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Free Will

J.B. Unseth

1939 Synod Convention Essay

“For thorough, permanent unity in the church it is, above all things, necessary that we have a comprehensive, unanimously approved summary and form wherein is brought together from God’s Word the common doctrine, reduced to a brief compass, which the churches that are of the true Christian religion confess.” These words of the Formula of Concord are very timely also in our day when doctrinal teaching has been largely banished from many church denominations. Always the orthodox symbols of the Christian Church have been declarations of the Christian faith and, as such, God’s own word, set forth in that particular form in which it best served the paramount purpose of confuting error and defending divine truth. As such they should be studied. Dr. Walther is said to have expressed the opinion that, if he failed to read the Confessions regularly and systematically, he would become ignorant of the Lutheran doctrine in its clearest form and expression and lose for himself their devout spirit of Biblical loyalty.

While it is true that the Bible alone should be and remain the only standard and rule of doctrine, the Lutheran Confessions, which are in complete agreement with Holy Scripture and are an aid in the right understanding of Scripture, ought to be studied diligently. If it were asked of what benefit the study of our Confessions may be to us as individuals, and collectively, as a communion of believers in, and witnesses for, Christ, the reply would be the same as that given in answer to the query what the detailed and continued study of the Word of God, or the Holy Bible, itself would do for us. Luther’s words in his Large Catechism (Third Commandment) apply also to the study of God’s Word as it is set forth in our Christian Confessions: “Such is the efficacy of the Word, whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, that it is bound never to be without fruit but always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness, and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts. For these words are not inoperative or dead but creative, living words. And even though no other interest or necessity impel us, yet this ought to urge everyone thereunto, because thereby the devil is put to flight and driven away, and, besides, this commandment is fulfilled, and this exercise in the Word is more pleasing to God than any work of hypocrisy, however brilliant.”

A conscientious study of our Confessions will also bless us with that most profitable and necessary spiritual solidarity, or godly unity, without which we cannot hope to fight the Lord’s battles successfully, as one united, mighty army of God. Error divides, as the confusion of doctrine among the churches which are disloyal to God’s Word abundantly proves; but God’s Word unites. Of the first Christians at Jerusalem we read in Scripture: “The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul,” Acts 4:32. “They kept the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Eph. 4:3. And this they did because “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers,” Acts 2:42. The believers at Jerusalem were “joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment,” I Cor. 1:10. They were “one in their one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” Eph. 4:5. They had church union in true, inward, spiritual unity of faith and love. We need to be reminded of this in view of the ever-increasing tendency to unite the various denominations or groups of Christians, often without the true spiritual unity of faith.

Again the Formula of Concord says: “Moreover, since for the preservation of pure doctrine and for thorough, permanent, godly unity in the Church it is necessary, not only that the pure, wholesome doctrine be rightly presented, but also that the opponents who teach otherwise be reproved; therefore we have thoroughly and clearly declared to one another, also regarding these matters, as follows: that a distinction should and must by all means be observed between unnecessary and useless wrangling, on the one hand, and necessary controversy on the other hand, as when such a controversy occurs as involves the articles of faith or the chief heads of the Christian doctrine, where for the defense of the truth the false opposite doctrine ‘must be reproved.”

The article of our confession on “Free Will,” which we are to consider at this time and concerning which there has been a great deal of controversy, is one of great importance. The writers of our Book of Concord considered it of such importance that they have treated it not only in the Augsburg Confession, but also in The Apology, the Smalcald Articles, The Epitome, and The Thorough Declaration. Luther considered this question of the greatest importance. To his opponent, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who in his Diatribe had taught that free will is “the ability of the human will according to which man is able either to turn himself to what leads to eternal salvation or to turn away from it,” Luther addressed the words: “You alone have discerned the core of the matter, and have aimed at the throat.” By asserting his Semi-pelagianistic doctrine of man’s free will, Erasmus flew at the throat of Christianity. The matter at issue here touches the heart of Christianity. It is as Luther says: “The question of free will is a fundamental question in theology. He that errs here also errs in other doctrines, particularly in the sweet doctrine of salvation by grace alone.”

