In 1524 Erasmus of Rotterdam decided to engage the famous Martin Luther in a debate over free will and salvation. Critical of Luther's grace-oriented approach, Erasmus warned that Christians should not "through irreverent inquisitiveness rush into those things which are hidden, not to say superfluous." Among the list of irreverent or superfluous debates, Erasmus included the question, "whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation." This assertion did not sit well with Luther who in 1525 published his book The Bondage of the Will as a way of responding to Erasmus' complaints. "This is the cardinal issue between us, the point on which everything in this controversy turns," Luther wrote. "For if I am ignorant of what, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God ...I cannot worship, praise, thank, and serve God, since I do not know how much I ought to attribute to myself and how much to God."
Throughout The Bondage of the Will, Luther presents his case that one cannot have a stable view of God's grace unless it is anchored in the doctrine of election. He argues, for example, that a man will not completely despair of himself and his own works until he has "no doubt that everything depends upon the will of God." Knowledge of God's sovereign will in election then, is the only medicine strong enough to kill the virus of human pride in Luther's scheme. "For as long as [one] is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself, and therefore he is not humbled before God, but presumes that there is...some place, time, and work for him, by which he may at length attain to salvation."
But perhaps this medicine is a bit too strong? For often when Christians begin to consider the fact that salvation is out of their hands, they begin to question whether or not they belong to the number of God's elect, and thus despair and doubt that they themselves are truly saved. The word Luther used to describe this type of anxiety was Anfechtungen, for he personally struggled with this question for some time. After repeatedly falling into the trap of speculating over predestination apart from Christ, Luther candidly admits, "I...actually get to the point of imagining that God is a rogue." But Luther's angst over predestination was met with good counsel from Staupitz, Luther's mentor, as he recalls during one of his table conversations: Staupitz said, "If you want to dispute about predestination, begin with the wounds of Christ, and it will cease. But if you continue to debate about it, you will lose Christ, the Word, the sacraments, and everything." Luther found in Staupitz's advice something of great value, namely that all our thoughts concerning election and predestination must be anchored in Christ.
Again and again the reformer passes along the sound advice he received, warning his readers not to "be worried by the many people in the world who are not chosen. If you are not careful, that picture will quickly upset you and be your downfall." Instead we are to "gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God...In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure." Only in this way does God's electing grace become for us a doctrine of great comfort and joy. But even here, Luther still offers us words of caution, "The old Adam must be quite dead before you can endure this matter and drink this strong wine. Therefore make sure you don't drink wine while you are still a babe at the breast."
A crucial component of Luther's exposition of the doctrine of predestination is the distinction between things hidden and things revealed. Based on the text of Deuteronomy 29:29, Luther continually reminded his readers that "The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children." The Christian therefore should not attempt to seek God in his "nude majesty," but rather seek him only insofar as he has clothed and revealed himself. Speculating about one's predestination was dangerous for Luther because it was tantamount to trespassing into God's secret chambers, whereas focusing on Christ and finding one's election in him was resting in the revealed things of God. Notice for example how Luther employs this distinction in one of his sermons on John 3:16. Addressing the type of person who says, "I am too great a sinner, and who knows whether I am predestined?" Luther responds by saying, "Look at these words ...'For God so loved the world,' and 'that whosoever believeth on him,' ...here no one is excluded. God's Son was given for all, all are asked to believe, and all who believe shall not be lost, etc." Luther is not arguing here that the whole world has been chosen, but rather that the offered promise extends to all men. Though we do not have access to the list of names in the Lamb's Book of Life, we do have access to the gospel promise which God has announced to the world through the proclamation of the gospel. "God has given us His Son, Jesus Christ," Luther writes, "daily we should think of Him and mirror ourselves in Him. There we shall discover the predestination of God and shall find it most beautiful."
The distinction between things hidden and things revealed is at the core of Luther's argument throughout The Bondage of the Will. Referring to Ezekiel 18:21 ("I desire not the death of the sinner"), Luther comments, "For he is here speaking of the preached and offered mercy of God, not of that hidden and awful will of God whereby he ordains by his own counsel which and what sort of persons he wills to be recipients and partakers of his preached and offered mercy. This will is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored." So from the perspective of God's revealed will in the gospel, one can indeed say "God desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4). But, from the perspective of God's secret election, we also need to affirm that "no one can come to [Christ] unless the father has enabled him" (John 6:64). Again from Luther, "Why that majesty of his does not remove or change this defect of our will in all men...we have no right to inquire."
It's important here to note the similarities between the views of Luther and those of John Calvin on this point. For example, Calvin writes, "It may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish?" To this Calvin answers that "no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God . . . but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world." And with regard to those who speculate rashly about who is predestined and who is not, Calvin warns that this can become "a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself." So what does Calvin suggest we do?
We cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election...if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.Perhaps then, Erasmus did in fact have a valid concern in his criticism of the "irreverent inquisitiveness" that so frequently accompanies any and all discussions of predestination. Here Luther and Calvin are in complete agreement. The abuse of the doctrine of predestination is not a good argument for its dismissal. Rather, what is needed is careful exposition of this crucial biblical doctrine, along with suggestions for removing the numerous causes of abuse. With regard to this issue Calvin boldly asserts, "No doctrine is more useful, provided it be handled in the proper and cautious manner... If men should evade every other argument, election shuts their mouth, so that they dare not and cannot claim anything for themselves." This is precisely the way Luther reasoned in his response to Erasmus. And it is also precisely the way in which we need to think about the sobering yet wonderful truth of God's electing grace in our time.
Shane Rosenthal is executive producer of The White Horse Inn national radio broadcast which can be heard online at www.whitehorseinn.org.
Issue: "Has God Failed?" Sept./Oct. 2006 Vol. 15 No. 5 Page number(s): 18-21
You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. We do not allow reposting an article in its entirety on the Internet. We request that you link to this article from your website. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.