At some point you’ve probably participated in a discussion about predestination versus free will. You may have concluded the matter was either too complex or too irrelevant to dig further into the subject. Since there are fine Christians on both sides, you may be tempted to conclude the controversy isn’t really all that important. If that’s you, Martin Luther (1483–1546) would like to have a word. He said those who weren’t interested in this issue “shall know nothing whatever of Christian matters, and shall be far behind all people upon the earth.” Strong words!
Why did Luther believe this issue was so essential? He was convinced it went to the heart of the gospel and was the “hinge” on which everything turned. To affirm free will, according to Luther, is to compromise grace.
Luther vs. Erasmus
Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) took up Luther’s challenge with a book his support for Augustine’s view that the will isn’t free. Diatribe Concerning Free Will began with Erasmus acknowledging he’ll be criticized for attacking Luther—like a fly trying to attack an elephant. He professed great respect for Luther and believed Luther will welcome this exchange of views. Erasmus didn’t think the issue was very important, but it was at least worthy of consideration. Therefore, he presented several arguments showing the rational and biblical support for free will.
Though Luther and Erasmus never personally met, they had become friends through their writings. But this debate ended their friendship. Luther considered Erasmus’s arguments to be slippery and inconsistent. “Erasmus is an eel,” he quipped. “Only Christ can grab him.” Luther countered with a thunderous denunciation of Erasmus in his own book, The Bondage of the Will.
The question wasn’t if persons have freedom of choice in matters pertaining to everyday life. At stake was the question of whether persons could, on their own, turn from sin to God. Luther and Erasmus were talking about the willpower of the unconverted.
Dead Don’t Move
The debate centered on whether the unconverted could make any contribution to his or her salvation. Does the unconverted have the ability within his or her nature to take any step toward God, or does God in his sovereignty quicken the dead in sin and move their wills to embrace gospel truth?
For Luther, even admitting humanity can merit grace by exercising freedom of choice diminishes the grace of God. If Erasmus is right, one person is converted and another is lost because the former has the good sense to exercise his or her free will to choose Christ while the latter doesn’t. Luther, on the other hand, would insist one is saved and another is lost because God alone made the difference among them. All are equally bound in sin. If one believes the gospel, then, it is because God chose him to salvation and wrought special grace in his heart to bring it about.
Luther’s point was that the doctrine of sovereign grace crushes human pride. When it is preached and grasped, helpless humans cast themselves completely on God’s mercy.
Revealed Will vs. Secret Will
At this point, Luther made a vital distinction between the revealed will of God and the secret, hidden purpose of God. On the one hand, God pleads with the sinner to believe; on the other, he plans the damnation of many. This secret will must not be inquired into but reverently adored.
Luther might have used Abraham to make his point. God told Abraham to slay his son, an expression of the revealed will of God; at the same time, God was secretly planning that the boy would live. Thus God may give us certain commands but be planning something that, to us, seems contrary to what he commanded. The clay has no right to question the potter (Rom. 9:21). We have no permission to pry into the secret counsels of the Almighty, but to put our hands over our mouths. All we can do, Luther said, is to stand in awe of God.
Luther wasn’t willing to go beyond this point. If one wishes to pry into God’s secret will, he chooses to do so at his own peril: “We let him go on, and, like the giants, fight against God; while we look on to see what triumph he will gain, persuaded in ourselves, that he will do nothing, either to injure our cause or to advance his own.”
Is Luther’s God Merciful?
Can Luther’s view of God be reconciled with the mercy of God? Luther himself wrote, “This is the highest degree of faith—to believe that he is merciful, who saves so few and damns so many.” That God displays mercy to the elect is clear enough. As Paul said, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18).
When God works in the heart of the elect to bring them to faith, it is not coercion. The will, “changed and sweetly breathed on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts, not from compulsion, but responsively, from pure willingness, inclination, and accord.” The Spirit doesn’t make us come against our will. He makes us willing to come.
The human will is not free but responsive to either the heart’s wickedness or God’s sovereign work, which grants the elect the ability to accept the gospel.
Editors’ note: This article is an excerpt adapted from Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation (Baker Books, 2016). Baker Books is a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.