Luther wrote a very forceful book about original sin and predestination called 'On the Bondage of the will'. In it Luther opposes the idea of free-will, defined as a person's power to do good without grace. However, I am asking something different than his opposition to free-will. I am asking, "While opposing 'free-will,' what degree of human will does Luther retain for the human experience?" In other words after restricting the will as either enslaved to sin or enslaved to the Spirit (thereby opposing independent free-will), what degree of human will is not completely subject to other forces?

For example, I am assuming that what we choose to eat Luther does not ascribe to either the influence of the flesh or the Spirit, but to a kind of limited power of human will. So what level of will-power do humans have according to Luther?

  • I think your contrast between enslaved to sin or enslaved to the spirit is off. As far as I understand it being enslaved to the spirit means a price has been paid for you. Your or I have been "bought", which is different than something else in in control of us. Free-will is not incompatible with being enslaved to the spirit.
    – Adam Heeg
    Aug 14, 2015 at 20:34

2 Answers 2


To what extent Luther thought human's have 'free will' is actually not fully disclosed in any of his writings. In general Luther opposed all notions of free-will, as those espousing the term always implied some ability (no matter how insignificant) to perform some good work (even if qualified by a 'cooperation' with the Spirit). Luther firmly believed and taught that no man could do 'anything' good unless regenerate by the Spirit of God through faith apart from any work. So no man had free-will as humanity only had the ability to sin.

The background history to Luther's book, 'The Bondage of the Will', was in response to a criticism of his teaching which Erasmus of Rotterdam had published under the title of De libero arbitrio. Erasmus chose this subject, that is their clear difference in their views about human freedom, as a point of argument to publicly commit himself to a position opposed to Luther. He had been pressured to make his position known and was previously reluctant to take a clear side. Now the gloves were off so to speak, and so Luther criticized Erasmus view of freedom in his book as a response. The fact that the book is a response, rather then a orderly thought out treatise of a subject Luther was proposing, is what leaves some things unclear, where not related to his opposition to Erasmus view.

Having this difficulty of determining Luther's view admitted, we may yet at least scope Luther's view under the envelop his own pen has left us. To simplify things we can skip the whole book and start with the 'conclusions' that he presents at the end.

First, he declares there is no such thing as free-will (as suggested and understood by Erasmus and anyone supporting man's ability to do good prior to his being justified by faith):

For if we believe it to be true that God foreknows and predestines all things, that he can neither be mistaken in his foreknowledge nor hindered in his predestination, and that nothing takes place but as he wills it (as reason itself is forced to admit), then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature. (Luther's Works, Vol 33, Page 293).

Earlier in the book Luther explains the concept of foreknowledge as being not just a prediction of what men decide but a deterministic power, being also omnipotent and having care for what happens in his universe. He uses cases such as Pharaoh and Judas to argue that they had limited freedom in that they could not but fulfill God's prophecies concerning their actions.

We know that the Father begets willingly, and that Judas betrayed Christ by an act of will; but we say this willing was certainly and infallibly going to occur in Judas himself if God foreknew it. Or if what I am saying is still not understood, let us have two sorts of necessity, one of force with reference to the work, the other of infallibility with reference to the time; and let anyone who listens to us understand that we are speaking of the latter, not of the former; that is to say, we are not discussing whether Judas became a traitor involuntarily or voluntarily, but whether at a time preordained by God it was bound infallibly to happen that Judas by an act of his will should betray Christ.

But see what Diatribe (Erasmus) says here: “If you look at the infallible foreknowledge of God, and his immutable will, Judas was necessarily going to turn traitor, and yet Judas could change his mind.” Do you really understand what you are saying, my dear Diatribe? Leaving aside the fact that the will can only will evil, as was proved above, how could Judas change his mind so long as the infallible foreknowledge of God remained? Could he change God’s foreknowledge and make it fallible? (Luther's Works, Vol 33, Page 192)

The point is that Luther says if God foreknew that Judas would betray Christ then it only stands to reason that Judas could not alter his destiny no matter what he did. Luther does not say it but the implication is sort of like Spielberg's 'Back to the Future' film. One small event in time might have numerous consequences upon the future, therefore God not only determines the way humanity is unfolded over time, but anything specifically foreknown by God are fixed absolutes that can never be altered. The foreknowledge is deterministic not only spiritually but to some degree materially. For example, Judas could not have killed himself before the appointed time, otherwise the prophecy of God would fail. However Luther does not attempt at all to enter into the complexity of what God's foreknowledge and infinite power imply, he merely asserts that they exisit. Or in other words as already quoted, literally 'that nothing takes place but as he wills it'.

An important point to add, to avoid any misunderstanding is that Luther does not mean Judas had no free choice, rather that his choice to follow his desires were free, but that he had no ability to change his desire. In other words free-choice is basically the ability to freely sin, if there is such a term as free-choice. Judas was not compelled by God to follow after his wicked desire. Only the circumstances surrounding his life were so disposed by God that his desire would be brought about, freely, into the eternal plan of God according to his eternal will.

So, without complicating things more, or changing the subject, let me become more direct in answering the original question. It is not my intention to fully explain Luther's book or his opinion overall about human freedom as that would be very difficult to do without writing another book. Regarding to what degree men do have a kind of free choice there are very few quotations to chose from. Possibly the best two are these that follow.

