Martin Luther: A Pure Doctrine of Faith

In this paper I outline what is essential for Luther’s understanding of a pure doctrine of faith as articulated primarily in his treatise titled The Bondage of the Will (1525). Luther’s response to Erasmus’ text titled An Examination of Free Will (1524) makes it clear that in their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom at all. This essay outlines some of Luther’s key theological positions including his doctrine of human nature; the doctrine of law and gospel; the battle against works righteousness; the distinction between contingency and necessity, and between skepticism and assertion; his notion of the revealed yet hidden God; and, of course, the primary emphasis concerning the bondage of the will and its implications for Christian liberty.

Luther and Human Nature
[1] Martin Luther revolutionizes Christianity in part because he holds perspectives concerning human moral and religious capacities that are considerably less optimistic than the Thomastic Scholasticism that preceded him. Luther follows in the footsteps of Saint Augustine more than Thomas in stressing the disorder introduced by human sin, and the human inability to address sin adequately by personal repentance or institutional actions. Luther believes that the Catholic Church has underestimated the seriousness of human sin and this is one of the reasons why Luther thinks reform is necessary.

[2] Luther, in opposition to the intellectualism of Saint Thomas, insists that God surpasses human understanding and that consequently God’s actions are often incomprehensible to human insight. With Luther’s incomprehensible God there are serious questions that remain ambiguous and haunting. For instance, why does a just and loving God create beings that will inevitably sin and thereby come to deserve eternal punishment? This question, Luther declares,

Touches on the secrets of His Majesty. . . . It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them . . . God is He Whose will no cause or ground may be laid down as its rule or standard; for nothing is on the level of it, but it is itself the rule for all things. . . . What God wills is not right because he ought, or was bound, so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because he so wills it.1

Here Luther denies any stoic notion of determinacy wherein God wills things to exist because there are independent and eternal standards of goodness or rightness to which God’s willing must conform. Any such standards, Luther thinks, will necessarily impose a limit to God’s omnipotence, and such limits are not acceptable.

[3] The most critical way in which the sovereignty of God’s will reveals itself in human life is in the distribution of salvation. Both Luther and Calvin believe that humans can do nothing to deserve or merit God’s saving grace. People cannot justify themselves before God. Rather, God justifies the sinner through Christ. The situation is not that of grace being offered to, and accepted by, persons. Rather, it is the mystery of God that provides the redirection of the believer’s capacity of decision. In Luther, grace, or the justification of sinners through Christ, occurs without human being’s doing anything. As a gift, grace cannot be reduced to the rational and voluntaristic levels. On the matter of salvation, everything depends on God. To ask why some people are saved and others damned is to display the pride so characteristic of humanity’s sinful condition, the unwillingness to let God be God. The sinner, Luther observes,

. . . like Satan his prince, is wholly turned to self and to his own. He does not seek God . . . he seeks his own riches, and glory, and works, and wisdom, and power, and sovereignty in everything, and wants to enjoy it in peace. . . . He can no more restrain his fury than he can stop his self-seeking, and he can no more stop his self-seeking than he can stop his existing.2
[4] Luther does not believe that people are inwardly free to reject their selfish motives and to act from loving motives. 3Only grace allows people to act from genuine loving motives, and grace comes only to the few. The saved must live in a society with those who are not saved, and the latter will be like wild savage beasts4 if laws and magistrates with power to enforce the laws do not restrain them. Hence there is justification for earthly power and earthly law, and earthly law must conform to God’s laws for humankind. But God’s laws have a function more important than that of showing how the wicked must be constrained so that people can live in peaceful societies.

[5] According to Luther, the function of God’s law is to show fallen humanity that without God’s aid people are hopelessly sinful and weak. The ethical rigor of the law should convince the Christian that he or she is still a sinner. Luther writes that the Ten Commandments “are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability.”5 The false notion that righteousness abides in human beings brings pride, presumption, and hatred of God. Self-righteousness breeds atheism and a merit-based egoism that mocks God. According to Luther, humans are capable of developing habits of acting in ways that conform to the requirements of law, but sinful human nature does not permit people, without divine assistance, to go beyond that to genuine loving motives. It is the relationship that God establishes with humans through Christ that enables the devotee to respond with gratitude to God’s promises. People cannot by their own resolution and effort overcome their estrangement from God.

