On the Bondage of the Will

On the Bondage of the Will
On the Bondage of the Will  
Author(s) Martin Luther
Original title 'De Servo Arbitrio'
Translator Henry Cole - First Translation
Language Latin
Genre(s) Philosophy, Theology
Publication date December, 1525
Published in
1823 - First Translation
Preceded by De Libero Arbitrio
Followed by Hyperaspistes

On the Bondage of the Will (Latin: 'De Servo Arbitrio', literally, "On Un-free Will", or "Concerning Bound Choice"), by Martin Luther, was published in December 1525. It was his reply to Desiderius Erasmus's De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio or On Free Will, which had appeared in September 1524 as Erasmus's first public attack on Luther, after being wary about the methods of the reformer for many years. At issue was whether human beings, after the Fall of Man, are free to choose good or evil. The debate between Luther and Erasmus is one of the earliest of the Reformation over the issue of free will and predestination.


Erasmus' Argument

Despite his own criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church, Erasmus believed that the church needed reformation from within and that Luther had gone too far. Erasmus had asserted that all humans possessed free will, and that the doctrine of predestination was not in accord with the teachings contained in the Bible. He argued against the belief that God's foreknowledge of events was the cause of events, and held that the doctrines of repentance, baptism and conversion depended on the existence of free will. He likewise contended that grace simply helped humans come to a knowledge of God and supported them as they used their free will to choose between good and evil - choices which would lead to salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Content of Luther's Response

Luther in response maintained that sin incapacitates human beings from working out their own salvation, and that they are completely incapable of bringing themselves to God. As such, there is no free will for humanity because any will they might have is overwhelmed by the influence of sin. Central to his analysis, both of the doctrines under discussion and of Erasmus's specific arguments, are Luther's beliefs concerning the power and complete sovereignty of God.

Luther concluded that unredeemed human beings are dominated by Satan; Satan, as the prince of the mortal world, never lets go of what he considers his own unless he is overpowered by a stronger power, i.e. God. When God redeems a person, he redeems the entire person, including the will, which then is liberated to serve God. No-one can achieve salvation or redemption through their own choices - people do not choose between good or evil, because they are naturally dominated by evil, and salvation is simply the product of God dominating a person and forcibly turning them to good ends. Were it not so, Luther contended, God would not be omnipotent and would lack total sovreignty over creation, and arguing otherwise is insulting to the glory of God. As such, Luther concluded that Erasmus was not actually a Christian.

Erasmus's Rebuttal

In early 1526, Erasmus replied to this work with the first part of his two volume Hyperaspistes, but this was a long and complex work which did not gain much popular recognition.

Luther's Later Views on His Writings

Luther was proud of his On the Bondage of the Will so much so that in a letter to Wolfgang Capito written 9 July 1537, he said:

Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism.[1]


  1. ^ LW 50:172-173. Luther compares himself to Saturn, a figure from Ancient Greek mythology who devoured most of his children. Luther wanted to get rid of many of his writings except for the two mentioned.

Back to: Portal:Rhetoric

English translations

  • Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will: A New Translation of De Servo Arbitrio (1525), Martin Luther's Reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam. J.I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, trans. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957.
  • Erasmus, Desiderius and Martin Luther. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. The Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition. Rupp, E. Gordon; Marlow, A.N.; Watson, Philip S.; and Drewery, B. trans. and eds. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969. (This volume provides an English translation of both Erasmus's De Libero Arbitrio and Luther's De Servo Arbitrio.)
  • Career of the Reformer III. Luther's Works, Vol. 33 of 55. Watson, Philip S. and Benjamin Drewery, trans. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

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