The Bondage of the Will

The crown jewel of Martin Luther’s writings, his magnum opus, is The Bondage of
the Will
. Of course, that’s next to his work in translating the Bible into German.
Luther himself considered The Bondage of the Will one his most important works. At
the end of his life, Luther said, “You can burn all of my books except for two, The
Bondage of the Will
and the Small Catechism.”

The Bondage of the Will was published in 1525. At one point, Luther called it “the
centerpiece of the Reformation.” There are two things going on in The Bondage of
the Will
that are worth noting. One is its theological emphasis and the other is its
methodological emphasis.

First, the theological emphasis. Luther wrote this treatise in an engagement with the
great Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus helped set the stage for
the Reformation by publishing his Greek New Testament in 1516. He was also the
author of In Praise of Folly, a great satire of the Roman Catholic Church of the day.
But Luther did not see him as embracing the doctrines of the Reformation. Luther
applauded his criticism of the church but said, “I fear that the dear Erasmus does not
go far enough in embracing the truth.” Erasmus thought Luther was wrong and
challenged him on his teaching on the will. Erasmus taught that the will is free and
that Scripture leaves a lot of wiggle room when it comes to God’s sovereignty and
our freedom. Luther challenged that and made the case that the will is bound. He
said that we are part of “Adam’s sinful lump.” This is an expression that he got from
Augustine that means that we are totally depraved. That is, we all are fallen, but also
every part of us, our whole being, including our intellect and our will, is fallen. And
so, our will is not free; it is bound to sin. And God must do a redeeming work in us.

Second, there is the methodological emphasis, and this comes through in the
preface. Erasmus was about equivocating rather than clearly asserting—he talked
about wiggle room—and Luther said, “For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to
take no delight in assertions. On the contrary, a man must delight in assertions to be
a real Christian. And by assertion, in order that we may not be misled by words, I
mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible
persevering.” He went on to say, “I am speaking about the assertions of those things
that have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings. We don’t assert
when it comes to man-made doctrines but we must assert when it comes to the
biblical doctrines.” And that assertion involves confessing, maintaining, teaching,
and invincibly persevering. In the preface, Luther continued, “Let skeptics and
academics keep well away from us Christians but let there be among us asserters
twice as unyielding as the stoics themselves.” Then he said, “Nothing is better
known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and
you take away Christianity.”

So, Luther made a very important theological point in this treatise: Scripture teaches
the bondage of the will. He also made a very important methodological point in this treatise:
Christians assert. In fact, they delight in it. That’s Luther on the bondage of the will and on assertions.

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