Martin Luther, to the venerable D. Erasmus of Rotterdam, wishing Grace and Peace in Christ.
THAT I have been so long answering your DIATRIBE on FREE-WILL, venerable Erasmus, has happened contrary to the expectation of all, and contrary to my own custom also. For hitherto, I have not only appeared to embrace willingly opportunities of this kind for writing, but even to seek them of my own accord. Some one may, perhaps, wonder at this new and unusual thing, this forbearance or fear, in Luther, who could not be roused up by so many boasting taunts, and letters of adversaries, congratulating Erasmus on his victory and singing to him the song of Triumph—What that Maccabee, that obstinate assertor, then, has at last found an Antagonist a match for him, against whom he dares not open his mouth!
But so far from accusing them, I myself openly concede that to you, which I never did to any one before:—that you not only by far surpass me in the powers of eloquence, and in genius, (which we all concede to you as your desert, and the more so, as I am but a barbarian and do all things barbarously,) but that you have damped my spirit and impetus, and rendered me languid before the battle; and that by two means. First, by art: because, that is, you conduct this discussion with a most specious and uniform modesty; by which you have met and prevented me from being incensed against you. And next, because, on so great a subject, you say nothing but what has been said before: therefore, you say less about, and attribute more unto “Free-will,” than the Sophists have hitherto said and attributed: (of which I shall speak more fully hereafter.) So that it seems even superfluous to reply to these your arguments, which have been indeed often refuted by me; but trodden down, and trampled under foot, by the incontrovertible Book of Philip Melancthon “Concerning Theological Questions:” a book, in my judgment, worthy not only of being immortalized, but of being included in the ecclesiastical canon: in comparison of which, your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of gold and silver. And this you yourself seem to have felt, who were so unwilling to undertake this work of writing; because your conscience told you, that you would of necessity have to try the point with all the powers of eloquence; and that, after all, you would not be able so to blind me by your colouring, but that I should, having torn off the deceptions of language, discover the real dregs beneath. For, although I am rude in speech, yet, by the grace of God, I am not rude in understanding. And, with Paul, I dare arrogate to myself understanding and with confidence derogate it from you; although I willingly, and deservedly, arrogate eloquence and genius to you, and derogate it from myself.
Wherefore, I thought thus—If there be any who have not drank more deeply into, and more firmly held my doctrines, which are supported by such weighty Scriptures, than to be moved by these light and trivial arguments of Erasmus, though so highly ornamented, they are not worthy of being healed by my answer. Because, for such men, nothing could be spoken or written of enough, even though it should be in many thousands of volumes a thousands times repeated: for it is as if one should plough the seashore, and sow seed in the sand, or attempt to fill a cask, full of holes, with water. For, as to those who have drunk into the teaching of the Spirit in my books, to them, enough and an abundance has been administered, and they at once contemn your writings. But, as to those who read without the Spirit, it is no wonder if they be driven to and fro, like a reed, with every wind. To such, God would not have said enough, even if all his creatures should be converted into tongues. Therefore it would, perhaps, have been wisdom, to have left these offended at your book, along with those who glory in you and decree to you the triumph.
Hence, it was not from a multitude of engagements, nor from the difficulty of the undertaking, nor from the greatness of your eloquence, nor from a fear of yourself; but from mere irksomeness, indignation, and contempt, or (so to speak) from my judgment of your Diatribe, that my impetus to answer you was damped. Not to observe, in the mean time, that, being ever like yourself, you take the most diligent care to be on every occasion slippery and pliant of speech; and while you wish to appear to assert nothing, and yet, at the same time, to assert something, more cautious than Ulysses, you seem to be steering your course between Scylla and Charybdis. To meet men of such a sort, what, I would ask, can be brought forward or composed, unless any one knew how to catch Proteus himself? But what I may be able to do in this matter, and what profit your art will be to you, I will, Christ cooperating with me, hereafter shew.
This my reply to you, therefore, is not wholly without cause. My brethren in Christ press me to it, setting before me the expectation of all; seeing that the authority of Erasmus is not to be despised, and the truth of the Christian doctrine is endangered in the hearts of many. And indeed, I felt a persuasion in my own mind, that my silence would not be altogether right, and that I was deceived by the prudence or malice of the flesh, and not sufficiently mindful of my office, in which I am a debtor, both to the wise and to the unwise; and especially, since I was called to it by the entreaties of so many brethren.
For although our cause is such, that it requires more than the external teacher, and, beside him that planteth and him that watereth outwardly, has need of the Spirit of God to give the increase, and, as a living Teacher, to teach us inwardly living things, (all which I was led to consider;) yet, since that Spirit is free, and bloweth, not where we will, but where He willeth, it was needful to observe that rule of Paul, “Be instant in season, and out of season.” (2 Tim. iv. 2.) For we know not at what hour the Lord cometh. Be it, therefore, that those who have not yet felt the teaching of the Spirit in my writings, have been overthrown by that Diatribe—perhaps their hour was not yet come.