The Debate: Erasmus’ Mitigated Skepticism Versus Luther’s Necessity
[6] Luther’s treatise titled The Bondage of the Will (1525) stipulates a pure doctrine of faith grounded in the conviction that in their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom at all. In order to understand what Luther is so vehemently reacting in his response to Erasmus text titled An Examination of Free Will (1524) it is important to briefly state Erasmus’ position concerning free will. For Erasmus, free will is defined as “a power of the will, by which a person can turn toward that which leads to eternal salvation, or turn away fromthe same.”6 Erasmus is attempting to establish a point of human responsibility wherein the believer has a part to play in his or her own salvation. Humans have the capacity through their own freedom of choice to turn towards God or to turn away from God. By stressing freedom of choice, Erasmus does not intend to discount the importance of grace, but to establish a limited role for human responsibility. He attributes only “a few things” to free will and considered God’s active grace as by far the more important and more powerful element, however, he did leave some room for cooperation between God’s grace and human will.7

[7] Erasmus thinks that Luther’s view of grace makes God the cause of death, evil, and sin. Erasmus argues that if God grieves over the sinner’s death (Ezek. 18:23), then God cannot be the one who causes the sinner’s death. The only cause of the sinner’s death is the sinner’s own free will.8 Erasmus emphasizes the moral aspect of religion and felt that Luther’s determinism did away with moral responsibility because morality, at root, requires a certain freedom of the will. Erasmus feels that Luther’s determinism does nothing to strengthen the moral life and that this lack of moral responsibility has a disastrous effect on the behavior of the masses.9

[8] Erasmus can be called a mitigated skeptic because he is willing to suspend judgment in order to avoid what he considers to be extreme and unwarranted perspectives. Mitigated skepticism suggests a more reasoned or philosophical view that raises doubts about the reliability of the evidence offered to justify any proposition. If the evidence, reasons, or proofs are not completely satisfactory then there is a suspension of judgment. Mitigated skepticism is not in opposition to religious beliefs but goes to the validity of knowledge claims. Mitigated skeptics can also believe, however they consider their religious beliefs as beliefs, not as certain or necessary truths. Erasmus is willing to suspend judgment when it comes to some of the major theological questions in order that he might remain open to new insight. He asserts the right for people to be uncommitted, at least where doctrine has not been formally defined by the church. Erasmus looks more to church tradition while Luther places all of his authority in the promises of the Word of God.

[9] Erasmus, unlike Luther, thinks that fallen humanity still possesses some natural capacity (namely reason and free will) with which humans can respond to and cooperate with God; and that this response plays a limited role in salvation. Humans lost the supernatural gift of grace at the Fall, but this did not leave humans completely powerless to respond to God in some small way. Erasmus believes that Christianity is deeply a religion of grace. However, his doctrine of grace is grounded in scholastic thought where grace does not displace nature, but rather completes nature.10 The believer is responsible for his or her own response to the divine initiative; human nature must exercise some choice in cooperating with God’s supernatural grace, the human will with the divine. Salvation is a joint enterprise for Erasmus, but the praise and glory is attributed to God because the human role is very small in comparison.11

[10] Luther’s response to Erasmus is uncompromising. For Christians there is no space for skepticism, compromise, uncertainty, contingency, and, above all, no room for free will with respect to matters of salvation. For Luther, all things relating to salvation must occur by necessity; otherwise faith will be unable to rely on the divine promise. If human beings make the slightest contribution to their own salvation by matters of their free will, then there is no certainty of salvation. Christians have the accessible assertions of Scripture and therefore there is no need for skepticism. Luther is not concerned with the reasonableness of Christianity, but with the necessity of God’s promise.

