In this paper I outline what is essential for Luther's
understanding of a pure doctrine of faith as articulated primarily
in his treatise titled The Bondage of the Will (1525).
Luther's response to Erasmus' text titled An Examination of
Free Will (1524) makes it clear that in their relationship to
God, human beings have no freedom at all. This essay outlines some
of Luther's key theological positions including his doctrine of
human nature; the doctrine of law and gospel; the battle against
works righteousness; the distinction between contingency and
necessity, and between skepticism and assertion; his notion of the
revealed yet hidden God; and, of course, the primary emphasis
concerning the bondage of the will and its implications for
Luther and Human Nature
 Martin Luther revolutionizes Christianity in part
because he holds perspectives concerning human moral and religious
capacities that are considerably less optimistic than the Thomastic
Scholasticism that preceded him. Luther follows in the footsteps of
Saint Augustine more than Thomas in stressing the disorder
introduced by human sin, and the human inability to address sin
adequately by personal repentance or institutional actions. Luther
believes that the Catholic Church has underestimated the
seriousness of human sin and this is one of the reasons why Luther
thinks reform is necessary.
 Luther, in opposition to the intellectualism of Saint
Thomas, insists that God surpasses human understanding and that
consequently God's actions are often incomprehensible to human
insight. With Luther's incomprehensible God there are serious
questions that remain ambiguous and haunting. For instance, why
does a just and loving God create beings that will inevitably sin
and thereby come to deserve eternal punishment? This question,
Touches on the secrets of
His Majesty. . . . It is not for us to inquire into these
mysteries, but to adore them . . . God is He Whose will no cause or
ground may be laid down as its rule or standard; for nothing is on
the level of it, but it is itself the rule for all things. . . .
What God wills is not right because he ought, or was bound, so to
will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because he
so wills it.1
Here Luther denies any stoic notion of determinacy wherein God
wills things to exist because there are independent and eternal
standards of goodness or rightness to which God's willing must
conform. Any such standards, Luther thinks, will necessarily impose
a limit to God's omnipotence, and such limits are not
 The most critical way in which the sovereignty of God's will
reveals itself in human life is in the distribution of salvation.
Both Luther and Calvin believe that humans can do nothing to
deserve or merit God's saving grace. People cannot justify
themselves before God. Rather, God justifies the sinner through
Christ. The situation is not that of grace being offered to, and
accepted by, persons. Rather, it is the mystery of God that
provides the redirection of the believer's capacity of decision. In
Luther, grace, or the justification of sinners through Christ,
occurs without human being's doing anything. As a gift, grace
cannot be reduced to the rational and voluntaristic levels. On the
matter of salvation, everything depends on God. To ask why some
people are saved and others damned is to display the pride so
characteristic of humanity's sinful condition, the unwillingness to
let God be God. The sinner, Luther observes,
. . . like Satan his prince,
is wholly turned to self and to his own. He does not seek God . . .
he seeks his own riches, and glory, and works, and wisdom, and
power, and sovereignty in everything, and wants to enjoy it in
peace. . . . He can no more restrain his fury than he can stop his
self-seeking, and he can no more stop his self-seeking than he can
stop his existing.2
 Luther does not believe that people are inwardly free to
reject their selfish motives and to act from loving motives.
allows people to act from genuine loving motives, and grace comes
only to the few. The saved must live in a society with those who
are not saved, and the latter will be like wild savage
beasts4 if laws
and magistrates with power to enforce the laws do not restrain
them. Hence there is justification for earthly power and earthly
law, and earthly law must conform to God's laws for humankind. But
God's laws have a function more important than that of showing how
the wicked must be constrained so that people can live in peaceful
 According to Luther, the function of God's law is to show
fallen humanity that without God's aid people are hopelessly sinful
and weak. The ethical rigor of the law should convince the
Christian that he or she is still a sinner. Luther writes that the
Ten Commandments "are intended to teach man to know himself, that
through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may
despair of his own ability."5 The false notion that
righteousness abides in human beings brings pride, presumption, and
hatred of God. Self-righteousness breeds atheism and a merit-based
egoism that mocks God. According to Luther, humans are capable of
developing habits of acting in ways that conform to the
requirements of law, but sinful human nature does not permit
people, without divine assistance, to go beyond that to genuine
loving motives. It is the relationship that God establishes with
humans through Christ that enables the devotee to respond with
gratitude to God's promises. People cannot by their own resolution
and effort overcome their estrangement from God.