And who knows but that God may even condescend to visit you, my friend Erasmus, by me His poor weak vessel; and that I may (which from my heart I desire of the Father of mercies through Jesus Christ our Lord) come unto you by this Book in a happy hour, and gain over a dearest brother. For although you think and write wrong concerning “Free-will,” yet no small thanks are due unto you from me, in that you have rendered my own sentiments far more strongly confirmed, from my seeing the cause of “Free-will” handled by all the powers of such and so great talents, and so far from being bettered, left worse than it was before which leaves an evident proof, that “Free-will” is a downright lie; and that, like the woman in the gospel, the more it is taken in hand by physicians, the worse it is made. Therefore the greater thanks will be rendered to you by me, if you by me gain more information, as I have gained by you more confirmation. But each is the gift of God, and not the work of our own endeavours. Wherefore, prayer must be made unto God, that He would open the mouth in me, and the heart in you and in all; that He would be the Teacher in the midst of us, who may in us speak and hear.
But from you, my friend Erasmus, suffer me to obtain the grant of this request; that, as I in these matters bear with your ignorance, so you in return, would bear with my want of eloquent utterance. God giveth not all things to each; nor can we each do all things. Or, as Paul saith, “there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (1 Cor. xii. 4.) It remains, therefore, that these gifts render a mutual service; that the one, with his gift, sustain the burden and what is lacking in the other; so shall we fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. vi. 2.)
Sect. 161. – Again the Baptist saith, “A man can receive nothing, except it were given him from above.” (John iii. 27).
Let not the Diatribe here produce its forces, where it enumerates all those things which we have from heaven. We are now disputing, not about nature, but about grace: we are inquiring, not what we are upon earth, but what we are in heaven before God. We know that man was constituted lord over those things which are beneath himself; over which, he has a right and a Free-will, that those things might do, and obey as he wills and thinks. But we are now inquiring whether he has a “Free-will” over God, that He should do and obey in those things which man wills: or rather, whether God has not a Free-will over man, that he should will and do what God wills, and should be able to do nothing but what He wills and does. The Baptist here says, that he “can receive nothing, except it be given him from above.”—Wherefore, “Free-will” must be a nothing at all!
Again, “He that is of the earth, is earthly and speaketh of the earth, He that cometh from heaven is above all.” (John iii. 31).
Here again, he makes all those earthly, who are not of Christ, and says that they savour and speak of earthly things only, nor does he leave any medium characters. But surely, “Free-will” is not “He that cometh from heaven.” Wherefore it must of necessity, be “he that is of the earth,” and that speaks of the earth and savours of the earth. But if there were any power in man, which at any time, in any place, or by any work, did not savour of the earth, the Baptist ought to have excepted this person, and not to have said in a general way concerning all those who are out of Christ, that they are of the earth, and speak of the earth.
So also afterwards, Christ saith, “Ye are of the world, I am not of the world. Ye are from beneath, I am from above.” (John viii. 23).
And yet, those to whom He spoke had “Free-will,” that is, reason and will; but still He says, that they are “of the world.” But what news would He have told, if He had merely said, that they were of the world, as to their ‘grosser affections?’ Did not the whole world know this before? Moreover, what need was there for His saying that men were of the world, as to that part in which they are brutal? For according to that, beasts are also of the world.
Sect. 162.—AND now what do those words of Christ, where He saith, “No one can come unto Me except My Father which hath sent Me draw him,” (John vi. 44), leave to “Free-will?” For He says it is necessary, that every one should hear and learn of the Father Himself, and that all must be “taught of God.” Here, indeed, He not only declares that the works and devoted efforts of “Free-will” are of no avail, but that even the word of the Gospel itself, (of which He is here speaking,) is heard in vain, unless the Father Himself speak within, and teach and draw. “No one can,” “No one can (saith He) come:” by which, that power, whereby man can endeavour something towards Christ, that is, towards those things which pertain unto salvation, is declared to be a nothing at all.
Nor does that at all profit “Free-will,” which the Diatribe brings forward out of Augustine, by way of casting a slur upon this all-clear and all-powerful Scripture—’that God draws us, in the same way as we draw a sheep, by holding out to it a green bough.’ By this similitude he would prove, that there is in us a power to follow the drawing of God. But this similitude avails nothing in the present passage. For God holds out, not one of His good things only, but many, nay, even His Son, Christ Himself; and yet no man follows Him, unless the Father hold Him forth otherwise within, and draw otherwise!—Nay, the whole world follows the Son whom He holds forth!
But this similitude harmonizes sweetly with the experience of the godly, who are now made sheep, and know God their Shepherd. These, living in, and being moved by, the Spirit, follow wherever God wills, and whatever He holds out to them. But the ungodly man comes not unto Him, even when he hears the word, unless the Father draw and teach within: which He does by shedding abroad His Spirit. And where that is done, there is a different kind of drawing from that which is without: there, Christ is held forth in the illumination of the Spirit, whereby the man is drawn unto Christ with the sweetest of all drawing: under which, he is passive while God speaks, teaches, and draws, rather than seeks or runs of himself.