[11] Luther began his denouncement of Erasmus by separating himself from the intolerable skepticism of Erasmus. Luther insists that firm assertions are central to the Christian faith and that without unyielding assertions there is no Christian faith. The truth of the matter cannot involve neutrality as Christ says: “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). Luther writes, ” . . . a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian. . . . I am speaking about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings.”12 When Erasmus suggests that Christian dogmas are no better than philosophical and human opinions he is being vain and unfaithful. Luther emphatically states, “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”13

[12] For Luther, it is imperative that Christians know what lies in their own power and what lies in God’s power in matters relating to eternal salvation. Erasmus’ mitigated skepticism suggests that matters relating to salvation are irrelevant to Christians because such knowledge is hidden from the powers of human knowledge. Luther attacks such skeptical theology as the “unforgivable sin” because it is a sin against the First Commandment, the root of all other sins, the unwillingness to let God be God. 14Believers must know that they are totally dependent on God, whose grace or unmerited love evokes in humanity the response of faith, that is trust and obedience.

[13] It is unthinkable for God to know anything contingently. Luther writes that it is “fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees and purposes and does all things by His immutable, eternal, and infallible will.”15 For Luther, the human will is in complete bondage to either God or Satan. Before the Fall the spirit of God directs humans, but after the Fall humans are directed by the clutches of Satan. Luther does not explain how it is possible for the Evil Spirit to supplant the Holy Spirit in humans, however, he is clear that it is not because humans can choose between God and Satan, as Erasmus suggests. In their bondage, humans are like animals used for riding, upon which either God or the devil is mounted. Humans have no power to choose which of the two riders will be in possession oftheir will. 16Luther writes, “For if God is in us, Satan is absent, and only a good will is present; if God is absent, Satan is present, and only an evil will is in us. Neither God nor Satan permits sheer unqualified willing.”17 Without the certain knowledge that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily, how can one believe in the trust of God’s promises? For Luther, any hint of contingency will destroy the Gospel. Indeed, without the necessity of God’s promise there isno Gospel.18

[14] God’s promises are not contingent. However, fallen humanity is not completely determined. Humanity still retains limited powers of reason and will, still has some knowledge of God and God’s law, and still maintains a sort of freedom “with respect to what is beneathhim.”19 That is, humans have the ability to choose as they wish between different possibilities presented to them amid the circumstances of temporal life. While human beings are free to choose among temporal issues, one thing human nature can never do is choose the motivation of its actions. In the final analysis, all motivation is either governed by the Spirit of God or by the evil spirit. The spirit of Satan is the antithesis of the spirit of love that is God. Satan is the very spirit of egoism and self-love; and it is by this spirit that fallen humanity is moved and governed. Luther writes: ” . . . free choice without the grace of God is not free at all, but immutably the captive and slave of evil, since it cannot of itself turn to the good.”20 No one is able to act out of a truly loving motive except by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[15] Freedom, in the full sense of the term, belongs in Luther’s view only to God. God is free, as being subject to no other power whatsoever, and as acting therefore solely according to God’s own will. God’s will is not arbitrary, but is consistently righteous and good.21 For what God wills is consistent with God’s nature, which in Christ is revealed as love. God acts with absolute freedom; God does not simply react, as people in their bondage to Satan do.

[16] It is Luther’s emphasis on the utter helplessness of human beings apart from God that is at the core of his understanding of Christian liberty. For Luther, Christian liberty is not freedom of the will but it means instead to be justified as a sinner through Christ. It means to be freed from the curse of sin, liberated from the obsession with the self, and instead, having become absolutely dependent on God.

