The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century opened much dialogue between parties on both sides of church history. Church doctrine, confessions, purgatory, catechism, the sacraments, the authority of Scripture, papal authority and even structures of economics and culture were suddenly points of contention with which the church openly wrestled. Five hundred years later, the church universal is indebted to both Catholic and Protestant believers who sought to combat corruption and return the focus of the church to the work of Christ. While the term “Reformed” is denied by some and embraced by others within the greater church of Jesus Christ, necessary reform happened within the church then in the 16th century that continues on today.

In the five centuries since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were written, published and widely distributed, the most notable theological controversies over justification, free will and the sovereignty of God continue to be debated and are often grounds for dividing lines between denominations within and outside mainline Protestantism. In revisiting some of the opposing conversations and biblical exegesis of the Protestant Reformation, the church can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for some of the most difficult passages of the Holy Scriptures.

Correspondence between two of the most prominent 16th-century church figures, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther over the issue of free will and in particular, the exegesis of Romans, is a fascinating read. These medieval pen-pals left behind a historical record of theological debate on perhaps the most controversial topic in Christendom. Yet to be peacefully settled to the satisfaction of Protestants and Catholics alike, and certainly, beyond the ability of this writer to do so, let us listen in on their conversation on the topic of free will and intrude with a humble comparison and exegetical assessment. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

Luther, in his 1552 preface to Romans, calls the epistle, “…the very purest gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul…it is, in itself, a bright light, almost enough to illumine all the Scripture.”[1] It was this epistle that brought the tortured soul of Martin Luther to understand and embrace the assurance of his salvation in the work of Christ by grace through faith alone. From November 3, 1515, until September 7, 1516, Luther taught Romans to students at the University of Wittenberg, Saxon.[2] As often happens with teachers of Scripture, his eyes were opened perhaps more than his students, ’ and a new understanding of the gospel planted the seed of Rformation. Martin Luther was a complex man and critics often discuss his shortcomings, seemingly contradictions, his temperament, and errors; however, he was a man so overcome and preoccupied with the salvation of man that in his enlightenment he according to one author, “…read the Bible in a new way:  as though the totality of his experience and totality of his life were caused directly by his personal contact with the Word of God.”[3] Oh, to be described in that way!

During the same period, the humanist Erasmus was also delving into Romans. His critical Greek translation of the New Testament, Novum Instrumentum, was published in March of 1516 along with his notes on Romans, and in November 1517, he published his first edition of Paraphrase on Romans.[4] John Colet, whom Erasmus met in 1499 in England, encouraged him to study Greek and continue his work in the writings of the Apostle Paul.[5] Later, in Paris, he was introduced to the work of Origen which greatly influenced his anthropology and subsequently his view on free will. Origen’s doctrine of human nature holds that the reason of man is aided by the Spirit to struggle against the passions of the flesh.) Though he spent time in an Augustinian order, as we will investigate further, Erasmus sides with Origen’s Pauline interpretations over Augustine’s in matters of original sin and predestination as well.[7]

Erasmus, before any knowledge of Luther’s writings, had growing concerns over corruption within the church, as well as some of its observances, fasting, and ceremonies. He was a man between two worlds. There is no doubt that Erasmus wanted purification of the church—a return to a simpler, more charitable spirit of the essential gospel (a cause Ignatius Loyola October 23, 1491-July 31, 1556, a Spanish Basque Pries of the Jesuit Order would later take up in a more ascetic form). Though he never declared himself a reformer, in fact later resolutely denying the claim, it would be hard to differentiate some of his writings with the writings of Luther, particularly on Trinity, the sacraments and concerns with Papal succession. His Greek Novum Instrumentum (sourced by a collation of Greek and Latin manuscripts) corrected the translation of metanoia by Jerome as “do penance” to “repent” and sparked the very issue at the heart of the Reformation.[8] Is man capable of contributing to his own salvation by what he does or does not do? Or is the grace of God fully unmerited, reckoning only the elect righteous? The topic of salvation and justification based on the free righteousness of Christ alone soon turned into a debate on the absolute sovereignty of God. It is no surprise, then, that these two scholars would eventually face off on this tumultuous theological matter of the time and be forced to agree or distinguish themselves.

