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Luther’s Struggle with Erasmus—1525—


In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.

In the Reformation’s early days, many recognized the hypocrisy of the papacy, but Luther was careful not to ally himself with just anyone, lest he compromise any doctrine of the Bible.

Desiderius Erasmus, a humanist scholar, rejected the idea that the Pope could specify which good works earned heaven, and called the indulgence system deplorable. Erasmus advocated a return to the Bible’s original languages, even producing a more accurate Latin translation to help reveal the church’s errors.

This all sounds amazingly “Lutheran,” but Erasmus differed from Luther in a key Reformation principle: grace alone.

God’s grace is His undeserved favor toward you, whereby He accepts, forgives, and justifies you by His work alone.

This Scriptural concept of grace differs from the thinking of natural man. Without the Gospel, the sinner thinks something about himself is the reason he will enter heaven.

Every Christian faces this temptation. 

Peter did. When Jesus said, “All of you will be made to stumble,” Peter denied that that could mean him: “I will never be made to stumble!” (Matthew 26:32-33) With these words, Peter intended to cry out, “I am not like others!” He claimed there was something in him that would keep him faithful.

Erasmus fell into Peter’s error, claiming that Christians accepted God’s grace due to something different inside their soul. This false distinction came from his reliance on human reason.

Luther taught that Scripture was the sole source of doctrine, while Erasmus contended that both Scripture and human reason could prove the truth. In practice, Erasmus came to regard the Bible as highly as he did because—from his point of view—it “made sense” to do so.

Erasmus’s 1524 treatise against Luther, “On Free Will,” shows how human reasoning skewed his understanding of
the Bible.

He admitted that many Bible passages teach that man cannot earn his salvation, but he contended that commands like “repent” and “believe” presupposed man’s ability to accomplish them. Erasmus thought that God’s Law was more clearly presented in Scripture than the attributes of Christ; from this he reasoned that man’s will retained enough power after the Fall to access grace.

He falsely ascribed an inherent difference to believers, that they are the “kind of people” who use their free will correctly when presented with the Gospel.

In his 1525 treatise “On the Bondage of the Will,” Luther used Scripture to defend the teaching that faith is solely the work of God.

Erasmus taught there were two kinds of people, but the Bible says “There is no difference; for all have sinned.” (Romans 3:22-23)

The command for the sinner to believe has the same life-giving power as the command for Lazarus to come forth. The Word creates the response. The Gospel is the power.

Faith is not your work, but rather the work of God’s Spirit in your heart: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The sinner would like to find something different or special in himself to explain why he is saved.

But the Gospel is the great leveling field; when a person is saved, the only reason is God’s grace.

Peter thought there was something special in himself. But the rooster’s crow cried out, “You’re just like the others after all!” On Easter evening, though, Jesus graciously showed him His hands and side with words of forgiveness, “Peace be to you.”

This grace alone was the cause of faith and its fruits in Peter’s heart. The Risen Lord asked him, “Do you love Me?” Peter responded, “You know that I love You.”  (John 21:17) Peter no longer looked inside, but to God, saying, “Of course You know. This is all Your doing.”

Have you thought more highly of yourself than you ought? Have you thought too lowly, and wondered whether your faith is enough?

Looking inside yourself only brings confusion and doubt. Look to Christ’s death and resurrection. There His Spirit makes the beautiful truth of your eternal life clear as day.

It’s all grace.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.