[17] God as the creator is, in Luther’s thought, the source of all activity, and, as stated above, God’s activity is absolutely righteous and good. However, the results of God’s activity are not invariably good. In God’s omnipotence God activates the wills of sinful people and devils (including Satan), and these act in accordance with their character, which is bad. But the evil of man’s, woman’s, or Satan’s will is not to be ascribed to God as its cause. Luther writes, ” . . . the good God does not deplore the death of his people which he works in them, but he deplores the death which he finds in his people and desires toremove from them.”22 God cannot suspend God’s effectiveness simply because people have evil wills, so by the power of God evil persons do evil things, despite the fact that God can do nothing evil. Luther never explains how humans fell into sin or how Satan became evil, but merely accepts both as formal statements for which there is no rational explanation.23 This is a persistent source of irritation for Luther’s readers. One constantly wants to know why the omnipotent God does not make evil wills good.

[18] Luther does not explain the origination of evil and constantly articulates that all humans who have not been grasped by God can only sin. Both of these statements raise difficulties, but in mitigation of them the following points offered by Luther should be kept in mind. First, Luther articulates a distinction between necessity andcompulsion.24 Neither God nor Satan is presented, as acting through external coercion on the human will. Both God and Satan are presented as a spiritual power operating inwardly, so that all human consequent action can be thought of as voluntary. 25There is no external coercion, but it is also clear that the will cannot change itself and certainly cannot act freely because it is under the necessary internal control of either God or Satan. Secondly, God and Satan are not equal contenders for the possession of humanity. As the creator God has sovereignty over humans and devils. God has the power to override Satan and can save or liberate anyone.

The External Word and the Internal Spirit
[19] Luther informs the Christian world that believers can do nothing in matters of eternal salvation and that their wills are bound to Satan and have no inkling of anything but selfish motives. Fortunately this devastating news is not the last word in Luther. Luther states that God desires to save people from their evil bondage, and to this end God works by means of God’s Word and Spirit. By God’s Word God confronts humans outwardly, and by God’s Spirit inwardly, first in the form of law, then in the form of Gospel. 26First, it is the function of the law, in what he calls its spiritual use, to bring home to people their sinful plight and their inability to save themselves from damnation.27 In this way, people are prepared for the gospel and its message of grace. Preparation for the gospel involves a process of lament so that one can be “humbled before God.” It is only after a believer has fallen into complete despair and contains no hint of self-righteousness or self-merit that one is finally ready to admit a complete dependence on the grace of God.28

[20] Secondly, once the human will is properly humbled, it is the function of the gospel to bring home to humanity the grace and love of God and to evoke in the believer the response of faith. When this occurs, the believer is restored to his or her true and natural relationship with God (before the Fall), and thereby enters into the fullest freedom of which he or she is capable. 29With this new freedom humanity can cooperate with God, not in matters of their own salvation, but with respect to complementing God’s purposes in spiritual and temporal affairs. It is important to state that human cooperation with God is not a precondition of salvation as it is for Erasmus; it is rather a consequence of salvation. Luther writes, “For the kingdom is not being prepared, but has been prepared, while the sons of the Kingdom are being prepared, not preparing the Kingdom; that is to say, the Kingdom merits the sons, not the sons the Kingdom.”30 For Luther, the grace of God assures heavenly reward, not as the right of the believer, but as the sure and gracious promise of God’s Word.

On Good Works
[21] Human beings can only truly associate with God through the light of grace. There is no other possibility for fallen humanity. Thus, for Luther, good works are not determinative of one’s relation to God: Luther writes: “But works . . . cannot glorify God, although they can, if faith is present, be done to the glory of God.”31 Works follow from faith, but works do not initiate faith. According to Luther, “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.”32 The Christian is what he or she is only because of a relationship to Christ. Christian liberty is completely dependent on this relationship and apart from this relationship even good works are sin.

[22] The temptation of the believer is to look at the works, which he or she does in faith, and then to turn those works into a form of merit-based justification and pride. Succumbing to this temptation would be to glorify the self rather than giving the glory to God. For Luther, the very reflecting upon one’s works spoils them. This is why Luther can declare that apart from faith, all works are nothing but “truly wicked anddamnable sins.”33 Luther does not think of works as acts of righteousness, but as acts of purification. The believer must “realize that these works reduce the body to subjection and purify it of its evil lusts, and our whole purpose is to be directed only toward the driving out of lusts.”34 Good works, at least initially, help the body to get rid of lusts so that the believer can truly do “works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God.” 35This allows Luther to maintain the paradox that human beings can be at once a saint and a sinner. The life of a Christian is never without this paradoxical struggle and tension. The inner person who has been blessed by the grace of God still confronts a contrary will in his or her own flesh. The Christian is to be a Christ to his or her neighbor (do good works), but above all, the Christian is to trust and have faith in God.

