Reflections on Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will”


51DzquvzHyLMartin Luther is one of the most influential Christians in the history of the Church. He sparked what would become known as the Reformation with his 95 Theses. He heralded the Pauline theme of salvation by grace through faith alone. He also championed the supremacy and sufficiency of God’s revelation in his word, the Bible. He penned a bounty of works, including commentaries, a German translation of the Bible, treatises, and books on various topics.

In light of his vast array of works, Luther said if there were one work of his he would want to last, it would be The Bondage of the Will. Clearly, this work was incredibly important to Luther. The Bondage of the Will is a theological masterpiece that addresses both a theological and philosophical problem. It is in the form of a response to a work by Luther’s contemporary, Erasmus. Erasmus was a Humanist, semi-Pelagian, and one of the greatest scholars of his day, who wrote Diatribe on Free Will, a work that was rebutted by Luther throughout The Bondage of the Will. He felt Erasmus was dangerously errant in his view of the freedom of the will, so much so that he called on Erasmus to repent of his position.

One of the major themes in The Bondage of the Will is that man’s slavery to sin highlights and even makes sense of Christ’s work. It magnifies the glory of the cross. Luther argues that the God’s grace in the gospel is so great, precisely because it shatters the stone of our captive wills that inherently oppose him. Despite the claims of those like Erasmus who see the offer of Christ as a free gift of God’s grace, Luther believes unless you properly understand the sinfulness and helplessness of man, God’s grace will be greatly belittled. For Luther, what are at stake in the theological and philosophical debate over the will are God’s grace and the gospel of Christ.

Luther argues that if man has an innate ability to believe in Christ, then the work of Christ was needless to redeem that portion of man—his will. If man is totally dead in sin, enslaved to sin, and naturally opposed to God, this means his will is enslaved along with him. Luther’s primary concern is the gospel. He fears that upholding the free will of man is a denial of Christ. He writes, “I wish the defenders of free choice would take warning at this point, and realize that when they assert free choice they are denying Christ.”

A notable literary aspect from The Bondage of the Will worth mentioning is Luther’s incredibly strong language. It is so strong in fact that at times it makes reading uncomfortable. However, it highlights Luther’s passion for the glory of God, the integrity of correct handling of Scripture, and the gospel. Today we talk of engaging opposing positions in a winsome manner or with convictional kindness. Many of us believe this means compromising truth and arguing dispassionately. While we should graciously stand for truth, we would do well to learn from Luther’s unabashed passion for biblical truth and the integrity of the gospel.

Luther’s response to a work that he felt was harmful to the message of the gospel is similar to John Piper’s response to N.T. Wright’s theology of justification. Just as Luther responded to Erasmus concerned that he was doing harm to the gospel, Piper responded to Wright’s interpretation of justification with similar concerns. Unlike Luther, Piper demonstrates a restraint on his passion and true convictional kindness. However, the passion for not losing what the Bible teaches about a given topic is present in both Luther and Piper. As a brief example of the similarities in their passion for the withstanding of the true gospel, Piper writes, “My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful.”

All in all, The Bondage of the Will is one of the most theologically significant texts that the Reformation birthed. Due to Luther’s recovering of the authority of Scripture, significant conversations about these issues could be had with integrity. While there are those who believe theological debate is nothing more than nitpicking, Luther shows that doctrines that contradict Scripture are serious gospel issues that carry eternal importance worthy of confrontation.


396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

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