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The Bondage of the Will, the Sovereignty of Grace and the Glory of God

And, Luther would add, the failure to see the gravity our sin and the depth of our corruption and the bondage of our will, if unchecked, will become an assault on the freedom and sovereignty and the glory of God’s grace in salvation, and therefore an assault on the very gospel itself. In 1528, Luther put it like this: “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrines which exalt our ‘free will,’ as being directly opposed to [the] mediation and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, 1376–1377). By “free will,” I think he means decisive self-determination in acts of faith and obedience.

In another place he said,

This is my absolute opinion: He that will maintain that a man’s free-will is able to do or work anything in spiritual cases, be they never so small, denies Christ. This I have always maintained in my writings, especially in those against Erasmus. (The Tabletalk of Martin Luther, 206)

He doesn’t mean that the will is inactive. He means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is decisively active, creating and fulfilling the acts.

For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin and his moral inability to believe or be holy was the root issue of the Reformation—and the lynchpin of Protestantism. The freedom of God, and therefore the freedom of the gospel and therefore the salvation of men, and the glory of God were at stake in this controversy. Therefore, Luther loved the message of his book The Bondage of the Will, ascribing all freedom and power and grace to God, and, for us, complete dependence on God for faith and holiness. “It is true,” he wrote, “that the doctrine of the Gospel takes all glory, wisdom [and] righteousness … from men and ascribes them to the Creator alone, who makes everything out of nothing” (What Luther Says, Vol. 3, 1374).

So what I would like to do in response to this Reformation position is turn to the Bible and see how the Bible describes the bondage of our will, and how the Bible describes the remedy of God’s grace, and how the Bible answers the question Are human beings so sinful that God’s sovereign grace must create and decisively fulfill every human inclination to believe and obey God? This, I hope, will have a biblical effect on how you preach about the true condition of your people before and after conversion.

There are at least five ways that the Bible describes the bondage that every human being is in. And let it sink in that, if you see these things in the Bible, you know some of the most important things that can be known about every person you will ever meet, and about every movie star and famous athlete and political candidate. You will know the most important need that every person on earth has, and if you go on, you will know the remedy. That is an amazing gift and burden. To whom such knowledge is given, much action will be required.

1. The bondage of legal guilt and divine condemnation

Of the five descriptions of our bondage, this one is unique and foundational. The other four describe conditions of our inner man. This one describes our legal relationship to God. We have sinned against him and are legally guilty and under his just condemnation. Paul describes our situation like this:

All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one. … Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Romans 3:9–10, Romans 3.19″>19)

The word “accountable” (Greek hupodikos) means “under the sentence of condemnation.” Or we could say, in bondage, imprisoned, awaiting the sentence of execution. And it is execution—that is, the outpouring of God’s wrath on all sinners who do not repent. Paul had just said in Romans 2:5, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” That is, everyone apart from faith is under the wrath of God.

This is our primal, legal, objective relationship to God. We have mocked his wisdom and goodness and authority with our preference for our own way and our own self over him, and we are irrefutably guilty and condemned. The sentence is fixed. The justice is unimpeachable. We will perish.

That’s number one, the bondage of legal guilt and divine condemnation.

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John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John is the author of more than 30 books and more than 25 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at DesiringGod.org. © Desiring God.