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Interview – Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther began studies as a lawyer in 1501, but after a brush with death he entered an Augustinian monastery in 1505 where he received his doctorate in theology in 1512 and taught theology at Wittenberg for the rest of his life. In 1517 he began his campaign to reform Catholicism and in 1525 wrote his major theological work: The Bondage of the Will. Luther is considered the most influential German who ever lived. Revered by Protestants, his ideas were still affecting the Catholic Church as recently as the major reforms of the 1960s.

This interview is recorded in December, 1524.

Luther stands beside a blazing fire. He looks every inch the choleric bull-necked brawler of his legend, but the occasional twinkle in his eye suggests his bark might be worse than his bite.


Q: Herr Luther, for several years now you have been a bitter opponent of freewill. Have you changed your views since Erasmus brought out his book earlier this year in defence of human freedom?

Luther: I am writing a little book of my own to teach Erasmus that Luther will not tolerate anyone, no matter how great his name and his learning, to jeopardize the cause of Christ.

Q: Can you explain what causes you to fight against freewill with greater fury than anyone since Augustine?

Luther: We know that natural man was made lord over things below him, and that he has freewill and a right with respect to them. We know that the natural realm should obey man and do as he wills and thinks. Our question is whether man has freewill with respect to God.

Q: Can you explain the distinction between freewill in everyday life and freewill with respect to God?

Luther: Even Peter Lombard and the snivelling Schoolmen agree with Augustine that freewill has no power to please God. Freewill is capable only of sin. In his second book against Julian, Augustine calls it a slave will rather than a free will. A stone could be said to have freewill because on its own power it can fall downward. Without God's grace, man's freewill can only fall downward into deeper sin!

Q: Many Christians would disagree with that analogy. If we do not have greater freedom than a rock why would Moses say: 'I have set before thy face life and death; choose what is good'?

Luther: Moses never said: You have the power and strength to choose what is good. He was proclaiming commandments that must be performed, not affirming that man has any more ability to do so than a stone. The words of Mosaic Law admonish man and teach him to know his sinfulness, not that he has the strength to rise above it.

Q: Moses' exhortation to choose good would be pointless if we are unable to choose.

Luther: God's commandments are never given pointlessly! Human nature is blind to its deep sickness. It is puffed up with pride and deluded that it can do everything it wants. God's commandments are given in order that proud men may learn the plague of their own impotence when they fail to do what is commanded.

Q: What is the purpose of exposing human sin, if we have been given no power to change?

Luther: The condemned will know why they are tormented.

Q: In the book of Exodus God says: I will show mercy onto many thousands of them that love me. (Ex 20:6) These words indicate that at least some have the freedom to love God.

Luther: More than half the Scriptures are promises of grace, by which God offers men mercy, life, peace and salvation. But not a single word of mercy, promise, or comfort supports this blasphemy of freewill.

Q: What does Zechariah mean when he writes: Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you. (Zec 1:3)

Luther: Zechariah has summarised both the law and grace in these few words. It is the whole sum of the law when he says: Turn ye unto me, and it is grace when he says: I will turn unto you. If you do not know enough Scripture to distinguish law from grace you will muddle everything like a depraved sophist or that sleepy-headed Erasmus!

Q: How can we 'turn' if we do not have freewill?

Luther: The Law and Scriptures make threats in order to bring the proud to knowledge of their helplessness. Only after God has humbled them by the knowledge of their sin, can He prepare them for grace.

Q: Erasmus would agree with what you just said. So would Pelagius. Once we are prepared for grace we must open our hearts and accept it. What would be the point of exhorting people to believe if they are unable to respond?

Luther: Pelagians wrinkle up their noses and say: Why does God want the gospel preached, when nothing is achieved by such words, and the sinner's will cannot turn itself toward God? To this I say: God has desired to give the Spirit with the Word, that He might have us as workers with him. We preach the gospel and he breathes faith into whomever he pleases. This he could do without the Word of the gospel, but this is not His desire.

