The Controversy Over Free Will: Erasmus and Luther

Full Essay Title: R. C. Sproul (1997, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, p.93) quotes Luther who places himself in conversation with Erasmus:

Erasmus: Who will try and reform his life?

Luther: Nobody!

Erasmus: Who will believe that God loves him?

Luther: Nobody!  Nobody can!  But the elect shall believe it; and the rest shall perish without believing it, raging and blaspheming.

Erasmus: A flood-gate of iniquity is opened by your doctrines.

Luther: So be it.

Evaluate biblically and theologically the positions of Luther and Erasmus as seen here.  Your essay should include an assessment of the relevance of this topic for ministry.

Part 1


The controversy over free will and salvation was not new when Erasmus and Luther began their debate; it originated with Pelagius (who was confronted by Augustine) in the 5th century and continues today.  Sproul (1997, 88) brings the issue down to its essence when he asks ‘Is the decisive factor in salvation something man does or something God does?’

The two sides are defined as Synergism, which is ‘The view that in the act of Justification (or the experience of conversion), the human will can cooperate with God’s grace’ (Livingstone 2006, 570); or even more pointedly, the idea ‘that people can take the initial steps towards salvation by their own efforts, apart from Divine grace’ (Livingstone 2006, 447); and Monergism, which is ‘The view that the Holy Spirit is the only agent who effects regeneration of Christians….This grace works independently of any human cooperation and conveys that power into the fallen soul whereby the person who is to be saved is effectually enabled to respond to the gospel call’ (Monergism web site).

The opponents

By the time of the Reformation, Luther, in his reply to Erasmus, identifies and defines the difference between the two positions, as seen in his own and Erasmus’, saying it is ‘…..necessary for a Christian, to find out whether the will does anything or nothing in matters pertaining to salvation.  Indeed, as you should know, this is the cardinal issue between us, the point on which everything in this controversy turns.  For what we are doing is to inquire what free choice can do, what it has done to it, and what is its relation to the grace of God’ (Luther 1969, 116; emphasis mine).

Prior to this, Erasmus (1969, 46, 44), in his response to Luther’s Assertio, acknowledged that the Reformers claimed free will ‘to be the chief doctrine of the whole gospel’, while he personally thought it was a doctrine which should be left alone because it was obscure in scripture.

These two men represent the two different positions; Erasmus represents the teaching of the Catholic Church and of Synergism; Luther, that of the Reformers and the Reformation and of Monergism.  It could be said that both tried to glorify God in the way they deal with free will; for Erasmus, God would be unjust to demand what humans cannot perform; hence his statement ‘Who will be able to bring himself to love God with all his heart when He created hell seething with eternal torments in order to punish his own misdeeds in his victims as though he took delight in human torments?’ (Erasmus 1969, 41).

For Luther, God cannot be in a position where humans can sovereignly deny him, else he would not be God; hence his statement ‘Nobody can! (believe that God loves him).  But the elect shall believe it’ (Sproul 1997, 93).  Luther grounds his argument in the doctrine of election in which God is absolutely sovereign in determining who will be saved.

Erasmus’ position

Erasmus (1969, 37) said, ‘As far as I am concerned, I admit that many different views about free choice have been handed down from the ancients about which I have, as yet, no fixed conviction, except that I think there to be a certain power of free choice’.  He defines free choice as ‘a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them’ (Erasmus 1969, 47).

It is important to understand where Erasmus is coming from; his authority is that of the teaching of the Church (i.e. Tradition) and of scripture, both of which are subject to the Magisterium.  He makes this clear when he writes ‘….so far am I from delighting in “assertions” that I would readily take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics, wherever this is allowed by the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures and by the decrees of the Church, to which I everywhere willingly submit my personal feelings, whether I grasp what it prescribes or not’ (Erasmus 1969, 37).

A few pages later he again gives equal weight to “the solid arguments of Holy Scripture” and “so numerous a body of most learned men who have found approval in so many centuries down to our own day”, names many Fathers, and includes “the authority of many universities, councils, and supreme pontiffs” (Erasmus 1969, 42).

