Romans 7 and the Bondage of the Will

This week we are celebrating the 501-year anniversary of the Reformation, discounting many Reformed resources and featuring Reformation excerpts and reflections on the blog.

Enjoy this excerpt from Luther’s Bondage of the Will, part of the Martin Luther collection—66% off for a limited time.

Luther argues from the dilemma Paul describes in Romans 7 and Galatians 5 that man, saved or unsaved, is incapable of performing that which God requires of him. Luther is thus relieved that “God has taken my salvation out of the hands of my own will, and has received it into those of his own.”

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From Part V: Freewill Proved to Be a Lie

Section XXXI: Omits to argue from the conflict between flesh and spirit, because no attempt has yet been made to repel what he has said about it

[…] Paul teaches us [in Romans 7 and Galatians 5] that the conflict between flesh and spirit is so mighty in the sanctified and godly, that they cannot do the things which they would. I argue thus from it: if the nature of man is so wicked, that in those who have been born again of the Spirit, not only it does not endeavour after good, but even fights against and opposes good; how should it endeavour after good in those who, being not yet regenerated, are serving under Satan, in the old man? For Paul does not speak of the gross affections only in that place, through which as a sort of common outlet Diatribe is wont to slip like an eel out of the hands of every Scripture; but reckons heresy, idolatry, dissensions, contentions, mischiefs, which reign in those highest powers of the soul—the understanding and the will, say—amongst the works of the flesh. If then the flesh maintains a conflict against the spirit, by means of these affections, in the saints; much more will it fight against God in the ungodly, and their Freewill. On this account Rom. 8 calls it enmity against God.

I should be glad, I say, if any body would take off this argument for me, and defend Freewill from it.

For my own part, I confess that, if it could anyhow be, I should be unwilling to have Freewill given to me, or anything left in my own hand, which might enable me to endeavour after salvation: not only because in the midst of so many dangers and adversities on the one hand, and of so many assaulting devils on the other, I should not be strong enough to maintain my standing and keep my hold of it (for one devil is mightier than all men put together, and not a single individual of mankind would be saved); but because, if there were even no dangers, and no adversities, and no devils, still I should be compelled to toil forever as uncertainly, and to fight as one that beateth the air. For, though I should live and work to eternity, my own conscience would never be sure and secure how much she ought to do, that God might be satisfied with her. Do what she might, there would still be left an anxious doubt, whether it pleased God, or whether he required anything more; as the experience of all self-righteous persons proves, and as I, to my own great misery, have learned abundantly by so many years of conflict.

But now, since God has taken my salvation out of the hands of my own will, and has received it into those of his own; and has promised to save me, not by my own work or running, but by his own grace and mercy; I am at ease and certain, because he is faithful and will not lie to me, and because he is moreover great and powerful, so that no number of devils, no number of adversities, can either wear Him out, or pluck me out of his hand. No one, says he, shall pluck them out of my hand; for my Father who gave them me, is greater than all. Thus it comes to pass, that, if all are not saved, some, however, nay, many are; whereas by the power of Freewill none absolutely would be, but we should all to a man be lost? Moreover, we are fearlessly sure that we please God, not by the merit of our own work, but by the favour of his mercy, which he hath promised us; and that, if we do less than we ought, or ought amiss, he does not impute it to us, but with a fatherly mind forgives and amends it. Such is the boast of every saint in his God.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Martin Luther, Martin Luther on the Bondage of the Will; To the Venerable Mister Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1525, trans. Edward Thomas Vaughan (London: T. Hamilton; T. Combe, 1823), 457–459.