In the Autumn of 1517 Martin Luther inadvertently initiated the Reformation. He posted Ninety Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door and a spiritual earthquake shook Europe. Luther was absolutely convinced that men were blind to the truth about themselves, and Luther knew that pride was the culprit. Luther, more than any reformer, saw the Bad News with clarity. Oxford theologian, Alister McGrath, observes that “by late 1514 Luther had arrived at the fundamental insight that the proper disposition for justification is humility…God humiliates man, in order that he may justify him; he makes man a sinner, in order that he may make him righteous─and both aspects of this matter are increasingly seen by Luther as works of God.”
In other words, Luther saw that the goal of the gospel was a humbling faith. Luther was convinced that the conviction that one is under God’s wrath is a first sign of God’s favor.
All of this Luther summed up in his most important theological work, The Bondage of the Will. “Bondage” was Luther’s response to a previous work by Erasmus (1456-1536) A Diatribe Concerning the Freedom of the Will (1524). The bastard son of a Catholic priest, Erasmus was the greatest intellect of his day. Because he was critical of the Roman church, most of his peers assumed that he was sympathetic with Luther. He was under great pressure to take a stand. Was he for or against the disruptive Reformer? His Diatribe was an attempt to stake out his position.
The doctrine Erasmus chose to debate surprises us. He didn’t start where we would expect—the authority of scripture, or justification by faith alone. Instead, he tackled Luther’s teaching on sin, expressed by the bondage of the will. Lets pause to define “the bondage of the will.” When theologians talk about the bondage of the will they are not saying that you are not free to marry whom you like, or take that job you have always wanted in a neighboring state. No, the bondage of the will is about my willingness or ability to know God, love him, or choose to follow him.
Erasmus saw that the bondage (or freedom) of the will was the practical question upon which the Reformation turned. In other words, how serious is sin? How great is its impact? Has the Fall so crippled my will that I am unable to seek God, desire God, or turn to God without his help? Or, is there a residue of ultimate spiritual good remaining in my fallen heart? Will men and women seek and pursue God out of the natural goodness of their heart? In effect, Erasmus said, Sin is not that serious: The will is free.
Luther responded with the Bondage of the Will, a classic in Christian literature. Here is how Luther responded. Sin runs deep. It is comprehensive. It is devastating. It affects the total man: intellect, will, and emotions. Man has no natural love for God or attraction to God. Therefore, the will is bound! This is how Luther concluded to Erasmus.
“I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.”
Purgatory and indulgences, “extraneous issues?” How could Luther say that? Because Luther knew that if sin bound the human will so that it could not, nor would not turn to God, then God must initiate my salvation. And, if sin is this crippling, there is absolutely no hope for anyone through human effort. We are bankrupt. Our only hope is justification by faith alone. And, if salvation is by grace through faith alone, then the whole edifice of Roman Catholicism, built on works righteousness, must come crashing down. The debated doctrines—purgatory, justification by works, the sacramental system, indulgences, the authority of the pope, the need for priestly mediation, etc.—were all just sophisticated tools for earning God’s favor. But, if we cannot earn God’s favor then these are unnecessary.
Luther and Erasmus agreed that the freedom of the will was the central issue. And human freedom was great or non-existent depending upon one’s view of sin.
Here is how Luther’s biographer, Roland Bainton, described Luther’s thought.
“Man’s part, therefore, is to humble his proud mind, to renounce the sinful self-sufficiency which prompts him to treat himself as the measure of all things, to confess the blindness of his corrupt heart, and thankfully to receive the enlightening Word of God.”
Luther was not the only one who thought this way. The other Reformers stood in solidarity with him. “In asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they [the magisterial reformers] were entirely at one.” For example, in his Institutes John Calvin (1509-67) wrote, “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility;’ and still more with those of Augustine, ‘As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery:’ so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.’”
Why is this important? On the surface the Reformation seemed to be about the authority of scripture and justification by faith alone. However, underneath were stronger currents dealing with sin, man, and ultimate issues. The strength of the Reformation was its willingness to grapple with, and own, the wrath of God, the reality of final judgment, and the helplessness of man in sin. If these doctrines were true, and they are, we are bankrupt, and there is no remedy but Paul’s message—justification by faith alone. This was the gospel the Reformers preached, and it turned the world upside down.