In discussing man’s free will, “four different viewpoints can be taken,” says the Form of Concord in an introduction to Art. II. “We can ask, How it was with man’s free will before the Fall; how since the Fall and before conversion; how after regeneration; and finally, how after the resurrection from the dead.” Our discussion is concerned exclusively with the second viewpoint: “In what condition is man’s free will since the Fall and before conversion or regeneration?” Studying our confessions, we find that they on the basis of Scripture treat of man’s free will both from a positive and a negative point of view. There are accordingly two points which require elucidation as regards the powers of man’s will in his state of corruption. The doctrinal contents of this article deal with two main questions: 1. What can the unregenerate do by means of his own natural powers? 2. What is he unable to do before he is regenerated?

1. The 18th Article of the Augsburg Confession says, stating the condition in a general way: “Man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness and to work things subject to reason.” Before conversion, then, man is free in external things, in outward work, in “things subject to reason.” Here he can choose between alternatives. He is a personality which cannot be without a free will in external things subject to reason. Through the Fall, man has not become an irrational brute, but he remains a rational creature, endowed with freedom of will in the realm of earthly things. Quoting Augustine, our confession says: “We grant that all men have a free will, free inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry, to raise cattle, to learn divers useful arts, or whatsoever good pertains to this life.” Into this class belong also such things as to go to church, to hear and to read the Word of God, to discourse concerning it. Our Formula of Concord says: “This Word man can externally hear and read, even though he is not yet converted to God and regenerate; for in these external things, as said above, man even since the Fall has to a certain extent a free will, so that he can go to church and hear or not hear the sermon” (Thor. Decl., ii, 53). Again: “He can control the outward members and hear the Gospel, and to a certain extent meditate upon it, also discourse concerning it, as is to be seen in the Pharisees and hypocrites” (II, 24). Our confession thus freely acknowledges that natural man in “external things which pertain to this temporal life” has to some extent a free will and natural powers. Even in the exercise of civil righteousness our confessions grant on the basis of scripture that the will of natural man is free to some extent. The Augsburg Confession says: “Of Free Will they teach that man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession affirms: “The human will has liberty in the choice of works and things which reason comprehends by itself. It can to a certain extent render civil righteousness, or the righteousness of works; it can speak of God, offer to God a certain service by an outward work, obey magistrates, parents; in the choice of an. outward work it can restrain the hands from murder, from adultery, from theft. Since there is left in human nature reason and judgment concerning objects subjected to the senses, choice between these things, and the liberty and power to render civil righteousness, are also left.” (Art. XVIII, 70.)

It is, however, only a “civil righteousness.” In the apology it is called a “righteousness of works,” also a “righteousness of the flesh which the carnal nature, that is, reason by itself without the Holy Ghost, renders.”

The qualification which is here made, namely, that man in the things enumerated has a free will only “to a certain extent,” is very important, since by nature is so dead in trespasses and sins and held captive in Satan’s power (Eph. 2:2; Col. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:26; Acts 26:18), that his civil righteousness leaves much to be desired. The Apology therefore rightly adds: “The power of concupiscence is such that men more frequently obey evil dispositions than sound judgment. And the devil, who is efficacious in the godless, as Paul says (Eph. 2:2), does not cease to incite this feeble nature to various offenses. These are the reasons why civil righteousness is rare among men, as we see that not even the philosophers themselves, who seem to have aspired after this righteousness, attained it.” (Art. 18, 71.)

Our confessions show that, so far as external morality and living an outwardly decent life is concerned, natural man may to some extent exercise his free will. A man may be a murderer, a thief, an adulterer at will. He can live a morally clean and decent life without the work of the Holy Ghost, but all his righteousness is only outward and as such has absolutely no merit when he must face eternity. Human hearts without the Holy Ghost are without the fear of God, without faith in God. They are godless, and “without faith it is impossible to please God.” “Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”

2. While our Confessions thus grant that man’s free will has some liberty to work a civil righteousness and to choose between things which are subject to human reason, they emphatically deny that man after the Fall has a “free will” in matters spiritual.

When the term “free will” is used in the sense of “spiritual power” by which corrupt man can desire that which is spiritually good, prepare himself for divine grace, fulfill the divine Law out of true love for God, accept and believe the gospel, and thus either convert himself entirely or at least cooperate in his conversion, we, on the basis of scripture, deny that man after the Fall has a “free will.” Scripture declares: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned.” I Cor. 2:14; “The carnal mind,” that is, the mind of the natural man, “is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,” Rom 8:7; “You hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins,” Eph. 2:1.