The Debate: Erasmus' Mitigated Skepticism Versus
 Luther's treatise titled The Bondage of the Will
(1525) stipulates a pure doctrine of faith grounded in the
conviction that in their relationship to God, human beings have no
freedom at all. In order to understand what Luther is so vehemently
reacting in his response to Erasmus text titled An Examination
of Free Will (1524) it is important to briefly state Erasmus'
position concerning free will. For Erasmus, free will is defined as
"a power of the will, by which a person can turn toward that which
leads to eternal salvation, or turn away fromthe
is attempting to establish a point of human responsibility wherein
the believer has a part to play in his or her own salvation. Humans
have the capacity through their own freedom of choice to turn
towards God or to turn away from God. By stressing freedom of
choice, Erasmus does not intend to discount the importance of
grace, but to establish a limited role for human responsibility. He
attributes only "a few things" to free will and considered God's
active grace as by far the more important and more powerful
element, however, he did leave some room for cooperation between
God's grace and human will.7
 Erasmus thinks that Luther's view of grace makes God the
cause of death, evil, and sin. Erasmus argues that if God grieves
over the sinner's death (Ezek. 18:23), then God cannot be the one
who causes the sinner's death. The only cause of the sinner's death
is the sinner's own free will.8 Erasmus emphasizes the moral
aspect of religion and felt that Luther's determinism did away with
moral responsibility because morality, at root, requires a certain
freedom of the will. Erasmus feels that Luther's determinism does
nothing to strengthen the moral life and that this lack of moral
responsibility has a disastrous effect on the behavior of the
 Erasmus can be called a mitigated skeptic because he is
willing to suspend judgment in order to avoid what he considers to
be extreme and unwarranted perspectives. Mitigated skepticism
suggests a more reasoned or philosophical view that raises doubts
about the reliability of the evidence offered to justify any
proposition. If the evidence, reasons, or proofs are not completely
satisfactory then there is a suspension of judgment. Mitigated
skepticism is not in opposition to religious beliefs but goes to
the validity of knowledge claims. Mitigated skeptics can also
believe, however they consider their religious beliefs as beliefs,
not as certain or necessary truths. Erasmus is willing to suspend
judgment when it comes to some of the major theological questions
in order that he might remain open to new insight. He asserts the
right for people to be uncommitted, at least where doctrine has not
been formally defined by the church. Erasmus looks more to church
tradition while Luther places all of his authority in the promises
of the Word of God.
 Erasmus, unlike Luther, thinks that fallen humanity still
possesses some natural capacity (namely reason and free will) with
which humans can respond to and cooperate with God; and that this
response plays a limited role in salvation. Humans lost the
supernatural gift of grace at the Fall, but this did not leave
humans completely powerless to respond to God in some small way.
Erasmus believes that Christianity is deeply a religion of grace.
However, his doctrine of grace is grounded in scholastic thought
where grace does not displace nature, but rather completes
believer is responsible for his or her own response to the divine
initiative; human nature must exercise some choice in cooperating
with God's supernatural grace, the human will with the divine.
Salvation is a joint enterprise for Erasmus, but the praise and
glory is attributed to God because the human role is very small in
 Luther's response to Erasmus is uncompromising. For
Christians there is no space for skepticism, compromise,
uncertainty, contingency, and, above all, no room for free will
with respect to matters of salvation. For Luther, all things
relating to salvation must occur by necessity; otherwise faith will
be unable to rely on the divine promise. If human beings make the
slightest contribution to their own salvation by matters of their
free will, then there is no certainty of salvation. Christians have
the accessible assertions of Scripture and therefore there is no
need for skepticism. Luther is not concerned with the
reasonableness of Christianity, but with the necessity of God's
 Luther began his denouncement of Erasmus by separating
himself from the intolerable skepticism of Erasmus. Luther insists
that firm assertions are central to the Christian faith and that
without unyielding assertions there is no Christian faith. The
truth of the matter cannot involve neutrality as Christ says: "He
who is not with me is against me" (Luke 11:23). Luther writes, " .