Q: If the human capacity to respond is removed, what purpose is served by preaching the gospel?

Luther: It is perfectly clear to anyone who understands the plain, unequivocal words of the Bible! Scripture sets before us a man who is bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead. Satan his Lord adds to man's other miseries that of blindness so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and unrestrained ability. Satan knows that if men knew their true misery he could keep no one enslaved in his wicked kingdom. If they cried out for mercy God would not fail at once to pity them, for God is proclaimed with mighty praise throughout the scripture as being near the broken-hearted.

Q: You say with one breath that God could be merciful toward the broken-hearted after saying no sinner can recognize his misery until God has removed his blindness. How do you make sense of this contradiction?

Luther: It is enough for us to know that God so wills it and that we must worship, love and adore His will whether or not it makes sense to our puny reason. Our faith must silence the presumption of reason.

Q: Are you advocating blind faith?

Luther: Never! This is my contention: the spirits must be detected and tried by double judgement. The first is internal. By it, through the enlightenment of the Holy Ghost, the special gift of God, one enjoys complete certainty in judging between the doctrines and opinions of all men as they affect oneself and one's own personal salvation.

Q: If you teach people to ignore the traditions of the church and rely on the 'complete certainty' of their own judgement, how can complete anarchy be avoided?

Luther: Individual errors are avoided by the second method of discerning truth. An external judgement of the spirits and doctrines ensures the greatest certainty. This judgement is the province of the public ministry of the Word and the external office, and is the special concern of preachers and teachers of the Word.

Q: Isn't this precisely the 'authority of interpretation' you deny the Pope and his Councils?

Luther: The Papists are not instructed in the Scriptures though the very stones cry out the truth.

Q: You have been quoted as saying that the saints and the entire Catholic Church have erroneously interpreted Scripture. Why would your God, who predestines everything, have made that happen?

Luther: I do not say that God tolerated error in His Church or in any of His saints. The Church is ruled by the Spirit of God and so the Church is pillar and ground of truth and it is impossible that she should err in even the least article. But which of those they claim to be saints can you prove for certain to have been a saint? It is a true proverb that many are accounted saints on earth whose souls are in hell.

Q: Are you saying the recognized saints of the official Church are evil? How would anybody know the spirit of God guides the teachings of unrecognized saints of the unofficial Church?

Luther: Throughout the whole course of world history from its beginning, who knows whether the church has always consisted of some called the people and Saints of God who were not so, while true people of God and Saints were not recognized? Show me a single Church Council at which they dealt with matters of true religion and not with gowns, rank, revenues, and other profane trifles, which only a lunatic could consider the province of the Holy Ghost! How many true saints do think the Inquisition has killed and burned as heretics?

Q: Your definition of 'saint' sounds like a recipe for confusion.

Luther: Paul teaches that faith and unbelief come to us by no work of our own, but through the will of God alone.

Q: So you deny that we have any responsibility for our choices?

Luther: Show me out of the whole race of Pagans a single one – even the most holy and righteous of them all – to whose mind it ever occurred that the way to salvation and righteousness was simply to believe on Him who died for men's sins. Show me one who dreamed of the wrath of God which Paul says here is revealed from heaven. Look at the greatest Pagan philosophers! What have they left in writing about the wrath to come? Then look at the Jews, incessantly instructed by a host of signs and prophets. The Jews so hated this gospel that no nations under heaven has persecuted Christ more bitterly to this day. Paul speaks of the gospel as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Since it is certain that the Jews and Gentiles constitute the chief people under heaven, it is certain that freewill is nothing but the greatest enemy of righteousness and man's salvation.

Q: Freewill is the greatest enemy of righteousness and salvation? Are you serious?

Luther: If I wanted to review all the passages in Paul alone that overthrow freewill I would have to give a running commentary on his entire writings! The boasted power of freewill is refuted by almost every word. I am amazed that other contradictory statements have won acceptance.

