The Relation of Luther’s Bondage of the Will to Christian Preaching

Martin Luther’s finest theological treatise, on The Bondage of the Will provides on opportunity presently for Lutherans to ask anew the question: “What happens when the tradition that bears his namesake ignores or misreads Luther’s most important defense of his teaching on justification by faith alone?”

The primary problem of ignoring and misreading the Bondage of the Will is that Lutheran preachers attempt to withdraw the reality of God’s election in the actual proclamation of His Word; a Word with power, a Word that makes things into nothing, and a Word which creates anew out of nothing.

Instead of actual proclamation of God’s saving Word who is Jesus Christ alone preachers opt for a pure speculation about what the will of God must have been before time and all creatures existed. “God is good,” the well-meaning pastor will say. “God’s grace is universal,” the enthusiastic preacher exclaims. This kind of preaching tries to solve the matter of God’s will for their listeners life outside of Jesus’ actual coming to sinners and eating with them, outside of Christ’s actually becoming a sinner first by implication of the company he keeps, then by actually becoming a sinner before the law, and then becoming the greatest of all sinners: a thief, a whore, a robber, a murderer, despised in his Father’s eyes.

If the problem facing preachers is how to communicate the reality of God’s election, but speculation about the goodness of God leads one into more speculation about the problem that God, “has mercy on whom he will have mercy,” where is one to turn? At present the answer to the problem of God’s election – how God’s election is not a blind alley – is located in the assertion that the Cross alone is necessary for salvation; in the proclamation that human activity is nothing more than opposition to God; in the declaration that the only solution to the problem of God’s election – why some are saved and some not – is to preach this Word of Christ “for you,” and giving it to sinners. It is not to reclaim power for human will by speculating about God’s good will, about election, about salvation, etc., it is to give the Word of God made flesh here and now so the Holy Spirit can go to work.

And what do we do with the fear that greets us at the front door, sits across from us at the dining room table, and looks at us from the pew? The fear that there is something we’re forgetting to do, something that still needs resolving, some small show of gratitude that one must yet demonstrate in order to cement one’s relationship with God? Here we arrive back at the original problem that was struck between Erasmus and Luther in The Bondage of the Will.

For Erasmus, he wanted to reduce the Word of God in Scripture to a manageable thing: a “Christian philosophy,” precepts of the moral life. This was the only possible and reasonable “public policy,” for the use of Scripture when so many could be misled by false preachers.

The rest of Scripture – whether God is Triune, whether the Son has two natures, whether we are saved by faith apart from the law, etc. – should be left up to the church to decide: individuals can and should be “skeptical.”

Luther, on the other hand, understood that what Erasmus was doing was becoming the first ‘modern’ atheist – running after the unpreached, unworded God, teaching others to behave as if God were not alive, as if his Word didn’t do anything, as if what we were all about in the Christian church is learning how to behave.

In this church, where the as if is preached, trust in God is nowhere to be seen and uncertainty reigns!

But here is where Luther’s assertion in de Servo Arbitrio of God’s election in Christ Jesus returns us to the center. This life and God’s desire for us to have faith is all about God’s means of conquering our original and repeated sin: not trusting his Word “for us.”

How does God go about getting people to trust his Word for us? Does he do it by making suggestions to the human will? No! He does it by killing and making alive. He does it by ending the world of law and beginning that of faith in Christ alone, by sending his Son to die under the law itself, and in himself becoming the end of the law. In this way, when the Holy Spirit vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead according to the will of the Father, there is a new creation: “first fruits,” Paul calls it. The Father found a way to make the Word flesh, making the man Jesus a “new tree,” making his call ‘preachable,’ making Jesus ‘givable’ to sinners, making Christ Jesus a giver of gifts. And, as Paul writes, these “gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).

But here’s the rub: this irrevocable Word of God is death to the old sinner and the raising up of the new creature, or “saint,” who has Christ in the conscience, planted in this world for good fruit.

Outside of this Word, all life is fruitless. One’s will is bound to try and search behind God’s Word for a window into the divine plan for one’s life – a life destined for uncertainty. In the Word of God the freedom of every Christian clings to the Word in Christ as God’s Word “for you,” even against God’s own judgment by the law.

Christian freedom abandons pre-occupation with the unpreached God, and hangs on to the preached Word for, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). When this is asserted, God is pleased, and his will is absolute, unstoppable, a Word that cannot be overcome by any power – even death itself!

So, in the end, fears about what others may do with this freedom come down to the one basic problem confronting Lutheran preachers (and everyone really). Lutheran preachers, like anyone else, do not want to let themselves be killed and they certainly do not want to kill anyone else! In fact, they are bound and determined not to let that happen. They are utterly bound up by this in a knot so tight that they end up feeling they have to save God rather than the other way around. They then climb into the pulpit armed with the double edged sword of theology to do, and create a God more to everyone’s liking rather than the one revealed in the Cross of Christ that is offered in the sacraments and preaching.

This means we are thrown back onto the twin horns of our bondage and God’s freedom: that God’s relation to us in Christ is our only real freedom, our only life and relation to God which leads one to eternal life. That means preachers must be willing to speak of a “conversion,” of sinners being “translated by Christ,” that is death and resurrection, not just an alteration of a continually existing subject. In this way, Lutheran preaching can offer an option to human speculation about God’s election that pretends to be Christian preaching. Of course, this means we must repent of our own words about God and return to the proclamation of his Word alone as our only source of comfort and certainty about God’s will for us; a Word with power, a Word that makes things into nothing, and a Word which creates anew out of nothing. A Word that is Christ, that when spoken makes us who we are, creating the creature God always intended us to be, free to know him, free to praise and worship him, free to live in peace with him, asking him for everything we need as children ask their dear Father. That is why Luther’s Bondage of the Will ends with the greatest proclamation of freedom, Christ addressing us lovingly: “with you I am pleased.”


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