First, more or less still in his introductory remarks, Luther throws away the term free-will as something only God properly has, but allows some sense of it to be retained if that is what his readers prefer:

But if we are unwilling to let this term go altogether—though that would be the safest and most God-fearing thing to do—let us at least teach men to use it honestly, so that free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him and not what is above him. That is to say, a man should know that with regard to his faculties and possessions he has the right to use, to do, or to leave undone, according to his own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way he pleases. On the other hand in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan. (Luther's Works, Vol 33, Page 70)

His distinction about 'beneath him' and 'above him' can more or less be translated as spiritual versus natural. In other words Luther believes man has no spiritual free will. That is to say he, in the sinful state only has freedom to sin, and sin only within the circumstances that God has ordained for his life materially. However is does allow some freedom in the natural world, while either under the dominion of sin as an unbeliever, or under the power of the Spirit as a believer. Regardless of how man's will (or desire) is created by the Devil, or God, wether an unbeliever, or not, Luther allows 'some' natural freedom within the confines of destiny.

Or to put it in simple terms, here is what Luther allows with respect to a human's ability to have free will:

We know there are things free choice does by nature, such as eating, drinking, begetting, ruling, so that Diatribe cannot laugh us out of court with her shrewdly idiotic remark that if we press the word “nothing,” it would not be possible even to sin without Christ, although Luther has admitted that free choice avails only for sinning. (Luther's Works, Vol 33, Page 240)

He really says nothing more about the existence of human freedom in the entire book as the whole things was meant to argue against Erasmus' view of free will.


I'm not exactly sure I understand the question. But, perhaps this answer will suffice.

Luther made a distinction between the things "above us" and the things "below us." The things above us are works that can only be done by our Triune God (salvation, conversion, etc). The things below us are the items in our daily lives subject to reason (paying taxes, doing homework, showing up on time for work, etc). These things 'below us,' are subject to human reason. But even in this, reason is so darkened by sin that what is reasonable is not always right and wise. The best summary of this is found in the book of Concord (the official collection of documents that Lutherans adhere to):

For, as Dr. Luther says, in comments on Psalm 90,63 “In temporal and external affairs, which concern nourishment and bodily needs, the human being is clever, intelligent, and up to a point industrious, but in spiritual and divine matters, which concern the soul’s salvation, the human being is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, indeed like a block of wood or a stone, like a lifeless statue, which needs neither eyes nor mouth, neither senses nor heart, b inasmuch as this human being neither sees nor recognizes the dreadful, fierce wrath of God against sin and death but instead abides in a sense of security willingly and knowingly and as a result runs into a thousand dangers and finally into eternal death and damnation. No plea, no appeal, no admonition is of any help, nor are threats or scolding. Indeed, every bit of teaching or preaching is wasted here,” before the Holy Spirit enlightens, converts, and gives new birth to this creature. b No stone or block of wood (only the human being!) is created for this purpose. Although God has rejected the fallen evil spirits for all eternity according to his strict and righteous judgment, he nonetheless willed, out of his boundless, pure mercy, that this poor, fallen, corrupted human nature become capable of conversion, God’s grace, and eternal life, and participate in them — not on the basis of its own, natural, actual aptitude, capacity, or capability (for it is a rebellious hostility against God) but out of sheer grace, through the gracious, powerful working of the Holy Spirit. Dr. Luther calls this a capacitas [capacity],64 which he explains in this way: f “When the Fathers defend the free will, they mean that it is capable of being free in the sense that it can be converted by grace to the good and become truly free in the way it was created to be originally.”65 Augustine wrote the same thing in book two of Against Julian.66

But before people are enlightened, converted, reborn, renewed, and drawn back to God by the Holy Spirit, they cannot in and of themselves, out of their own natural powers, begin, effect, or accomplish anything in spiritual matters for their own conversion or rebirth, any more than a stone or block of wood or piece of clay [Isa. 45:9; 64:8; Jer. 18:6; Rom. 9:19–24] can.

For although they can control their bodies and can listen to the gospel and think about it to a certain extent and even speak of it (as Pharisees and hypocrites do), they regard it as foolishness and cannot believe it. They behave in this case worse than a block of wood, for they are rebellious against God’s will and hostile to it, wherever the Holy Spirit does not exercise his powers in them and ignite and effect faith and other God-pleasing virtues and obedience in them.

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Accordance electronic ed. Minneapoli: Fortress Press, 2000), 547-549.

I hope that this begins to answer your question. If it doesn't, please elaborate on what you mean with the words, "human experience"?

Pastor Steve Bauer (http://stevebauer.us)

  • possibly if you read On the bondage of the will you will understand the question a little more...the question is more like do we have free choice to chose when we awake, or who we marry or is it all predetermined under Gods influencing power. To what extent did Luther think humans were not entirely subject to Divine power disposing the events of our lives under a predetermined path. Cheers
    – Mike
    Dec 6, 2015 at 5:29
  • Thanks for clarifying, Mike. Yes, I've read De Arbitrio a number of times throughout the years. And Luther makes it clear (both from the above citation and in bondage of the will) that in external matters, we are free in a limited way in those areas subject to reason. So, for example, God does the work of bringing a woman into a dude's life. But it's the guy's work and choice to ask her out on a date. And if he should marry her, that is his work and word of promise that God blesses. This is a 'below us' matter. Salvation and conversion are examples of 'above us' matters. Dec 6, 2015 at 12:42
  • +1...I think you answer is good, however I;m looking for a little more analyis directly from Luther's book
    – Mike
    May 20, 2016 at 14:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .