In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Holland made a tremendous contribution to the Christian religion by publishing the Greek text of the New Testament. This caused many to say, “Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched.” Although Erasmus was “the Prince of the humanists” in Europe, he was still a very unenlightened theologian who was under the bondage of medieval scholasticism. He knew enough Scripture, however, to realize that there needed to be a reformation in Roman Catholicism, but he did not desire anything so thorough as the Lutheran Reformation.

Early in Luther’s Reformation, Erasmus wrote, “Martin Luther is a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth.” He also agreed “that many of the reforms for which Luther called were urgently needed”, but by 1524 he was adamantly opposed to Luther; therefore, he wrote his book The Freedom of The Will in opposition to Luther’s teaching on God’s sovereign grace, election, and justification by faith alone. The following year, Luther responded with a 400-page treatise The Bondage of The Will that demolished Erasmus’ weak arguments. Erasmus scolded Luther by asking, “Would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness . . .?” Of course, Erasmus was referring to the “church fathers” whom he had quoted confidently in his contention with Luther over man’s “free will”!

It is interesting to note that Erasmus carefully avoided quoting St. Augustine, the greatest of the church fathers. In one sense, this is surprising because Erasmus, like Luther, had been an Augustinian monk from 1487-1492. But in another sense, it is not surprising because Augustine wrote so stringently against free will. Quoting him would have been counter-productive.
Erasmus was more of a humanist than a true believer in God’s Truth. His writings reveal that he doubted the veracity of God’s Word and the reality of eternal blessedness. Luther passionately pleaded with Erasmus, saying, “May Christ grant, what I desire and hope, that your heart may not be . . . as your words certainly imply that you consider the Word of God, and a future life, to be mere fables.” Erasmus thought that the Scriptures were unclear regarding the distinctions among the three Divine Persons in the Godhead.

He also considered the reality of the two natures joined together in Christ’s person to be of meager importance when compared to keeping the commandments of the moral law. These doctrines are fundamental, historic, orthodox, Christian theology that had been hammered out in the early ecumenical church councils. Yet Erasmus still called himself a faithful member of the church while questioning these foundational elements of Biblical revelation. Luther viewed these matters as fatal departures from pure, Biblical theology. He declared, “The Holy Spirit is ‘no skeptic’ and it is not doubts or mere opinions that He has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”
Erasmus often resorted to the standard Roman Catholic argument that the Scriptures are not clear, so they must be interpreted only by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He said that Scripture is obscure and ambiguous. In Section 35, Luther pointed out that the teaching of Scripture is clear, obvious, and most certain. Luther quoted many passages from both the Old and New Testaments proving this point. Here are a few excerpts from Luther’s translation:

  • Psalm 19:8—“The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.” From this text, Luther rightly pointed out that the Scriptures “cannot be obscure or ambiguous.”
  • “The door (entrance) of thy Words give light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
  • “We certainly have more surely the Word of prophecy, unto which, ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). The Word is a clear lamp; only man makes it obscure.
  • “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).

Erasmus denied that the Bible teaches God’s sovereign predestination from all eternity. Evidently this leading humanist needed to do his homework with more careful Bible study, for many Bible passages can be cited which reveal God’s sovereign predestination.
Luther took up Erasmus’ question: “If the Scripture be quite clear, why have men of renowned talent, through so many ages, been blind upon this point?” Erasmus had implied that from the Apostolic Fathers onward, free will was the standard doctrine and not God’s sovereign grace. Once again, if Erasmus had only carefully read the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, and a host of others, he would have found that they boldly set forth the doctrine of God’s gracious, eternal predestination rather than futilely exalting man’s free will.

Somewhat like John Calvin, Erasmus wanted the religious world to be silent and leave him alone so that he could spend his life in undisturbed study. He did not want the tumults that gospel light and truth had brought into darkened, slumbering Europe. Luther said, “I am sorry that I find it necessary to teach you. But how much better it is to lose the whole world than to lose God, the Creator of the whole world, Who can create innumerable worlds again, and better than infinite worlds. For what are temporal things when compared with eternal?”

The history of the church teaches us that it is better to have tumults of controversy than to settle for a false peace that leads into darkness. Luther showed that he was a true servant of the Lord and a preacher of the saving gospel of grace when he wrote his response to Erasmus. He was greatly concerned to reach the soul of his hopeless opponent. He wanted Erasmus to know the answer that he himself had found for life here, and life hereafter. When a soul that has been held for decades in the bondage of spiritual darkness with unresolved guilt is graciously released, he or she will desire to help others who bear the same unbearable burden. Luther was pleading for the salvation of this chief of the philosophical humanists. Oh, if only Erasmus had known Christ and possessed His saving grace, the contention with Luther would have ended!
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a classic defense of the Reformed faith is just as needful as it was five centuries ago. To an overwhelming degree the professing church is sleeping in spiritual death and bowing at the idol of “free will” as Europe was in Luther’s day. Thankfully many publishers still publish Martin Luther’s classic book which is well worth reading.

(The Bondage of the Will can be found on Amazon in paperback for under $5, $1 for Kindle and in hardback for $10.)