Do God's Commands Imply the Ability to Obey?

Quotes from Martin Luther

Luther's Bondage of the Will is one of the most important books every written. It is also a delightful read. l I found myself underlining choice quotes on almost every other page. I hope you find the following quotes to be as beneficial as I did.

For context, Luther, is responding to some of Erasmus' assertions in support of man's natural moral ability to obey the gospel. Erasmus presupposed that all of God's commands to obey proved that we had the "free-will" or moral ability to do so. Erasmus would often ask, "if we can do nothing, what is the purpose of all the laws, precepts, threats and promises in the Bible? All these precepts are useless if nothing is attributed to the human will. If it is not in the power of every man to keep what is commanded, all the exhortations of Scripture are of necessity useless," Erasmus would say. Luther responded by saying Paul gives the answer: 'by the law is the knowledge of sin'. With great wit and irony exposes why free will is an erroneous, unscriptural doctrine which, ultimately, undermines the gospel itself. Erasmus would continue to show Luther the commands of Scripture in an attempt to prove man had the native ability to believe the gospel on his own. But as Dr. Luther said to Erasmus, "when you are finished with all your commands and exhortations ... I’ll write Romans.3:20 over the top of it all" ("...through the law comes knowledge of sin."). In other words, the commands exist to show, not our moral ability, but our inability. This includes God's command of all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, an impossible act of will apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ .. so that in so far as the will is good at all, it is so from God, not from ourselves. The following are some quotes from Dr. Luther to this end:

"For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?" Martin Luther BW pg. 149

"...'if thou art willing' is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing...a conditional statement asserts nothing indicatively." "if thou art willing", "if thou hear", "if thou do" declare, not man's ability, but his duty. pg 157

"the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded." pg. 160

Speaking to Erasmus, "Throughout your treatment you forget that you said that 'free-will' can do nothing without grace, and you prove that 'free-will' can do all things without grace! Your inferences and analogies "For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?" Martin Luther BW pg. 149

"Even grammarians and schoolboys on street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by words in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? pg 159

"The passages of Scripture you cite are imperative; and they prove and establish nothing about the ability of man, but only lay down what is and what not to be done." pg 161

"Does it follow from: 'turn ye' that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from "'Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart' (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the 'free-will' does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power...But it does not follow from this that man is converted by his own power, nor do the words say so; they simply say: "if thou wilt turn, telling man what he should do. When he knows it, and sees that he cannot do it, he will ask whence he may find ability to do it..." 164

"By the law is the knowledge of sin' [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair." pg. 168

As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace...[this is the] hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive and partake of the mercy preached and offered." pg. 169

The "imperative or hypothetical passages, or wishes, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do...but what we ought to do, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be given to us." 174

God Incarnate says; 'I would, and thou wouldst not." God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer and offer to all me, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. As John says: "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness com comprehendeth it not' (John 1.5)

And again: "He came unto his own, and His own received Him not. (v. 11)"The law indicates the impotence of man and the saving power of God..."if any man will come after me': 'he that wills to save his life'; 'if ye love me'; 'if ye shall continue'. In sum, as I have said-let every occurrence of the conjunction 'if', and all imperative verbs, be collected together (so we may help the Diatribe...) [indicating that all commands to believe or follow Christ are conditional, not stating man's ability]

"Apart from grace, 'free-will' by itself is Satan's kingdom in all men." p. 201

Let all the 'free-will' in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength." p. 202

"But if the foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are conceded, it naturally follows by irrefutable logic that we were not made by ourselves, nor live by ourselves, nor do anything by ourselves, by by his omnipotence. Seeing that He foreknew that we should be what we are, and now makes us such, and moves and governs us as such, how, pray, can it be pretended that it is open to us to become something other than that which He foreknew and is now bringing about? So the foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are diametrically opposed to our 'free-will'...This omnipotence and foreknowledge of God, I repeat, utterly destroy the doctrine of 'free-will'." pg. 216-217