. . a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian. .
. . I am speaking about the assertion of those things which have
been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred
When Erasmus suggests that Christian dogmas are no better than
philosophical and human opinions he is being vain and unfaithful.
Luther emphatically states, "The Holy Spirit is no skeptic, and it
is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts,
but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all
 For Luther, it is imperative that Christians know what lies
in their own power and what lies in God's power in matters relating
to eternal salvation. Erasmus' mitigated skepticism suggests that
matters relating to salvation are irrelevant to Christians because
such knowledge is hidden from the powers of human knowledge. Luther
attacks such skeptical theology as the "unforgivable sin" because
it is a sin against the First Commandment, the root of all other
sins, the unwillingness to let God be God. 14Believers must know that they
are totally dependent on God, whose grace or unmerited love evokes
in humanity the response of faith, that is trust and obedience.
 It is unthinkable for God to know anything contingently.
Luther writes that it is "fundamentally necessary and salutary for
a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but
that He foresees and purposes and does all things by His immutable,
eternal, and infallible will."15 For Luther, the human will
is in complete bondage to either God or Satan. Before the Fall the
spirit of God directs humans, but after the Fall humans are
directed by the clutches of Satan. Luther does not explain how it
is possible for the Evil Spirit to supplant the Holy Spirit in
humans, however, he is clear that it is not because humans can
choose between God and Satan, as Erasmus suggests. In their
bondage, humans are like animals used for riding, upon which either
God or the devil is mounted. Humans have no power to choose which
of the two riders will be in possession oftheir will.
writes, "For if God is in us, Satan is absent, and only a good will
is present; if God is absent, Satan is present, and only an evil
will is in us. Neither God nor Satan permits sheer unqualified
Without the certain knowledge that God foreknows all things, not
contingently, but necessarily, how can one believe in the trust of
God's promises? For Luther, any hint of contingency will destroy
the Gospel. Indeed, without the necessity of God's promise there
 God's promises are not contingent. However, fallen humanity
is not completely determined. Humanity still retains limited powers
of reason and will, still has some knowledge of God and God's law,
and still maintains a sort of freedom "with respect to what is
That is, humans have the ability to choose as they wish between
different possibilities presented to them amid the circumstances of
temporal life. While human beings are free to choose among temporal
issues, one thing human nature can never do is choose the
motivation of its actions. In the final analysis, all motivation is
either governed by the Spirit of God or by the evil spirit. The
spirit of Satan is the antithesis of the spirit of love that is
God. Satan is the very spirit of egoism and self-love; and it is by
this spirit that fallen humanity is moved and governed. Luther
writes: " . . . free choice without the grace of God is not free at
all, but immutably the captive and slave of evil, since it cannot
of itself turn to the good."20 No one is able to act out of
a truly loving motive except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 Freedom, in the full sense of the term, belongs in Luther's
view only to God. God is free, as being subject to no other power
whatsoever, and as acting therefore solely according to God's own
will. God's will is not arbitrary, but is consistently righteous
and good.21 For
what God wills is consistent with God's nature, which in Christ is
revealed as love. God acts with absolute freedom; God does not
simply react, as people in their bondage to Satan do.
 It is Luther's emphasis on the utter helplessness of human
beings apart from God that is at the core of his understanding of
Christian liberty. For Luther, Christian liberty is not freedom of
the will but it means instead to be justified as a sinner through
Christ. It means to be freed from the curse of sin, liberated from
the obsession with the self, and instead, having become absolutely
dependent on God.