It was Luther who first engaged Erasmus, doing so anonymously through a third party on his interpretation of Romans 5:12 pointing out Erasmus’ departure from Augustine’s teaching on original sin. We do not know if Erasmus ever got the letter, but there is evidence that he became aware of Luther by early 1518. In 1520, Erasmus began to turn away from Luther’s teaching after reading An Assertion of All the Articles of Martin Luther Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X.[9]  For years, he tried to distance himself from Luther quietly, but by 1524, when Henry VIII called for him to write against Luther, Erasmus could no longer be a bystander on the sidelines of the Reformation battle.[10]

Erasmus went straight to the most pressing and controversial of their differences—grace and free will. Luther agreed they had hit the prime target of their disputations, and so began their correspondence. In 1524, Erasmus published The Freedom of the Will arguing that Luther’s strong stand on the sovereignty of God and denial of free will contradicted church teaching. Luther responded a year later with The Bondage of the Will arguing that the will is totally dependent on divine grace for liberation.[11]

In his 1971 paper, Erasmus, Interpreter of Romans, John Payne identifies several theological themes of Erasmus’ writings on Romans that put him at odds with the reformers: the meaning of original sin, the flesh-spirit anthropology, and the efficacy of works to salvation. Payne argues that Romans 1:17, which illuminated righteousness as the free gift of God for Luther, Erasmus interprets as an argument against ceremonial righteousness only. Luther’s interpretation puts works righteousness to death, where Erasmus’ attacks needless ceremonies claiming to be the path to righteousness. From my vantage point, they are more similar in their thoughts than they would care to admit. Luther would agree with Erasmus that ceremony is empty adding that faith alone saves. Erasmus, refusing to break totally from Catholic teaching, later (1527) defines ceremonies as those works without faith or virtue, holding that works done in faith are efficacious for salvation. “In other words, he seems to broaden the range of works that are to be branded as legalistic beyond those that are merely ceremonial.” [12] It seems he may have been influenced by Luther on this issue but either he chose to separate himself from the Reformers in making this distinction or he was trying to find common ground with them to promote peace.

James Tracey, in his 2017 introduction to Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will, drills down the argument of grace and free will between Erasmus and Luther to center on three concepts: the exegesis of Scripture, divine grace, and original sin.[13] Who should be trusted to interpret the sacred texts? How is divine grace revealed in the sacred texts? How far has sin marred mankind’s ability to do what is right?

The first question was quite clear for Erasmus. He stood equally on the authority of Scripture and centuries of Church Fathers’ interpretations. The consensus of the church on ambiguous Scripture is authoritative. An interpretation that stands against church tradition is questioned with severity for Erasmus. Is that so different than Protestants practice today? I often rely on the education and experience of my pastor, seminary professors, and the works of the Church Fathers of history like Augustine and Calvin. Still, I wrestle with Scripture alone and in my Bible studies with friends and women leaders who help me see Jesus more clearly. While I would never call their interpretation authoritative as Scripture alone is authoritative, I do rely on them to stretch me and my understanding. Luther argued Scripture alone is authoritative, that the Holy Spirit gives each believer the ability to grasp the essential points of Scripture with clarity without relying on the church or Church Fathers. While I agree, I am thankful we are not left alone in our quest for understanding but placed within the body of believers are free to test the spirit of our interpretations and gain understanding. Once again, I wonder if Erasmus’ and Luther’s differences are not so different after all.

The second question concerning divine grace seems to be related to the purpose of Scripture. Erasmus’ traditional view approached Scripture as the source of all divine wisdom humankind needs to live godly lives. Luther clung to it as the means to answer the sole question of how sinful mankind could ever escape the wrath of God. Given how he anguished over his own sin before a righteous God, and the freedom he found in the power of the cross, it is no surprise Luther would give justification by faith alone supremacy of purpose. Once again, Erasmus and Luther are both right on the surface. No believer could deny either claim. It is in the administration of that divine grace where they differ leading into the last question on original sin.

