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By Chuck Collins
September 20, 2022

The 16th century evangelicals returned to the church some core biblical doctrines of catholic and apostolic Christianity that were nearly lost in the Middle Ages. The theological tsunami we call "The Reformation" reclaimed the Bible as our primary authority, and with it the biblical doctrines of justification by grace through faith alone in Christ alone, the universal priesthood (of all believers), and an understanding of "real presence" in the hearts of the faithful recipients of the real grace offered in the two sacraments. But perhaps the biggest discovery of those 16th madmen and women for the Bible is often overlooked: the bondage of the human will. We begin to understand God when we understand the unfree will; it gives us the foundation on which the rest of Protestant theology stands or falls. Without a biblical anthropology - an understanding of who we are "by nature" (Eph 2:3) - we have no true understanding of the character of God and the extent he went through to reach us for salvation. If we get this wrong, everything else that follows will be wrong.

Paul Zahl states what I have also found true in my ministry:

"I have been talking about the un-free will for thirty years and have never had a single person agree with me on my first attempt. People instinctively rise up against the idea. I repeat, I have not experienced a single instance, in thirty years, of anyone immediately agreeing with me that the human will is not free. (In fact, the only people who display any receptivity at all to the idea are alcoholics and criminals. And even criminals behind bars want to go back to 'free will' once they are settled into prison existence.) When I speak of the un-free will, most people wish to have a duel with me and leave me, like Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, inert on the ground."

When we speak about the bondage of the will, we are obviously not saying that we are puppets or indicating that some kind of determinism is at play. It should be obvious that we have free wills to raise our right hands and wiggle our fingers, and to select an ice cream flavor. Whether the human will is free or un-free goes to the question of salvation and how we enter the Kingdom of God. Either we are saved because we willfully chose him (men and women in search of God "with all eyes closed and heads bowed"), or we are unable to do anything but continue to sin - so enslaved are we to sin that our only hope is completely outside of ourselves (God in search of us). Is the story of salvation about men and women on pilgrimage to reach God, or about God rushing down Jacob's ladder to rescue us (or, heaven forbid! some half way meeting: God helps those who help themselves)? What the old hymn says must be true: "I sought the Lord and afterward I knew; he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me."

The Bible teaches human helplessness in sin and the glory and sovereignty of God in grace. "Almighty God, we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves..." states the collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, but we are not left there in the desert to shrivel and die! The collect goes on to pray: "Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls . . ." God, in his unfathomable love, came to our rescue. Biblical Christianity leads us to have complete and utter confidence in God for salvation from beginning to end. Our efforts at self-justification and the treadmill of moralism only leads to further despair because we simply can never do enough. Not now, not never. The free will we have in the goodness of God's creation is corrupted by human sin and, apart from grace, we cannot begin to love God and love neighbor, as God meant for us to do in creation.

Anglicans have a low anthropology and a high Christology. Along with every created thing, humankind is very good by creation, but because of inherent original sin we are now incapable of doing anything but continue to sin, either by doing wrong things, or by doing right things for the wrong, selfish reasons. It is by grace alone that our hearts, wills, and affections will be set right by the power of the Holy Spirit. Article 9 (Thirty-nine Articles of Religion) speaks of "the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated."

Article 10 says this even more succinctly: "the condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith." And the second Anglican homily, "The Misery of All Mankind," perhaps states it the best: "For of ourselves we are crabtrees that can bring forth no apples. We are of ourselves of such earth as can bring forth only weeds, nettles, brambles, briers, corncockle, and darnel" (Lee Gatiss edition).

The Christian life takes its first breath in us with the words, "God, please help me!" But even this, as Oliver O'Donovan reminds us, "the act of belief, too, can occur only as God evokes it: no one can say 'Jesus is Lord,' says Saint Paul, except through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3)." People in 12-Step programs seem to know this better than others, and so do Christians who have been humbled on moralistic self-righteous treadmills. They have learned this by heart: "We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy..." We are not a little effected by sins; we are sinners by nature. "Our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (Isa 64:6); "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick" (Jer. 17:9); "none is righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10); "we are dead in our trespasses and sins...and by nature children of wrath" (Eph 2:1-3).

If we get this right, we are more likely to have a right appreciation for the grace of God and the lengths he has gone to reach us. With a sunnier view of human capacity, God is demoted to being a coach cheering from the sidelines for us to do more and try harder. But little solutions do not fix our big problem. When we recognize the Grand Canyon-size gulf between us and God, we are forced to look for a solution beyond our human capacity and righteousness: to a God who saves us to the uttermost - who alone has the power to bring dead people back to life.


The First Book of Homilies: The Church of England's Official Sermons in Modern English, Ed. Lee Gatiss

Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Paul F. M. Zahl

The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther (Trans by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson)

On the Thirty-nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity, Oliver O'Donovan

The meaning off Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel that Gives us Christ, Phillip Cary

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