If, then, the natural man does not receive the spiritual things, but regards them as foolishness; indeed, if he is dead in trespasses and sins and is enmity against God, then certainly he is without the power to will that which is spiritually good, to apply himself to divine grace, and to prepare himself for, or to cooperate in, his conversion. In other words: “Man can do nothing in spiritual matters before his conversion.” Gerhard writes: “Understanding the term, liberty, as describing the free power and faculty of choosing the good and rejecting the evil that was possessed by Adam, we maintain that Luther was perfectly correct in saying: ‘Free will is a title without the thing itself, or a thing with nothing but a title.’”

Article 18 of the Augsburg Confession, quoting St. Augustine, says: “We grant that all men have a free will, free inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason; not that it is thereby capable, without God, either to begin, or much less, to complete aught in things pertaining to God, but only in works of this life.” And the Apology says: “Although we concede to free will the liberty and power to perform the outward works of the Law, yet we do not ascribe to free will these spiritual matters, namely, truly to fear God, truly to believe God, truly to be confident and hold that God regards us, hears us, forgives us, etc.” These are works which the heart cannot render without the Holy Ghost.

The Formula of Concord which speaks most clearly, definitely and detailedly on the question under consideration says: “In spiritual and divine things, which pertain to the salvation of the soul, man is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, yea, like a log and a stone, like a lifeless statue, which uses neither eyes nor mouth, neither sense nor heart. For man neither sees nor perceives the terrible and fierce wrath of God on account of sin and death, but ever continues in his security, even knowingly and willingly. … All teaching and preaching is lost upon him until he is enlightened, converted, and regenerated by the Holy Ghost.” (Thorough Declaration II, 20 :21.) And again: “Therefore the Scriptures deny to the intellect, heart, and will of the natural man all aptness, skill, capacity, and ability to think, to understand, to be able to do, to begin, to will, to undertake, to act, to work or to concur in working anything good and right in spiritual things as of himself.”

Of passages of Scripture confirming our Confessions, the following may be mentioned: II Cor. 3:5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.“ Rom. 3:12: “They are together become unprofitable.” John 8:37: “My word hath no place in you.“ John 1:5: “The darkness comprehendeth it not (the light).” I Cor. 2:14: “The natural man receiveth not” (or, as the Greek word properly signifies, grasps not, comprehends not, accepts not) “the things of the Spirit, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.” Rom. 8:7: “The carnal mind (the mind of the natural man), is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be.” And, in a word, it remains eternally true what the Son of God says, John 15:5: “Without Me ye can do nothing.” And Paul says, Phil. 2:13: “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Thor. Decl. 11:12–14.)

This utter unfitness of natural man for spiritual acts, the Formula of Concord asserts particularly and emphatically with reference to the Gospel. It says: “Although man’s reason or natural intellect indeed has still a dim spark of the knowledge that there is a God, as also of the doctrine of the law, Rom. 1:19, ff., yet it is so ignorant, blind and perverted that when the most ingenious and learned men upon earth read or hear the Gospel of the Son of God and the promise of eternal salvation, they cannot from their own powers perceive, apprehend, understand, or believe and regard it as true, but the more diligence and earnestness they employ, wishing to comprehend these spiritual things with their reason, the less they understand or believe, and before they become enlightened and are taught by the Holy Ghost, they regard all this only as foolishness or fictions.” (Thor. Decl. II, 9.)

We call attention to these statements from our confessions to show that they speak not only in a general way of the total depravity of natural man, but also that they emphatically deny that man in his natural state has any will and power in spiritual matters, that of his own powers he is able to think or will anything that is truly good.

This Scriptural doctrine that man in spiritual matters has no free will at all, but is completely blind, dead, and hostile to God has always been denied by those who hold that justification, conversion, perseverance in faith, and final salvation are not in every respect a gracious gift of God alone, but are obtained, at least to some extent, by man’s own efforts.

It was denied by the Pelagians, “who taught that man by his own powers, without the grace of the Holy Ghost, can turn himself to God, believe the Gospel, be obedient from the heart to God’s law, and thus merit the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, II, 9.) There is no sect today known under the name of Pelagians, but Pelagianism permeates all churches that are rationalistic in character. And the ideas of Pelagianism are being disseminated in the literature of our day and in the public institutions of learning. Pelagianism is in a special sense the religion of the natural man.

