Luther's Essential Bequest
Grace is not adequately understood until we fully appreciate all that it does for us. It is not simply God's assistance afforded to the seriously disabled who are struggling to get right with God, it is God's effectual answer to man's total moral and spiritual inability.
Total inability is our starting point for the recognition of our need for divine salvation and our grasp of the infinite dimensions of God's mercy. If we entertain a confidence in our own partial contribution to our deliverance, however small we might estimate it to be, then we have a severely diminished sense of the magnitude and magnanimity of grace, our complete reliance upon it, and incalculable indebtedness towards it. We are unable to confess wholeheartedly that salvation is all of grace, and we assign a crucial role, the most crucial, to the exertion of the sinner, even if it lies only in the forming of the choice to be saved.
The popular view is that without the permission of the human will God can do nothing for us, his power and saving love are suspended until our decision allows him to work, whereas the Biblical view is that without the enabling grace of God the fallen sinner is incapable of willing anything good, especially his deliverance from sin. Sin is the irreversible preference of natural man. Individual salvation begins with the supernatural renewal of the corrupt will which is enslaved to evil desire. It takes a miracle, wrought by divine omnipotence, to change the inclination of the human heart (regeneration). How can any person change what they happen to be by their very nature or constitution? "Who of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?" (Matthew 6:27). "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?" (Jeremiah 13:23). Choice is the whole person exercising desire. From where might a soul, dead in sin, lost in depravity, in bondage to the devil, dredge up the least desire for the greatest good i.e. God himself? Can the wholly corrupt conjure up a yearning for that which is supremely holy? Can putrefaction produce anything pure, or a rotten heart produce anything righteous?
(Romans 8:7). To decide for Christ, as we glibly say, is completely impossible for any creature subject to the dominion of the evil one who is the arch-enemy and maliciously envious rival of the Saviour.
No child of Satan wishes to be a child of God until he is born again by the Spirit of God.
Martin Luther, the mighty Reformer of the sixteenth century, maintained that his most valuable literary achievement worthy of lasting importance was his treatise on The Bondage of the Will*. It was the basis of the recovery of the gospel in his time and the charter for the proclamation of grace carried out by men of reform for several generations. It is one of the most influential books ever written and should remain so. It is essential for orthodox theology, and especially to Christian teaching and preaching, and ought to be mandatory preparation for the church's ministry. Its thunderous awakening power is necessary whenever the church lapses into drowsiness over the urgency of salvation and the incapacity of man to help himself in any way. The absolute lostness of man, and the startling doctrines of grace, are quickly forgotten and religion soon becomes either a matter of self-effort or sentimentality, useless to the perishing soul. A regular blast from Martin Luther is the best thing that can happen to keep the church alert to the world's peril and the only message that can save it. Wielding Scripture Luther demolishes all confidence in human attempts to get right with God. We have no righteousness actually or potentially, and therefore no righteous yearnings. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Such an admission necessitates dependence on sovereign grace from the very outset, a reliance which humbles man and exalts God and casts us solely upon him for the first glimmer of spiritual concern and righteous longing.
The almost universal assumption of free will is one of the most dangerous notions occupying the human mind. It threatens the accurate presentation of the gospel and prohibits immediate submission to Christ whenever the gospel is preached. It attributes a power to man that inflates his pride and engenders an audacious attitude of self-reliance and procrastination in responding to the message of grace. it is mistaken to think that our consent allows grace to work.
Grace facilitates our consent and is the cause of our trust in Christ.
Without prevenient (preceding) grace we inevitably refuse the gospel.
In almost all the objections to Luther's radical Augustinian position there is a confusion between human responsibility, which always remains, and human ability, which has been finally forfeited through the disobedience of sin (this confusion even occurs in Charles Simeon's famous conversation with John Wesley, which is an unfortunate concession to the latter's Arminianism that has no Scriptural justification and deserves no plausibility at all). The word of God calls man to both the obedience of the law (to convict him of sin and helplessness) and obedience to the gospel so that man, devoid of self help, comes to rely on grace alone through grace extended to him, the effectual call (Romans 8:30). The despair of self and the turning to Christ occur simultaneously by the inward operation of the Spirit of God, and in looking to Jesus the sinner becomes instinctively or eventually reflectively aware that his heart has been changed by an outside, invasive power, namely the miraculous intervention of the Lord without whom he knows he would never have sought the Saviour or ever registered any spiritual concern. The gift of new life prompts the new direction of the will which formerly preferred sin and the service of self and Satan. Repentance and faith are the results of liberation through the sovereign action of God. We are always obligated to obey the commands of God, but our revolt against him has deprived us of the capability, and that can only be restored by the donation of renewed power.
The issue of free will need not be complicated by subtle speculation as to determinism versus free agency. Determinism may or may not be a valid theological or philosophical position to embrace (it is amazing as to the numerous factors that determine our supposedly "free choices"). The Christian debate over free will is primarily of a spiritual nature and to do with the condition and capacities of man after the fall and as to how his rescue might be effected and salvation grasped. It involves consideration of three factors pertaining to human nature as sinful and alienated from God i.e. the character of fallen man, his inborn disposition, and the quality and use of his reason. If our character is essentially and wholly sinful it is incapable of godly desire, and this absence of pure motive causes our defective faculty of rational discernment to produce arguments for our refusal of all that is truly holy and God-centred.
Our will only functions correctly once our affections have been changed and preferences redirected. The will (all the faculties of the mind and appetites of the flesh) has to be renovated, set free, and guided by the gracious influences of God. The sinful bias has to be supernaturally altered to a bent towards God. Only then will it choose God and yearn for salvation – and salvation is deliverance from self, not our improvement of self. Until new birth we cannot act contrary to our nature or in defiance of our sinful proclivities.
Our sense of spontaneous choice (free agency) is not deceptive and its reliability admitted by all. It is certainly valid in the area of things denominated by Luther as "below". In matters of our earthly or natural life we tend to choose and behave in accordance with the preferences of our tastes or reason e.g., food, fashion, career, spouse, etc. But Luther maintains the following distinction: "We are discussing, not nature, but grace; we ask not what we are on earth, but what we are in heaven before God. We know that man was made lord over things below him, and that he has a right and a free will with respect to them . . . . But our question is this whether he has free will Godward". Luther asserts the inability of man to believe the gospel. "Next: when Christ says in John 6: 'No man can come to me , except My Father which hath sent me draw him' (v44) what does he leave to 'free will'? In things that pertain to salvation, He asserts that power to be null". As to folk who do believe as a consequence of the Father's inward teaching Luther remarks, "When that happens, there follows a 'drawing' other than that which is outward; Christ is then displayed by the enlightening of the Spirit, and by it man is rapt to Christ with the sweetest rapture, he being passive while God speaks, teaches, and draws, rather than seeking or running himself".
Luther nails the plight of man and the restorative, remedial nature of God's powerful gospel. The truth of Holy Scripture is stunning, awesome, beautiful, and captivating. Our contemporary preaching by and large is mealy-mouthed compared to Luther. It hardly deserves respect.
Luther has bequeathed us "red meat" theology that would reinvigorate an ailing church and nourish the spiritually famished. His bold teaching is part of our Anglican heritage and would put much needed backbone into our modern Anglican witness: The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will (Article X. Of Free-Will). Rise up, O men of God!