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Martin Luther's view on Election


Philip Yim Kwok Hung

Course Title     :    Church History

Date                  :     April 16, 1986

¼½¹D¯«¾Ç°| Evangel Theological College

(now Evangel Seminary)


I.      Life of Martin Luther                                                 p.3

II.     Discussion

        A.    His view on freewill                                           pp.4-6

        B.     His view on ¡¥the elect¡¦                                         p.6

        C.    Some other problems                                          pp.6-7

III.   The Values of his thought (on election)                 p.8

IV.    Reflection                                                                 pp.8-9



I.      Life of Martin Luther

1483        Nov 10    Birth at Eisleben; He is a son of a miner

1501-1505               Educated at Erfurt University where he studied esp. philosophy

1505        July 17     Enters Augustininian Hermits at Erfurt

1517        Oct 31     Posting the ninety-five theses

1519        July          Debate with John Eck at Leipzig

1520        Dec 10     Burning of the Papal bull

1521        Apr          Luther at Diet of Worms

                May         Exile at Wartburg

                Dec          Start of NT translation

1522        Sept         Luther¡¦s German NT published

1524        Sept         Erasmus wrote on the Freedom of the Will

1524-25                   Peasants¡¦ war

1525        Dec          Bondage of the Will

1529        Oct          Marburg Colloquy

1530        June         Augsburg Confession

1546        Feb 18     Death at Eisleben


A. His view on freewill

1.        Man has the power to choose only of what is below him, but not of eternal salvation.  He had expressed this idea in Bondage of the will, pp189-190, as follows:

¡§¡K to credit man with ¡¥free-will¡¦ in respect, not of what is above him, but of what is below him. That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own ¡¥free-will¡¦¡V though that very ¡¥free-will¡¦ is overruled by the free-will of God alone, according to His own pleasure.¡¨

He emphasized the sovereignty of God by putting the free choice of man in his money and possessions under God¡¦s will.  This view was in extreme contrast with that of Erasmus who extended the power of the free-will to eternal salvation.1

2.          He defined the power of free-will as ¡§the power which makes human beings fit subjects to be caught up by the Spirit and touched by God¡¦s grace, ¡K¡¨2  In fact, he treated it as a receiving power, not a power act upon other beings.  In addition to this, he said, ¡§with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no ¡¥free-will¡¦, but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.¡¨3  Hence, in Luther¡¦s mind man¡¦s free-will is just like a stone which move according to its will, but moved by others.  Man can¡¦t choose what to receive, but totally controlled by either the will of God, or the will of Satan.  In short, no choice on salvation is available to man.  This view is expressed more clearly as he said, ¡§for the power of ¡¥free-will¡¦ is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, with grace.¡¨[4]

                           This leads to the problem of responsibility in man¡¦s choice.  Though Luther said man not only necessarily but voluntarily, but how can it be voluntarily if man doesn¡¦t have the ¡§passive choice¡¨.  As it is by nature a captive, in the matters of salvation, to the will of God or Satan.  If no choice is involved how can it be voluntary?

For example, if I am a stone being thrown by a person, certainly I will fall down to the ground.  I am a captive of the gravitational force, I will fall to the earth, even though I am not willing to be.  If I can do something, whether it is good or evil, in a voluntary or non-voluntary attitude, then at least I have the power to choose to be voluntary or non-voluntary.  It just likes a slave is forced by his master to take a burden.  Certainly, he must do it, but he can choose to do it voluntarily or non-voluntarily.  Therefore, man must have the ability to choose to be voluntary or not; if not, man can only be said to commit sins necessarily, not voluntarily.  As Paul said in Romans 7:15, 19: ¡§I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do not do, but what I hate I do¡K.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do ¡V this I keep on doing.¡¨  Hence, we can see that man can sin necessarily but involuntarily, therefore, he has a desire to be good but he can¡¦t do it.  In v18b he said, ¡§For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.¡¨  In view of this evidence, we conclude that the power of ¡¥free-will¡¦ is NOT nil; it can choose in a passive way, i.e. voluntary or not.