Q: Those 'contradictory statements' support freewill as strongly as you deny it.

Luther: Impossible! Paul leaves no middle ground: Righteous is not of works but of faith. John says: To them he gave power to become the sons of God. (John 1:12) This passage is a hammer against freewill. John asserts that we have become the sons of God by a power divinely given us – not by this illusion of freewill.

Q: John says God gave them power. He says nothing to deny that they first asked to receive it.

Luther: If your view were true, God is robbed of His power and wisdom in election. Almighty God is reduced to nothing more than that wooden idol, Chance, under whose sway all things happen at random.

Q: Freewill is not random chance! What could be more random than being elected or condemned for no reason?

Luther: It is impossible to reconcile both the foreknowledge of God and the freedom of man together. It would be far easier to maintain that the same number may be both nine and ten!

Q: This is pure Augustine. As impossible as reconciling sinful flesh with saintly spirit.

Luther: I draw a clear distinction between flesh and spirit as contrary principles. I say according to the divine oracles that unless a man is born again in the spirit he is flesh. That which is born of flesh 'cannot see the kingdom of God.' It obviously follows that whatever is flesh is ungodly, is under God's wrath, and is a stranger to his kingdom. There is no middle ground between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, which are ever at war. This proves that the brightest virtues among the heathen, the best works among the philosophers, and the most excellent deeds among all races, which appear in the sight of the world to be good and upright, are ungodly, sacrilegious, satanic and evil in every respect.

Q: Have you never seen non-Christians behave with virtue?


Luther: If I were to ask you the most outstanding example of virtue you would point to men who have nobly died for their country, parents, wives, children. Or you might praise men who have endured atrocious tortures rather than lie or betray others. But what can you show us about these man but the outward appearances? Have you seen their hearts? They were not ashamed to acknowledge and to boast that they sought their own glory. As upright as they might be in men's eyes, they were nothing in God's eyes. Indeed it is the supreme impiety and height of sacrilege that they did not suffer for the glory of God. By the most ungodly robbery, they robbed God of his glory, which they kept for themselves. They were most vile when they shone in their highest virtues.

Q: Totally vile? Incapable of virtue?

Luther: I do not dispute, nor am I unaware, that man's works can be good, but only if they are done with the help of God's grace. There is nothing man cannot do with the help of God's grace.

Q: Your portrayal of God and man are widely questioned.

Luther: Paul also faced those questions: Why does God find fault? Who shall resist His will? This is what man's reason cannot receive nor bear. This is what offended so many men down through the ages. They demand that God should act according to their mortal idea of right or else God should cease to be Holy God! They say it is absurd to condemn a sinner who cannot avoid deserving damnation. And because of this absurdity it must be false that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy and hardens whom he will. They shout that God must be brought to order! Rules must be laid down and the Almighty will not be permitted to damn any but those who deserve it by our reckoning of human justice.

Q: Why would divine justice be inferior to human justice?

Luther: If we insist that God ought to find cause in those who are to be damned, must we not equally maintain that He should also regard merit in those that are saved? If we want to follow Reason, it is as unjust to reward the undeserving as to punish the undeserving. But if God does not elect evil and wicked men, as I was, who shall be saved? Woe to us poor wretches! Behold the wickedness of the human heart! When God saves the undeserving without merit and justifies the ungodly, man's heart does not accuse God of iniquity, nor demand to know why he acts without principle. When God's actions are in man's own interest they are considered just and good. But when He damns the undeserving, because it is against his interest, man finds the action iniquitous and intolerable. And here man's heart protests, grumbles and blasphemes.

Q: Undeserved merit is as wrong as underserved judgement. Your system of original sin and predestination makes God into an evil tyrant.

Luther: You fear a floodgate of iniquity will be opened by these doctrines? So be it. Ungodly men are part of the evil leprosy we must endure. But these doctrines are for the elect who fear God. If we teach men that they are free to choose their own salvation then these broad gates, these gaping chasm and raging whirlpools, will drag us down to the very depths of hell!

