RPM, Volume 13, Number 17, April 24 to April 30, 2011

The Bondage of the Will

By Martin Luther

Section LXVIII.

Sect. LXVIII. — ANOTHER passage is that of Matt. xix. 17, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." — "With what face, (says the Diatribe,) can "if thou wilt" be said to him who has not a Free-will?' —

To which I reply: — Is, therefore, the will, according to this word of Christ, free? But you wish to prove, that "Free-will" cannot will any thing good; and that, without grace, it of necessity serves sin. With what face, then, do you now make will wholly free?

The same reply will be made to that also — "If thou wilt be perfect," "If any one will come after me," "He that will save his life," "If ye love me," "If Ye shall continue." In a word, as I said before, (to ease the Diatribe's labour in adducing such a load of words) let all the conditional ifs and all the imperative verbs be collected together. — "All these precepts (says the Diatribe) stand coldly useless, if nothing be attributed to the human will. How ill does that conjunctive if accord with mere necessity?" —

I answer: If they stand coldly useless, it is your fault that they stand coldly useless, who, at one time, assert that nothing is to be attributed to "Free-will," while you make "Free-will" unable to will good, and who, on the contrary, here make the same "Free-will" able to will all good; nay, you thus make them to stand as nothing at all: unless, with you, the same words stand coldly useless and warmly useful at the same time, while they at once assert all things and deny all things.

I wonder how any author can delight in repeating the same things so continually, and to be as continually forgetting his subject design: unless perhaps, distrusting his cause, he wishes to overcome his adversary by the bulk of his book, or to weary him out with the tedium and toil of reading it. By what conclusion, I ask, does it follow, that will and power must immediately take place as often as it is said, ‘If thou wilt,' ‘If any one will,' ‘If thou shalt?' Do we not most frequently imply in such expressions impotency rather, and impossibility? For instance. — If thou wilt equal Virgil in singing, my friend Mevius, thou must sing in another strain. — If thou wilt surpass Cicero, friend Scotus, instead of thy subtle jargon, thou must have the most exalted eloquence. If thou wilt stand in competition with David, thou must of necessity produce Psalms like his. Here are plainly signified things impossible to our own powers, although, by divine power, all these things may be done. So it is in the Scriptures, that by such expressions, it might be shewn what we cannot do ourselves, but what can be done in us by the power of God.

Moreover, if such expressions should be used in those things which are utterly impossible to be done, as being those which God would never do, then, indeed, they might rightly be called either coldly useless, or ridiculous, because they would be spoken in vain. Whereas now, they are so used, that by them, not only the impotency of "Free-will" is shewn, by which no one of those things can be done, but it is also signified, that a time will come when all those things shall be done, but by a power not our own, that is, by the divine power; provided that, we fully admit, that in such expressions, there is a certain signification of things possible and to be done: as if any one should interpret them thus: — "If thou wilt keep the commandments, (that is, if thou shalt at any time have the will to keep the commandments, though thou wilt have it, not of thyself, but of God, who giveth it to whom He will,) they also shall preserve thee."

But, to take a wider scope. — These expressions, especially those which are conditional, seem to be so placed also, on account of the Predestination of God, and to involve that as being unknown to us. As if they should speak thus: — "If thou desire," "If thou wilt:" that is, if thou be such with God, that he shall deign to give thee this will to keep the commandments, thou shalt be saved. According to which manner of speaking, it is given us to understand both truths. — That we can do nothing ourselves; and that, if we do any thing, God works that in us. This is what I would say to those, who will not be content to have it said, that by these words our impotency only is shewn, and who will contend, that there is also proved a certain power and ability to do those things which are commanded. And in this way, it will also appear to be truth, that we are not able to do any of the things which are commanded, and yet, ‘that we are able to do them all: that is, speaking of the former, with reference to our own powers, and of the latter, with reference to the grace of God.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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