures or devise implications as Erasmus does. But rather, Luther sticks to the simple and plain meaning of Scripture. He says, "Everywhere we should stick to just the simple, natural meaning of the words, as yielded by the rules of grammar and the habits of speech that God has created among men." In the controversy over the bondage of the will, both the formal and material principles of the Reformation were at stake.
Now we must examine some of the important passages for each man. This is a difficult task because they both refer to so many passages. We must content ourselves with looking at those which are fundamental for the main points of the controversy.
Showing the weakness of his view of Scripture, Erasmus begins with a passage from an apocryphal book: Ecclesiasticas 15:14-17. Erasmus uses this passage to show the origin of the free will and that the will continues to be free after the fall.
Following this passage, Erasmus looks at many passages from the Old Testament to prove that man has a free-will. He turns to Genesis 4:6,7, which records God speaking to Cain after he offered his displeasing sacrifice to God. Verse 7 says, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door." Erasmus says that God sets before Cain a reward if he chooses the good. But if he chooses the evil, he will be punished. This implies that Cain has a will which can overcome evil and do the good.
From here, Erasmus looks at different passages using the word "choose." He says Scripture uses the word "choose" because man can freely choose. This is the only way it makes sense.
Erasmus also looks at many passages which use the word "if" in the Old Testament and also the commands of the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah 1:19,20 and 21:12 use the words "if … then." These conditions in Scripture imply that a man can do these things. Deuteronomy 30:14 is an example of a command. In this passage, Israel is commanded to love God with all their heart and soul. This command was given because Moses and the people had it in them to obey. Erasmus comes to these conclusions by implication.
Using a plethora of New Testament texts, Erasmus tries to support the idea of the freedom of the will. Once again, Erasmus appeals to those texts which speak of conditions. John 14:15 says, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." Also, in John 15:7 we read, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." These passages imply that man is able to fulfill the conditions by his free-will.
Remarkably, Erasmus identifies Paul as "the champion of free choice." Referring to passages in which Paul exhorts and commands, Erasmus says that this implies the ability to obey. An example is I Corinthians 9:24,25: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible." Man is able to obey this command because he has a free-will.
These texts can be placed together because Luther responds to them as a whole. Luther does treat many of these texts separately, but often comes back to the same point. Luther's response to Genesis 4:7 applies to all of the commands and conditions to which Erasmus refers: "Man is shown, not what he can do, but what he ought to do." Similarly, Luther responds to Deuteronomy 30:19: "It is from this passage that I derive my answer to you: that by the words of the law man is admonished and taught, not what he can do, but what he ought to do; that is, that he may know sin, not that he may believe that he has any strength." The exhortations and commands of the New Testament given through the apostle Paul are not written to show what we can do, but rather, after the gospel is preached, they encourage those justified and saved to live in the Spirit.
From these passages, Erasmus also taught that man merited salvation by his obedience or a man merited punishment by his disobedience, all of which was based on man's ability according to his free-will. Erasmus jumps from reward to merit. He does this in the conditional phrases of Scripture especially. But Luther says that merit is not proved from reward. God uses rewards in Scripture to exhort us and threaten us so that the godly persevere. Rewards are not that which a man merits.
The heart of the battle of the biblical texts is found in their treatment of passages from the book of Romans, especially Romans 9. Here, Erasmus treats Romans 9 as a passage which seems to oppose the freedom of the will but does not.
Erasmus begins his treatment of Romans 9 by considering the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. He treats this in connection with what Romans 9:18 says, "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will, he hardeneth." To interpret this passage, Erasmus turns to Jerome, who says, "God hardens when he does not at once punish the sinner and has mercy as soon as he invites repentance by means of afflictions."  God's hardening and mercy are the results of what man does. God has mercy "on those who recognize the goodness of God and repent…." Also, this hardening is not something which God does, but something which Pharaoh did by not repenting. God was longsuffering to Pharaoh, not punishing him immediately, during which Pharaoh hardened his heart. God simply gave the occasion for the hardening of his heart. Therefore the blame can be placed on Pharaoh.
Although Erasmus claims to take the literal meaning of the passage, Luther is outraged at this interpretation. Luther objects:
To put it in a word: the result of your exegetical license is that by your new, unheard-of grammar everything is thrown topsy-turvy. When God says: 'I will harden the heart of Pharaoh,' you change the persons, and take it thus: 'Pharaoh hardens himself by my long-suffering'! 'God hardens our hearts' means: 'we harden ourselves while God postpones punishment.'
Showing the absurdity of what Erasmus says, Luther says that this view means that God shows mercy when He sends Israel into captivity because then they are invited to repent; but when Israel is brought back from captivity, He hardens them by giving them the opportunity of hardening in His longsuffering. This is "topsy-turvy."
