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TEXT: Psalm 110:3a

SUBJECT: Reformation Day 2017: Bondage of the Will

The day after tomorrow is not only Halloween, it is also the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Many have called the Reformation a tragic necessity, and I agree with their assessment. The Protestants did not intend to split the Church Universal, no less to create the thousands of denominations we have today, but to reform the whole church, and in particular, to bring its theology back to the Word of God, both written in the Bible and Incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Their efforts failed, of course, because many things stood in their way, from the power of habit to the state of the Papacy to the cowardice of good men, but the thing that most hindered the Reformation was the Church's teaching on the human will, a teaching Catholics still believe-as do most Protestants of today, including the ones who are stridently anti-Catholic. It's funny to think that, every time a Baptist pastor gives an altar call, he is saying, 'the Pope was right!'

The state of the human will is the topic of this year's Reformation Day Sermon; the title I borrowed from Martin Luther's immensely important, but little read book-

The Bondage of the Will.

The book was published in 1525 in response to another book, The Freedom of the Will, written by the most respected scholar of the time, Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus was an ethical and brilliant man, who believed the problem with the Medieval Church was her low state of morality. If only the pope would share his wealth, the priests would give up their mistresses, and all Christians followed the Golden Rule, the Church would be healed. Luther agreed with his advice: the Pope should not be the wealthiest man in Europe, priests should keep their vows, and everyone should-

Do unto others as they would have them do unto them.

Every decent man knew the Church needed reforming, and a few years later, the Pope convened the Council of Trent to address some of the problems.

Where Martin Luther differed from Erasmus (and others) is that he saw the problem, not as a moral one that can be solved by better rules more strictly enforced, but as a doctrinal one. The Church was living badly because its beliefs were bad. Not her every belief, of course, but quite a few of them, including what he called-

The vital spot.the hinge on which all turns.

Which is the state of the human will after the Fall of Adam.

More than a thousand years before the Reformation, the British monk, Pelagius, had taught that Adam's sin affected only himself, and that-except for setting a bad example-it leaves our wills as free as ever. Thankfully, the Church excommunicated the man and branded his teaching heresy! By these acts the most extreme forms of Free Will were forever expelled from the Church.

But over time, and in more moderate forms, it crept back in. Of course, Adam's Fall damaged us all, but how damaged are we? And, is there any part of us that is not damaged by the Fall? These were the 'hot button' issues of the time, and still are.

THE ANSWERS

Both Luther and Eramus agreed that Adam's Fall hurt us all, and that it hurt every part of us. What they didn't agree on is how badly it hurt us, and in particular, how badly it damaged our will.

Erausms said the Fall of Adam hurt our will, hurt it so badly that, apart from God's Common Grace, we could never seek, find, or serve Him. But strengthened by His Common Grace (which is given to all), we can seek, find, and serve Him. In other words, with God's assistance, Fallen Man has the power to-

Will to do His will.

This is what Erasmus taught at the time of the Reformation; it is the official Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church; and it is believed by most Protestants of today.

Luther himself once believed this, but after a long and painful struggle, he came to see things otherwise. He came to believe that Man's Will is not only damaged by the Fall, but killed. This means that no one will or can seek God, no less find Him or serve Him. In other words, man does not have a free will.

Was he right?

THE DEFINITION

Before we can answer that, we have to be sure that we know what we're talking about.

When Luther denied Free Will, he did not mean we have no will. Of course we have will, and because we do, it is not forced (otherwise it wouldn't be our will).

The Free Will he denied was the power to repent of our sins and to believe in Jesus Christ. This has nothing to do with the power to make earthly choices or sinful choices (which he readily admits), but only the power to choose the things of God. In this respect, in the thing that matters most, man's will is in Bondage. On this point, Luther is in very good company, for it was none other than Jesus who said, John 8:34-

Assuredly I say to you, whoever commits sin is the slave of sin

THE REASON

If this is what the Bible teaches, we ought to believe it, whether we can explain it or not. But, happily, the Bible does explain it. It tells us why, when it comes to choosing the things of God, man's will is not free.

Matthew 12:33 may be the best proof text. It says-

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.

If you go back a few verses, you'll see the Lord is talking about the Pharisees, who are doing very bad things, even blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Why are they doing these bad things? Jesus tells us: It's because they're bad men. You don't have to be an expert on the health of trees to know that if an apple tastes like gasoline, there's something wrong with the tree! That's the kind of fruit a bad tree produces!

The Pharisees produce bad fruit because they're bad trees. In case we don't get His imagery, He tells us what He means by trees the next verse down, v.34-

Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

In other words, the Pharisees are saying bad things because they have bad hearts.

This is why the human will is in bondage. Because the will is controlled by the heart. Woody Allen in an Atheist, but, on one point, his theology is better than most Christians'. When asked to explain his affair with his girlfriend's daughter, he could only say-

The heart wants what it wants.

Taking Mia Farrow's daughter was an act of the will; wanting her was a matter of the heart. Woody Allen's will, therefore, was controlled by his heart. And not only his! This is true of us all.

There's the rub.

THE HEART

According to the Bible, the non-Christian's heart is bad. Need I go through the whole list of Romans 3? Here's part of it-

There is none righteous, no not one.

All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

No man seeks after God.

They are altogether unclean.

Notice the universal modifiers-none and all. Not some have sinned, all have sinned! Not there are a handful of righteous people, but none!

If Romans 3 does not satisfy you, you might go to Romans 8:7-8-

For the carnal mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be. So that those in the flesh cannot please God.

Here, the word 'mind' is used instead of 'heart'. But his point is the same. Every carnal mind is against God-not neutral toward Him, against Him. How can a mind opposed to God seek God? Or find God? Or serve God? Or repent of his sins? Or believe in Christ?

