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In the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel of grace, the truth of the bondage of the will was fundamental. “Fundamental” means that without the confession of this bondage, the gospel of grace could not be proclaimed. “Fundamental” means also that the Reformation proclaimed the gospel only by a confession of the bondage of the will. Without the doctrine of the bondage of the will, there had been no Reformation of the church.

Accordingly, loss or denial of the bondage of the will by the churches today is the loss or denial of the gospel. Denial of the bondage of the will is the betrayal of the Reformation of 1517, regardless that these churches and their theologians engage in a showy and noisy celebration of the anniversary of the Reformation, deceiving others and perhaps themselves.

The truth of the bondage of the will is that the will of every unbeliever is enslaved to sin, so that the unbeliever is unable to desire or choose Jesus Christ and His salvation; is unable to choose, much less do, what is good and right; and is, therefore, unable to “accept” Jesus and salvation when supposedly they are “offered” to him. The sinner in his bondage, or slavery, is unable to perform any work that is pleasing to God, and good. Concerning this last, a work that is pleasing to God, and good, is necessarily a work that is performed with a will that is good, a will that wills God. But the will of the natural, that is, unbelieving human is enslaved to sin. It cannot, therefore, choose God and the good. It can only hate God and reject Him.

This truth is fundamental to the gospel of grace, first, in that it denies that the salvation of the unbelieving sinner is his own work in any respect and that salvation depends upon him in any respect, specifically, upon his choice of or decision for, Jesus Christ.

It is fundamental to the gospel, second, in that it affirms that the salvation of the sinner is solely and wholly the work of God in Christ and that salvation depends entirely and only on the will of God. This will is eternal election, appointing the sinner to salvation; giving Jesus Christ to the cross for the sinner; and giving the elect sinner faith in Jesus.

In short, the bondage of the will repudiates and condemns the doctrine of salvation by the (alleged) free will of the sinner as wicked perversion of the gospel, a heresy that robs God of His glory as the Savior of sinners and that bestows this glory upon the sinner himself. Salvation is “not of him that willeth” (Rom. 9:16a). The truth of the bondage of the will glorifies God regarding His greatest work: “…but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:16b).

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, the leading Reformers, taught the bondage of the will, and taught it as fundamental to the gospel of grace. Both taught and defended the doctrine of the bondage of the will in full-length, classic books devoted specifically to the doctrine. Luther’s is titled, The Bondage of the Will (tr. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, James Clarke: London, 1957). Calvin’s work has the title, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (ed. A. N. S. Lane, tr. G. I. Davies, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). All quotations of Luther and Calvin in this article are taken from these two books.

Both Reformers clearly identify the false doctrine that they, with the entire Reformation, condemn. For Luther, basically accepting the definition of the Roman Catholic humanist Erasmus, free will is “a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation” (137). This power to choose, and thus obtain, salvation may be helped by God’s grace, but in any case salvation depends upon the sinner’s will or choice.

For Calvin, the heretical doctrine of man’s free will is the teaching that “the will…has both good and evil within its power, so that it can by its own strength choose either one of them” (68). In his controversy over the issue of the free or bound will with the Roman Catholic theologian Pighius, Calvin makes plain that the “good” that the advocates of free will have especially in mind is salvation in Christ. The free will is supposed to be able to choose salvation, as also to reject it. Upon this choice the salvation of the sinner depends.

Both Luther and Calvin expressed the seriousness of the heresy of free will. To Erasmus, who had attacked the Reformation’s doctrine of the bondage of the will while defending free will, Luther wrote:

Let me tell you, therefore—and I beg you to let this sink deep into your mind—I hold that a solemn and vital truth, of eternal consequence, is at stake in this discussion; one so crucial and fundamental that it ought to be maintained and defended even at the cost of life, though as a result the whole world should be, not just thrown into turmoil and uproar, but shattered in chaos and reduced to nothingness (90).

Calvin charged the heresy of free will with “raising man to partnership with God, to cast him down more heavily from a greater height…. In the most excellent work of all, that is, in the soul’s resurrection, man has an equal part with God” (208).

Where, in Protestantism, indeed in the sphere of Reformed Christianity, is there today this estimation of the seriousness of the issue of the bondage of the will?

Both Luther and Calvin confessed the truth concerning the will of the natural man, that is, that the will is in bondage to sin and Satan. According to Luther, the will of the natural, unsaved, man is “not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good” (104). Such is the total control of the will of the sinner by Satan that it is comparable to a horse being ridden by the devil: “If Satan rides, it [the will] wills and goes where Satan wills” (103, 104). “‘Free-will’ is nothing at all” (142), that is, free will does not exist.