Positively, Luther explains this hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. God does this, therefore Pharaoh's heart is necessarily hardened. But God does not do something which is opposed to the nature of Pharaoh. Pharoah is enslaved to sin. When he hears the word of God through Moses which irritates his evil will, Pharaoh's heart is hardened. Luther explains it this way:
As soon as God presents to it from without something that naturally irritates and offends it, Pharaoh cannot escape the acting of the divine omnipotence and the perversion and villainy of his own will. So God's hardening of Pharaoh is wrought thus: God presents from without to his villainous heart that which by nature he hates. At the same time, He continues by omnipotent action to move within him the evil will which He finds there. Pharaoh by reason of the villainy of his will, cannot but hate what opposes him, and trust to his own strength; and he grows so obstinate that he will not listen nor reflect, but is swept along in the grip of Satan like a raging madman.
In his consideration of Jacob and Esau in Romans 9, Erasmus denies that this passage speaks of predestination. Erasmus says God does not hate anybody from eternity. But God's wrath and fury against sin are revealed on Esau because He knows the sins he will commit. In this connection, when Romans 9 speaks of God as the potter making a vessel of honor and dishonor, Erasmus says that God does this because of their belief and unbelief. Erasmus is trying to deny the necessity of the fulfillment of God's decree in order to support the freedom of the will.
Once again, Luther objects. Luther defends the necessity of consequence to what God decrees. Luther says, "If God foreknows a thing, it necessarily takes place." Therefore, in regard to Jacob and Esau, they did not attain their positions by their own free-will. Romans 9 emphasizes that they were not yet born and that they had not yet done good or evil. Without any works of obedience or disobedience, the one was master and the other was the servant. Jacob was rewarded not on the basis of anything he had done. Jacob was loved and Esau was hated even before the world began. Jacob loved God because God loved him. Therefore the source of salvation is not the free-will of man, but God's eternal decree. Paul is not the great champion of the freedom of the will.
In defense of the literal meaning of Romans 9:21-23, Luther shows that these verses oppose free-will as well. Luther examines the passage in the context of what Paul is saying. The emphasis in the earlier verses is not man, but what God does. He is sovereign in salvation. Here also, the emphasis is the potter. God is sovereign, almighty, and free. Man is enslaved to sin and acts out of necessity according to all God decrees. Luther shows that this is the emphasis of Romans 9 with sound exegetical work.
After refuting the texts to which Erasmus refers, Luther continues to show that Scripture denies the freedom of the will and teaches the sovereignty of God in salvation. He begins with Romans 1:18 which says, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness." Luther says this means all men are ungodly and are unrighteous. Therefore, all deserve the wrath of God. The best a man can do is evil. Referring to Romans 3:9, Luther proves the same thing. Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin. They will and do nothing but evil. Man has no power to seek after good because there is none that doeth good (Ps. 14:3). Therefore, men are "ignorant of and despise God! Here is unbelief, disobedience, sacrilege, blasphemy towards God, cruelty and mercilessness towards one's neighbors and love of self in all things of God and man." Luther's conclusion to the matter is this: man is enslaved to sin.
Man cannot obtain salvation by his works. Romans 3:20 says that by the works of the law no man can be justified in God's sight. It is impossible for a man to merit salvation by his works. Salvation must be the sovereign work of God.
Luther thunders against free-will in connection with Romans 3:21-26 which proclaims salvation by grace alone through faith. Free-will is opposed to faith. These are two different ways of salvation. Luther shows that a man cannot be saved by his works, therefore it must be by faith in Jesus Christ. Justification is free, of grace, and without works because man possesses no worthiness for it.
Finally, we notice that Luther points out the comprehensive terms of the apostle Paul to show that there is no free-will in man. All are sinners. There is none that is righteous, and none that doeth good. Paul uses many others also. Therefore, justification and salvation are without works and without the law.
Over against the idea of free-will stands
the clear teaching of Scripture. Luther clearly exegetes God's Word to
show this. In summary, the truth of predestination denies the free-will
of man. Because salvation is by grace and faith, salvation is not by works.
Faith and grace are of no avail if salvation is by the works of man. Also,
the only thing the law works is wrath. The law displays the unworthiness,
sinfulness, and guilt of man. As children of Adam we can do no good. Luther
argues along these lines to show that a free-will does not exist in man.
Salvation is by grace alone.
The Main Issues and Implications of Each View
Luther is not interested in abstract theological concepts. He does not take up this debate with Erasmus on a purely intellectual level. The main issue is salvation: how does God save? Luther himself defines the issue on which the debate hinges:
So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters pertaining to salvation…. This is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us.Luther finds it necessary to investigate from Scripture what ability the will of man has and how this is related to God and His grace. If one does not know this, he does not know Christianity. Luther brings this against Erasmus because he shows no interest in the truth regarding how it is that some are saved.