This doctrine that man in spiritual matters has no free will is denied also by the Semi-Pelagians, “who teach that man by his own powers can make a beginning of his conversion, but without the grace of the Holy Ghost cannot complete it.” (Epit. II, 10.) The same is the case with the Synergists, so-called, who in many respects differ very little from the Semi-Pelagians, the difference being that they speak of man’s cooperation in conversion and toward his own salvation in a more subtle manner. The Formula of Concord refers to these when it says that “a division has occurred not only between the Papists and us, but also among some theologians of the Augsburg Confession themselves, concerning free will.” While the Roman Catholic Church taught, and to this day teaches, Semi-Pelagianism and pronounces its curse upon all who deny that natural man can exercise any freedom of his will in spiritual matters, there were and are also Lutherans who claim that man can cooperate in his conversion and salvation. This synergistic heresy is described in the Formula of Concord as follows: “Man is not absolutely dead to good in spiritual things, but is badly wounded and half dead. Therefore, although the free will is too weak to make a beginning and to convert itself to God by its own powers and to be obedient to God’s law from the heart, nevertheless, when the Holy Ghost makes a beginning and calls us through the Gospel and offers us His grace, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation, then the free will, from its own natural powers, can meet God and to a certain extent, although feebly, do something toward it, help, and cooperate thereto, can qualify itself for, and apply itself to, grace and apprehend, accept it, and believe the Gospel, and can also cooperate by its own powers with the Holy Ghost in the continuation and maintenance of this work.” (Thor. Decl. 11, 77.)

Under this definition fall both the gross synergism of Melanchthon, who taught that man can cooperate in his conversion by his natural powers, and the subtle synergism of those who claim that man can cooperate in his conversion with spiritual powers bestowed on him by the Holy Ghost. Both types place the cause of conversion and salvation in man himself.

In opposition to this error, the Formula of Concord declares: “In spiritual and divine things the intellect, heart, and will of the unregenerate man are utterly unable by their own natural powers to understand, believe, accept, think, will, begin, effect, do, work, or concur in working anything, but they are entirely dead to what is good, and corrupt, so that in man’s nature since the fall, before regeneration, there is not the least spark of spiritual power remaining nor present, by which of himself he can prepare himself for God’s grace or accept the offered grace, nor be capable of it for and of himself, or apply or accommodate himself thereto, or by his own powers be able of himself, as of himself, to aid, do, work, or concur in working anything toward his conversion, either wholly or half or in any, even the least, or inconsiderable, part; but he is the servant of sin, John 8:34, and a captive of the devil, by whom he is moved, Eph. 2:2; II Tim. 2:26. Hence the natural free will according to its perverted disposition and nature is strong and active only with respect to what is displeasing and contrary to God.” (Thor. Decl. II, 7.)

In opposition to the Scripture-doctrine of man’s total loss of free will in spiritual matters it has been argued that natural man must have a free will in spiritual matters, since his conversion without his cooperation would imply coercion on God’s part, In reply to this argument Dr. Stoeckhart says in his commentary on the Ephesians: “It is sheer folly when the charge is raised against the Lutheran Scriptural teaching of the sole operation of God in man’s conversion, that this teaching makes conversion a compulsory conversion, a mechanical process, and endangers the ethical character of this act. Conversion as represented in Scripture is not an act of violence inflicted on man and repulsive to every faculty which man possesses, but in the language of our confession, it is a change, a new movement and emotion in the intellect, will and heart; it affects, in particular, the will of man; and the will of man does not suffer itself to be coerced. God does not compel man to obey. Him against his will, but He seizes man’s will and makes children of disobedience, unwilling persons, willing. In conversion God renews the will of man and liberates the will which has been held captive by sin and the devil, — so that man willingly and gladly lives unto God and serves Him.” The very nature of conversion excludes the idea of coercion; for it consists essentially in the gracious drawing of the sinner by God Himself, John 6:44, which is accomplished through the means of grace, Rom. 10:17. The Formula of Concord says: “‘We reject also when the following expressions are employed, … namely, that … the Holy Ghost is given to those who resist Him intentionally and persistently; for, as Augustine says, in conversion God makes willing persons out of the unwilling and dwells in the willing.” (Epit. II, 15.)