Thus, Erasmus is opposing Luther with the view of the Catholic Church; this Church was semi-Pelagian and synergistic.  In spite of the Council of Orange (529 AD) decreeing the Augustinian position as orthodox, Pope Gregory the Great introduced a ‘moderated Augustinian system’ with prevenient grace but without irresistible grace ‘and without a particularistic decretum absolutum’(Schaff undated, 350).  This milder Augustinianism greatly influenced medieval theology, and was affirmed by the Council of Trent.

Erasmus acknowledges that Luther pays no heed to Tradition whatsoever, but that scripture alone is his authority.  Therefore, he seeks to base his attack from scripture.  His key text is Ecclesiasticus 15:14-17 (Luther doesn’t object that this text is not scripture) because it ‘seems to point out most clearly the origin and power of free choice’ (Erasmus 1969, 54); and in expounding it, he says ‘The Law shows what God wills, sets out the penalty to him who disobeys and the rewards to the obedient.  For the rest it leaves the power of choice to the will that was created in them free and able rapidly to turn to one or the other….If the will had not been free, sin could not have been imputed’ (Erasmus 1969, 50).

This passage essentially sums up his position on the place of the will in salvation.  In his argument he quotes several Old and New Testament verses, many of them commands, which appear to teach that humans have the power to choose God at will.  He says ‘It would be ridiculous to say, “Choose”, if the power of turning one way or the other were not present’ (Erasmus 1969, 54).  This is reminiscent of Pelagius’ statement, ‘He has not willed to command anything impossible, for he is righteous; and he will not condemn a man for what he could not help, for he is holy’ (Bettenson 1965, 74).

 In his next section, Erasmus discusses the verses which seem to take away free choice entirely.  His key texts are Exodus 9:12 and Romans 9:17, which deal with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart; and Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:13 concerning Jacob and Esau.  But once again, Erasmus resorts to human thinking and reasoning rather than accept what scripture plainly teaches.  He says ‘Since, however, it seems absurd that God, who is not only just but good also should be said to have hardened the heart of a man, so that by the man’s misdeeds, He might display his own power’ (Erasmus 1969, 65); and then allows Origen to explain how the human will is still able to choose or reject God by their repentance on recognition of the goodness of God or their neglecting his goodness.

In Romans chapter 9, Paul is clear that it is God who is the author of salvation.  In commenting on 9:6-29, Moo says ‘Paul’s first response is to argue that God’s word has all along promised salvation only to those whom God sovereignly chose.  Paul cites extensively from Israel’s history to make his argument, showing that belonging to God’s people depends not on birth or on anything a person does, but on God’s call’ (Moo 2004, 1142).

The language of this passage is overwhelmingly monergistic.  Erasmus’ argument is brushed aside by verse 20 and the ensuing challenge.  And 9:18 has God choosing to whom he will show mercy and whom he will harden.  This leaves no room for Erasmus’ and Origen’s explanations which have God blaming himself for sinners’ obstinacy because he didn’t punish them (Erasmus 1969, 65), but reveals a God who controls the destiny of everything in his creation.

Luther’s position

Gonzales (1985, 42) says that, as Luther saw it, free will as held by the moralists of his time ‘did not take into account the enormous power of sin’; that it is too powerful to be rid of; it is only by divine intervention – the initiative on God’s part exercised through predestination – that we are justified.

For Luther, God was absolutely sovereign (Dan 4:34-35; Rev 19:6).  He did not react to a sinner’s turning to him in faith by saving him; he decreed who would be saved.  Along with the apostle Paul, Augustine and Calvin, he believed that human beings are spiritually dead (Eph 2:1) and therefore can make no move towards God whatsoever (Jn 6:65).  He likens the human will to a beast of burden which is ridden either by God or Satan and under their control; it can’t ‘choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it’.  We are captive to Satan’s will (2 Tim 2:26; Lk 11:21); yet, he says, we serve Satan willingly because this is the nature of will; it wouldn’t be will if compelled.  By contrast, he says, ‘if God works in us, the will is changed by God’s Spirit, and it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination of its own accord, not from compulsion’ (Luther 1969, 140).