Luther argued the sin of Adam marred the entire human nature and will to the extent that is impossible for mankind to be inclined toward God. “Free” will then, is only free to sin, choosing what the fallen heart wants. It is not only the extent that human will was marred by sin where Erasmus disagreed but also the meaning of original sin. Erasmus denied the will was fully corrupted, that some element of good remained which allowed mankind the free will to embrace or to deny the divine grace of God. This hermeneutic is probably rooted in the Platonic contrast of flesh and spirit and influenced by Colet and Origen. Similarly, his view of “original sin” is not actual inherited sin, but rather an inherited inclination to sin, leaving space for his doctrine of free will. [14]  Romans 5:12 then, refers not to inherited guilt, but to sin committed in imitation of the sin of Adam.[15] Thus it is the free will choice to continue in personal sin that over time, enslaves mankind to sin, (Romans 7) not sin inherited from Adam at birth. Conversely, man is capable to choose not to sin and submit his will to God. For Luther, “Any claim to virtue apart from divine grace was sheer human arrogance.”[16]

It seems that any similarities we find in their hermeneutics, Luther’s monergistic and Erasmus’ synergistic soteriology would never align. Erasmus gives us his definition: “By free choice in this place we mean 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.”[17] Luther, in opposition claims, “Before man is changed into a new creature of the Kingdom of the Spirit, he does nothing and attempts nothing to prepare himself for this renewal and this Kingdom.” [18] Once the battle over free will is begun, it doesn’t take long for the emphasis to turn to the sovereignty of God, election, and predestination. Cornelis Venema hits the sentiment exactly: “The fresh wind of Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone was threatened by a doctrine of predestination that removed the focus from God’s revealed will in the gospel of Jesus Christ and replaced it with a focus on the hidden and inscrutable decree of the triune God.”[19]

Erasmus relies heavily on the human sense of reason and church tradition in which predestination makes God unjust. Luther responds, “He is God and for his will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it since there is nothing equal or superior to it, but it is in itself the measure of all things.”[20] In essence, Luther argued the reason of man is grossly inferior to the things of God and adds emphatically that if a man can in his own power work his way to salvation, then nothing is left for the grace of God and the Holy Spirit to do.  Free will becomes in itself and alone divine with no need of the work of the cross. The will of God is effectual unto salvation apart from any human endeavor. Erasmus, in fear that such doctrine would promote licentiousness and immorality among the people, is repelled by Luther in the response that predestination actually undergirds the promise of the gospel rather than weakens its’ effects.[21] For Luther, who struggled so with his own assurance of salvation, predestination by God was a welcome respite from his soul’s insecurity. Five hundred years later, the church continues to struggle with the same sentiments of free will, grace and the sovereignty of God that so vehemently divided Luther and Erasmus. The doctrines of free will and predestination are not enemies engaging in combat against each other. Instead, they work together in tandem and in tension to accomplish God’s plan in God’s universe for the glory of God.

William Shakespeare said, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”



[1] Martin Luther,  Commentary on Romans, trans.  J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids:  Kregel, 1976)  xiii.

[2] Ibid, viii

[3] John McDonough, “The Essential Luther, in Luther, Erasmus and the Reformation:  A Catholic-Protestant Reappraisal 1969, ed. John C. Olin, James D. Smart, and Robert E. McNally  (New York:  Fordham University Press, 1969),  60.

[4] John B. Payne, “Erasmus: Interpreter of Romans,” Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, no.2 (1971): 2.

[5] James Tracy, Introduction to Erasmus and Luther:  The Battle Over Free Will, ed. Clarence H. Miller. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2012), xi.

[6] Tracy, Introduction to Erasmus and Luther:  The Battle Over Free Will, ed. Clarence H. Miller, xii.

[7] Ibid, xiv.

[8] Dan Doriani, “The Reformation:  Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (class lecture, Cambridge Summer School of Theology and Culture, Cambridge, England, June 26-30, 2017)

[9] Matthew Barret, “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” in Reformation Theology :  A Systematic Summary 2017, ed. Michael Horton (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2017). 453.

[10] Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, trans. F. Hopman  (Mineola, NY:  Dover, 2001) 162.

[11] Barrett, “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” in Reformation Theology :  A Systematic Summary ,453.

[12] Payne, “Erasmus: Interpreter of Romans,” 19.

[13] Tracy, Introduction to Erasmus and Luther:  The Battle Over Free Will. ix-x.

[14] Payne “Erasmus: Interpreter of Romans,” 10-12

[15] ibid, 12.

[16] Tracy, Introduction to Erasmus and Luther:  The Battle Over Free Will. x.

[17] Desiderius Erasmus, quoted in Barrett, “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” 459.

[18] Martin Luther, quoted in Barrett, “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will”, 459.

[19] Cornelis Venema, “Predestination and Election,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary.  ed. Michael Horton (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2017), 242.

[20] Martin Luther quoted in Venema, “Predestination and Election,” 249.

[21] Barrett, “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” 457.

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