3.   Free-will can only be possessed by divinity, and it will be a blasphemy if this is ascribed to men.  He showed this view in Bondage of the will, p.188:¡¨¡K that ¡¥free-will¡¦ is obviously a term applicable only to the Divine Majesty; for only He can do, and does (as the Psalmist sings) ¡¦whatever he wills in heaven and earth¡¦.¡¨  Actually, a presupposition is included, i.e. free-will means absolutely free choice without any restriction on its power.  In order to make the discussion more clear, I will call it ¡¥the Absolute free-will¡¦.  This ¡¥will¡¦ has no doubt only possessed by God the Creator.  HE is the one who created the Universe by His own will, therefore, His will can be restricted by anything in Universe.  However, man is certainly free to some extents, as he is created in the image of God and appointed to rule over the whole world.  He is a created being, not the Creator, therefore, he must have a difference in the level of freedom of the will.  Man can choose what is under him, but not what is above him.  Hence, he has a free-will, but not the Absolute free-will.  In order to choose absolutely free, a being must be omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, which can be found in God¡¦s attribute.

B. His view on ¡¥the elect¡¦

1.          He does not think Christ die for all but ¡§for you¡¨ and ¡§for many¡¨.  Luther interpreted ¡§all¡¨ mentioned in the scripture means ¡§all the elect¡¨.

2.          He doesn¡¦t agree with Calvin¡¦s double predestination.  He argued that the scripture never state that God predestine the reprobate, but only the elect.

3.          The degrees of the elect

The fear of non-election, as he viewed it, can be a comforting sign of election, for in this life only the elect and not the reprobate fear God¡¦s judgment.[5]  In discerns three classes or degrees of the elect.

a.Contentment ¡V The elect who are content with the will of God which elects them.
b. Acceptance ¡V At a deeper level are those who accept the will of God even though God should want to consider them among the reprobate.
c.Resignation ¡V At the deepest level are the elect who in effect resign themselves to hell should God so will.  In this group Luther sees a full cleansing from self-will and a full understanding of the saying that love is stronger than death.

C.Some other problems

1.   Does God both forsakes and incites men to sin?  Is God the author of sin?  Does it mean that God¡¦s will is in contradiction with itself?  Why God permitted Adam to fall when he could have prevented it?  Luther found it as the most difficult problem.  However, his first response is to reject the question.  God is God and that we can¡¦t understand or find out His secret will.  God¡¦s allowing Adam to fall belongs to ¡§the mysteries of His majesty¡¨.[6] Besides, he finds two answers for Adam¡¦s fall:

a.It is a terrible example of what man¡¦s ¡§free will¡¨ is able to do when God leaves it to itself.
b.It is a ¡§blessed guilt¡¨, so man can experience God¡¦s love.

2.          His rejects grace and substitute with faith.  Though he does not rejects all the grace, since he accepts the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a saint, but it is a direct work of God Himself.  (This is an objection from the Roman Catholic Church.)[7]  They think that even if man can¡¦t please God by his innate habit (Habitus infus), he can do it by means of the imputed grace by Christ.  ¡§The Romanist says that Christ has opened up an eternal fountain of grace for sinners. ¡K And yet ¡K Mary can make her addition, the apostles can make their contribution, the saints of the ages can add their bit, and the prayers of the faithful on earth can enlarge the fountain that was opened up.¡¨[8]

a.However, this view is self-contradicted, since Christ has opened an eternal fountain which is infinite, does any finite works is needed for this fountain?

b.It also violates the teaching of the Scripture.  In Eph.2:8-10, it states that ¡§For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, this is the gift of God ¡V not because of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.¡¨  It is obvious that we are saved by grace through faith, and we are HIS workmanship, not ours.

