Posted On January 31, 2015

James Montgomery Boice – The Bondage of the Will

by | Jan 31, 2015 | Biblical Worldview, Uncategorized

AFTER HAVING DESCRIBED THE NATURE OF SIN AND ITS RADICAL AND PERVASIVE effects upon the race, it is still necessary to discuss the bondage of the will. At that point the sharpest disagreements come and the results of sin are most clearly exposed.

Luther recognized the importance of the issue. At the end of his monumental defense of the will’s bondage, after demolishing the arguments of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther turned to Erasmus and complimented his writings for at least focusing on the crucial issue. Luther wrote, “I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further accountthat you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue.”‘ Similarly, Emil Brunner speaks of the understanding of freedom and “unfreedom” as “the decisive point” for understanding man and man’s sin.2

How far did man fall when he sinned? Did he merely stumble? Did he fall part way, but nevertheless not so far as to render himself hopeless? Or did he fall totally, so far that he cannot even will to seek God or obey him? What does the Bible mean when it says that we are “dead in trespasses and sins”? Does it mean that we really are dead so far as any ability to respond to God or to choose God is concerned? Or do we still have the ability at least to respond to God when the offer of salvation is made to us? If we can respond, what does Paul mean when he says that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11)? What does Jesus mean when he says that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44)? On the other hand, if we cannot respond, what is the meaning of those many passages in which the gospel is offered to fallen men and women? How is a person to be held responsible for failing to believe in Jesus if he or she is unable to do it?

Such questions suggest the importance of the will’s bondage. They indicate how the doctrines of sin and depravity, election, grace and human responsibility flow from it.

The History of the Debate

The importance of determining whether the will is bound or free is also forced on us by the history of Christian dogma. Significant theological debates in the history of the church have centered on the issue. In the early years of the church the majority of theologians seemed to endorse free will; they were concerned to overcome the entrenched determinism of the Greek and Roman world. On one level they were right. Determinism is not the Christian view, nor does it excuse human responsibility for sin. The early fathers-Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome and others-were right to oppose it. In opposing determinism, however, they slipped by varying degrees into a kind of unbiblical exaltation of human ability that prevented them from seeing the true depths of human sin and guilt. Augustine of Hippo rose to challenge that position and to argue fiercely for the bondage of the will, at that time largely against Pelagius, his most outspoken opponent.

It was not the intention of Pelagius to deny the universality of sin, at least at the beginning. In that, he wished to remain orthodox. But he was unable to see how responsibility could reside in us without free will. Ability must be present if there is to be obligation, he argued. If I ought to do something, I can. Pelagius argued that the will, rather than being bound over to sin, is actually neutral-so that at any given moment or in any situation it is free to choose the good and do it.

In his approach sin became only those deliberate and unrelated acts in which the will chooses to do evil, and any necessary connection between sins or any hereditary principle of sin within the race was forgotten. Pelagius further stated that: first, the sin of Adam affected no one but himself; second, those who have been born since Adam have been born into the condition Adam possessed before his fall, that is, into a position of neutrality so far as sin is concerned; and third, human beings are able to live free from sin if they desire to do so, and they can do so even without an awareness of the work of Christ and the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit.

Pelagius’s position greatly limited the true scope of sin and inevitably led to a denial of the absolute need for the unmerited grace of God in salvation. Moreover, even where the gospel of grace is freely preached to the sinner, what ultimately determines whether he or she will be saved is not the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit within but the person’s will which either receives or rejects the Savior.

Early in his life Augustine had thought along similar lines. But he had come to see that the view did not do justice either to the biblical doctrine of sin, always portrayed as far more than mere individual and isolated acts, or to the grace of God, ultimately the only fully determining element in salvation. Augustine argued that there is an inherited depravity as the result of which it is simply not possible for the individual to stop sinning. His key phrase was non posse non peccare. It means that a person is not able to choose God. Augustine said that man, having used his free will badly in the Fall, lost both himself and his will. He said that the will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness. He said that the will is indeed free-of righteousness-but enslaved to sin. He said that the will is free to turn from God, but not to come to him.

Augustine was concerned to stress that grace is an absolute necessity; apart from it no one can be saved. Moreover, it is a matter of grace from beginning to end, not just of “prevenient” grace or partial grace to which the sinner adds his own efforts. Otherwise, salvation would not be entirely of God, God’s honor would be diminished, and man would have room for boasting in heaven. In defending such views Augustine won the day, and the church supported him. But the church increasingly drifted back toward Pelagianism during the Middle Ages.

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