Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther


 . . . when God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts, not from compulsion, but responsively, from pure willingness, inclination, and accord; so that it cannot be turned another way by anything contrary, nor be compelled or overcome even by the gates of hell; but it still goes on to desire, crave after, and love that which is good; even as before, it desired, craved after, and loved that which was evil. (pp 56, 57)

                This quote is a wonderful description of our will being led by the Holy Spirit as we walk moment by moment in God’s way.  However, this quote is actually from a section of the book where Luther describes God placing faith in us so that we become ‘willing believers’ by the ‘necessity’ that God has chosen and God has unilaterally put the faith in us.  With this context I take issue.

                Martin Luther was facing the many abuses within the Roman Catholic Church and responded by allowing only a dichotomy to come under consideration as he talked about ‘free will’ versus God’s sovereignty, predestination, and therefore ‘necessity’.  This is really quite unfortunate since it does not truly allow a clear look at the full topic under discussion because it makes ‘willing belief’ part of ‘necessity’ and therefore part of predestination.

                ‘Free will’ as Luther presents it allows a person to think s/he can get into God’s presence and into heaven by their own efforts through such things as good works, penance, sacraments, indulgences and obeying the Law since these are all things Luther was fighting against since they suggest we can earn our way to God and because they are ways for people in power to profit from the helplessness of those under them without actually helping them in their relationship with God.  Luther rightfully fought against the implications of such a ‘free will’.

                Luther would acknowledge only a God initiated grace that shows itself through predestination that gives faith as a gift to the believer.  The difficulty in this picture is that a person’s faith is by ‘necessity’ rather than by ‘free will’ or by choice.  I can understand Luther’s hesitancy to allow any ‘free will’ in a person’s life because the examples of human choices gone wrong show how really wrong it can go.  But I cannot really comprehend his including the ‘willing belief’ of a person as part of God’s work in predestination.  I also understand that putting ‘willing belief’ under ‘free will’ opens it up to all sorts of abuses—as history has shown through the church at many different times but God has always done things in such a dangerous way and our logic will not be able to tame Him.

                ‘Willing belief’ is an essential part of our walk with God.  The problem with including ‘willing belief’ with predestination is that if God makes us believe willingly then the fall of mankind was not necessary.  The fall and all the ensuing evil that has come our way is as a result of willing disbelief and willing disobedience.  That must be countered by a people who choose Him willingly of their own choice.  Willing people, made willing by the choice of God, do not need to deal with the existence of evil and wrong choices because God can make them ‘willing believers’ without any of that.  This of course leads to the fact that they will not need a Saviour since they are ‘willing believers’ whenever God wants them to be ‘willing believers’ and so they can be ‘willing believers’ from birth—no messiness required.

                It is true that ‘free will’ can never lead us to God because our sin nature will prevent that.  Therefore God must begin the journey for us.  He woos us and calls us and loves us and draws us to the place where He gives us the choice: life or death; relationship with Him or priority of self; trust-in-Him or do-it-alone.  But that choice must be of our willing.  He is an amazing God!

The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass.) 2011