[23] For Luther, faith in the promises of God, trusting God’s word, is not one work among others but the foundation of all works. There are no isolated good works in the casuistic sense. With this distinction Luther overcomes the medieval dualism that distinguishes between holy and profane actions and between the ethics of the monks and the ethics of the laity. This new understanding enables Luther to establish the radical new notion of the priesthood of all believers.

Luther and Faith
[24] Faith is the foundation for works, but what is faith for Luther? There is some level of ambiguity in Luther’s understanding of faithfulness: On the one hand, Luther talks about faith as the gift of God who acts upon humans wholly from without. On the other hand, Luther speaks of faith as a concrete personal decision and commitment. 36How is this tension and ambiguity to be resolved? For Luther, the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and the belief in God’s accessibility can only be found in Christ and his Word.

[25] Christians can discover the revealed God through Christ and Scripture yet there is still the hidden God, which is completely inaccessible and incomprehensible.37 Humans have nothing to do with the majesty of God, but humans do “have something to do with him (God) insofar as he is clothed and set forth in his Word.” 38In this way faith always represents more than what the believer can know through the revealed or “clothed” Word of God. Faith is not reasonable or merely contemplative, rather faith always involves paradox concerning the revealed God of mercy and the hidden God of wrath. Luther writes, “If I could by any means comprehend [i.e., by human ways of thinking] how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and inequity, there would be no need of faith.”39 Faith is a miracle that cannot be understood according to ordinary criteria, but requires a blindly trusting audacity.

[26] The audacity of faith is most concretely discovered in Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that the mysterious God is most visible and the incomprehensible God is most revealed , without abandoning God’s mystery. The knowledge of God revealed in Christ is the beginning of all true knowledge of God and humanity. Luther tells believers not to contemplate the mystery of God but to look to “God incarnate . . . who has been sent into the world for the very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering to all men everything necessary for salvation.”40 Jesus does not offer speculation concerning the secrets of God. Rather, Christ is clothed in the flesh and points the believer towards the word of God’s promises that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther writes, ” . . . Christ has opened our minds so that we may understand the Scriptures [Luke 24:45], and the gospel is preached to the whole creation [Mark :15].”41 Luther believes that to preach the gospel is to fulfill the gospel. Therefore, Luther takes no credit for the Reformation but attributes it all to the word of God:

All I have done is to further, preach, and teach God’s word; otherwise I have done nothing. So it came about that while I slept or while I had a glass of beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, the papacy was so weakened, as it never was before by the action of any prince or emperor. I have done nothing; the word has done and accomplished everything. . . . I let the word do the work.42
[27] Luther repeatedly argues that the basis for attributing divinity to Jesus is that the person of faith understands that Jesus Christ has done for humanity what only God can do. Thus the person of Jesus Christ is the only way of articulating the worth of Christianity. It is Christ who forms the new person who is open to God’s word. Luther writes, “I do not live in my own person, but Christ lives within me. To be sure, I live as a person, but not in myself or for my own person.”43 It is through appealing to Christ and relying upon the promises of Christ that Luther is able to exchange ambiguity and uncertainty for absolute faith and obedience in God. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ Luther is able to overcome the self-deception of works-righteousness that can only foster “anxious doubt,” and finally, in a very personal way, discover the liberation and freedom only available in the faithful assurance that God necessarily keeps God’s promises.44

