This article is about the struggle between Luther and Erasmus on the place of the human will in salvation. Do we have a free will, or is our will in bondage?

Source: Clarion, 2002. 2 pages.

Reformation: The Holy Spirit is No Sceptic

As we approach Reformation day, we may reflect on God’s goodness in leading his church back to the pure preaching of his word. His first and foremost instrument in the sixteenth century was Martin Luther, who as a monk in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt became increasingly sceptical of the religious lives and practices of the Roman clerics of his day. The Reformation began with a cry against the sale of indulgences – a means used by the clergy to fill their own pockets with worldly gain. Yet once the wheel of Reformation began to turn, Luther was also God’s instrument to follow through on the first principles and underscore the sovereignty of God in the work of redemption.

The New Opponent🔗

It was not all that long after the initial thrust of the Reformation (1517) that attacks on the reformatory position came from other quarters. A chief opponent to the new reformational perspective was Erasmus of Rotterdam, a tempered and balanced humanist who essentially wanted to reserve due place for human effort in the work of redemption. He did not deny God’s initiative, nor did he dispute the cardinal truths of the New Testament: how Christ came into the world to save sinners, how he rose from the dead, and how redemption was to be preached by God’s servants since the time of the apostles. However, he insisted on leaving one aspect of salvation in human hands: the freedom of the human will to choose for or against God’s gospel.

Erasmus’ Position🔗

The view of Erasmus on the human will can be briefly summarized as follows: it is the power of the will by which a person can turn towards that which leads to eternal salvation, or turn away from it. The initial steps activating the will is God’s work, as well as the final steps leading to triumph and glory. But, in Erasmus’ view, between those bookends, people have the ability to choose what they will, and to contribute something to their own salvation. Anything less than that would in his view be a degradation of true humanity, as well as a detraction from God’s true divinity.

Erasmus’ position was then a carefully balanced one. Through the fall man became weak. Being weak here must be understood as a sort of “middle position:” man is neither absolutely good nor totally evil. He is not corrupt by nature, he remains fully the natural man. But he lacks wisdom, he becomes the fool. He has the tendency to wander off and to lose his way. However, through the use of his free will and through the appropriation of God’s law he is able to come back to the right road again. Man originally could walk by natural light. After the fall, he can still use the light of reason. The law of God is in itself a big help, since it is adapted to human reason. God’s law is reasonable, and that all the more when it is coupled with the gospel. The gospel, according to Erasmus, is really God’s reasonable law in a new and richer form.

The end result of this position is that there is always a margin of uncertainty and conjecture to the gospel. It depends primarily on God, but partly on people. Given the random character of people’s choices, Erasmus opened the door to doubt and scepticism. All the work of the cross ends with a “maybe so, maybe not.”

The Critique on Luther🔗

Erasmus’ central critique of Luther’s view was that Luther pictured God as a tyrant that refused to allow any input from the human side. In his view, Luther was so strong on the idea of original sin that any view of man as created in the image and likeness of God was completely buried under the power of sin. In his desire to extol God’s grace at its highest level, he pictures man’s fallen nature as so corrupt that there was not one possibility of human involvement in the work of salvation. There was hardly any room for people to act at all! People here were nothing more than pawns!

Luther’s Response🔗

Luther responded to Erasmus’ Diatribe or Discourse concerning Free Choice with one of his most famous treatises, The Bondage of the Will. What is the characteristic mark of this treatise? Next to Luther’s powerful use of reason, the chief mark is the use of the Scriptures! He uses the Scriptures to refute the passages Erasmus introduces in order to defend the free will; he also brings forward his own passages of Scripture against free will. The entire argument is based on a careful reflection and elucidation of key texts, especially from the apostles Paul and John.

Luther hauls out his full artillery right at the outset of his treatise. The Holy Spirit is no sceptic!

Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.1

In other words, it is God’s choice that drives us to a clear and forthright assertion of the truths of the gospel!


Did Luther overstate his case? Did he end up viewing man as a helpless pawn in God’s hand? I do not think we can call Luther a determinist. His central theme was reformational: our salvation lies completely in God’s hand! Erasmus not only extolled the human will; he also, in Luther’s view, compromised God’s sovereignty. Erasmus’ God was too human for Luther, and his position was also echoed later by Calvin. Indeed, it was Calvin who, in balancing out Luther’s view, coupled God’s sovereignty with the divine activation of the human will through grace alone in such a way that human thoughts and actions are directed to God’s praise and glory.

Today’s Battle🔗

The Reformed church today is called to continually reflect on, confirm and hold to these chief insights of Luther and Calvin at the time of the great Reformation. There is currently a steady stream of evangelical literature that opens the door, however marginally, for the Erasmian position. Even if it is only a matter of the tiniest percentage, that is, even if current writers only attribute one percent to man and the remaining ninety-nine to God, we’re still opening the door to compromising God’s sovereignty.

Let me give one example. Max Lucado, the popular evangelical writer says in his book, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God through the Storm:

The first time you had no choice about being born; this time you do. The power is God’s. The effort is God’s. The pain is God’s. But the choice is yours (emphasis added).

He does not discount God’s role and favour, but the door is opened to human input. He says many good things as well, but true discernment calls parents to warn where warning is due. A margin, be it ever so small, is given to human effort. Ultimately Luther’s protest against Erasmus in 1525 is compromised, and one step towards human involvement will soon lead to another.

Reformation Joy🔗

The joy of the gospel of the Reformation is precisely the message which Luther uncovered: soli Deo gloria. Our wills are locked in bondage because of sin. Only the work of the Holy Spirit through the power of the word can free the will from bondage and redirect it to living service. That’s fully a divine work, through which we may be activated to living service for one another, and for the needs of people everywhere. We are all agents of God’s choice, crafted by his hand of redemption in such a way that we can also be God’s agents to pass on his gift of choice to others – all according to his good pleasure!


  1. ^ P.S. Watson (ed.) Luther’s Works: Vol. 33, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1972) p. 21  

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