 God as the creator is, in Luther's thought, the source of
all activity, and, as stated above, God's activity is absolutely
righteous and good. However, the results of God's activity are not
invariably good. In God's omnipotence God activates the wills of
sinful people and devils (including Satan), and these act in
accordance with their character, which is bad. But the evil of
man's, woman's, or Satan's will is not to be ascribed to God as its
cause. Luther writes, " . . . the good God does not deplore the
death of his people which he works in them, but he deplores the
death which he finds in his people and desires toremove from
cannot suspend God's effectiveness simply because people have evil
wills, so by the power of God evil persons do evil things, despite
the fact that God can do nothing evil. Luther never explains how
humans fell into sin or how Satan became evil, but merely accepts
both as formal statements for which there is no rational
This is a persistent source of irritation for Luther's readers. One
constantly wants to know why the omnipotent God does not make evil
 Luther does not explain the origination of evil and
constantly articulates that all humans who have not been grasped by
God can only sin. Both of these statements raise difficulties, but
in mitigation of them the following points offered by Luther should
be kept in mind. First, Luther articulates a distinction between
necessity andcompulsion.24 Neither God nor Satan is
presented, as acting through external coercion on the human will.
Both God and Satan are presented as a spiritual power operating
inwardly, so that all human consequent action can be thought of as
voluntary. 25There is no external
coercion, but it is also clear that the will cannot change itself
and certainly cannot act freely because it is under the necessary
internal control of either God or Satan. Secondly, God and Satan
are not equal contenders for the possession of humanity. As the
creator God has sovereignty over humans and devils. God has the
power to override Satan and can save or liberate anyone.
The External Word and the Internal Spirit
 Luther informs the Christian world that believers can do
nothing in matters of eternal salvation and that their wills are
bound to Satan and have no inkling of anything but selfish motives.
Fortunately this devastating news is not the last word in Luther.
Luther states that God desires to save people from their evil
bondage, and to this end God works by means of God's Word and
Spirit. By God's Word God confronts humans outwardly, and by God's
Spirit inwardly, first in the form of law, then in the form of
Gospel. 26First, it is the function of
the law, in what he calls its spiritual use, to bring home to
people their sinful plight and their inability to save themselves
from damnation.27 In this way, people are
prepared for the gospel and its message of grace. Preparation for
the gospel involves a process of lament so that one can be "humbled
before God." It is only after a believer has fallen into complete
despair and contains no hint of self-righteousness or self-merit
that one is finally ready to admit a complete dependence on the
grace of God.28
 Secondly, once the human will is properly humbled, it is
the function of the gospel to bring home to humanity the grace and
love of God and to evoke in the believer the response of faith.
When this occurs, the believer is restored to his or her true and
natural relationship with God (before the Fall), and thereby enters
into the fullest freedom of which he or she is capable.
29With this new
freedom humanity can cooperate with God, not in matters of their
own salvation, but with respect to complementing God's purposes in
spiritual and temporal affairs. It is important to state that human
cooperation with God is not a precondition of salvation as it is
for Erasmus; it is rather a consequence of salvation. Luther
writes, "For the kingdom is not being prepared, but has been
prepared, while the sons of the Kingdom are being prepared, not
preparing the Kingdom; that is to say, the Kingdom merits the sons,
not the sons the Kingdom."30 For Luther, the grace of God
assures heavenly reward, not as the right of the believer, but as
the sure and gracious promise of God's Word.
On Good Works
 Human beings can only truly associate with God
through the light of grace. There is no other possibility for
fallen humanity. Thus, for Luther, good works are not determinative
of one's relation to God: Luther writes: "But works . . . cannot
glorify God, although they can, if faith is present, be done to the
glory of God."31 Works follow from faith, but
works do not initiate faith. According to Luther, "Our faith in
Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions
concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that
justification is acquired by works."32 The Christian is what he or
she is only because of a relationship to Christ. Christian liberty
is completely dependent on this relationship and apart from this
relationship even good works are sin.
 The temptation of the believer is to look at the works,
which he or she does in faith, and then to turn those works into a
form of merit-based justification and pride. Succumbing to this
temptation would be to glorify the self rather than giving the
glory to God. For Luther, the very reflecting upon one's works
spoils them. This is why Luther can declare that apart from faith,
all works are nothing but "truly wicked anddamnable
does not think of works as acts of righteousness, but as acts of
purification. The believer must "realize that these works reduce
the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts, and our
whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of
works, at least initially, help the body to get rid of lusts so
that the believer can truly do "works out of spontaneous love in
obedience to God." 35This allows Luther to
maintain the paradox that human beings can be at once a saint and a
sinner. The life of a Christian is never without this paradoxical
struggle and tension. The inner person who has been blessed by the
grace of God still confronts a contrary will in his or her own
flesh. The Christian is to be a Christ to his or her neighbor (do
good works), but above all, the Christian is to trust and have
faith in God.