Calvin taught that the will of the natural man “is so overwhelmed by wickedness and so pervaded by vice and corruption that it cannot in any way escape to honorable exertion or devote itself to righteousness” (77). Calvin’s “honorable exertion” and “devotion to righteousness” include making a “decision for Christ” and “accepting an offer of salvation.” “A bound will,” which is the will of every human by nature, “is one which because of its corruptness is held captive under the authority of evil desires, so that it can choose nothing but evil, even if it does so of its own accord and gladly” (Calvin, 69).

The truth of the bondage of the will, including its being fundamental to the gospel of grace, has its urgent application to churches and professing Christians in AD 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of 1517. The doctrine is not a petrified mummy safely sealed up in an ancient ecclesiastical museum. It is not a truth to which hypocritical ministers and church members can pay lip service when this is convenient for them (as in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, although even then the bondage is usually not one of the topics of their celebrations), while effectively denying it in their synodical decisions, in their preaching, in their writings, by their church membership, and by their ostracism and slander of churches and theologians whose only offence is an uncompromising confession of the bondage of the will.

First, applied to the heart of the elect believer, this truth assures him of his salvation in that his willing of God and the good by a true faith carries with itself the assurance that he is saved. His will is free, and it is free because it has been freed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he will glorify God on account of his salvation.

Second, confession of the bondage of the will is a fundamental mark of a true church. Confession of the bondage of the will is an essential element of the proclamation of the gospel of grace, and the true church proclaims, confesses, and defends the gospel of grace—the gospel of salvation by grace alone, without the will and works of the saved sinner.

Third, confession and defense of the alleged free will of the natural, unsaved man, which purportedly cooperates with grace and upon which grace depends, are the mark of an apostate, false church. In our ecumenical age, God’s people need to know this, and to act accordingly.

The Roman Catholic Church is as committed to the heresy of free will as it was in the time of the Reformation. It is as fierce a foe of the bondage of the will as were Erasmus and Pighius. This alone makes all ecumenical relations with Rome on the part of Protestant churches illicit.

Many nominally Protestant churches show themselves as proclaiming a false gospel by their open, frank confession of free will. These are the vast majority of Protestant churches today. For their theology is Arminian, and basic to Arminianism is the heresy of free will: the unsaved sinner has the ability to choose, or “make a decision for,” Jesus. Upon this decision of the free will the sinner’s salvation depends. According to these apostate churches, salvation is of him that willeth, rather than of God’s showing mercy (see Rom. 9:16).

But the deadly threat of a gospel and a theology that deny the bondage of the will is now widespread in Presbyterian, Reformed, and “Calvinistic” churches. Bold, truthful, uncompromising confession of the bondage of the will by Reformed churches and Christians is today as rare as once it was when Luther alone stood for the bondage of the will against the entire vast, impressive, instituted church and against all its learned, degreed, esteemed theologians. All the churches that confess a “well-meant” offer of salvation to all hearers of the gospel are, in fact, teaching the heresy of free will. They do not frankly confess this, or admit to it. This is deception, certainly of others, perhaps, of themselves. But the heresy of free will it is.

If God loves all humans alike, in His saving love in Jesus Christ; sincerely desires or wills the salvation of all alike; and in this love and desire offers salvation to all alike in the gospel, the clear, necessary, and inescapable implication is that the salvation of a sinner depends upon his acceptance of the offer by his own will, or decision, or choice. His will, therefore, must be free, that is, able of itself, or with the help of grace, to choose Christ and salvation, or to reject Christ.

According to the theory of the well-meant offer, the explanation why some believe and others do not cannot be God’s elective, sovereign will, for God (supposedly) loves all alike and desires (wills) the salvation of all alike.

If the explanation is not the will of God (and the doctrine of the well-meant offer denies that the explanation is the will of God), the only explanation can be the (free) will of the sinner. This is certainly the definite impression that is given by the practitioners of the offer: “God loves all of you; God desires the salvation of all of you; He graciously is now offering Jesus to all of you; won’t you accept Him now?”

In the words of Calvin, the doctrine of the wellmeant offer is that “all are equally able to receive grace because it is offered indiscriminately to all.” And this, Calvin goes on to say, is “Pelagius’s blasphemy” (188).

There will be many gatherings this anniversary year ostentatiously celebrating the Reformation. Most will be hypocrisy.

For most will mask the repudiation of the bondage of the will.

Their theologians and ministers are not the spiritual and theological heirs of the Reformation, but contemporary spokesmen for Erasmus and Pighius.