The Bondage of the Will, the Sovereignty of Grace, and the Glory of God

Together for the Gospel

Louisville, Kentucky


At the heart of Martin Luther’s theology was the conviction that human beings are totally dependent on God’s omnipotent grace to rescue us from the bondage of the will by creating and decisively fulfilling every inclination to believe and obey God. The debates of the sixteenth century about the freedom of the will versus the bondage of the will were not peripheral to the Reformation. They were at the heart of the issue. At least Luther believed they were.

His book The Bondage of the Will was an answer to Erasmus’s book The Freedom of the Will. In 1537, nine years before his death, he wrote to Wolfgang Capito,

Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bondage of the Will and the Catechism. (Luther Werke, 50:172–173; Luther compares himself to Saturn, a figure from Ancient Greek mythology who devoured most of his children)

It is remarkable that of all he had written, Luther saw his defense of the bondage of the will, and his demolition of Erasmus’s view of free will, as so crucial he wanted it (along with his catechism) preserved more than anything he had written. Why was the issue so important for Luther?

Luther said to Erasmus,

It is 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. Indeed let me tell you, that is the hinge on which our discussion turns. . . . For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent, and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent, and limits of what God can and will do in me. . . . 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. (quoted in Luther Selections, 179)

Luther knew that Erasmus, more than any other opponent, had put his finger on the deeper issue at stake beneath the justification controversy and the controversy over the mass and indulgences and Mary and purgatory. And that issue was whether human beings are so sinful that God’s sovereign grace must create and decisively fulfill every human inclination to believe and obey God.

Erasmus did not believe this. Luther did — so did Calvin and Zwingli. Erasmus’s belief that the fallen human will contributed its own decisive self-determining power to the act of faith and the pursuit of holiness was, in Luther’s mind, a perilous underestimation of the desperate condition of man without Christ. In Gordon Rupp’s assessment of Luther’s debate with Erasmus, he commented, “At the end of the day, Luther could maintain the great Anselmian retort: ‘Thou hast not considered the gravity of sin’” (Luther and Erasmus, 12.).

And, Luther would add, the failure to see the gravity our sin and the depth of our corruption and the bondage of our will, if unchecked, will become an assault on the freedom and sovereignty and the glory of God’s grace in salvation, and therefore an assault on the very gospel itself. In 1528, Luther put it like this: “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our ‘free will,’ as being directly opposed to [the] mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, 1376–1377). By “free will,” I think he means decisive self-determination in acts of faith and obedience.

In another place he said,

This is my absolute opinion: he that will maintain that a man’s free-will is able to do or work anything in spiritual cases, be they never so small, denies Christ. This I have always maintained in my writings, especially in those against Erasmus. (The Tabletalk of Martin Luther, 206)

He doesn’t mean that the will is inactive. He means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is decisively active, creating and fulfilling the acts.

For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin and his moral inability to believe or be holy was the root issue of the Reformation — and the lynchpin of Protestantism. The freedom of God, and therefore the freedom of the gospel and therefore the salvation of men, and the glory of God were at stake in this controversy. Therefore, Luther loved the message of his book The Bondage of the Will, ascribing all freedom and power and grace to God, and, for us, complete dependence on God for faith and holiness. “It is true,” he wrote, “that the doctrine of the Gospel takes all glory, wisdom, [and] righteousness . . . from men and ascribes them to the Creator alone, who makes everything out of nothing” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, 1374).

So what I would like to do in response to this Reformation position is turn to the Bible and see how the Bible describes the bondage of our will, and how the Bible describes the remedy of God’s grace, and how the Bible answers the question Are human beings so sinful that God’s sovereign grace must create and decisively fulfill every human inclination to believe and obey God? This, I hope, will have a biblical effect on how you preach about the true condition of your people before and after conversion.

There are at least five ways that the Bible describes the bondage that every human being is in. And let it sink in that, if you see these things in the Bible, you know some of the most important things that can be known about every person you will ever meet, and about every movie star and famous athlete and political candidate. You will know the most important need that every person on earth has, and if you go on, you will know the remedy. That is an amazing gift and burden. To whom such knowledge is given, much action will be required.

