I came across this passage from Luther’s Bondage of the Will not long ago:

So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree  wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters  pertaining to salvation. `Indeed, let me tell you, this is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability ‘free will’ has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God.…..For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent and limits what God can and will do in me…

By free will here is not included the question of whether we are robots or puppets. Luther and Erasmus agree at least in this: neither thinks we are robots or puppets. Rather, it is about the moral and spiritual condition of our wills, and about  the rather different attitude to the human will disclosed in Scripture than we entertain of our own wills.  [Since being brought up short by this passage I have idly wondered if in churches of the Reformation in these days, in preaching and in the construction of services of worship, this theme is given its due, or whether it is covered up. When did you last hear a sermon on the human will? Me? The same.]

Luther’s response to Erasmus is to argue that, if we cover up the questions, in what respect our wills are subject of divine action and stand related to the grace of God, we shall go radically astray. In fact, if we cover these matters up it is rather more serious than that: he says that we shall be ‘no Christian and the Christian’s chief foe’. We need proper biblical statements (‘assertions’ is Luther’s word) about ourselves, and then we shall have appropriate expectations of ourselves, and of God. Like Calvin, Luther believed that the knowledge of God and ourselves are interrelated.

Are we going to the supermarket? Are we going to church?

Are we going to the supermarket? Cash? A card? Good. Thus armed, we toddle off. What was it for? Soapflakes? Ham? Eggs? Not a problem, as they say at the till. Perfect. Let’s say that in these circumstances we are fitted to go to the premarket.

What corresponds to being fitted when we go to church to hear the gospel?  What fits us? When are we ready? We know where to go. We don’t need any money. What else? Luther would ask us, have you forgotten something? What about yourself?

In some respects church  is a deceptive.  An ordinary building, ordinary people. In these respects, like the supermarket, the holiday venue, the concert, the school. But God is present in his church. Does that make a difference? Certainly. As we enter church, we are in a uniquely serious place. Are we ready for what can follow?

We are used these days to going to church just as we are. We are casual, relaxed. It’s like visiting the places we have already mentioned. We take our seats, see our friends, and so on. But as we wait for the service to begin, are we fitted for what is to come?

Are we fitted for what is to come?

That sort of question, ‘Are we fitted?’ is scary for some, unsettling. Fitted for what is to follow? Don’t we come just as we are to a Christian church? Isn’t this sort of question legalistic? Isn’t everything unconditional here?

In the passage from Luther that we had to start with, he continues:

….[I}f I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to God .  We need, therefore, to  have in mind a clear-cut distinction between God’s power and ours, and his work and ours, if we would live a godly life. (78)

Knowing God is first of all knowing what his power is. For Luther grace is unconditional, but coming to church isn’t a matter of being relaxed and easy. Coming to church is a matter of first getting prepared and then of being prepared. Not of course by doing things that undermine receiving the grace of God, but by doing things – specifically, by knowing things – that prepare us for receiving his grace.

For there are barriers in the way of such preparation, barriers kept up by the working of own sinful nature. So Luther’s concern is to know about free will, or rather about our lack of free will. Otherwise if we are blithely ignorant we shall not know what we need and how to receive it.

Have you usually come to church thinking that things are OK? Or that they can soon be OK once you have sung a hymn or two? Have you forgotten, or perhaps have never realised, that we ourselves resist and distort the offer of God’s free grace? And that we can’t get ourselves right, because our wills are in bondage to sin, and that we cannot get right automatically, just by coming to church. The grace God which frees us to come to Christ, must come from God.  And that our innate self-righteousness that has erected barriers to this only God can deal with. We must prepare ourselves for the necessary changes – our feeling of helplessness and the need for repentance – will to begin with be decidedly uncomfortable. Church is unique because there and only there we need strength that we do not have. When we realise this we are on the way to being fitted.

So it is also a fallacy to think that because grace is free, not earned but given, everything about our relation to the Lord God of all grace is free and easy as well. Is God so good that his goodness may be taken for granted?

God is really among you

Luther’s differences with Erasmus’s view, that it is safe to be ignorant of the spiritual bondage of our wills and how it leaves us, is not just an academic matter. Christianity is not simply a religion of maintaining a cultural tradition, of reciting general facts about Jesus and the resurrection, or about attending church to listen and to sing ‘in community’.  If we are not fitted it is a personal, existential, factor. How otherwise than by coming to know God and ourselves can a person, coming into church, be ‘convicted by all…called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’. (1 Cor. 14. 24-5)


Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

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