Erasmus vs. Luther on Free Will

Erasmus and LutherLuther and Erasmus

Dear hijas,

Desiderius Erasmus:

By free will in this place we mean a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them.

Erasmus, a Roman Catholic apologist, in 1524 published ‘Diatribe Concerning Free Will‘, or in English commonly called ‘The Freedom of the Will’. His view and that of the Roman Catholic clergy he represented was nothing less than the Pelagian heresy, condemned in the councils of Carthage, dressed up a bit. It became known as semi-Pelagianism.

Martin Luther, a German monk, responded in 1525 with his book ‘The Bondage of the Will‘. In it he drew a line in the sand between the Roman Catholic view of justification and the newly forming Reformed view. Their dialog and the debates that followed became known as the Monergistic/Synergistic Controversy. You can see in Luther’s title his premise: the will is in bondage. Bondage to what you ask? Bondage to sin.

Why was this important?

Well, Erasmus in ‘Diatribe Concerning Free Will’ said that God offers us grace, but we still have some element of freedom within us, by which we can either choose or reject this grace. It is our ‘choice’ then that God rewards with eternal salvation. He further said that man has the ability to initiate the relationship with God through faith, the ability within himself to believe and then through that faith to access all that goes with faith and justification and reconciliation with God.

Erasmus’ view is nothing more than synergistic: God and man cooperate in the initiation of faith. God does his part, and man does his. It’s a cooperative work. God and man work together to bring about man’s conversion. Instead of being ‘dead’ in trespass and sin (Eph. 2:1), Erasmus saw man as only ‘wounded’, and therefore could help himself by helping God. Grace was a reward for our faith and so man deserves some of the credit for his own salvation.

Luther, on the other hand, recaptured Augustine’s thought that we are absolutely and utterly dependent upon the sovereign working of God and that we have nothing to contribute to our own salvation. That even our will had been affected by original sin and was in bondage to sin, a slave to evil, unable to choose the right except God intervening. He saw Erasmus’ view (and that of Roman Catholicism in general) as little more than a works-based salvation. He believed that it is only God that can bring a man dead in trespass and sin back to life and resurrect him from spiritual death. That even the ‘faith’ that we exercise in Jesus is itself a gift of God, produced by the work of the Holy Spirit. That regeneration is the work of God alone, and is not a “cooperation” between God and man. Luther believed that sola fide depends upon sola gratia.

One sees a distinct monergistic (mono: one, alone, ergos: work) view in Luther, and a synergistic (syn: together with, at the same time, ergos: work) in Erasmus and thus the Monergistic/Synergistic Controversy. The Reformers and the Protestant Reformation went one way and the Reformers view that of the Roman Catholic church’s works-based salvation went another.

Vaya con Dios mis hijas,

Dear ol’ Dad


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