Sproul (1997, 27-29) observes ‘When free will is debated with reference to predestination it usually is linked to the sovereignty of God.  Can man be truly free if God is sovereign?…..The antithesis to divine sovereignty is not human freedom, but human autonomy.  Autonomy represents a degree of freedom that is unlimited by any higher authority or power’ (Sproul 1997, 27).

Luther admits that humans have a sort of freedom which enables them to choose on a temporal level; thus they can do the works of the law.  But they can never fulfil the Law, because the Holy Spirit must first drive out the Evil Spirit that drives them; until that happens, humans are incapable of it, because the fulfilling of the Law is love; hence, what they call ‘free will’ is more properly called ‘self-will’, which means bondage to Satan (Marlow and Drewery 1969, 17-18).

The only people who can come to God for salvation are those whom the Father has predestined; hence his answer to Erasmus’ question ‘who will believe that God loves him?’ was ‘Nobody!  Nobody can!  But the elect shall believe it; and the rest shall perish’ (Sproul 1997, 93).  Thus, for a person to choose to be saved is impossible unless God first gives the ability i.e. regeneration, or new life (Eph 2:11).  Just as a person cannot choose to be born, so they are also passive and unable to prepare themselves for the kingdom of God because they are spiritually dead (Luther 1969, 289; and Jas 1:18).

Luther further says that humanity can ‘do nothing but what deserves wrath and punishment’ because of universal sin (Luther 1969, 293-301).  Thus, he leaves no room for the unconverted will to initiate anything in regard to salvation; everything depends on the sovereign God who wills and chooses as he pleases.

In speaking of condign merit, responding to Erasmus’ complaint of Wycliffe, that he ‘ascribes all things to sheer necessity, and what room does he leave either for our prayers or for our endeavours?’ (Erasmus 1969, 43), Luther shows that “What is sought by means of free choice is to make room for merits’ and says ‘Paul here replies that there is no such thing as merit, but all who are justified are justified freely (gratis), and this is to be ascribed to nothing but the grace of God’ (Luther 1969, 310).

Dickens says ‘Luther sought to shatter the complacent man-made morality which awards a person credit-points in heaven for every good deed done…..If God, wholly unprompted by pitiful human merit, willed to save some undeserving men from the crowd of the undeserving, then there would seem to remain no effective scope for the exercise of free will’ (Dickens 1971, 57-58).

In response to Erasmus’ idea that it is ‘irreverent inquisitiveness’ to ‘rush into those things which are hidden, not to say superfluous: whether God knows anything contingently….’ (Erasmus 1969, 39), Luther writes ‘Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will.  Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered’ (Luther 1969, 118).

Thus, for Luther (and the revelation of scripture), God works according to his predetermined plan and purpose (Eph 1:11) – God initiates, he bestows life, he doesn’t play ‘catch-up’ in reaction to human will.


Erasmus and Luther were wrangling over an issue on which each placed a different value.  Erasmus frankly admitted that he had ‘no fixed conviction’ on the matter; for him it was an issue that God had not made clear in scripture, and therefore was better left alone as it had the potential to ‘harm Christian concord’.  Where Luther saw in scripture the human will clearly bound when it came to its ability to affect its own salvation, and absolutely central to faith and the gospel, Erasmus saw it co-operating with God; not dead, but needing ‘the Lord without which no human will or endeavour is effective’ (Erasmus 1969, 37-39).  But at least a part of Erasmus’ argument has missed the point, which is at the heart of the issue, i.e. on whom does the decisive factor in salvation rest?  At the point of conversion, is a person operated on sovereignly by God and given life, or do they contribute to their own salvation?

Whilst Erasmus recognised this issue, his argument is sometimes simply proving what Luther would agree with anyway, i.e. that the will can co-operate with God (albeit after conversion), e.g. his treatment of 1 Corinthians 15:10, Matthew 10:20 (Erasmus 1969, 81-82).  Luther saw such verses in scripture as conditional statements; neither affirming nor denying any work or virtue in humanity, but simply prescribing ‘what work or virtue there ought to be in man’ (Luther 1969, 261).  He saw the issue and its importance clearly; and he argued accordingly.  It is a matter which is essential to a right understanding of the gospel; and it would be nice to say that Luther won the day.  Unfortunately, Melanchthon later watered the doctrine down and the issue has been debated in the Church ever since.