Finally, I quote a paragraph which I think is an excellent summary for Luther¡¦s position:[9]

¡§Luther and Calvin affirmed that faith is both a gift and a decision.  Without the gift, the decision is not related to the experience of God¡¦s forgiving love.  Yet the experience of God¡¦s mercy, and the affirmation from God has led one to this experience, do not vitiate decision.  Those who insist upon decision without ascribing the credit to God distort the meaning of faith by making it a work.  On the other hand, those who stress the activity of God without reference to human decision, make automations and objects out of men.¡¨

III. The Values of his thought (on election)

A.This is a great step toward the interpretation of free-will.  Dr. J.I. Packer presents it as the second great step, while he presents St. Augustine¡¦s works as the first step and that of Jonathan Edwards as the third great step.[10]

B.This causes a shift in theology.  As Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all agreed that Adam¡¦s fall is somehow included in God¡¦s decree, but God isn¡¦t the author of sin.  This agreement make the distinction between infra- and supralapsarianism shifted to differences on the logical order of God¡¦s decrees.[11]

C.This attacks the inclinations toward Pelagianism and to prevent man¡¦s pride in the matters of salvation.

IV.              Reflection

A.The controversy is arised from different presuppositions (or starting points). 

According to Luther (and Calvin, they start from a knowledge of God¡¦s absoluteness above experience, deduce logically from this eternal, and so explain individual experience.  However, their controversists start from experience.[12]  The main issue is how to reconcile God¡¦s absoluteness in grace with man¡¦s freedom.

B.The history of Free Will within theology oscillates between these two interests.

The Greek Church sought to ? human freedom against the Gnostic fatalism, and Augustinianism, again, made an impassable gulf between the moral consciousness of responsibility and the new life of grace.  In addition to that, modern trend tends to shift away from Calvinism to Arminianism.[13]

C.The task and moral responsibility of a theologian:-

As Luther says, a theologian,

1.is a teacher of Christians,

2.writes for Christian¡¦s guidance an outline of Christianity, which is profitable and necessary for them.

3.also, he can¡¦t write in sceptic way,[14]

4.he must be careful about his doctrines which may lead others astray.[15]

D.The attitude in arguing on doctrines

Luther¡¦s De servo arbitrio (Dec, 1525) isn¡¦t systematic as Erasmus¡¦ piece.  Though it is powerful in its conviction and denial of the freedom of the will, the mood and wordings are too rude.  He is too emotional, and hence he has written two lengthy volumes, Hyperaspistes Diatribae adversus servum arbitrium M. Lutheri (1526, 1527) to answer Erasmus in later time.[16]

E. The Relief from the eternal security

I do appreciate Luther¡¦s assertion of election which affirms our salvation assurance.  It is a great discovery for the people in the Midieval Ages and all the people throughout the history.  It is a good news for all, as St. John wrote in Jn.3:16-17:

¡§For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into world, not to condemn the world, but that they might be save through him.¡¨

------ THE END -------


Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, trs. By Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., Historical Theology An Introduction, Grand Rapids; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1978.

Cayre, F., Compendium de Patrologie, Vol. IV, Taichung: Catholic Kuangchi Press, 1976.

Dillenberger, John, Martin Luther Selections From His Writings.


1 Ernst F. Winter (ed.), Discourse on Free Will, p.119.

2 Luther, Bondage of the will, p.187.

3 Luther, Bondage of the will, p.190.

[4] Luther, Bondage of the will, p.188.

* The text of ¡§Bondage of the will¡¨ is taken from Dillenberger, John, Martin Luther.

[5] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Historical Theology An Introduction, p.245.

[6] Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, p.159.

[7] Cayre, F., Compendium de Patrologies, Vol. IV, p.1330.

[8] Pentecost, J.D., Romanism in the Light of Scripture, p.82.

[9] Dillenberger, J. & Welch C., Protestant Christianity, p.31.

[10] The Reformed Faith and Life, Vol. XXXVI July-Sept. 1985 No.3, pp.147-152.

[11] Elwell, W.A., Evangelical Dict. Of Theology, ¡§Supralapsarianism¡¨, pp.1059-1060.

[12] Hastings, J., Ency. Of Rel. & Ethics, Vol. Vi, ¡§Free will¡¨, pp.126-127.

[13] Ibid, pp.126-127.

[14] Luther, M., Bondage of the will, p.176.

[15] Ibid, p.178-79.

[16] Winter, E.F., Eramus-Luther Discourse on Free Will, p.ix.