[28] Luther’s faith distinguishes between the visible things of God and the invisible things of God. Faith requires complete trust in God precisely because there is no direct knowledge of God for humanity. Even Christ and His Word constitute a form of indirect revelation or faith in things not seen.45 There are aspects of God that remain eternally incomprehensible, but even what God chooses to make visible, namely Jesus Christ, comes hidden in the humbleness of the child born in a stable. And, even more importantly, Christ on the cross is not directly visible as the victor over hell, death, and the devil. In order to make room for faith, Luther writes,

. . . It is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it. Thus when God makes alive he does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men guilty, when he exalts to heaven he does it by bringing down to hell, as Scripture says: ‘The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Shoal and raises up’ [Sam. 2:6].46
The hidden God of the theology of the cross is none other than the crucified God, and therefore a manifestation of the revealed God. There is no place for Christian metaphysical rationality at the fact of the cross of Christ. For Luther, the cross makes demands on Christian response that must either be acted on or ignored. If Christian thought ignores the demands of the cross it becomes a theology of glory. A theology of glory is rooted in religious speculation and contemplation that results in a sentimental theology. If the cross becomes the foundation of Christian thought, a theology of the cross results.

[29] The theology of the cross is a practical theology. It is distinguished from the theology of glory precisely because it leads a believer out of his or her speculative glaze and propels one into the decision of faith. Faith becomes a personal decision and the existential test of faith becomes the cross of Jesus Christ. Luther writes,

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.47
The doctrine of the cross, which decisively determines Luther’s concept of God and faith, can be understood only in a life under the cross. Luther writes, “Through the cross works are dethroned and [the old] Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified.”48 Faith stands in closer relation to suffering than to works because the justified person of faith, Luther claims, meets a contrary will in his or her own flesh which strives to serve the self interests of the world. The Christian life of faith is therefore a life of suffering and conflict; one experiences the assaults of the devil, the famous Anfechtungen that troubled Luther all his life. The meaning of the cross cannot disclose itself in speculative thought, but only in suffering experience.49 For Luther, the theology of the cross has a profound affect on his pure doctrine of faith: A faith that is no faith at all without Christ and the cross.

The Hidden God Behind the Revealed God
[30] For Luther, revelation occurs behind the object of apparent contradiction. The revealed yet hidden God found, most distinctively, in the incarnation and at the cross of Christ. In the incarnation and cross of Christ God acts in ways precisely opposite to humanity’s common expectations of God and thus calls forth a response of faith. It is in the cross that Luther locates the certainty of salvation and eternal life. The gospel, according to Luther, “is nothing but the preaching about Christ . . . true God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in him.”50 According to the revealed or preached will of God, God does not desire any person to perish, but all people to be saved. The revealed God is unconditional salvic will. The gospel is the good news of the healing and saving God.51

[31] Yet Luther is clear that by no means all people receive salvation, even when the saving will of God as revealed in the gospel is preached to them. For some people the preaching of the gospel merely hardens their hearts and makes them detest God all the more. Luther’s doctrine of God’s predestination seems to contradict the mercy of the revealed God. Luther writes, “God’s eternal predestination-out of which originally proceeds who shall believe or not, who can or cannot get rid of sin-in order that our salvation may be taken entirely out of our hands and put in the hand of God alone.”52 The God who damns so many is not the revealed God of the gospel, but “the hidden and awful will of God” 53who “purposely abandons some to perish.”54 God has revealed Godself in God’s word, but God is greater than God’s word. Luther writes, “God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutablewill of his.” 55In so far as God does not reveal Godself in God’s word God remains incomprehensible. God’s supreme attribute is God’s freedom. Luther is clear that God is not bound by the revealed gospel when he writes: ” . . . God has not bound himself by his word, but has kept himself free over all things.”56 But, if this is the case, how can Luther be assured that God will necessarily keep God’s revealed promises? It is here that the true believer has no recourse but must blindly have faith in God. God does not have to keep God’s promises, but God will keep God’s promises. This is at the heart of Luther’s pure doctrine of faith. Luther writes:

This is the highest degree of faith , to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus [E., p. 41], to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than love.57

[32] For Luther, the hidden God and the revealed God seem to be sharply differentiated. One cannot logically affirm of the one what applies to the other. The two concepts appear to be diametrically opposed to one another; almost as if there is more than one God. Can the unity of the Godhead be maintained in the midst of such contrary statements? Erasmus asks this question in another way: Is it conceivable that the God who weeps over the death of his people causes this very death? Erasmus argues that if humans do not possess freedom of will then it is impossible for them to be responsible for their sins. If God predetermines human sin, then God, and not humanity, is responsible for the origination of human sin. Consequentially God is the cause of the sinner’s death. This is how Erasmus poses the problem and solves it by having recourse to his view of free will.

