Gems From Luther Part 2

Erasmus accused Luther of saying that, "all we do is done, not by free-will, but of mere necessity." Luther had earlier expressed his distate for the word 'necessity' though admitting that language does not afford a better one. He writes, "I could wish, indeed, that a better term was available for our discussion than the accepted one, necessity, which cannot accurately be used of either man's will or God's. It's meaning is too harsh, and foreign to the subject; for it suggests some sort of compulsion, and something that is against one's will, which is no part of the view under debate. The will, whether it be God's or man's does what it does, good or bad, under no compulsion, but just as it wants or pleases as if totally free. Yet the will of God, which rules over our mutable will, is changeless and sure..."

In other words, Luther was qualifying the debate. As to the question of whether man can choose between, say, a hot dog or hamburger for dinner, Luther says that man acts as he pleases, though his will is ultimately mutable and subject to God's immutable will. In other words, man acts freely, but his mutable will is under, and agrees with, God's immutable will. This is, so to speak, a metaphysical discussion.

Luther, however, steers the debate in another direction. The question he and Erasmus are debating is not whether God can be sovereign and man be free at the same time (the metaphysical question). The question they are debating is a moral question: can a sinful man alter his own will to desire good, and, if so, what is the need for the Holy Spirit. Again Luther writes:

"I said 'of necessity'; I did not say 'of compulsion'; I meant, by a necessity, not of compulsion, but of what they call immutability. That is to say: a man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief or footpad eing dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And the willingness of volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter. He goes on willing and desiring to do evil; and if external pressure forces him to act otherwise, nevertheless his will remains averse to so doing and chafes under such constraint and opposition. But it would not thus chafe were it being changed, and were it yielding to constraint willingly. This is what we mean by necessity of immutability: that the will cannot change itself, nor give itself another bent, but, rather, is the more provoked to crave the more it is oppose, as its chafing proves; for this would not occur, were it free or had 'free-will'...

On the other hand: when God works in us, the will is changed under the sweet influence of the Spirit of God. Once more it desires and acts, not of compulsion, but of its own desire and spontaneous inclination. Its bent still cannot be altered by any opposition; it cannot be mastered or prevailed upon even by the gates of hell; but it goes on willing, desiring and loving good, just as once it willed, desired and loved evil."