Part 2

Whilst I accept Luther’s view of the human will being in bondage to sin and therefore unable to come to God for salvation unless first quickened by the Holy Spirit as biblically and theologically correct, I do not agree with him when he says that ‘Christian faith is utterly extinguished, the promises of God and the whole gospel are completely destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge of God…..’  and ‘where there is such ignorance, there cannot be salvation’ (Luther 1969, 122).  Luther is wrong to place such emphasis on free will – salvation is gained through right response to the gospel, not right view of free will.  The command to unbelievers is to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15).  The preaching of the gospel is the means God has ordained to save unbelievers (Rom 10:5-17).  Christ is the object of faith, the One whom we preach as being the only way to the Father (Jn 3:16, 14:6).  Unbelievers are to come to Christ because God commands it; because they are lost without him.  Is a person who hears the gospel, believes it, repents, and comes to Christ for forgiveness and salvation not saved because they don’t have a right understanding of the place of the will in salvation?  If they are saved under such circumstances and later, upon hearing of Monergism and synergism, reject the former, are they then lost?  Of course not; if a person trusts in Christ for salvation, they have passed from death to life (Jn 5:24) and there is no condemnation (Jn 3:16, 18).

In preaching the gospel to the unconverted, it needs to be emphasised that we are responsible for our actions.  Grudem says ‘God has made us responsible for our actions, which have real and eternally significant results.  In all his providential acts God will preserve these characteristics of responsibility and significance’ (Grudem 1994, 333).

However, this does not mean we ought not to teach that God is the author of salvation.  Christ himself taught that none can come to him unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:65).  In any ministry, we are to teach the whole counsel of God so that unbelievers are strengthened to trust and serve him (2 Tim 3:16-17); and this, of course, included the teaching on the will and its role (lack of) in salvation.  Sproul (1997, 92) says Luther’s chief pastoral concern is the believer’s comfort and hope; he believed that the sovereignty of God gives the believer hope and confidence because he is able to do all that he has promised.

Also, while we believe and teach that God is absolutely sovereign, we nevertheless teach that God uses means; and these means are effectual.  Even though God has predestined certain people to salvation, he uses the preaching of the gospel to effect the salvation.  While he has numbered our days (Ps 139:16), we will still get sick and die if we abuse our body.  We can even change things (apparently) or bring about results through prayer.  While we see that scripture plainly teaches that God rules his creation absolutely and to the finest detail, we also know that we are responsible to serve and obey him or face the consequences of disobedience.  We cannot understand how two seemingly opposite ideas can both be true, but we do know we serve the God who knows all things, and we rest in his sovereignty, love, and justice; we don’t argue but we trust him, and we live as if our salvation depended on our works, all the while trusting him alone.


Author not acknowledged, 2006, ‘Pelagianism’ in Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E.A. Livingstone, OUP, Oxford, 447.

Author not acknowledged, 2006, ‘Synergism’ in Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E.A. Livingstone, OUP, Oxford, 570.

Bettenson, H.  1965, Documents of the Christian Church, OUP, London.

Dickens, A.G.  1971, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Thames and Hudson, London.

Erasmus.  1969, ‘On the Freedom of the Will’ in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E.G. Rupp and P.S. Watson, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 37-39, 41-44, 46, 47, 50, 54, 65, 81-82.

Gonzales, J.  1985, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2, HarperCollins, New York, New York.

Grudem, W.  1994, Systematic Theology, IVP, Leicester, U.K. and Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Hendryx, J.W. 2007, (cited 10th Sept, 2007), ‘Definition of Monergism’, Monergism: Home Page,

Luther.  1969, ‘On the Bondage of the Will’ in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E.G. Rupp and P.S. Watson, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 116, 118, 122, 140, 261, 289, 293-301, 310.

Marlow and Drewery.  1969, ‘Introduction’, in ‘Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E.G. Rupp and P.S. Watson, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17-18.

Moo, D.  2004, ‘Romans’ in New Bible Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, G.J. Wenham, IVP, Leicester, 1142.

Schaff, P.  (undated), History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, budget reprint, (original vol. 3), A.P. & A, USA

Sproul, R.C.  1997, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan.