The Bondage of the Free Will

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If you ask what the Reformation was and why they excommunicated Martin Luther, you would probably hear it was his “95 Theses” condemning the church’s use of authority and other abuses. These certainly relate to the issue, but the core driving everything was in Luther’s lesser recognized “Heidelberg Disputation” given at the Augustinian lecture hall on April 5, 1518. It consists of 30 theses orbiting around man’s state after the fall. Particularly, it was thesis 13, condemning the alleged free will of man, that ignited the firestorm. The issue over free will was so significant that it later detonated in Luther’s famous response to Desiderius Erasmus’ diatribe “On Free Will” (Sept. 1524) in “Bondage of the Will” (Dec. 1525).

Thesis 13 is simple, but dynamite, “Free will, after the fall, exist in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, commits a mortal (damnable/condemnable) sin.” The last part of the thesis is the most damning. Prior to Luther, the medieval church had said that if anyone did what he was able to do, God would not deny His grace. So Luther was saying that to follow the medieval scheme of salvation would not only not help, but would dig you deeper into the hole.

The idea behind “free will” is that it has presented before it a choice between good and evil (Gen. 3:5) in order to choose the good. By doing this over and over again you become virtuous and holy—like building a muscle or perfecting a quality. The free will, of course, uses the law (Moses or natural moral virtues) as the architectural plan to construct a way to God and be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). Thus free will ‘desiring God’ as its goal uses the law in a ‘pursuit of holiness’ toward that goal, and begins to construct a spiritual bridge or ladder back to God. Luther liked to point out the madness of this by likening fallen man as a small point in the cosmos with God infinitely away from this point. The folly of sinful man attempting to bridge such an infinite gap to God Who is holy becomes obvious.

To add further impotence to folly, while man is “doing what is within him” illicit sins are also occurring by the hour. For every alleged step forward one makes, one loses three steps. It does not take long to realize that this “free will” is a sham and is just the opposite—a completely bound will, subjugated by its desire of God in a pursuit of holiness infinitely distant from it forever slaving away. 

The Original Sin Question

Yet the question arises, “I can understand how committing an illicit act is sin, but how is doing a good work, faith formed by love, or proving my faith to myself a damnable sin? Surely God wants us to do good and not evil! The damnable sin does not lie in the good thing done, but rather that man’s fallen religious inclination uses good for evil and calls this evil good. What man does in original sin is to replace God’s free unilateral and unconditional promise, with good works or effort to “justify”, “sanctify”, or grow himself in his faith/religion—as if God in Christ has not already come all the way down into man’s fallen nature. A divine identity theft occurs when man assigns to his flesh’s effort the titles of “infusion of grace”, “sovereign grace of God”, and “work/fruit of the Holy Spirit.” Then man finds his assurance in these, and no longer in the nude trust of God’s spoken promise of forgiveness given him in the Word, baptism or the holy supper of the Lord’s body and blood.

In short Luther is pointing out that what the church is embracing as the Holy Spirit or grace is a doppelgänger, and nothing other than a repetition of original sin. It is easy to recognize because it never deviates from original sin’s question, “Did God really say—‘for you for the forgiveness of sin’ in the absolution, baptism, and the sacrament of the altar?” (John 20:23, Acts 2:38, Math. 26:26, etc.) The obvious answer is, “Yes He quite clearly does—as it is written”, but that never stops us from taking a fresh bite from the fruit of a free will choosing good and evil for itself to become just, sanctified, and holy. 

The folly of sinful man attempting to bridge such an infinite gap to God Who is holy becomes obvious.
— Larry Hughes

The essence of sin is a “free will”, bound to choose between the holy and unholy, good and evil, as the cure for sin. Sin uses the law as its power source (1 Cor. 15:56) to accuse you of still possessing your sins—as if Christ did not already take them as His own and onto Himself becoming a curse for you (Gal. 3:13). i.e. the head and source of sin is to not trust the promise of God absolving you, right now, of all your sins (past, present, and future).

The Scriptures, preaching, and sacraments are not understood, heard, given, nor received correctly from the point of view of a “free will” using the law perfecting holiness toward God, but from the point of view of the cross—i.e. if I am saved, justified, or growing in holiness by “what I am able to do” at ANY point, then why in the world is Jesus Christ on the Cross?

Nothing should come between God’s delivered promise of forgiveness of everyone of your evident and palpable sins—ESPECIALLY not any or the sum total of all of your best and most virtuous acts. Not even faith itself or faith’s fruits were crucified for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Christ was!

When you hear this promise is for you, not conditioned even upon your believing it, the will is truly set free from its Satanic bondage in its pursuit of holiness desiring God. You do not have to bridge the infinite gap. Christ (i.e. God) has already come to you! On account of Christ alone, you are entirely forgiven and holy—there is nothing to do and no growth needed. 

Your only Christian growth is to “breathe the free air again, my friend” (Gandalf to Theoden, Lord of The Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien). This is the royal freedom of the Christian (Martin Luther): “When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36).


Larry Hughes is a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Danville, Kentucky where he serves as head elder. He is a graduate of Western Kentucky University holding a degree in Geology, and resides in central Kentucky where he works as a Geologist Branch Manager in the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection. He is a contributor to the book Wittenberg Confessions – Testimonies of Converts to Confessional Lutheranism.

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