Luther and Arminius on Free Will

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Luther, in 1528, pens his theological beliefs so that, in the future, “either during my life or after my death, there should be those who would undertake to falsify my writings so as to bolster up their own errors and aid their own cause.”1 What I appreciate most about this particular writing is Luther’s statement: In case anyone in the future should imagine that Luther would, were he alive, hold to some doctrine of theirs, he answers, “I reply to them, now as then and then as now, that by the grace of God I have most carefully considered all these articles, have proved them repeatedly by Scripture, and have defended them as resolutely as I have defended the Sacrament of the Altar.”2 We all long to be represented rightly. Luther, as with Arminius, was misrepresented perpetually by his detractors.

But then he qualifies his statement even further:

As I now write I am neither drunk nor reckless, but I know what I am saying and realize full well what it will mean for me upon the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at the last judgment, therefore let no one regard it as a jest or as idle talk, for with me it is a serious matter. By the grace of God I understand the wiles of satan [sic] very well and if he can confuse and pervert God’s Word and the Scriptures, what might he not do with my words or those of some other writer?3

Luther, as with many of us, considers theology a serious matter. Yet the primary element in considering his doctrines, and testing them concordant with Scripture, is the fact that he will have to give account of his teachings “upon the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at the last judgment.” (cf. James 3:1) I feel the same way with this blog and that is the primary reason why I take my posts so seriously. I have deleted posts because of uncertainty and not wanting to lead anyone astray. Often I am forceful with what I believe to be biblical; yet, inside, I also acknowledge that on some issues I could be wrong.

I do not believe myself wrong about the Trinity, the divinity and deity of Christ Jesus, that Jesus is the sole way to the Father and, thus, to salvation, the need for atonement, to be born again, and becoming a child of God by grace through faith in Christ; I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and that this fact is a necessary belief for salvation; I believe in eternal reward and eternal punishment; I believe that the free will of humanity is fallen and lost and powerless unless the sufficient and enabling grace of God in Christ through the agency of His Holy Spirit is present and active in the heart and mind of an individual.


Luther agrees. With regard to free will, he condemns as an unmitigated error any teaching that extols our free will, “because they are utterly opposed to such help and grace of our Savior Jesus Christ.”4 (emphasis added) Note carefully his qualification: help and grace. He in no sense suggests, in this statement at least, what one might refer to as monergism, that faith is granted to some and not others, or that regeneration must precede faith. Though he does hold to unconditional election, and Arminius opposes the same, both agree on the matter of depravity and inability. Here Luther merely opposes the sentiment that one may, by his or her own free will, respond to the Spirit of God and believe in Christ apart from “help and grace.” Arminius agrees.

Besides confessing that the free will of fallen mortals is lost and destroyed,5 and that the mind of such is destitute of the saving knowledge of God,6 the heart is thereby perverted,7and that fallen creatures are inherently weak to perform any saving good;8 he also confesses that “our free will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to [the performance of any spiritual] good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit.”9This is Reformed language proper on the subject matter of free will. Luther agrees.

For Luther, and those within the Reformed tradition, the words of Christ are taken at face value and without qualification: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Luther contends: “Apart from Christ sin and death are our masters, and the devil is our god and ruler, and there can be no power nor might, no wit nor understanding by which we might seek after or attain to righteousness and life, but we would have to remain blind and imprisoned, the property of sin and the devil, bound to think and do what pleases him and what is contrary to the commandments of God.”10 Arminius agrees wholeheartedly.

In this wicked state of mind, of being, quoting the apostle Paul at Romans 8:7 Arminius insists that all the fallen mortals who exist “in this state [are] said to be under the power of sin and Satan, reduced to the condition of a slave, and ‘taken captive by the Devil.'” He continues: “To these let the consideration of the whole of the Life of Man who is … placed under sin, be added, of which the Scriptures exhibit to us the most luminous descriptions; and it will be evident that nothing can be spoken more truly concerning man in this state than that he is altogether dead in sin.”11 These emphatic Reformed views on free will that Arminius maintains leads Calvinist R.C. Sproul to confess: “The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius.”12


How the language of Arminius could possibly be stronger is not noted by Sproul. When Arminius attributes the lost cause of free will to the fall, to original sin, rendering the sinner entirely helpless, destitute, perverse, under the dominion of an inevitable sinful bent and under Satan himself, I fail to understand how the language of Augustine, Luther, or Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius. He insists that the grace of God, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, is of utmost necessity if one is to believe on Christ. Sproul himself admits as much: “He affirms the absolute necessity of grace for man to turn to the good, and he even speaks of the Holy Spirit working ‘within’ man to accomplish all of this.”13 Pitting Augustine and Luther and Calvin and Arminius against one another, in an effort to see which man holds a stronger view of fallen human depravity, is futile: each argue the utter and absolute ruination of free will due to an intrinsic original sin.

Luther writes, further, “Likewise I condemn both the new and the old Pelagians, who will not admit that original sin is truly sin, but regard it as only a weakness or imperfection.”14 Arminius agrees. “Meanwhile I profess that I detest from my soul the Pelagian dogmas.”15 More specifically he argues:

Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good without Grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “Grace,” I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration: I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good: It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the affections, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires.16

Arminius’ use of the word and concept of regeneration here more fittingly belongs to the precept of prevenient grace than to regeneration proper. Elsewhere he notes that regeneration as an experiential act of God in the heart of a person is preceded by faith in Christ.17 In the above quote, the “grace of regeneration” is said to precede and potentially give birth to faith. When reading works from ancient writers, one must consider their own context and usage of words, which may differ from our modern usage. Sproul fails to consider this historical perspective when assessing Arminius on this subject.18

Suffice to admit, though, Luther and Arminius are speaking the exact same Reformed language with regard to depravity, free will, and the absolute necessity of grace if one is to be saved by God through faith in Christ. Both believe the will is in bondage to sin. Both believe that the unregenerate are held under the power or dominion of Satan. Both believe that the grace and power of God in Christ and through the Spirit must operate within an individual in order for him or her to believe in Christ. Both direct all attention and all glory to the God of such grace. None can boast of his or her free will regarding salvation since free will is inoperative unless the Spirit graciously enables or frees that will from its bondage to sin. If Arminius is counted by some a semi-Pelagian then so, too, is Luther.


1 Martin Luther, “Luther’s Confession, 1528,” in Johann Michael Reu, The Augsburg Confession: A Collection of Sources with a Historical Introduction (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 23.

2 Ibid., 24.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 25.

5 Jacob Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free will of Man and Its powers,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:192.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:193.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 2:194.

10 Luther, 25.

11 Arminius, 2:194.

12 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 126.

13 Ibid., 128.

14 Luther, 25.

15 Arminius, “Examination of the Theses of Dr. Francis Gomarus respecting Predestination,”Works, 3:657.

16 Works, 2:700.

17 Ibid., 2:498. “Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken,” and consists of “the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith.”

18 Sproul, 128-29.