The debate over the will between Luther and Erasmus focused on the ability of the will to cooperate with the grace of God in salvation; Luther argued that the will was incapable of such necessary cooperation, and Erasmus argued that the will must cooperate with the grace of God.


Although the debate over the ability of the will does not receive as much attention as other Reformation debates, this issue was at the root of many of the disagreements between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Erasmus, a Catholic humanist and respected linguist, argued that the will is free to resist or cooperate with divine grace, even after the fall and affected by original sin. Thus, the will can turn away from the grace of God, and his grace is not irresistible. Luther, on the other hand, argued that man’s will could not be free and autonomous in this manner for multiple reasons. First, God foreknows everything, so the will cannot be able to choose autonomously and not based on God’s foreknowledge. Second, God wills everything that he knows, so everything that we choose he first wills. Thirdly, apart from Christ, our will is in bondage to sin, and only guilt and corruption are attributed to us. Therefore, a grace that liberates our will and restores in us the capacity to love and obey is necessary for our faith. This grace is not coercive but gently restores in us the ability to love what is truly lovely.

When the sixteenth century Reformation is discussed, doctrines like sola scriptura and justification sola fide get all the attention. There is good reason for this, since these issues were central to the divide with Rome. But underneath the surface was another debate, one Luther said was at the heart of the divide, the very meat of the nut itself. It was the debate over free will and it occurred early on, in the 1520s, defining the Reformation over against those who still held to an optimistic view of man’s abilities in salvation. The representatives in the debate were two of the most influential and formidable figures of the day: Erasmus, the humanist and Greek scholar, versus Martin Luther, the German reformer.


Erasmus was, without question, one of the greatest, some might say the greatest, linguist of his day. His prestige grew with every publication, especially with the publication of his Greek New Testament. Erasmus’ Greek NT was revealing to say the least. In the sixteenth century, the NT was in Latin, but the Latin translation was far from perfect, and sometimes its mistranslation resulted in a theology Rome was eager to support but the Reformers believed was misguided (as seen with topics like the penance system and purgatory). When Erasmus provided a fresh look at the NT from the original Greek, many of these shortcomings were exposed.

That is not to say, however, that Erasmus was a Reformer, though many wished he would become one and pressed him to do so. Erasmus was critical of Rome—see his book Praise of Folly, for example, where he uses satire to expose Rome’s immorality and irrationality. Nevertheless, Erasmus remained faithful to mother church, and refused to join the ranks of the likes of Martin Luther and other reformers. Even though Luther wrote to Erasmus in 1519, asking him to join the Reformers, Erasmus refused.

The Freedom of the Will

As critical as Erasmus was of Rome, even Erasmus grew impatient as he read Luther’s attacks on the pope and the indulgence system. Erasmus declined the pressure to join the Reformation, but now he looked for a way to distance himself altogether from the rhetoric and cause of the Reformation. The opportunity presented itself in 1524. Erasmus wrote a book called De libero arbitrio, or The Freedom of the Will, and took aim at Luther, especially Luther’s belief that all things happen by divine necessity. Such necessity, said Erasmus, could not preserve the freedom of man’s will. Erasmus defended the will’s autonomy, arguing that even after the fall man’s will is free to resist divine grace or cooperate with it. For example, Erasmus defines free will as “a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation or turn away from them.”

Martin Luther

With such an attack on Luther, any hope that the humanist scholar would join the ranks of the Reformers was dashed to pieces. The next year, 1525, Luther responded with a book that solidified the divide, and one that would become a most famous treatment of the issue in centuries to come. The book was titled De servo arbitrio, or The Bondage of the Will, a title meant to counter Erasmus’s elevation of the will and its power of contrary choice.

The Bondage of the Will

Luther put forward many critiques of Erasmus and also many arguments to demonstrate the will’s bondage to sin and desperate need for omnipotent, effectual grace. Let’s consider a few. First, Luther said the “thunderbolt” argument against the autonomy of the will was the simple fact that God has immutable, eternal foreknowledge. “God foreknows nothing contingently,” Luther wrote, but “foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will.” If true, then man’s choice cannot be autonomous, as if he could always choose otherwise, for then God would not foreknow it as certain. “If God foreknows a thing, that thing necessarily happens.” In other words, God “foreknows necessarily.”

What does this mean for the choices we make? “Everything we do,” concludes Luther, “even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably….” It is not the will of man, then, that Erasmus should come to terms with but the will of God, for he is the one who is in sovereign control of all things. “For the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself.”

Luther concluded that “all things happen by necessity.” But for Luther, necessity and coercion are not the same thing. Man’s will may be necessitated by sin or by God but that does not mean it is coerced. For Luther, there is such a thing as freedom, but “true freedom” (as he called it) has to do with “pleasure or desire,” not with autonomy and freedom of contrary choice.

What is it then that necessitates man’s will? Prior to Christ, it is the sinful nature of man, and not just his internal inclinations or desires but the enslaving power of the devil himself. Man’s will is not free in the sense Erasmus thinks but is a slave to sin, although that slavery is very much willful and voluntary, a desired slavery out of sinful pleasure. If God is “not present and at work in us” then “everything we do is evil and we necessarily do what is of no avail for salvation.” Again, Luther writes, “For if it is not we, but only God, who works salvation in us, then before he works we can do nothing of saving significance, whether we wish to or not.”

This is contrary to Erasmus who acknowledges the damaging effects of the Fall but nonetheless attributes a spiritual ability and power to man after the Fall to take steps towards heavenly reward. Luther will have none of it. Turning to Scripture, Luther emphasizes the way the biblical authors attribute nothing to sinful humanity but guilt and corruption, resulting in a spiritual inability. A synergism or cooperation, one in which God’s will is contingent on man’s will, is an impossibility. Man can take no confidence in himself. Rather, he must totally despair of himself. As long as he continues to think he is free, he will remain in bondage. “Free choice without the grace of God is not free at all,” Luther clarifies, “but immutably the captive and slave of evil, since it cannot of itself turn to the good.”

Needed, then, is the supernatural work of liberation that God alone can accomplish. “We must therefore go all out and completely deny free choice, referring everything to God.” And Luther meant “everything.” Man cannot even “prepare himself by moral works for the divine favor”; no, God must do it all. Rather than a synergism, Luther taught a monergism, a divine monergism, one in which God causes the sinner to be born again, the Spirit awakening new life within an otherwise spiritually dead corpse. Man’s bondage to sin and the Devil is so real, so serious, and so gripping, only God can set him free. Man does nothing, God does everything. That way, man gives God all credit for his awakening and liberation in the end.

But again, does this mean God coerces the sinner? Not at all. For when the Spirit regenerates the will, it is renewed with all its faculties so that its pleasures and desires are reoriented entirely. Due to the Spirit, says Luther, the will now acts from “pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil.”

That last statement by Luther is revealing. Luther’s title—The Bondage of the Will—is meant to capture man’s enslavement to sin and expose Erasmus’ faulty confidence in the will’s ability to turn from sin and the Devil toward God for righteousness and eternal life. At the same time, it is not technically correct to say Luther has no place for the will. Luther does not eliminate the will altogether, reducing man to a brute animal. Remember, Luther believes in necessity but not coercion. Luther does believe in the freedom of the will but its ability to repent and trust in Christ is subsequent to the Spirit’s gracious work to liberate the will and renew its desires for that which is good instead of that which is evil. When the Spirit goes to work in this way, not even hell itself can turn the sinner back. Regenerated and renewed, man is now set free to delight in his Savior. The “will is changed” but only because it has been “gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God.”

Liberated, man now serves a new master.

Further Reading

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