"omnipotence and foreknowledge of God, I repeat, utterly destroy the doctrine of 'free-will'...doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden and damn men, as though He delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such poor wretches. it seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been such a stumbling block to so many great men down through the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was, and how close to grace.)" Luther BW pg. 217

" was not of the merits of Jacob or Esau, 'but of Him that Calleth that it was said of Sara: the elder shall serve the younger' Paul is discussing whether they attained to what was spoken of them by the power or merits of 'free-will"; and he proves they they did not, but that Jacob attained what Esau did not solely by the grace of "Him that Calleth"224

Now, since on God's own testimony, men are 'flesh', they can savour of nothing but the flesh; therefore 'free-will can avail only to sin. And if, while the Spirit of God is calling and teaching among them, they go from bad to worse, what could they do when left to themselves, without the Spirit of God? Your [Erasmus] observation that Moses is speaking of the men of that age is not to the point at all. The same is true of all men, for all are 'flesh'; as Christ says, 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh' (john 3:6) How grave a defect this is, He Himself there teaches, when he says: 'Except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (v. 5)...I call a man ungodly if he is without the Spirit of God; for Scripture says that the Spirit is given to justify the ungodly. As Christ distinguished the Spirit from the flesh, saying: "that which is born of the flesh is flesh', and adds that which is born of the flesh cannot enter the kingdom of God', it obviously follows that whatever is flesh is ungodly, under God's wrath, and a stranger to His kingdom. And if it is a stranger to God's kingdom and Spirit, it follows of necessity that it is under the kingdom and spirit of Satan. For there is no middle kingdom between the kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, which are ever at war with each other. 241, 253

"I say that man without the grace of God nonetheless remains the general omnipotence of God who effects, and moves and impels all things in a necessary, infallible course; but the effect of man's being carried along is nothing--that is, avails nothing in God's sight, nor is reckoned to be anything but sin. 265

"the Baptist's word means that man can receive nothing unless given him from above; so that free-will is nothing!"

I say that man, before he is renewed into the new creation of the Spirit's kingdom, does and endeavours nothing to prepare himself for that new creation and kingdom, and when he is re-created has does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone works both blessings in us, regenerating us, and preserving us when regenerate, without ourselves..." 268

"All the passages in the Holy Scriptures that mention assistance are they that do away with "free-will", and these are countless...For grace is needed, and the help of grace is given, because "free-will" can do nothing."

"In Rom. 8, [Paul is] dividing the human race into two, 'flesh' and 'spirit', as Christ does in John 3 (v. 6) ... It stands good then, that those who lack the Spirit are in the flesh, and under Satan. Now let us see that Paul thinks about endeavor and the power of 'free-will' in carnal men. "They that are in the flesh cannot please God.' Again, "The carnal mind is death.' Again: 'The carnal mind is enmity against God.' Once more: "It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.' (vv. 5-8). Let the guardian of 'free-will' answer the following question: How can endeavors towards good be made by that which is death, and displeases God, and is enmity against God, and disobeys God, and cannot obey him?...Paul here calls everything without the Spirit 'flesh', as I have shown. Therefore, the highest virtues of the best men are "in the flesh"; that is, the are dead, and at enmity with God, not subject to God's law nor able to be so, and not pleasing God. " pg. 300

"'Free-will' is nothing but the slave of sin, death and Satan, not doing anything, nor able to do or attempt anything, but evil!" pg. 301

"...not only that the works and efforts of 'free-will' are unavailing, but that even the very word of the gospel (of which he is here speaking [John 6:44]) is heard in vain, unless the Father Himself speaks within, and teaches, and draws. 'No man, no man can come,' he says, and what he is talking about is your 'power whereby man can make some endeavor towards Christ.' In things that pertain to salvation, He asserts that power to be null ... the ungodly does not 'come', even when he hears the word, unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly; which He does by shedding abroad His Spirit." pg. 311

Quoted from Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will