Martin Luther’s take on “Free Will”

Martin Luther’s take on “Free Will”

Those who promote the free will of natural man will often, in their defense, offer up various passages from Scripture which declare to man what he MUST DO to be saved. The following is how Luther responded to such arguments:

“If thou art willing’ is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing…a conditional statement which asserts nothing indicatively.” “if thou art willing”, “if thou hear”, “if thou do” declare, not man’s ability, but his duty. The commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded.

How is it that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? Does it follow from: ‘turn ye’ that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from “‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the ‘free-will’ does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power. By the law is the knowledge of sin’ [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair. Imperative or hypothetical passages, or wishes of Jesus, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do…but what we OUGHT TO DO, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be given to us.

As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace…this is the hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive and partake of the mercy preached and offered … If man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?

…If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright!”

[From Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio or ‘The Bondage of the Will’]

 

What Would Martin Luther Say to “Free Will”?

What Would Martin Luther Say to “Free Will”?

Those who promote the free will of natural man will often, in their defense, offer up various passages from Scripture which declare to man what he MUST DO to be saved. The following is how Luther responded to such arguments:

“If thou art willing’ is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing…a conditional statement which asserts nothing indicatively.” “if thou art willing”, “if thou hear”, “if thou do” declare, not man’s ability, but his duty. The commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded.

How is it that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? Does it follow from: ‘turn ye’ that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from “‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the ‘free-will’ does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power. By the law is the knowledge of sin’ [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair. Imperative or hypothetical passages, or wishes of Jesus, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do…but what we OUGHT TO DO, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be given to us.

As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace…this is the hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive and partake of the mercy preached and offered … If man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?

…If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright!”

[From Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio or ‘The Bondage of the Will’]

 

FRANCISCUS GOMARUS: STUBBORN CHAMPION OF GOD’S GLORY

Straight line with crooked stick

FRANCISCUS GOMARUS: STUBBORN CHAMPION OF GOD’S GLORY

Herman Hanko

It is a surprising fact of history that oftentimes, in doctrinal controversy, the heretic is a nice man, while the defender of the faith is, from many points of view, a miserable character. Athanasius vs. Arius: Arius the suave, diplomatic, likeable denier of Christ’s divinity; Athanasius the stubborn and implacable defender of the Nicene Creed. Cyril vs. Nestorius: Cyril the haughty and cruel defender of the unity of Christ’s natures in the one divine person; Nestorius the popular, gifted heretic who insisted that Christ had two persons.

Augustine the crabby defender of the sovereignty of grace; Pelagius the urbane and witty defender of freedom of the will. Gottschalk the stern and unfriendly follower of Augustine who rotted in prison for his recalcitrance; Hincmar the learned and powerful archbishop of Rheims. And so the list could go on: Luther vs. Erasmus the humanist; Calvin vs. Bolsec the heretic; Knox vs. Mary Queen of the Scots. And those who know their history can find others, perhaps within their own particular denominational history.

So it was also with Gomarus. Even his friends found him obnoxious at times and barely tolerable. His opponent, Jacobus Arminius, popular with students and ministers, gracious, kind, tolerant, filled with concern for friend and foe alike, presents quite a contrast. But Arminius was the heretic, and Gomarus stood for the truth.

Why does God work this way in the history of the church? Why is the nice guy so often the enemy of the faith, while the old curmudgeon is the champion of the truth of God? I do not think that we can find a complete answer to this question. But part of it is that the truth is not popular and defenders of the truth can sometimes become crabby because of the fierce and unrelenting attacks of opponents. Sometimes the deceit and double-tongued language of heretics who hide their heresy with honey-coated words can only be exposed by sharp and impolitic language. Sometimes the defense of the faith requires a stubborn man who will not budge no matter what the consequences; and he is presented by his enemies as being unreasonable and wickedly stubborn, so that the truth for which he fights may be maligned along with him. But always God uses weakest means to fulfill his will.

There is an important truth here — a truth to which few pay attention. So many are persuaded of their position by the character of the men involved: the nice guy has got to be right; the nasty fellow cannot possibly be correct. Yet the truth must be decided on other grounds than that of personalities: it must be decided by the Scriptures alone, regardless of any personal likes and dislikes. Without excusing what is sometimes wicked conduct on the part of orthodox men, it is important that the church remember that the truth is determined by God’s Word alone. Gomarus, for all his shortcomings, was a champion of the Reformed faith. And one must, for the truth’s sake, overlook personal faults.

There can be no question about it that Gomarus was a difficult man, hard to get along with, prone to extreme statements, sometimes violent in his opposition to Arminius and Arminianism. He never “beat around the bush.” He never left any doubt in anyone’s mind as to what he believed. He never worried about “stepping on people’s toes” or offending them if they were not heart and mind committed to the truth.

Sometimes descriptions of him are biased, and bitterness against his staunch defense of the faith pours out in diatribes against his personality. Thus one author can write: “[He] displayed a most violent, virulent, and intolerant spirit, and endeavored by various publications to excite the indignation of the States of Holland against his rival.”

But some of this was true. Even Junius, later related to Gomarus through marriage, said: “That man pleases himself most wonderfully by his own remarks. He derives all his stock of knowledge from others; he brings forward nothing of his own: or, if at any time he varies from his usual practice, he is exceedingly infelicitous in those occasion changes.”

There is a story somewhere, whether true or apocryphal it is hard to say, that at the Synod of Dort, one elder was appointed to sit alongside Gomarus to tug him back into his seat when he leaped to his feet and rather too forcibly made a point.

In any case, Gomarus was a staunch defender of the faith. Perhaps it took a man such as he to stand against the growing tide of Arminianism. God’s providence prepares men who are “stubborn” about the right things. And if this seems to condone their sins, the fact is that, though it does not, God can, as the proverb has it, draw a straight line with a crooked stick. And sometimes only very strong language will do to put to flight the clever designs of heretics.

At the Synod of Dort Gomarus defended not only orthodoxy but Supralapsarian orthodoxy. And, although his views in this respect did not prevail on the Synod, for the Canons are infralapsarian, his supralapsarianism was not condemned by the Synod and his defense of the faith was of inestimable service as the Synod struggled with the errors of Arminianism.

GOMARUS CARED ONLY ABOUT ONE THING: THE GLORY OF GOD.

Gomarus would allow only one book to determine his theology: the sacred Scriptures. In a sort of album in which he kept various letters, tokens of friendship, and something of a diary, he had written in Hebrew: “Thy (God’s) Word is Light.”

He was of the stripe of Calvin, Gottschalk, Augustine, and Athanasius. He was the forerunner of others to follow, of whom one has got to be Herman Hoeksema. We need not always approve of the way in which they did things (although we can take a long and hard look at ourselves in this respect), but we ought to thank God for them, for they were men of courage and conviction who fought for truth and right against all odds. To concentrate on their weaknesses and foibles, so as to condemn their defense of the faith is to be unfaithful to the truth. To look beyond personalities and weigh all in the light of Scripture is to be faithful. To fight is the courage of faith. May God grant men like these to the church today — even if they sometimes have difficult personalities. The church needs more than nice men.