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Great and Necessary Words: De servo arbitrio

Category Articles
Date April 27, 2015

In 1524, Desiderius Erasmus, probably the foremost classical scholar in Europe, published a little book with the title Diatribe sue collatio de libero arbitrio (‘Discussion concerning free will’). Erasmus wrote the book to distance himself from the teachings of Martin Luther that were setting Europe ablaze and challenging the foundations of the papacy. Erasmus was in the semi-Pelagian tradition. He believed that salvation was a mutual cooperation between God and man; God did ‘almost everything’, but man had his part to play as well. Erasmus believed and taught that men and women were sinners, but he also taught that sin had not completely disabled us and left us utterly dead towards God. Sin was bad, even very bad, but it was not fatal.

In 1525, Luther responded to Erasmus’ ‘little book’ with, what one writer called, ‘a bomb’. The title of Luther’s book says it all, De servo arbitrio,’The Bondage of the Will’.

Luther thanked Erasmus for raising the issue of man’s will:

You alone . . . have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not worried 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 . . . you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot [literally, ‘taken me by the throat’]. For that I heartily thank you; for it is more gratifying for me to deal with this issue.1

For Luther, the issue of man’s will was not a matter of abstruse theology. The question of the freedom or bondage of the will takes us, Luther believed, to the heart of the doctrine of salvation and to the heart of the God-pleasing life. It is significant that Luther calls the issue ‘the hinge on which all turns’. Why? For one simple reason, if our wills are not totally in bondage, if there is any residue of essential goodness in any man or woman enabling them to will the good, then salvation is not ‘of the Lord’. Salvation becomes a cooperative act, God doing his part and man doing his. For Luther such thinking was both an affront to God and a denial of the gospel, and made the cross ‘of none effect’. The Bible could not be any clearer, salvation was wholly the work of God, the result of his grace to us in Christ. Even the faith we believe with is the gift of God (Eph.s 2:8). Luther rose to the challenge of responding to Erasmus, not because he was a cross-grained ex-monk, but because he was passionately jealous for the glory of God and the salvation of sinners.

Erasmus thought the issue of free will to be a subject for theologians to discuss and debate and for ordinary Christians to ignore as an idle speculation. For Luther nothing could be further from the truth. Clarity of understanding regarding the limits of the human will was, for Luther, essential to living a truly Christian life:

it is not irreligious, idle or superfluous, but in the highest degree wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters pertaining to salvation.2

Luther saw the issue of the will to go to the very heart of the gospel and of the God-pleasing life:

Now, if I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to Him. We need, therefore, to have in mind a clear-cut distinction between God’s power and ours, and God’s work and ours, if we would live a godly life.3

Far from being recondite and ‘superfluous’, to know the extent of our will’s bondage, or otherwise, could not be more crucial. If we have some virtuous capacity to will and to choose in our sinful natures, then self-confidence and self-righteousness are inescapable concomitants. But if our wills are wholly in bondage to sin and Satan, then salvation must wholly be of God and the glory completely his. God will have ‘no flesh’ to boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29).

Luther’s passionate defence of the biblical truth of the bondage of the will was not first motivated by a concern for doctrinal precision, though biblical doctrine is precise. What concerned Luther and motivated him to respond to Erasmus was his concern for God’s glory and the salvation of sinners. Where these two concerns animate a theologian, pastor, or ‘ordinary’ Christian, man’s total inability to will any good whatsoever will be asserted – not casually but passionately – and God’s grace in Christ magnified. Soli Deo Gloria.


  1. J. I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, The Bondage of the Will, A New Translation of De Servo Arbitrio (London: James Clark, 1957), page 31.
  2. Ibid., p. 78.
  3. Ibid.

Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in Resurrection Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.

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