Q: I have heard it said that your system condemns 90% of mankind to hell. Do you truly believe such a monstrosity?

Luther: The highest degree of faith is needed to believe that God is merciful though He saves so few and damns so many. If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need of faith. But the impossibility of understanding makes room for the exercise of faith.

Q: Faith is not about seeing wrath and pretending it is mercy. Faith is about seeing mercy and believing it has a divine source.

Luther: We know well enough that God does not love and hate as we do, for we love and hate inconsistently. God loves and hates according to his eternal and immutable nature. And it is inevitable that this compels the conclusion there is no freewill, because the love and hate of God towards men is immutable, eternal and predestined. He has from eternity loved or not loved us and no action by our freewill can change a thing.

Q: Why must God have pre-determined and pre-destined the fate of the universe for you to consider him God?

Luther: If God does not foreknow and will all things, necessarily and immutably, how can anyone believe or rely on his promises? Unless we teach the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed and the promises of God as well as the whole gospel fall to the ground completely. The Christian's main comfort in every adversity comes from knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded. If you do not allow that the thing which God foreknows is necessarily brought to pass, you take away faith and the fear of God. You undermine all the Divine promises and threatenings and so you deny the deity itself.

Q: A lot people believe God is much more divine if he grants us freewill and the opportunity to exercise it.

Luther: You will drive me mad with your freewill! Man's will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it goes where God wills. If Satan rides, it goes where Satan wills. Man does not choose the rider! The riders fight to decide who will take the reigns.

Q: You're saying that God is not always stronger than Satan. Why is there a fight if everything is predetermined and predestined? This world makes no sense unless we are free to choose our own horse.

Luther: I frankly confess that for myself that I would not want freewill given to me. I would not want anything left to my own hands to enable me to strive after salvation. In the face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my freewill. One devil is stronger than all men, and on those terms no man could be saved.

Q: You're a good pupil of Augustine, but you have too little faith in the power of God and too much in devils.

Luther: Even if there were no dangers, adversities or devils, I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success. If I lived and worked all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty, as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God or whether he required something more.

Q: Why do you have so little faith in mercy?

Luther: God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will and put it under the control of His and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy. I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can pluck me from Him.

Q: Christianity has already rejected original sin and predestination once. Why are you determined to drag us back?

Luther: My adversaries say that their system has been unanimously acclaimed for many centuries by a great array of learned men, expert Bible scholars, saints, martyrs, miracle workers, plus theologians, schools, councils, bishops and Popes. They say that on my side I stand alone except for the heretic Wycliffe. They do not mention Augustine, who is entirely with me! But I admit these are considerations not to be dismissed lightly. For more than 10 years they so deeply troubled me that I do not think any other mortal was ever so deeply moved by them!

Q: I'm sure a few other people have wrestled with these questions…

Luther: It gives the greatest possible offence to common sense that God, who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, should abandon 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 this has been a stumbling block to so many men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down into the deepest pit of despair, so that I wished I had never been made a man.

Q: Why didn't you accept that your conscience was telling you to abandon Augustine's ugly doctrines? We learn by trial and error. Of our own freewill.

Luther: This I will never confess! Despite all the doubts and despair, the arrow of conviction has remained, fastened deep in the hearts of learned and unlearned alike, whenever they have seriously studied the matter. It is found written in the hearts of all men that there is no such thing as freewill, although that conviction is obscured by much arguing against it and by the great authority of all those who down many ages have taught otherwise.

Q: How can you claim that 'the hearts of all men' agree with you and then complain that everyone disagrees with you?

Luther: The same God who desires that none be lost and sent His only begotten son into the world to bear the sins of all men, weeps, laments and groans over the perdition of the ungodly, although it is in His Majestic power to save them if He would. It is not for us to ask why He will not stretch out His merciful hand to the reprobate. We can only stand in fear and awe of a God who wills and executes such terrible judgements. It is unlawful for men to search into the will of Majesty. Perverse men are the most inclined to question the will of God. We must urge upon them silence and reverence. If however, they do not yield to our admonitions, but persist in questioning God's will, we let them go on and fight with God. We watch to see how He will triumph over them.