 For Luther, faith in the promises of God, trusting God's
word, is not one work among others but the foundation of all works.
There are no isolated good works in the casuistic sense. With this
distinction Luther overcomes the medieval dualism that
distinguishes between holy and profane actions and between the
ethics of the monks and the ethics of the laity. This new
understanding enables Luther to establish the radical new notion of
the priesthood of all believers.
Luther and Faith
 Faith is the foundation for works, but what is faith for
Luther? There is some level of ambiguity in Luther's understanding
of faithfulness: On the one hand, Luther talks about faith as the
gift of God who acts upon humans wholly from without. On the other
hand, Luther speaks of faith as a concrete personal decision and
commitment. 36How is this tension and
ambiguity to be resolved? For Luther, the acknowledgment of God's
sovereignty and the belief in God's accessibility can only be found
in Christ and his Word.
 Christians can discover the revealed God through Christ and
Scripture yet there is still the hidden God, which is completely
inaccessible and incomprehensible.37 Humans have nothing to do
with the majesty of God, but humans do "have something to do with
him (God) insofar as he is clothed and set forth in his Word."
38In this way
faith always represents more than what the believer can know
through the revealed or "clothed" Word of God. Faith is not
reasonable or merely contemplative, rather faith always involves
paradox concerning the revealed God of mercy and the hidden God of
wrath. Luther writes, "If I could by any means comprehend [i.e., by
human ways of thinking] how this God can be merciful and just who
displays so much wrath and inequity, there would be no need of
is a miracle that cannot be understood according to ordinary
criteria, but requires a blindly trusting audacity.
 The audacity of faith is most concretely discovered in
Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that the mysterious God is most
visible and the incomprehensible God is most revealed , without
abandoning God's mystery. The knowledge of God revealed in Christ
is the beginning of all true knowledge of God and humanity. Luther
tells believers not to contemplate the mystery of God but to look
to "God incarnate . . . who has been sent into the world for the
very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering
to all men everything necessary for salvation."40 Jesus does not offer
speculation concerning the secrets of God. Rather, Christ is
clothed in the flesh and points the believer towards the word of
God's promises that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther writes, "
. . . Christ has opened our minds so that we may understand the
Scriptures [Luke 24:45], and the gospel is preached to the whole
creation [Mark :15]."41 Luther believes that to
preach the gospel is to fulfill the gospel. Therefore, Luther takes
no credit for the Reformation but attributes it all to the word of
All I have done is to
further, preach, and teach God's word; otherwise I have done
nothing. So it came about that while I slept or while I had a glass
of beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, the papacy was so
weakened, as it never was before by the action of any prince or
emperor. I have done nothing; the word has done and accomplished
everything. . . . I let the word do the work.42
 Luther repeatedly argues that the basis for attributing
divinity to Jesus is that the person of faith understands that
Jesus Christ has done for humanity what only God can do. Thus the
person of Jesus Christ is the only way of articulating the worth of
Christianity. It is Christ who forms the new person who is open to
God's word. Luther writes, "I do not live in my own person, but
Christ lives within me. To be sure, I live as a person, but not in
myself or for my own person."43 It is through appealing to
Christ and relying upon the promises of Christ that Luther is able
to exchange ambiguity and uncertainty for absolute faith and
obedience in God. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ Luther is able
to overcome the self-deception of works-righteousness that can only
foster "anxious doubt," and finally, in a very personal way,
discover the liberation and freedom only available in the faithful
assurance that God necessarily keeps God's promises.44
 Luther's faith distinguishes between the visible things of
God and the invisible things of God. Faith requires complete trust
in God precisely because there is no direct knowledge of God for
humanity. Even Christ and His Word constitute a form of indirect
revelation or faith in things not seen.45 There are aspects of God
that remain eternally incomprehensible, but even what God chooses
to make visible, namely Jesus Christ, comes hidden in the
humbleness of the child born in a stable. And, even more
importantly, Christ on the cross is not directly visible as the
victor over hell, death, and the devil. In order to make room for
faith, Luther writes,
. . . It is necessary that
everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however,
be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or
experience which is contrary to it. Thus when God makes alive he
does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men
guilty, when he exalts to heaven he does it by bringing down to
hell, as Scripture says: 'The Lord kills and brings to life; he
brings down to Shoal and raises up' [Sam. 2:6].46
The hidden God of the theology of the cross is none other than
the crucified God, and therefore a manifestation of the revealed
God. There is no place for Christian metaphysical rationality at
the fact of the cross of Christ. For Luther, the cross makes
demands on Christian response that must either be acted on or
ignored. If Christian thought ignores the demands of the cross it
becomes a theology of glory. A theology of glory is rooted in
religious speculation and contemplation that results in a
sentimental theology. If the cross becomes the foundation of
Christian thought, a theology of the cross results.
