Theses 13-15: Freedom from Our Free Will
This is the seventh installment in our special series on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 13, 14 and 15 by Caleb Keith.
13. After the fall, free will exists only as a concept, and as long as it acts in accordance with itself, commits a deadly sin.
The first part is apparent, for the will is a prisoner and slave to sin. In this way the will is not nothing, but it is not free with the exception that it does evil. John 8 states, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” For this reason, St. Augustine says in the book, On the Spirit and the Letter, “Without grace, free will has no power except the power to sin;” And in Book 2 of Against Julian, “You say the will is free, but in reality it is a slave,” this follows in other writings.
The second part is made known by what was said above and from the verse in Hosea 13, “Israel, you are bringing misfortune upon yourself, for your salvation is alone with me.” There are also other examples.
14. After the fall, free will only has the power to passively do good, but it is always able to actively do evil.
Just as a dead man can only come to life passively, that same man as long as he lives, can bring himself to death actively. Moreover, free will is dead, this is revealed by the dead whom the Lord has lifted up. The holy teachers of the church say this as well. For example, St. Augustine, comes to the same conclusion in his various writings, Against the Pelagians.
15. Further still, free will could not remain in a state of innocence, much less actively do good, but the will is only able to do good passively.
The Master of the Sentences, quoting Augustine, states, “By these testimonies it is abundantly revealed that man received righteousness and a good will at creation, and also the things necessary to remain in that nature, or else it would seem that he had not fallen on account of his own fault.” Lombard talks about of the active ability of the will in a way that is obviously contrary to Augustine in his book Reprimand and Grace, where it states, “He received the power to act, if he desired, but he did not have the will to actually utilize the power to act.” By “power to act” he understands the passive ability, and by will to actually utilize, the active ability.
The second portion of this thesis, is abundantly clear from the earlier instruction of the Master.
"Do what is in you." It was a popular late medieval doctrine. If we were to translate the Latin phrase (facere quod in se est) into modern English, it would be rendered as, "Just do your best." And what else can God expect from each Christian than that we do our best? Do our best with His grace. Do our best to live a life that follows Jesus' example of holiness. Do our best to live a life of integrity and virtue. The thing is, the more we try to do our best, the worse it goes for us. We jump out of the frying pan of worrying that we have done our best and into the fire of God's wrath.
When we do our best, we imagine that is the purpose and goal of free will. Why else would God give us His commands, for example, if He did not intend for us to do our best to obey them? But here, in Thesis 13, Luther undercuts that whole argument. It turns out, what feels like free will is actually God's wrath. He gives us over to the desires of our heart, as St. Paul says in Rom. 1:24. So, what ends up happening is that instead of "just doing our best" and earning God's grace and favor, we in fact, commit a mortal sin. This is the definition of our bondage to sin.
What our heart wants, our mind justifies. That is our bondage. We cannot accept God as God for us in the way of Christ crucified for the sin of the world. Instead, we imagine that God will reward our best efforts at holy living with more and more grace. The more grace we receive, the holier we become, and on and on it goes until the last judgment. But, for Luther, the fallen will cannot accept God at all. St. Paul says as much in Rom. 7:15-20:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Our bondage is not that we fall short of doing our best, but instead that whenever we try to do our best we commit a mortal sin. We do not run toward God, but into sin, death, and hell. Free will, after the fall, exists in name only. No matter how much we may want to believe we have a will that is free to choose or reject God, what we call our willing is just sin. We are subject to, and under the authority of sin, and so we are free only to do what is evil. Not that we do not have any will -- we do -- but it is only free to choose to do what is sinful and evil. We cannot not want something. We always want something. But, whatever we want is contrary to God. After the fall, we are in bondage to sin, and therefore not free.
As John 8:34, 36 says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.... So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." This means that unless Jesus intervenes on our behalf, we are enslaved to sin and it is impossible for us to escape it. Even when we are at our religious best, we still chase after what satisfies the desires of our heart. It follows from this that our will is either bound to sin or to Christ. There is no other way for us to be saved. Everything we do is a deadly sin. Everything Jesus does for us is an eternal, salvific benefit.