Of the five descriptions of our bondage, this one is unique and foundational. The other four describe conditions of our inner man. This one describes our legal relationship to God. We have sinned against him and are legally guilty and under his just and condemnation. Paul describes our situation like this:

All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one . . . . Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Romans 3:9–10, 19)

The word “accountable” (Greek hupodikos) means “under the sentence of condemnation.” Or we could say, in bondage, imprisoned, awaiting the sentence of execution. And it is execution — that is, the outpouring of God’s wrath on all sinners who do not repent. Paul had just said in Romans 2:5 that those who do not repent “are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Just like Jesus had said in John 3:36, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” That is, everyone apart from faith is under the wrath of God.

This is our primal, legal, objective relationship to God. We have mocked his wisdom and goodness and authority with our preference for our own way and our own self over him, and we are irrefutably guilty and condemned. The sentence is fixed. The justice is unimpeachable. We will perish.

That’s number one, the bondage of legal guilt and divine condemnation.

2. The bondage of love for the darkness of self-glorification

Jesus said in John 3:19–20,

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19–20)

The bondage of the human heart that keeps it from coming to Christ is not that light is lacking, but that darkness is loved, and light is hated. This is a real bondage. You cannot embrace as bright and beautiful what you hate. You cannot. And you cannot repudiate as dark and ugly what you love. You cannot. And hate and love are not decisions. They are profound controlling preferences of the palate of the soul. Darkness tastes good. Light tastes bitter. You cannot enjoy as sweet what tastes bitter. And you cannot have a distaste for what tastes good to you. This is a real bondage. These are real cannots, and they are the kind of cannots — the kind of inabilities — that are blameworthy, culpable. Because they are not things we are forced to do against our will; they are our will.

And what is it about the darkness that is so enthralling as to hold us in such bondage? Jesus gives us a window into this bondage-making love of darkness. He says to those who would not come to him in John 5:43–44,

I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

That’s a rhetorical question. It contains its own answer. He expects us to know the answer and restate the question so that it contains the answer: How can you? You cannot believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from God. Cannot. Why not? Why pronounce over them such bondage? Because their love for self-exaltation makes love for Jesus impossible.

Jesus is the light that ends the darkness of all human self-exaltation. But you love the glory of man more than the glory of God. Therefore, you cannot face his light. It is too threatening to what you love. You “love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi” (Matthew 23:6–7). But he is the light that ends all that. In his light, that craving is ugly and tastes wretched. So as long as you love the exaltation of self more than the exaltation of God, you cannot taste and see that Jesus is good. Cannot. You are in bondage to the love for the darkness of self-glorification.

3. The bondage of hatred for the the supremacy of God

This is the flip side of bondage to the love of self-exaltation. But it gets its own special attention by the apostle Paul. He said in Romans 8:6–8,

The mindset of the flesh is death [my translation: the Greek fronema is more than thinking; it is an orientation, disposition, set course of attitude], but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mindset of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

These are very weighty cannots. This is a real bondage. To what? The bent, the disposition, the mindset of the flesh is “hostile to God.” Why? That’s insane! “It does not submit to God’s law. Indeed it cannot.” There’s the answer. The mindset of the flesh hates to submit. God is the king. His law is absolute. And the flesh hates God’s absolute supremacy.

Paul is saying there are two kinds of people in the world. Those with the mindset of the flesh and those in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Verse 9: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

Every person by nature, apart from the work of God’s Spirit, has the mindset of the flesh. We are hostile to God. And you cannot submit to a law whose first command is to love the God that you hate. You cannot love what you hate. And apart from sovereign grace, all of us hate being under authority. And we are hostile to being under God’s authority. We are in the bondage of hatred for the the supremacy of God.

4. The bondage of spiritual death

When one of his disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father,” Jesus replied, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21–22). And in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father pleaded with the older brother to celebrate by saying, “This your brother was dead, and is alive” (Luke 15:32). And Paul picks up the language and describes the whole human race this way in Ephesians 2.

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1–3)

Apart from the life-giving grace of God, all of mankind are dead in trespasses and sins. All of mankind follow the prince of darkness. All of mankind are sons of disobedience — that is our true nature before conversion. All of mankind are in lockstep with the desires of body and mind, and are thus by nature children of wrath. By nature, alive and in lockstep with God-excluding desires. By nature we are carried by the course of the world, led by the prince of darkness. Disobedience is not just our choice; it is our nature. And in all of those trespasses and sins, we are spiritually dead — utterly unable to feel the impulses of spiritual life. This is the bondage of spiritual death.

