Luther’s Trinitarian Defense of the Gospel
Since Martin Luther’s magisterial Bondage of the Will (1525), the issue of the freedom of the human will has remained a staple in modern theological discussion. How exactly does sin affect the will? Is it self-determining? Is it subject to the understanding? In 1754, “America’s theologian” Jonathan Edwards addressed many of these same questions in his Freedom of the Will, and despite what their titles may suggest, the two theologians largely agreed upon the condition of the will. Where they differed was on the proper definition of “freedom.” In light of the Fall, Luther believed that the phrase “free will” was an “empty term” and an “abuse of speech.” Sin has rendered us all captives to its power, therefore to insinuate any measure of liberty apart from the grace of God is semantic nonsense. According to the Wittenberg Reformer, human free will “without God’s grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” Man’s will has been arrested and paralyzed by sin, and the sinner himself stands in need of God’s liberating grace in order to freely come to Christ.
While Martin Luther’s arguments against Erasmus have stood the test of time, and have been repackaged numerous times in the course of Protestant history, the current Calvinist-Arminian debate seems to have moved in a slightly different direction. The Enlightenment served to catapult the issue of the will, but it also partially divested this important discussion from its proper Trinitarian context. Luther’s Bondage of the Will (1525), while employing astonishing dialectical genius, is also a thoroughly Trinitarian treatise.
Many of the Reformer’s greatest arguments for the enslaved will are furnished in a Triune framework. For instance, challenging the idea that the will has a power of its own, Luther writes, “You do not realize what a mighty power you are ascribing to it by the pronoun ‘itself,’ or ‘its own self,’ when you say: ‘can apply itself’; for you completely exclude the Holy Spirit and all His power as if superfluous and unnecessary.” For Luther, the notion of a free will wasn’t simply incompatible with the fact of human sinfulness; it was completely opposed to the Trinitarian economy of salvation. Freedom isn’t found in man but in God. Arminians (an anachronistic term considering Jacobus Arminius wasn’t born until 1560) impugned the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit when they contended for human ability. According to Luther, “What need is there of the Spirit, or Christ, or God, if ‘free will’ can overcome the motions of the mind to evil?” For Luther, arguments for human autonomy weren’t simply brazen and self-centered; they were thoroughly anti-Trinitarian!
The doctrine of the enslaved will stands at the core of fallen humanity’s most basic need of the Gospel. For this reason, Luther believed it “ought to be maintained and defended even at the cost of life.” He began by pointing to the work of the Trinity. Sinners could only see the importance of such a doctrine by the moving of God upon their will. In this way, we are driven not by the importance of our will, but to God’s will! The notion of “free will” is “a term applicable only to the Divine Majesty.” When we think of a free will, we should think of the Trinity. According to Luther, “the Spirit, who was promised to extol Christ, certainly cannot preach ‘free will’” as the Arminians understand it. The reason for the Spirit’s liberating power isn’t simply that it may give freedom for freedom’s sake, but that it may give freedom to flee to the second Person of the Trinity: Christ. Salvation is Trinitarian salvation. When we understand the work of the Triune God in the order of redemption, we begin to understand the absurdity of human free will: “For no man on earth, unless imbued with the Holy Ghost, ever in his heart knows of, or believes in, or longs for, eternal salvation.”
At the center of Luther’s defiance toward Rome was his Trinitarian theology. He accused the Pope of being the Antichrist not simply because of his ungodly power, but because the Pope sought to replace the office of the Holy Spirit. Instead of pointing people to the Word of God, he led millions vainly to himself. According to Luther, the false idea that Scripture was too obscure for common men drew them to the authority of the Pope, prompting them to “seek the interpreting Spirit from the apostolic see of Rome!” The Pope severed the Son-Spirit bond by replacing the authority of the Scriptures with his own. Instead, Luther boasted, “We teach nothing save Christ crucified.” Luther’s theology of salvation began not with himself, but with the Son of God. Solus Christus. The sublime Trinitarian theology contained within The Bondage of the Will only supports B.B. Warfield’s assertion that the work is “the embodiment of Luther’s Reformation conceptions, the nearest to a systematic statement of them he ever made.” In our own current debates over the nature of the human will, we should remember Luther’s approach to Christian theology. The Trinity doesn’t simply support our theology; it is our theology.