Although the broad issue of the debate is how God saves, the specific issue is the sovereignty of God in salvation. The main issue for Luther is that man does not have a free-will by which he merits eternal life, but God sovereignly saves those whom He has chosen.
Luther is pursuing the question, "Is God, God?" This means, is God the omnipotent who reigns over all and who sovereignly saves, or does He depend on man? If God depends on man for anything, then He is not God. Therefore Luther asks the question of himself: Who will try to reform his life, believe, and love God? His answer, "Nobody." No man can do this of himself. He needs God. "The elect, who fear God, will be reformed by the Holy Spirit; the rest will perish unreformed."  Luther defends this truth so vigorously because it is the heart of the gospel. God is the sovereign God of salvation. If salvation depends on the works of man, he cannot be saved.
Certain implications necessarily follow from the views of salvation defended by both men. First, we must consider the implications which show the falsehood of Erasmus' view of salvation.
When Erasmus speaks of merit, he is really speaking as a Pelagian. This was offensive to Erasmus because he specifically claimed that he was not a Pelagian. But Luther rightly points out that Erasmus says man merits salvation. According to the idea of merit, man performs an act separate from God, which act is the basis of salvation. He deserves a reward. This is opposed to grace. Therefore, if merit is at all involved, man saves himself. This makes Erasmus no different from the Pelagians except that the Pelagians are honest. Pelagians honestly confess that man merits eternal life. Erasmus tries to give the appearance that he is against the Pelagians although he really is a Pelagian. Packer and Johnston make this analysis:
Erasmus had supposed that by stressing the smallness of the power which man can exercise, and of the merit which he can gain in his own strength, he was softening the offence of his Pelagian principles and moving closer to the Augustinian position, which denies all merit and ascribes salvation wholly to God.According to Luther, Erasmus does not succeed in moving closer to the Augustinian position. Instead, he cheapens the purchase of God's grace. Luther says:
This hypocrisy of theirs results in their valuing and seeking to purchase the grace of God at a much cheaper rate than the Pelagians. The latter assert that it is not by a feeble something within us that we obtain grace, but by efforts and works that are complete, entire, perfect, many and mighty; but our friends here tell us that it is by something very small, almost nothing, that we merit grace.The Pelagians base salvation upon works; men work for their own righteousness. But Erasmus has cheapened the price which must be paid for salvation. Because only a small work of man is needed to merit salvation, God is not so great and mighty. Man only needs to choose God and choose the good. God's character is tarnished with the teaching of Erasmus. This semi-Pelagianism is worse than Pelagianism, for little is required to earn salvation. As Packer and Johnston say, "that is to belittle salvation and to insult God."
Another implication of the synergistic view of salvation held to by Erasmus is that God is not God. Because salvation depends upon the free-will of man according to Erasmus, man ascribes divinity to himself. God is not God because He depends upon man. Man himself determines whether or not he will be saved. Therefore the study of soteriology is not the study of what God does in salvation, but soteriology is a study of what man does with God to deserve eternal life.
This means God's grace is not irresistible, but man can reject the grace of God. Man then has more power than God. God watches passively to see what man will do.
Finally, a serious implication of the view of Erasmus is that he denies salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone. In his Diatribe, Erasmus rarely mentions Jesus Christ. This shows something is wrong. This does follow from what Erasmus says. The emphasis for Erasmus is what man must do to be saved and not on what God has done in Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus Christ is not the only way of salvation and is not that important.
Over against the implications of Erasmus' view are the orthodox implications of Luther's view. God is sovereign in salvation. God elects His people, He sent Jesus Christ, and reveals Jesus Christ only to His people. It is God who turns the enslaved wills of His people so that they seek after Him. Salvation does not depend upon the work of man in any sense.
The basis of salvation is Jesus Christ alone. Because man is enslaved to sin, He must be turned from that sin. He must be saved from that sin through the satisfaction of the justice of God. A man needs the work of Jesus Christ on the cross to be saved. A man needs the new life of Jesus Christ in order to inherit eternal life. The merits of man do not save because he merits nothing with God. A man needs the merits of Jesus Christ for eternal life. A man needs faith by which he is united to Christ.
The source of this salvation is election. God saves only those whom He elects. Those who receive that new life of Christ are those whom God has chosen. God is sovereign in salvation.
Because God is sovereign in salvation, His grace cannot be resisted. Erasmus says that the reason some do not believe is because they reject the grace which God has given to them. Luther implies that God does not show grace to all men. Instead, He saves and shows favor only to those who are His children. In them, God of necessity, efficaciously accomplishes His purpose.
Because man cannot merit eternal life, saving faith is not a work of man by which he merits anything with God. Works do not justify a man. Salvation is the work of God alone in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Faith is a gift of God whereby we are united to Jesus Christ and receive the new life found in Him. Even the knowledge and confidence as the activity of faith are the gifts of faith.
