Are We Free?


After Reading NT Wright’s Justification, in which he challenges the traditional Lutheran reading of Paul, I felt compelled to read some Martin Luther. Earlier this year I received The Bondage of the Will from my in-laws (both Lutheran pastors!), so I thought this would be as good a place as any to start. The Bondage of the Will is Luther’s response to another Medieval theologian named Erasmus; a man who was trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church from the inside, in a more reserved, diplomatic manner. Erasmus thought that Luther was mainly right in much of what he said, but could not condone the disruptive manner in which he said it. Erasmus’ own book on the subject of free-will was written because of outside pressure from those on each side: some were calling Erasmus the father of Lutheran theology-a dangerous claim for Erasmus- while others looked to Erasmus for a thoughtful response to Luther’s claims, Erasmus being the most learned man in Europe at the time, hands down. Erasmus chose the subject of free-will, which he rightly saw as the issue on which Luther’s entire argument hinged. And Luther welcomed the challenge! I really enjoyed the read. As it turns out Luther is even feistier than Calvin! At one point, he describes Erasmus’ book The Diatribe, as being beautifully written, but conveying nothing of worth, “like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung.” Later, he says that Erasmus “argues his case like a man drunk or asleep, blurting our between snores ‘Yes!’ ‘No!'”. It is all very entertaining stuff. While I learned much about Luther’s views on justification, this book mainly addresses another (albeit related) question: Do we have something called “free-will”?

So what of it? Do we have free-will? It is the age-old theological question, and most certainly wont be answered conclusively here today. But it is a question that one cannot help but wrestle with. If we are denied our free-will, then everything inside of us (for me at least) seems to cringe. We grow up on stories of our forefathers’ fight for freedom, and watch movies like Braveheart (“They may take out lives, but they will never take… our freedom!”). Perhaps this is amplified by my 21st century American worldview, which embraces freedom, equality, and fairness above all, but certainly these sentiments are not new to our age. Erasmus finds a good bit of support from the church fathers and ancient philosophers. Not only that, but our own experience and reason seems to indicate that we have the power of contrary choice. We know that we can choose to look left or look right, up, down or even to close my eyes and look at nothing. Does not this very same principle hold for religious and ethical choices? We can choose to act justly or to withhold justice from our neighbor. We can choose to be a Christian, Hindu, Atheist, or a “spiritual” person who rejects all these labels and looks for light wherever we can find it. These things we can choose. Right?

Well, not really, according to Luther. For Luther, the overwhelming weight of “free-will” on his soul was more than he could handle. As a monk, he was constantly striving to please God by his efforts, never knowing if he had done the right things the right way, eventually being overwhelmed by guilt and anxiety. Eventually he came to believe that the core of the gospel is that the “righteousness of God” is not some quality which God possesses that we strive toward and attain, but is rather a righteousness that comes from God and is a gift to us, by grace and faith, so that we come to see that it was never in our power to attain it in the first place. What role does our will play in this drama? For Luther, “man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills… if Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.” And later, “free-will is merely a beast of burden, Satan’s prisoner, which cannot be freed unless the devil is first cast out by the finger of God.” Luther’s own experience, and his reading of Scripture, confirmed to him that without the grace of God, he had no chance of choosing good at any point. His will, and all wills, was enslaved by Satan, until liberated by Christ.

For Luther, we do, however, have the power of contrary choice, if we mean by that the power to choose things in our temporal, lived existence that are “below.” But, in regard to things “above” (God, righteousness, and salvation) we have no power. Our will is not free; it is either enslaved by Satan or by Christ, there is no middle ground. 

So what of fairness? How can it be right of God to save some and not others? These are mysteries which cannot, and should not, be plumbed, according to Luther. God has hidden that part of himself that belongs to his internal nature. We should instead focus on God as he has revealed himself: namely, Jesus Christ, who wills that none should be lost and that all should come to him. That so many things in our lived existence militate against the “justice” of God, actually gives us an opportunity to exercise our faith in God’s justice. The absurdity of it all is the great opportunity to show our faith. In this he is very much like Calvin, who when asked what God was doing during all that time before He created the earth, Calvin said “He was making Hell for people who ask such questions!” The gist is, “let God be true, though every man a liar.” (Rom 3:4)

Of course, this will not do for most people. We want to ask the questions. We want to understand. We want to solve the mystery. For my part, I am not sure that this mystery is solvable. From God’s perspective, the question perhaps is one of nonsense, like “how many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round?” as CS Lewis says, “Probably half the questions we ask–half of our great theological and metaphysical questions–are like that.” Maybe it is simply a matter of perspective. Pastor Bill Warrick would say it is like walking through a doorway: from the outside, above the doorpost, is a sign that says “Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away” (John 6:37). Once through the door, one may see another sign, on the other side, that says “No one can come…unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). So is God sovereign or is there free-will? The answer to that questions may be “Yes!” 

This is not to slight the importance of the question. If Luther is correct, it is very important whether we believe in free-will or not, for it is only the denial of free-will that fully affirms the lordship of Christ, the importance of his redemption, our complete dependence on God, and our full assurance of salvation (given that we tend to screw up so often!). As with all questions about God, we should not be afraid to ask the hard questions, but should always be careful to be honest and humble in our deliberations and discussions of it.