So, why did the medieval theologians teach this? Why was Luther vilified and eventually excommunicated for this one assertion in particular? For the same reason that we still push back against Luther's thesis today: doing our best is a defense against God's grace. We refuse to stand in the shadow of the cross. We reject the root cause for Jesus' execution. It turns out that for all our supposed freedom we just cannot accept that we share God's judgment of Israel: "Israel, you are bringing misfortune upon yourself, because your salvation is alone with me." (Hos. 13:9, Translation mine)
It is important to note at this point that in daily life we do have some free will to help and care for our neighbor. But, as far as our relation to God, we have no free will. This is an important distinction for Luther. In our vocations, we are to do our best for the sake of our neighbor. What pants we choose to put on in the morning, what we choose to eat for lunch, and what we do to help our family and friends are all within our ability.
When we come up against God, however, we are confronted by the living God. He is beyond our comprehension. The way we react to this gets at the heart of our problem. We do not like that God chooses us in Christ. We did not choose for God to choose us in this way. Furthermore, we cannot choose this choice for God, on account of sin, but that does not slow us down. We plunge ahead, bound to reject God's free election of us sinners in Christ Jesus. We do not want to live by grace alone, or faith alone, or Christ alone. We want to choose for ourselves how we will live in relation to God. This is why when we "just do our best" we commit a mortal sin because we reject Christ our Savior.
As Luther argues in Thesis 13, our will is not nothing. We do have a will, we do make choices, but in relation to God, those choices are always evil. We are bound to choose to reject Jesus alone, and Jesus only, as our Savior. In Thesis 14, Luther lays out what this means: we must distinguish between what we actively choose to do and what we passively choose to do.
For example, when God's Spirit works in us through the Gospel and His gifts of salvation, good works are produced. This is what Luther refers to as doing good only in a passive capacity. As we are acted upon by the Spirit, we produce good works. Can we actively produce good works apart from the work of God's Spirit? No. Everything we do apart from the Spirit's work is evil. Therefore, when we are actively trying to do good works according to God's will, we chose everything and anything that flees from and is opposed to, God's will.
Even before the fall, Adam and Eve were created, strengthened, and preserved by the work and Word of God in His declaration of “it is very good” (Gen. 1:31). They passively received the active work of God for them. They were creatures who lived by faith alone in their Creator.
Yet the late medieval theologians always ended up in the same place: the way of our works is the way of salvation. We just need help from God. This was nothing other than the confession of a theology of glory which stood in opposition to the biblical teaching on sin and grace.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, "fixes his sight on the passion and cross of Christ.” (Thesis 20). This meant that, for Luther, all talk of sin and grace must flow into and out from the cross of Christ Jesus. So, then, for a theologian of the cross, the fall was the man and woman taking for themselves what was not given to them. They tried to claim something for themselves that was not given to them by God; then they attempted to justify themselves (and their works) to God. When we try to understand our relation to God by what we do and leave undone, we are working within a legal scheme that we have constructed to protect us from God. In doing so, we call good evil and evil good. We justify ourselves and condemn God.
Further proof of this is that we can actively choose to do something to improve our life, but it will not stop death. Now, "death is the wages of sin." We die, no matter what kind of healthy choices we make. Thus, all our choices (healthy or otherwise) are motivated by sin. But, when we are dead on account of sin, we can only be raised from the dead by someone else. We cannot will ourselves back to life. We can only be a passive participant in our resurrection. We can choose what to change about our life while we live, but we have no power to effect life or death.
Only God can give life, take life, and restore life. After the fall, we believe our purpose and goal is to serve ourselves. We are selfish. We cannot not serve sin. Our selfishness is the essence of sin. We do not share God's purpose and goal for our life. There are so many, many people and things we deal with every day. There are fears to be overcome or avoided. There are so many people and things we want to shower with our love. Does God not respect how much time we have chosen to devote to our passion-projects? And, most important, we do this all for God's glory. Our autonomy, it turns out, is what blinds us to the truth of our condition. We will even hold up our autonomy as a sign of God's grace. We confess our sin. We confess our faith. Our sin, our faith. We are responsible for all of it. And this is our sin, the original sin, the sin passed down and recommitted each day, by every person, everywhere, in every generation. This is why only the cross, only Jesus' innocent suffering, and death can free us from our free will.