5. The bondage of blindness to the glory of Christ

In 1 Corinthians 2:6–8, Paul says he imparts a wisdom that

is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Why didn’t they understand this wisdom of God? Why didn’t they see the glory of Christ? Paul answers in verses 13–14,

We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

The “natural person” — what a sweeping indictment of the human race! “Natural person.” Ordinary person. Every person — minus the the Spirit of God. The natural person does not accept the the things of the Spirit of God. Why not? Because you cannot accept as wise what you see as foolish. Cannot. And the natural man can only see the wisdom of a crucified Messiah as foolish. Such things Paul says, “are folly to him, and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually seen.” He is blind to such peculiar glory.

And it gets worse: our natural blindness is exploited and hardened by the god of this world. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4,

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

There is a divine and supernatural light that shines through the gospel, namely the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. No human beings, apart from the omnipotent grace of God overcoming this blindness, can see that glory. When they look at it, it is foolishness to them, not glory.

This is our five-fold bondage:

  • The bondage of legal guilt and divine condemnation
  • The bondage of love for the darkness of self-glorification
  • The bondage of hatred for the the supremacy of God
  • The bondage of spiritual death
  • And the bondage of blindness to the glory of Christ

And the glory of God’s grace is that, in spite of all our guilt, and all our wicked loves, and all our hatred of his authority, and all our stone-cold deadness to his sweetness, and all our blindness to his glory, this grace saves us in every way from our own utter enslaving desire not to be saved from these things.

  • To the bondage of our guilt, God says, “Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24–25).

  • To the bondage of our love for self, he says, I give you the gift of “repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, so that you will come to your senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25–26). Repentance from evil loves is God’s sovereign work.

  • To the bondage of our hatred for the the supremacy of God, he declares, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). I am sending my Spirit into your heart crying Abba Father, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is Lord (Romans 8:15–16). Joyfully embracing the Lordship of Jesus is a sovereign work of the Spirit.

  • To the bondage of spiritual death, he says, “When you were dead in our trespasses, I made you alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5). God said to your dead soul, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the command created life and obedience.

  • And to the bondage of blindness to the glory of Christ God says, “Let there be light!” and instantly the divine and supernatural brightness “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). If you see the crucified and risen Christ as more glorious and precious than anything in the world, you are a walking miracle.

Luther was right about this: Unless we feel the power, and the pervasiveness, and the eternal peril of the bondage of our will, we will not see or savor or sing the glory of God’s sovereign grace.

So back to the main question: Are human beings so sinful that God’s sovereign grace must create and decisively fulfill every human inclination to believe and obey God?

Luther’s answer — and the answer of all the Reformers — was yes. And my conclusion from Scripture is that their answer is true. Pelagianism is wrong. Fallen man cannot create his own holy choices. And semi-Pelagianism is wrong. In the act of faith and the pursuit of holiness, man does not complete God’s prevenient grace by contributing his own decisive, self-determining power. The power and pervasiveness of our bondage is such that God must create and decisively fulfill the act of faith and the pursuit of holiness.

“If you see the risen Christ as more precious than anything in the world, you are a walking miracle.”

When Paul expresses the Christian pursuit of godliness, he does not picture it as God doing part and we doing part. He prays, “May God fulfill every resolve for good and work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). He pictures it like this: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul’s working was not added to God’s working. It was produced by God’s working. So much so that he would say, “It was not I.”

And this is how he instructs everyone to live: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Our working is not added to God’s working. Our working is God’s working. Here’s how Jonathan Edwards relates God’s and our working:

We are not merely passive in [faith and obedience], nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what he produces, our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 21, 251)

If you are no longer in bondage to guilt and death and blindness, if you now love the light and delight in the exaltation of God’s glory more than your own, if you love his authority above your autonomy, and if you see and savor the glory of Christ in the gospel as the greatest treasure in the universe, you owe it all to free and sovereign grace. Not just because God jump-started your dead will, and waited to see what you would make of it with your decisive self-determination, but because from that day to eternity, the grace of God will be the decisive fulfiller, producer of every holy act you ever perform.

Brothers, it is a colossal mistake to preach only the believer’s new freedom and new identity in Christ, and not to preach the believer’s old bondage and old identity in Adam. Without a knowledge of their former bondage, and their daily, radical dependence, how will they ever know the meaning of grace? How will they ever feel the degree of thankfulness for grace that they ought to feel? How will they live to the praise of the glory of his grace?

God’s grace will not be glorified as it ought to be until the church, with deep understanding and exploding joy, says from the heart, “For from him and through him and to him are all things, including my faith and my obedience. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).


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