Gems From Luther Part 3

In defending the Biblical position that the human will is enslaved to sin against the arguments of Erasmus in favor of free will, Luther has his work cut out for him. He must play the part of Menelaus capturing the shape-shifting Proteus. It seems like Erasmus has a hundred different definitions of free will that he mixes and matches without rhyme or reason. Some of the best passages in Bondage of the Will are results of Luther dealing with Erasmus' refusal to define his terms and begin the discussion.

"You describe the power of 'free-will' as small, and wholly ineffective apart from the grace of God. Agreed? Now then, I ask you: if God's grace is wanting, if it is taken away from that small power, what can it do? It is ineffective, you say, and can do nothing good. So it will not do what God or His grace wills. Why? Because we have now taken God's grace away from it, and what the grace of God does not do is not good. Hence it follows that 'free-will' without God's grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good."

"And first, we will begin, as we should, from your actual definition. You define 'free-will' thus: 'Moreover, I conceive of "free-will" in this context as a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same.'

...This is the kind of definition that the Sophists call vicious--that is, one in which the definition fails to cover the thing defined. For I showed above that 'free-will' belongs to none but God only. You are no doubt right in assigning to man a will of some sort, but to credit him with a will that is free in the things of God is too much. For all who hear mention of 'free-will' take it to mean, in its proper sense, a will that can and does do, God-ward, all that it pleases, restrained by no law and no command; for you would not call a slave, who acts at the beck of his lord, free. But in that case how much less are we right to call men or angels free; for they live under the complete mastery of God (not to mention sin and death), and cannot continue by their own strength for a moment."

"Out of one view about 'free-will' you devise three! The first, that of those who deny that man can will good without special grace, neither start, nor make progress, nor finish, etc. seems to you 'severe, but probable enough'. You approve of it because it leaves man effort and endeavour, but does not leave him anything that he may ascribe to his own strength. The second, that of those who contend that 'free-will' avails for nothing but sinning, and that grace alone works good in us,etc., seems to you 'more severe'; and the third, that of those who say that 'free-will' is an empty term, and God works in us both good and evil, and all that comes to pass is of mere necessity, seems to you 'most severe'. It is against these two last that you profess to be writing.

Do you know what you are saying, my dear Erasmus? You represent here three opinions, as if of three parties, simply because you fail to realise that it is the same thing in each case, stated by us same spokesmen of the selfsame party, but in different ways and different words...How, I ask, does that definition of 'free-will' which you gave above square with this first view, which is 'probable enough'? You said that 'free-will' is a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to good; but here you say, and approve of its being said, that man without grace cannot will good...So the 'free-will' you define is one thing, and the 'free-will' you defend is another. Erasmus now has two 'free-wills', more than anyone else, and they are at loggerheads with each other!"

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