[33] Luther, in response to Erasmus, argues that humans must not meddle with God’s inscrutable will. “This will is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most awe-inspiring secret of the Divine Majesty.”58 Luther chastises Erasmus for having “all too human”59 thoughts about God. Erasmus sought to make God calculable to human reason, but reason cannot cope with the paradox of evil in the world. Erasmus does not take into account the hidden God with which humans can have no dealings. Reason seeks an earthly answer to a heavenly concern. Luther argues that humans must be guided “by the word and not by that inscrutable will.”60 Luther felt that the Divine Scriptures firmly establish that humans should not pry into the will of the divine majesty based on his interpretation of Romans 9:19-24 (also 1 Cor. 1:21,24; Col. 2:3,9).61 But does this mean that the revealed God of Jesus Christ only represents a part of what God is? Clearly, Luther does not mean to assert that the will of God and the revealed will of Christ are distinct from one another. Although logical contradictions are evident, Luther nevertheless forcefully states, “that there is no other God than this man Jesus Christ.”62 In the revealed God of Christ, who represents the one true God,63 secrets of the hidden God remain. Pure faith is willing to accept that secrets remain hidden behind the revealed God while reason can only establish a dualism. God is both revealed and hidden in Christ.

[34] For Luther, it is true that there are aspects of the hidden God that people cannot understand, but this does not mean that the hidden God is of no concern to the believer. The believer should”fear and adore”64 the hidden God. It is in line with Luther’s understanding of the hiddenness of God in Christ, when he affirms that God “hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity.”65 This idea also makes some sense when one considers that fear, wrath, and suffering have the effect of preparing believers for grace and so plays a part in their salvation.66 But what is to be said when wrath and suffering only function to harden the hearts of people and ensure their damnation? Luther cannot and does not give a definitive answer to this question. Humans are not competent to judge or explain why one person is granted salvation and another person is not. It is nearly unbearable to see how the omnipotent God can be righteous and good, let alone merciful, when God “saves so few and damns somany;”67 but through faith and his interpretation of the Bible Luther maintains that God is somehow good and righteous. Faith in the assertion of God’s goodness is absolutely necessary for Luther. At the end of his treatise on The Bondage of the Will, Luther admits that in the light of nature (the rationality of fallen humanity) such an assertion is absurd, but in the light of grace (the revelation of God in Christ) the assertion is believable but not demonstrable; and in the light of glory (God’s perfected Kingdom in the eternal life beyond this life) people shall discover the unquestionable truth of what on earth people can only believe.

Implications for Christian Ethics
[35] Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of Luther’s theology is that he did not try to provide a formal systematic theology complete with all the answers. Luther believes that a totally rationalized Christianity is a Christianity that ultimately leads to atheism or skepticism. A rational Christianity would no longer require grace and faith in a transcendent God acting in the world. There is no space for free will in Luther’s theology because the human will is held in complete bondage to either God or Satan. Erasmus’ mitigated skepticism places too much emphasis on human faculties. But for Luther skepticism is unthinkable: Without the certainty that God knows all things, not contingently, but necessarily, Christians will soon stop trusting in God’s promises and then all faith will be lost and the gospel reduced to a mockery. Luther’s theology is rooted in a pure doctrine of faith that must always be distinct from any contingent notion of works-righteousness or self-righteousness.