 The theology of the cross is a practical theology. It is
distinguished from the theology of glory precisely because it leads
a believer out of his or her speculative glaze and propels one into
the decision of faith. Faith becomes a personal decision and the
existential test of faith becomes the cross of Jesus Christ. Luther
That person does not deserve
to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of
God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which
have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian,
however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God
seen through suffering and the cross.47
The doctrine of the cross, which decisively determines Luther's
concept of God and faith, can be understood only in a life under
the cross. Luther writes, "Through the cross works are dethroned
and [the old] Adam, who is especially edified by works, is
Faith stands in closer relation to suffering than to works because
the justified person of faith, Luther claims, meets a contrary will
in his or her own flesh which strives to serve the self interests
of the world. The Christian life of faith is therefore a life of
suffering and conflict; one experiences the assaults of the devil,
the famous Anfechtungen that troubled Luther all his life.
The meaning of the cross cannot disclose itself in speculative
thought, but only in suffering experience.49 For Luther, the theology of
the cross has a profound affect on his pure doctrine of faith: A
faith that is no faith at all without Christ and the cross.
The Hidden God Behind the Revealed God
 For Luther, revelation occurs behind the object of apparent
contradiction. The revealed yet hidden God found, most
distinctively, in the incarnation and at the cross of Christ. In
the incarnation and cross of Christ God acts in ways precisely
opposite to humanity's common expectations of God and thus calls
forth a response of faith. It is in the cross that Luther locates
the certainty of salvation and eternal life. The gospel, according
to Luther, "is nothing but the preaching about Christ . . . true
God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us
the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in
According to the revealed or preached will of God, God does not
desire any person to perish, but all people to be saved. The
revealed God is unconditional salvic will. The gospel is the good
news of the healing and saving God.51
 Yet Luther is clear that by no means all people receive
salvation, even when the saving will of God as revealed in the
gospel is preached to them. For some people the preaching of the
gospel merely hardens their hearts and makes them detest God all
the more. Luther's doctrine of God's predestination seems to
contradict the mercy of the revealed God. Luther writes, "God's
eternal predestination-out of which originally proceeds who shall
believe or not, who can or cannot get rid of sin-in order that our
salvation may be taken entirely out of our hands and put in the
hand of God alone."52 The God who damns so many is
not the revealed God of the gospel, but "the hidden and awful will
of God" 53who
"purposely abandons some to perish."54 God has revealed Godself in
God's word, but God is greater than God's word. Luther writes, "God
does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he
also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as
willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner
according to his word; but he wills it according to that
inscrutablewill of his." 55In so far as God does not
reveal Godself in God's word God remains incomprehensible. God's
supreme attribute is God's freedom. Luther is clear that God is not
bound by the revealed gospel when he writes: " . . . God has not
bound himself by his word, but has kept himself free over all
if this is the case, how can Luther be assured that God will
necessarily keep God's revealed promises? It is here that the true
believer has no recourse but must blindly have faith in God. God
does not have to keep God's promises, but God will keep God's
promises. This is at the heart of Luther's pure doctrine of faith.