Q: Why would God lament and moan over the lost if he predestined their damnation?

Luther: We are nowhere more recklessly irreverent than when we argue about these inscrutable mysteries of God's judgment. We poke our filthy snouts into places God has forbade us to search with endless audacity, not to say blasphemy! Is it not audacious to try to deny the foreknowledge of God if it does not allow us freedom or if it imposes necessity on us? We join with blasphemers to complain: Where is the God whose nature is kindness itself ? Where is the God who does not desire the death of a single sinner? Has he created us merely to delight in out torments? These are the same loathsome sentiments the damned in Hell will be howling for all eternity!

Q: Do you truly believe that everyone who disagrees with you is doomed to hell?

Luther: Even the most arrogant man admits he does not have the same power, strength or wisdom as God. Why do we not in like manner admit our judgement is nothing compared to God's judgement? Are we not foolish and rash when we do not admit that God's judgement must be incomprehensible when everything else about Him is incomprehensible?

Q: Luther's God is incomprehensible because his justice is random and his mercy, wrath.

Luther: If we follow human reason we are forced to say either that there is no God or that God is unjust. As the poet said: I am often tempted to think there are no Gods. See the great prosperity of the wicked by contrast with the great adversity of the good.

Q: This injustice calls into question a God who determines the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the good.

Luther: There are three lights that reveal God: one of nature, a second of grace and a third of glory. By the light of nature it is inexplicable that the good should be afflicted and the wicked prosper. By the light of grace it is inexplicable how God can damn him who by his own strength can do nothing but sin and become guilty. The light of glory will one day reveal God, to whom alone belongs a judgement whose justice is incomprehensible, as a God whose justice is most right and evident.

Q: Where is this story of three lights found in Scripture? Your ugly doctrines force you to invent fairytales about an unjust and cruel tyrant who will one day be revealed as a God of love. Who can believe such a thing?

Luther: God has no time for freewill heresies and practitioners of self-reformation. The elect will be reformed by the Holy Spirit, the rest shall perish unreformed. Note that Augustine says only some men's work will be rewarded. You ask: Who will believe that such a God loves them? I reply: Nobody! Nobody can! But the elect believe it and the rest shall perish without believing it, raging and blaspheming.

Q: This angry God of yours is breeding an army that will slaughter its enemies.

Luther: Satan, the evil God of this world is the implacable enemy of the God of heaven. These two Gods are at war, so what else can there be throughout the world but uproar? To want to quell these tumults is really to want to silence the word of God and stop its course. When the Word of God comes, it comes to change and renew the world, and even heathen writers acknowledge that such changes cannot take place without commotion and upheavals, nor indeed without bloodshed. Personally, if I did not see these upheavals I should say the Word of God is not in the world.

Q: Are you not horrified to see Europe butchering itself in a war between Christians divided into Catholics and Protestants?

Luther: When I see these things, I rejoice from my heart and smile at them, knowing for sure that the Pope's kingdom and all its allies will surely fall. Stop your cowardly complaining! The origin and continuance of this conflict is from God and will not cease until the enemies of God's Word are crushed underfoot like the filth on the streets.

Q: Have you no regrets at what you have unleashed?

Luther: How much better it is to lose the world than to lose God, who can create countless new worlds. What are temporal things beside the eternal? We must endure this leprous outbreak of temporal evils, rather than keep the world at peace. For the price of that peace would be the ruin of souls, who would then be destroyed and damned forever.

Q: How many people will have to die to appease your wrathful God?

Luther: I have God's grace in me so I can see clearly what sinners like you cannot see. Indeed I foresee greater upheavals with other godless powers for a future generation, compared with which these present troubles are but as the whisper of a faint breeze or the murmur of a gentle brook.



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