Sect. 163.—I WILL produce yet one more passage from John, where, he saith, “The Spirit shall reprove the world of sin, because they believe not in me.” (John xvi. 9).
You here see, that it is sin, not to believe in Christ: And this sin is seated, not in the skin, nor in the hairs of the head, but in the very reason and will. Moreover, as Christ makes the whole world guilty from this sin, and as it is known by experience that the world is ignorant of this sin, as much so as it is ignorant of Christ, seeing that, it must be revealed by the reproof of the Spirit; it is manifest, that “Free-will,” together with its will and reason, is accounted a captive of this sin, and condemned before God. Wherefore, as long as it is ignorant of Christ and believes not in Him, it can will or attempt nothing good, but necessarily serves that sin of which it is ignorant.
In a word: Since the Scripture declares Christ everywhere by positive assertion and by antithesis, (as I said before), in order that, it might subject every thing that is without the Spirit of Christ, to Satan, to ungodliness, to error, to darkness, to sin, to death, and to the wrath of God, all the testimonies concerning Christ must make directly against “Free-will;” and they are innumerable, nay, the whole of the Scripture. If therefore our subject of discussion is to be decided by the judgment of the Scripture, the victory, in every respect, is mine; for there is not one jot or tittle of the Scripture remaining, which does not condemn the doctrine of “Free-will” altogether!
But if the great theologians and defenders of “Free-will” know not, or pretend not to know, that the Scripture every where declares Christ by positive assertion and by antithesis, yet all Christians know it, and in common confess it. They know, I say, that there are two kingdoms in the world mutually militating against each other.—That Satan reigns in the one, who, on that account is by Christ called “the prince of this world,” (John xii 31), and by Paul “the God of this world;” (2 Cor. iv. 4), who, according to the testimony of the same Paul, holds all captive according to his will, who are not rescued from him by the Spirit of Christ: nor does he suffer any to be rescued by any other power but that of the Spirit of God: as Christ testifies in the parable of “the strong man armed” keeping his palace in peace.—In the other kingdom Christ reigns: which kingdom, continually resists and wars against that of Satan: into which we are translated, not by any power of our own, but by the grace of God, whereby we are delivered from this present evil world, and are snatched from the power of darkness. The knowledge and confession of these two kingdoms, which thus ever mutually war against each other with so much power and force, would alone be sufficient to confute the doctrine of “Free-will:” seeing that, we are compelled to serve in the kingdom of Satan, until we be liberated by a Divine Power. All this, I say, is known in common among Christians, and fully confessed in their proverbs, by their prayers, by their pursuits, and by their whole lives…
Sect. 167.—I SHALL here draw this book to a conclusion: prepared if it were necessary to pursue this Discussion still farther. Though I consider that I have now abundantly satisfied the godly man, who wishes to believe the truth without making resistance. For if we believe it to be true, that God fore-knows and fore-ordains all things; that He can be neither deceived nor hindered in His Prescience and Predestination; and that nothing can take place but according to His Will, (which reason herself is compelled to confess;) then, even according to the testimony of reason herself, there can be no “Free-will”—in man,—in angel,—or in any creature!
Hence:—If we believe that Satan is the prince of this world, ever ensnaring and fighting against the kingdom of Christ with all his powers; and that he does not let go his captives without being forced by the Divine Power of the Spirit; it is manifest, that there can be no such thing as—”Free-will!”
Again:—If we believe that original sin has so destroyed us, that even in the godly who are led by the Spirit, it causes the utmost molestation by striving against that which is good; it is manifest, that there can be nothing left in a man devoid of the Spirit, which can turn itself towards good, but which must turn towards evil!
Again:—If the Jews, who followed after righteousness with all their powers, ran rather into unrighteousness, while the Gentiles who followed after unrighteousness attained unto a free righteousness which they never hoped for; it is equally manifest, from their very works, and from experience, that man, without grace, can do nothing but will evil!
Finally:—If we believe that Christ redeemed men by His blood, we are compelled to confess, that the whole man was lost: otherwise, we shall make Christ superfluous, or a Redeemer of the grossest part of man only,—which is blasphemy and sacrilege!
Sect. 168.—AND now, my friend Erasmus, I entreat you for Christ’s sake to perform what you promised. You promised ‘that you would willingly yield to him, who should teach you better than you knew.’ Lay aside all respect of persons. You, I confess, are great and adorned with many, and those the most noble, gifts of God; (to say nothing of the rest,) with talent, with erudition, and with eloquence to a miracle. Whereas I, have nothing and am nothing, excepting that, I glory in being almost a Christian!
In this, moreover, I give you great praise, and proclaim it—you alone in pre-eminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and, have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down,—though in vain! You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you. For in this kind of discussion I willingly engage, as far as time and leisure permit me. Had those who have heretofore attacked me done the same, and would those still do the same, who are now boasting of new spirits, and new revelations, we should have less sedition and sectarianism, and more peace and concord.—But thus has God, by the instrumentality of Satan, avenged our ingratitude!
via The Bondage of the Will.