This is the highest degree
of faith , to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns
so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes
us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus
[E., p. 41], to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be
worthy of hatred rather than love.57
 For Luther, the hidden God and the revealed God seem to be
sharply differentiated. One cannot logically affirm of the one what
applies to the other. The two concepts appear to be diametrically
opposed to one another; almost as if there is more than one God.
Can the unity of the Godhead be maintained in the midst of such
contrary statements? Erasmus asks this question in another way: Is
it conceivable that the God who weeps over the death of his people
causes this very death? Erasmus argues that if humans do not
possess freedom of will then it is impossible for them to be
responsible for their sins. If God predetermines human sin, then
God, and not humanity, is responsible for the origination of human
sin. Consequentially God is the cause of the sinner's death. This
is how Erasmus poses the problem and solves it by having recourse
to his view of free will.
 Luther, in response to Erasmus, argues that humans must not
meddle with God's inscrutable will. "This will is not to be
inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most
awe-inspiring secret of theDivine Majesty."58 Luther chastises Erasmus for
having "all too human"59 thoughts about God. Erasmus
sought to make God calculable to human reason, but reason cannot
cope with the paradox of evil in the world. Erasmus does not take
into account the hidden God with which humans can have no dealings.
Reason seeks an earthly answer to a heavenly concern. Luther argues
that humans must be guided "by the word and not by that inscrutable
felt that the Divine Scriptures firmly establish that humans should
not pry into the will of the divine majesty based on his
interpretation of Romans 9:19-24 (also 1 Cor. 1:21,24; Col.
does this mean that the revealed God of Jesus Christ only
represents a part of what God is? Clearly, Luther does not mean to
assert that the will of God and the revealed will of Christ are
distinct from one another. Although logical contradictions are
evident, Luther nevertheless forcefully states, "that there is no
other God than this man Jesus Christ."62 In the revealed God of
Christ, who represents the one true God,63 secrets of the hidden God
remain. Pure faith is willing to accept that secrets remain hidden
behind the revealed God while reason can only establish a dualism.
God is both revealed and hidden in Christ.
 For Luther, it is true that there are aspects of the hidden
God that people cannot understand, but this does not mean that the
hidden God is of no concern to the believer. The believer
should"fear and adore"64 the hidden God. It is in
line with Luther's understanding of the hiddenness of God in
Christ, when he affirms that God "hides his eternal goodness and
mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under
This idea also makes some sense when one considers that fear,
wrath, and suffering have the effect of preparing believers for
grace and so plays a part in their salvation.66 But what is to be said when
wrath and suffering only function to harden the hearts of people
and ensure their damnation? Luther cannot and does not give a
definitive answer to this question. Humans are not competent to
judge or explain why one person is granted salvation and another
person is not. It is nearly unbearable to see how the omnipotent
God can be righteous and good, let alone merciful, when God "saves
so few and damns somany;"67 but through faith and his
interpretation of the Bible Luther maintains that God is somehow
good and righteous. Faith in the assertion of God's goodness is
absolutely necessary for Luther. At the end of his treatise on
The Bondage of the Will, Luther admits that in the light
of nature (the rationality of fallen humanity) such an assertion is
absurd, but in the light of grace (the revelation of God in Christ)
the assertion is believable but not demonstrable; and in the light
of glory (God's perfected Kingdom in the eternal life beyond this
life) people shall discover the unquestionable truth of what on
earth people can only believe.
Implications for Christian Ethics
 Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of Luther's theology is
that he did not try to provide a formal systematic theology
complete with all the answers. Luther believes that a totally
rationalized Christianity is a Christianity that ultimately leads
to atheism or skepticism. A rational Christianity would no longer
require grace and faith in a transcendent God acting in the world.
There is no space for free will in Luther's theology because the
human will is held in complete bondage to either God or Satan.
Erasmus' mitigated skepticism places too much emphasis on human
faculties. But for Luther skepticism is unthinkable: Without the
certainty that God knows all things, not contingently, but
necessarily, Christians will soon stop trusting in God's promises
and then all faith will be lost and the gospel reduced to a
mockery. Luther's theology is rooted in a pure doctrine of faith
that must always be distinct from any contingent notion of
works-righteousness or self-righteousness.
