I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.
The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.
Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.
Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.
Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”
Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.
This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.
Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.
There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”
So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.