Again it is said that natural man must have a free will in spiritual matters, since God commands him to obey the law and t6 believe the Gospel, Matt. 22:37–39; Acts 16:31. To this we reply that from the divine command we must not infer the human ability to comply with the command. Luther asks: “Does it follow from ‘Love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart’ — therefore thou art able to love with all thine heart?” Luther denies that the command presupposes and proves the ability to do it. The same Word of God which demands obedience to the Law, Gal. 3:10, and faith in the Gospel, Mark 1:15, teaches also that natural man cannot obey the Law, nor believe in Christ by his own strength. Yet neither are the commands of the Law useless, nor are the Gospel exhortations in vain. Luther says these commands and exhortations serve a good, necessary, and saving purpose. The commands of the Law are addressed to men “that it may plainly appear to them how unable they are to do it, that they may be roused to see their impotency.” The Gospel exhortations or commands make no demand on us whatever, but offer the gifts of salvation, console and lift up the despairing sinner, and thereby create the faith called for Walther points out that “the words ‘Repent ye and be converted’ or ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus,’ addressed to men who are dead in sins, are like the Words of Christ spoken to dead Lazarus, ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ that is, that through these words conversion, faith, life is produced.”

Again it is said that natural man must have a free will in spiritual matters; for if he can resist divine grace and so hinder his salvation, Matt. 22:27, then he can also assist divine grace and so make his salvation possible. To this we reply that this conclusion does not follow. For while Scripture ascribes to man the power to destroy himself, it emphatically denies that he can save himself, Hos. 13:9: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.”

Thus our confessions deny to free will all spiritual powers, and ascribes everything to God’s grace, in order that no one may boast before God of having merited. or earned his salvation.

Synergism has been taught in many different forms. But no matter in what form it is taught, it is always a denial of the fundamental article of Scripture and the Lutheran church thai salvation is by grace alone. It is therefore of the utmost importance to keep synergism out of the church. It is a pernicious doctrine, which as Luther points out, ultimately renders Christ’s vicarious suffering and death superfluous; indeed, which makes conversion impossible, since those who trust in their own works remain under the curse of the Law (cf. Gal. 3:10; 5:4).

Though this doctrine which rejects and denies to natural man even the least power and will may be repulsive and humiliating to the Pharisee in us, yet the Christian will glory in this truth. He will thank God who out of infinite grace and mercy has taken everything that pertains to the salvation of man in hand Himself, that He has purchased grace and salvation for men by Christ, and that He has ordained the means by which the forgiveness of sins, which has been purchased for us, is imparted to us, and by which faith is engendered and sustained.

Luther gloried and exulted in this truth. He said: “As to myself, I openly confess that I should not wish ‘free will’ to be granted me, even if it could be so, nor anything else to be left in my own hands whereby I might endeavor something towards my own salvation. And that, hot merely because in so many opposing dangers and against so many assaulting devils I could not stand and hold it fast (in which state no man could be saved, seeing that one devil is stronger than all men), but because, even though there were no dangers, no conflicts, no devils, I should be compelled to labor under a continual uncertainty and to beat the air only. Nor would my conscience, even if I should live and work to all eternity, ever come to a settled certainty how much it ought to do in order to satisfy God. For whatever work should be done, there would still remain a scrupling whether or not it pleased God or whether He required anything more; as is proved in the experience of all justiciaries, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost. But now, since God has put my salvation out of the way of my will and has taken it under His own and has promised to save me not according to my working or manner of life but according to His own grace and mercy, I rest fully assured and persuaded that He is faithful and will not lie and, moreover, great and powerful, so that no devils, no adversities, can destroy Him or pluck me out of His hand. ‘No one’ (saith He) ‘shall pluck them out of My hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all,’ John 10:28 ff. Hence it is certain that in this way, if all are not saved, yet some, yea, many, shall be saved; whereas by the power of free will no one whatever could be saved, but all must perish together. And, moreover, we are certain and persuaded that in this way we please God, not from the merit of our own works, but from the favor of His mercy promised unto us; and that, if we work less or work badly, He does not impute it unto us, but like a father pardons us and makes us better. — This is the glorying which all the saints have in their God.”

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