 In their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom
whatsoever. For Luther, Christian liberty is not a human
achievement but a gift of God's grace. But it is an empowering gift
because it frees Christians from their obsession with themselves
and their own salvation in order to act for the real needs of their
neighbor without concern for personal reward or punishment. A pure
doctrine of faith frees the Christian from selfish concerns so that
he or she can be purely concerned with the love of God and the love
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 1
1 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in John
Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New
York: Doubleday, 1961), pp.
2 Ibid., p. 192.
3 Ibid., pp. 200-206.
4 Marin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent it Ought
to be Obeyed (1523), in Dillenberger op.cit., p. 370.
5 Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (1520), in Martin
Luther: Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), p.
6 Quoted by Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), pp.
7 See Walter Loewenich, Martin Luther: The Man and His
Works (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), pp.
8 See A. N. Marlow and B. Drewery, Introduction, in John
Bailley ed., Luther and Erasmus: The Question of Free Choice
(Philadelphia: West Minster Press, 1981), p. 31.
9 Ibid., p. 9
10 Ibid., pp. 12-15.
12 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in
Luther and Erasmus: The Question of Free Choice, p. 105.
13 Ibid., 109.
14 Ibid., p. 116-17.
15 Ibid., p. 118.
16 Ibid., 140.
17 Ibid., p. 180.
18 Ibid., p. 122.
19 Ibid., p. 43
20 Ibid., p. 141.
21 Ibid., pp. 141-142.
22 Ibid., p. 201. It is interesting that Luther uses the
term 'desires' in reference to God. One would think from what
Luther says about God that God can accomplish whatever God
23 Ibid., p. 137.
24 Ibid., p. 139. Luther writes: "By
. . . .he does not do evil against his will, as if he were taken by
the scruff of the neck and forced to it, like a thief or a robber
carried off against his will to punishment, but he does it of his
own accord and with a ready will."
25 Ibid., pp. 119-121.
treatment of this issue see the entire text of Freedom of a
Christian (1520) in Martin Luther: Three Treatises (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1943).
27 Ibid., 282.
28 Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 137. Luther
writes: "God has assuredly promised his grace to the humble [I
Peter 5:5], that is, to those who lament and despair of
29 Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520), pp. 282-287.
30 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 213.
31 Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520), p. 288.
32 Ibid., p. 311.
33 Ibid., p. 297.
34 Ibid., p. 295.
36 See Wilhelp Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation,
(New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc., 1961), pp. 22-27.
37 The distinction between the hidden God and the revealed
God will be discussed in more detail in a latter section of the
38 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 201.
39 Ibid., p. 138.
40 Ibid., p. 206.
41 Ibid., p. 111.
42 Luther, the Eight Wittenberg Sermons (1522) in Luther's
Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 51: pp.
43 Luther, as quoted by Wilhelm Pauck, The Heritage of the
Reformation, p. 24.
44 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 229.
45 Ibid., pp. 200-201.
46 Ibid., p. 138.
47 Luther, Heidelberg Disputation (1518) in Luther's Works
(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 31, p. 40.
48 Ibid., p. 53.
49 Ibid., p. 53.
50 Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament (1522) in
Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 35,
51 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), pp.
52 Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament (1522), LW 35: p.
53 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will 1525), p. 200.
54 Ibid., p. 206-207.
55 Ibid., p. 201.
57 Ibid., p. 138.
58 Ibid., p. 200.
59 Ibid., p. 202.
60 Ibid., p. 201.
61 Ibid., p. 207
62 Luther, Letter to the Galations (1535), LW 26: p.
63 Ibid., pp. 30-31. Luther writes: "The true deity of
Christ is proved by this conclusion: Paul attributes to him the
ability to grant the very same things that the Father does-- grace,
peace of conscience, the forgiveness of sins, life, and victory
over sin, death, the devil, and hell. This would be illegitimate,
in fact, sacrilegious, if Christ were not true God."
64 Luther, Bodange of the Will (1525), p. 201.
65 Ibid., p. 138.
66 Ibid., p. 200. This is how the law fills people
with torment and knowledge of sin.
67 Ibid., p. 138.