Was Martin Luther a Determinist?

Dear Fr. Phil,

I find your sermon helpful because it helps people understand some complex questions in simple terms. It really fits the text, too.

I've been involved a little bit with the abortion issue here in Lancaster, PA. So far, by the grace of God and the prayers of the people, Planned Parenthood has been unable to open a new abortion facility here. Its brought together quite an ecumenical group, including a few Amish!

I looked a little at your response to the Joint Declaration on Justification. A quibble: Luther denied the freedom of the will in the same way Augustine did. It's not that we don't make our own choices: the problem of the will consists in its bondage to our own desires. Augustine's point (and Luther's) is that the heart needs to be set free from self-centered desires. In other words, it's better to speak of a "freed" will than a "free" will. (The Holy Spirit, working by the Gospel, sets the heart free for God and for our neighbor.)

Wouldn't you agree?

Anyway, thank you for making your ministry available on the Web.

Pastor Jonathan Jenkins


Dear Jonathan,

Thanks for your note. Great to hear about your good work in Lancaster. PP is very powerful here in Seattle - even on the board of the Gates Foundation. We need your prayers.

Thanks for the clarification on Augustine & Luther. Is it OK if I post it on my website? Yes I agree on the bondage of will. I've observed it repeatedly in my three decades as a priest, not to mention in my own flesh.

You are probably closer to study of Luther & Augustine than I. I based my statement about Augustine defending free will on what I remembered of De Trinitate where he used the analogy of Memory, Understanding, Will. And Luther's apparent denial of free will from what I remembered of his polemic with Erasmus on the topic. But I am certainly willing to stand corrected. I am sure you agree that one of the best things we all could do today is read more Augustine.


Phil Bloom


Feel free to post my note on your website, if you like. I definitely agree that Augustine should be higher up on the church's reading list these days!

Luther drew a distinction between "things above us" and "things below us." In the choices of daily living ("things below us"), Luther said that we exercise a certain amount of free choice. Even though we are bound by weaknesses and temptations, we can do some earthly good.

In matters "above us," however, it's another story. (Things "above us" include our salvation, relationship to God, etc.) Because of original sin, we are willingly bound to the flesh, the world, and the devil, and likewise, are unfree in relationship to God.

Our will is not free until the Son sets us free, through baptism's gifts of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. This authentic freedom must grow and be renewed throughout life through faith's union with Christ in the church. We believe in a "freed" will - a will that is set free to love God and neighbor with all one's heart, as we will in the age to come.

Luther says that in a second sense the will is "unfree." Under the Holy Spirit, the will does not have a "neutral" kind of freedom (in which we could "take it or leave it" in respect to God). Under the Holy Spirit, the will is bound by bonds of joy and love to God. The will becomes incapable of rejecting God, in the Spirit, because it can no longer desire to do so.

I don't know if this explanation helps, but in any case, Luther did not have in mind a sort of philosophical determinism. He always has in view the fallen human being before God - who is "in denial" because of sin and accused by God's Law and frozen by fear at God's judgment and who - at the same time - is the one Christ died for to be set "free indeed."

Jonathan Jenkins

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