There's a famous verse in the Old Testament, part of which is often quoted, but only part. Here's the whole thing, Jeremiah 13:23-

Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to doing evil.

If an Ethiopian cannot will his skin lighter and a leopard cannot will his spots into stripes, a sinner cannot will himself into a saint!

The human will is controlled by the heart and the heart is estranged from God, guilty, polluted, and helpless.

This is why the human will is in bondage to sin, and why only-

If the Son shall make you free, you will be free indeed.

THE USUAL ARGUMENTS

If the Bible so plainly teaches the Bondage of the Will, why didn't Erasmus accept it? It certainly was not ignorance; he was a brilliant man who had edited the Greek New Testament. Nor was in unbelief; as far as I know, Erasmus very firmly believed in the Bible and publicly confessed the Lord Jesus Christ.

So, why didn't he get it? Why didn't my beloved CS Lewis get it? Why don't so many sincere Christians today get it?

I suppose there are many reasons for not getting it, but the three most common ones are these:

    1. Common sense tells us that we are free to choose. If a man chooses to wear black shoes instead of brown shoes, it is he who makes the choice, not God or the devil, or any other outside force.
    2. God's commands imply freedom of the will. The Bible is full of commands-'Do this, don't do that'. If a man does not have the freedom to do one and not do the other, the commands are meaningless, like commanding a man to grow feathers or to live under water.
    3. The justice of God demands freedom of the will. To command a man to do what he cannot do, and then to punish him for not doing it, in unjust.

THE REBUTTALS

If the arguments seem compelling to you, it's probably because you haven't thought them through. They're fairly east to answer, especially the first one.

Freedom of the Will has nothing to do with what shoes you put on today! As a young man, Luther was clean shaven; later he grew a beard; then he shaved it off. God was not shaving him, nor was the devil making his beard grow. He did it, or rather, Peter his barber, did it at Luther's behest. Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, the Pope, all agreed that man's will was free in some ways.

The second objection is (almost) as easy to answer. Do the commands of God depend on our ability to obey them? No. They depend on His Lordship! But then, why issue commands He knows we cannot keep? Might impossible commands serve a higher purpose, maybe the purpose the Bible assigns to them? Romans 3:20-

Now, whatever the law says it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.

The third objection is a bit trickier. How can God punish us for not doing what we cannot do? Should any man be sent to Hell for not running 100 miles an hour? Or not swimming the Pacific Ocean? Or not memorizing every name in the San Francisco phone book? I think we'd all say this would be an unjust punishment, because no one could do any of these things, no matter how hard he trained or tried to do them.

And so, if a man is as unable to repent of his sins as he is to reach the moon standing on the ground, how can God justly punish him for not repenting?

The answer lies in the nature of his inability. The reason I cannot reach up and touch the moon is because the moon is 250,000 miles away, and standing on my tip toes, I can only reach 7'7". My inability to reach the moon is natural.

Not repenting, on the other hand is not a natural failure; it's a moral failure. I can't reach the moon because I'm not tall enough. I can't repent because I don't want to! Why don't I want to? Because I love my sins, or even if I don't exactly love them, I love them more than I love God!

Punishing me for the sin of not loving Him (who is perfectly lovable) is eminently just.

If this is too abstract, let me illustrate. Jim and John are married men, each with four young children. Neither man works for a living; both lie in bed most of the day.

Jim lies in bed all day because he was run over by a drunk driver while helping a little old lady cross the street. John lies in bed all day because he stays up all night every night drinking. Neither man is able to hold a job or to stay out of bed. They are equally unable to care for their wives and children. But, if you were God, would you punish them both for their failures to make a living? Or, would you make a distinction between Jim who is physically unable to get out of bed and John who is morally unable to get out of bed?

Of course there's a difference between Jim and John! And while it would be unjust to punish Jim for not doing what he naturally cannot do, it is just to punish John for not doing what he is morally unable to do!

Sinners are not like Jim, wanting to God's will, but not able to do it; they're like John who cannot do God's will because they don't want to do it!

There is no injustice with God for punishing people for the sins they cannot help committing. Because they cannot help committing them for moral reasons.

WHY IT MATTERS

To many people, the state of man's will after the Fall sounds like a theological hair-splitting, akin to 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?'

Believe me, it isn't. Martin Luther sometimes overstated his case for effect, but not here. The freedom or bondage of the human will really is-

The vital spot.the hinge on which the whole matter turns.

Here's why: If our wills are hopelessly bound in sin, we have to look to Someone whose will is not bound to free us. That Someone is our Lord Jesus Christ!

Before Time, He, His Father, and the Holy Spirit willed to save us from our sins.

In the fullness of Time, He willed to join a human nature to His Divine nature, thereby qualifying Himself to be the Mediator between men and God.

When His hour had come, He willed to not call twelve legions of angels to save Him from the Cross, but willed to go to that Cross to die in our place, the just for the unjust, the saint for the sinner.

For six hours, He willed to hang on that Cross and suffer all the malice man could visit on Him and the fullness of Divine Justice.

Three days and night later, He willed to rise from the dead, to show Himself alive by many infallible proofs, and to ascend to God's Right Hand in Heaven, where, even now, He wills to make intercession for us!

Some day, He will exercise His will one last time, coming in the clouds to perfect our spirits, raise and renew our bodies, and set the world right once and for all!

Jesus is under no obligation to do these things. Had He wanted to, He could have let us perish in our sins-and no one could have blamed Him! But He willed not to do that!

Our peace, joy, and hope are all bound up in His unbound will!

The Bondage of the Will, therefore, is not a Lutheran doctrine or a Calvinist doctrine; it is a Gospel doctrine! Because, until we accept our slavery to sin, we will never look to the One who alone can make us free.

Happy Reformation Day!

Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace, good will to men.

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