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

Luther was right about this: Unless we feel the power, and the pervasiveness, and the eternal peril of the bondage of our will, we will not see or savor or sing the glory of God’s sovereign grace.

So back to the main question: Are human beings so sinful that God’s sovereign grace must create and decisively fulfill every human inclination to believe and obey God?

Luther’s answer—and the answer of all the Reformers—was yes. And my conclusion from Scripture is that their answer is true. Pelagianism is wrong. Fallen man cannot create his own holy choices. And semi-Pelagianism is wrong. In the act of faith and the pursuit of holiness, man does not complete God’s prevenient grace by contributing his own decisive, self-determining power. The power and pervasiveness of our bondage is such that God must create and decisively fulfill the act of faith and the pursuit of holiness.

When Paul expresses the Christian pursuit of godliness, he does not picture it as God doing part and we doing part. He prays, “May God fulfill every resolve for good and work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). Paul’s working was not added to God’s working. It was produced by God’s working. So much so that he would say, “It was not I.”

And this is how he instructs everyone to live: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Our working is not added to God’s working. Our working is God’s working. Here’s how Jonathan Edwards relates God’s and our working:

We are not merely passive in [faith and obedience], nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what he produces, our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 21, 251)

If you are no longer in bondage to guilt and death and blindness, if you now love the light and delight in the exaltation of God’s glory more than your own, if you love his authority above your autonomy, and if you see and savor the glory of Christ in the gospel as the greatest treasure in the universe, you owe it all to free and sovereign grace. Not just because God jump-started your dead will, and waited to see what you would make of it with your decisive self-determination, but because from that day to eternity, the grace of God will be the decisive fulfiller, producer of every holy act you ever perform.

Brothers, it is a colossal mistake to preach only the believer’s new freedom and new identity in Christ, and not to preach the believer’s old bondage and old identity in Adam. Without a knowledge of their former bondage, and their daily, radical dependence, how will they ever know the meaning of grace? How will they ever feel the degree of thankfulness for grace that they ought to feel? How will they live to the praise of the glory of his grace?

God’s grace will not be glorified as it ought to be until the church, with deep understanding and exploding joy, says from the heart, “For from him and through him and to him are all things, including my faith and my obedience. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).  

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John Piper
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.

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