Introduction – The Grand Turning Point of the Cause

“In this, moreover, I give you great praise, and proclaim it – you alone in preeminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down, though in vain!  You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you.  For in this kind of discussion I willingly engage…[1]

These are the words of Martin Luther in his De Servo Arbitrio, translated as “On Un-free Will” or “On the Bondage of the Will” to Desiderius Erasmus, as a response to Erasmus’ “On Free Will,” wherein Erasmus had defended his concept of the free will of man, particularly in faith, in salvation.  Erasmus defended the idea that the human will is not subject to the sovereignty of God.  For Erasmus, the will is totally free in the sense that there is no influence over it at all, by anything or anyone.  This from Erasmus, “By freedom of the will we understand in this connection the power of the human will whereby man can apply to or turn away from that which leads to eternal salvation.”[2]  Note that it is the “power to apply to or turn away from that which leads into eternal salvation.”  To Erasmus, the will of the unregenerate man is able to turn to God, and the will of the unregenerate man is able to fully resist the gospel, whether or not we might call a person elect or non-elect.

This is the essence of the concept of what we’ll call libertarian free will.  This use of the word “libertarian” has no relationship to libertarianism as a political movement or party.  Libertarian as it applies to the human will is the idea that human beings make decisions without any sort of determinism.  Choices are absolutely free in the sense that they are not determined by anything outside of the will itself.

If people have free will in the libertarian sense, then God exercises no control, no influence, and is not sovereign over the decisions of human beings.  Human beings would be the sovereigns – we would each be the sole determiners of our decisions. God could assert no control and no influence – even at the point of conversion.

Luther, on the other hand, argued that people have free will in a compatibilist sense – as far as we know, we are free to do as we please, but God works through our preferences and constrains and mind in such a way that our choices are aligned or “made compatible” with His will of decree, His will of purpose.  We will always do what He has decreed in eternity past.  We do it freely, without being forced or compelled by God, yet it is always directed by, governed by, caused by the sovereign hand of God.  Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”  Likewise Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”

For Luther, then, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, God’s control, over the will of man, was central to the “cause,” – the Reformation itself.  God’s sovereignty over the will, especially God’s sovereignty in the salvation of man, is “the grand turning point of the cause” and the “grand hinge upon which the whole turned” and the “vital part” of the theological and practical reforms that Luther and others embarked upon.  This doctrine is, in fact, essential to a consistent and orthodox understanding of the gospel and of many of the essential attributes of God.

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[1] Luther, Martin, On the Bondage of the Will, Translated by Henry Cole, Wildside Press, LLC, 1931, p. 259

[2] Erasmus, Desiderius, On Free Will, Translated by E. Gordon Rupp, P. Watson, The Westminster Press, 1969, p. 35

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