Finally, only with this view of salvation
that God is sovereign can a man have comfort that he will be saved. Because
God is sovereign in salvation and because His counsel is immutable, we
cannot fall from the grace of God. He preserves those who are His children.
Erasmus could not have this comfort because he held that man determines
his own salvation.
The Importance of This Controversy Today
Although this controversy happened almost five hundred years ago, it is significant for the church today. The error of "semi-Pelagianism" is still alive in the church today. Much of the church world sides with Erasmus today, even among those who claim to be "Reformed." If a "Reformed" or Lutheran church denies what Luther says and sides with Erasmus, they despise the reformation of the church in the sixteenth century. They might as well go back to the Roman Catholic Church.
This controversy is important today because many deny that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. A man can worship heathen gods and be saved. This follows from making works the basis of salvation. Over against this error, Martin Luther proclaimed the sovereignty of God in salvation. He proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. We must do the same.
The error of Pelagianism attacks the church in many different forms. We have seen that in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The sovereignty of God in salvation has been attacked by the errors of common grace and a conditional covenant. Over against these errors, some in the church world have remained steadfast by the grace of God. God does not love all. Nor does He show favor to all men in the preaching of gospel. Erasmus himself said that God showed grace to all men and God does not hate any man. The Arminians said the same thing at the time of the Synod of Dordt. Yet, men who defend common grace claim to be Reformed. They are not.
Also, in this synergistic view of salvation, we see the principles of the bilateral, conditional covenant view which is in many "Reformed" churches. If God and man work together in salvation, then the covenant must be a pact in which both God and man must hold up each one's end of the agreement. Over against this we must proclaim the sovereignty of God in salvation especially in regard to the covenant. The covenant is not conditional and bilateral. God works unconditionally and unilaterally in the covenant of grace.
Finally, we must apply the truth of the sovereignty of God defended by Luther to ourselves. We could say there is a Pelagian in all of us. We know God sovereignly saves, but we often show by our practice that we proudly want to sneak a few of our works in the back door. We must depend upon God for all things.
May this truth which Martin Luther defended,
the truth of the sovereignty of God in salvation, be preserved in the church.
Erasmus. On the Freedom of the Will, found in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Tr. and ed. by E. Gordon Rupp. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, MCMLXIX. Pp. 1-99.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Tr. by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Grand Rapids: Revel, 1996.
Packer, J.I. and Johnston, O.R. "Historical
and Theological Introduction," in The Bondage of the Will, by Martin
Luther. Grand Rapids: Revel, 1996. Pp. 11-61.
1 Packer, J.I. and Johnston, O.R., "Historical
and Theological Introduction," in The Bondage of the Will, by Martin
Luther (Grand Rapids: Revel, 1996) p. 40.
2 Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will, found in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, tr. and ed. E. Gordon Rupp, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, MCMLXIX) p. 47.
3 Ibid., 66.
4 Ibid., 73.
5 Ibid., 80, 81.
6 Ibid., 47.
7 Ibid., 51.
8 Ibid., 50.
9 Ibid., 49.
10 Ibid., 52.
11 Ibid., 52.
12 Ibid., 84.
13 Packer and Johnston, p. 49.
14 Erasmus, 84.
15 Ibid., 90.
16 Ibid., 85.
17 Ibid., 80.
18 Ibid., 69.
19 Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, tr. by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Revel, 1996) p. 271.
20 Ibid., 154.
21 Ibid., 145.
22 Ibid., 146.
23 Ibid., 104
24 Ibid., 148.
25 Ibid., 168,169.
26 Ibid., 102.
27 Ibid., 199.
28 Ibid., 216,217.
29 Ibid., 140.
30 Ibid., 137.
31 Ibid., 215.
32 Ibid., 203.
33 Ibid., 209.
34 Ibid,. 303.
35 Ibid., 103.
36 Erasmus, 39.
37 Luther, 73.
38 Ibid., 129.
39 Ibid., 133.
40 Ibid., 144.
41 Ibid., 69.
42 Ibid., 75.
43 Ibid., 90.
44 Ibid., 153.
45 Ibid., 194.
46 Ibid., 223.
47 Ibid., 192.
48 Erasmus, p. 54.
49 Ibid., 61.
50 Luther, 138.
51 Ibid., 158.
52 Erasmus, p. 65.
53 Ibid., p. 65.
54 Luther, p. 195.
55 Ibid., p. 206.
56 Ibid., p. 222.
57 Ibid., p. 282.
58 Ibid., p. 289.
59 Ibid., p. 78.
60 Ibid., p. 99.
61 Ibid., p. 99.
62 Ibid., p. 293.
63 Packer and Johnston, p. 49.
64 Luther, pp. 293, 294.
65 Packer and Johnston, p. 50.