The Lutheran Difference: The Bondage of the Will

This entry is part 12 of 34 in the series The Lutheran Difference.

I bet some of my non-Lutheran readers are maybe bristling a little at some of the stuff I’ve written in that last two weeks. One of the things that sets Lutherans apart from other Christians is our staunch belief that we are saved by grace alone, that there is literally nothing that we can contribute to our salvation. There is no work good enough to save us. To Lutherans, that also includes the idea that we can “make a decision” about becoming Christian. You won’t find Lutherans praying the Sinner’s Prayer. It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll ever hear an altar call at a Lutheran worship service (although rumor has it that one of my classmates at the Seminary actually figured out a way to do an altar call; to this day, I still wish I could have heard how).

Now some of you might be a little upset at that thought. You come from a denomination or theological tradition that says you can make a decision. You might even remember the day or the circumstances where you made the choice to become a Christian.

That’s all well and good. Remember, the point of this series isn’t to get into an argument or to necessarily convince you that Lutherans are right and that you’re wrong. Instead, it’s to explain why we believe what we believe. And the best way to do that is to point to the title of this post. It’s actually the title of a book that Martin Luther wrote in 1525. Essentially, Luther’s argument (which Lutherans still ascribe to) is that human beings are fundamentally incapable of deciding to become a Christian because our wills are completely captive to sin.

Maybe the best way to explain this is by way of analogy, specifically when it comes to automobile anti-theft devices from the ’90s. Back in the heady days of the 1990s, I was a college student, but I was a college student without a car. When I had need of a car, I would often borrow the car of my friend, Rob. Now Rob was very good about letting me use his car, but he had a few rules for me. I obviously had to fill it with gas. He also wanted me to roll down the windows during winter so the temperature would equalize and frost wouldn’t build up on the inside (we were in Minnesota, after all). And whenever I arrived somewhere, I had to put The Club on the steering wheel.

Do you remember The Club? It was a long piece of metal with hooks on it that you attached to your steering wheel. It looked like this:

the club

I don’t know if they make these anymore. I haven’t seen any in recent years.

So how did The Club work? Well, a potential car thief could still get into your car and hotwire it, but once the started driving, The Club would make the experience awkward for them, especially as the long bar swung around and hit the frame of the car, making the car incapable of turning left. The idea was that The Club would make stealing your car such a nuisance, any thief would look for an easier target. I have no idea if it was effective of not. Maybe that’s why you don’t see many of them in use anymore. But this is an apt metaphor for what sin does to the human capacity to choose. Simply put, sin is like The Club on our souls. According to Lutheran beliefs, sin makes us unable to make the “left turn” into salvation. All we can choose to do is keep turning right, back into sin.

Or think about it another way: can a dead person decide to not be dead anymore? Can a corpse suddenly think, “Hey, I’m not digging this whole ‘not living’ thing anymore. I think I’ll give life another go?” Zombie movies aside, that doesn’t happen. What’s dead stays dead unless an outside force acts on it.

Well, in Ephesians 2:1, Paul tells us that we were once dead in our sins. Lutherans take that statement quite seriously. Dead means dead. Dead means gone. Dead means unable to change our condition. So Paul goes on to say this in verses 4-5:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ

In other words, we’re dead and, on our own, we have no way of changing our condition. Instead, it takes power from outside of us, God’s grace, to change our condition. It is by grace we are saved, through faith, and not by anything we do because there is nothing we can do. It all comes from God.

“But wait a minute,” you might be saying. “So what about those people who say that they have made a decision to be a Christian? How does that work?” Well, we’ll talk about that some more next week.

Sin : our will :: The Club : A car's steering wheel Click To Tweet
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2 Comments:

  1. I think the unavoidable question that has been building for the past few posts in this series is, how is Lutheranism not simply Calvinism by a different name?

    To us uninitiated, this sounds like the concept of predestination, and Calvinism/Presbyterianism/Reformed theologies evidently won the marketing war to claim the popular association with the idea of predestination.

    • I can understand why that conclusion might seem warranted, but if you compare what Lutherans teach to Calvinism’s infamous TULIP, there are some key differences.

      We agree with them on the T (Total Depravity) and the U (Unconditional Election), but we differ with him on the rest. We don’t believe that God limits atonement, but instead wishes for all people to be saved. We also believe that grace can be resisted. And we don’t buy into the idea of “once saved, always saved.”

      That’s the thing: Lutherans don’t fit nicely in the whole Arminian/Calvinist divide. We’re somewhere between the two.

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