[36] In their relationship to God, human beings have no freedom whatsoever. For Luther, Christian liberty is not a human achievement but a gift of God’s grace. But it is an empowering gift because it frees Christians from their obsession with themselves and their own salvation in order to act for the real needs of their neighbor without concern for personal reward or punishment. A pure doctrine of faith frees the Christian from selfish concerns so that he or she can be purely concerned with the love of God and the love of neighbor.

End Notes

1 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1961), pp.

2 Ibid., p. 192.

3 Ibid., pp. 200-206.

4 Marin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent it Ought to be Obeyed (1523), in Dillenberger op.cit., p. 370.

5 Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (1520), in Martin Luther: Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), p. 282.

6 Quoted by Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), pp. 169-170.

7 See Walter Loewenich, Martin Luther: The Man and His Works (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), pp. 268-270.

8 See A. N. Marlow and B. Drewery, Introduction, in John Bailley ed., Luther and Erasmus: The Question of Free Choice (Philadelphia: West Minster Press, 1981), p. 31.

9 Ibid., p. 9

10 Ibid., pp. 12-15.

11 Ibid.

12 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in Luther and Erasmus: The Question of Free Choice, p. 105.

13 Ibid., 109.

14 Ibid., p. 116-17.

15 Ibid., p. 118.

16 Ibid., 140.

17 Ibid., p. 180.

18 Ibid., p. 122.

19 Ibid., p. 43

20 Ibid., p. 141.

21 Ibid., pp. 141-142.

22 Ibid., p. 201. It is interesting that Luther uses the term ‘desires’ in reference to God. One would think from what Luther says about God that God can accomplish whatever God desires.

23 Ibid., p. 137.

24 Ibid., p. 139. Luther writes: “By &=javascript:goNote(39necessarily’ I do not mean ‘compulsorily’ . . . .he does not do evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it, like a thief or a robber carried off against his will to punishment, but he does it of his own accord and with a ready will.”

25 Ibid., pp. 119-121.

26 For Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s most articulate treatment of this issue see the entire text of Freedom of a Christian (1520) in Martin Luther: Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1943).

27 Ibid., 282.

28 Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 137. Luther writes: “God has assuredly promised his grace to the humble [I Peter 5:5], that is, to those who lament and despair of themselves.”

29 Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520), pp. 282-287.

30 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 213.

31 Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520), p. 288.

32 Ibid., p. 311.

33 Ibid., p. 297.

34 Ibid., p. 295.

35 Ibid.

36 See Wilhelp Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation, (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc., 1961), pp. 22-27.

37 The distinction between the hidden God and the revealed God will be discussed in more detail in a latter section of the paper.

38 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 201.

39 Ibid., p. 138.

40 Ibid., p. 206.

41 Ibid., p. 111.

42 Luther, the Eight Wittenberg Sermons (1522) in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 51: pp. 77-78.

43 Luther, as quoted by Wilhelm Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation, p. 24.

44 Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), p. 229.

45 Ibid., pp. 200-201.

46 Ibid., p. 138.

47 Luther, Heidelberg Disputation (1518) in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 31, p. 40.

48 Ibid., p. 53.

49 Ibid., p. 53.

50 Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament (1522) in Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), volume 35, p. 360.

51 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), pp. 200-201.

52 Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament (1522), LW 35: p. 378.

53 Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will 1525), p. 200.

54 Ibid., p. 206-207.

55 Ibid., p. 201.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., p. 138.

58 Ibid., p. 200.

59 Ibid., p. 202.

60 Ibid., p. 201.

61 Ibid., p. 207

62 Luther, Letter to the Galations (1535), LW 26: p. 29

63 Ibid., pp. 30-31. Luther writes: “The true deity of Christ is proved by this conclusion: Paul attributes to him the ability to grant the very same things that the Father does– grace, peace of conscience, the forgiveness of sins, life, and victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell. This would be illegitimate, in fact, sacrilegious, if Christ were not true God.”

64 Luther, Bodange of the Will (1525), p. 201.

65 Ibid., p. 138.

66 Ibid., p. 200. This is how the law fills people with torment and knowledge of sin.

67 Ibid., p. 138.