Without a Free and Active Will in the Garden?: Luther on Man’s Prelapsarian Will in His Genesis Commentary

15 Sep

What does this mean?: “[He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (sermon from my pastor on this text)


It seems to me that the book “The Proper Distinction,” could have benefited from an essay on Luther’s view of man (anthropology) in the Genesis commentary. Here is is a essay, admittedly lengthy, I wrote that covers that ground — while also relating it to what we hear about the topic in the Scriptures and Confessions. Note that this has not undergone peer review, but I offer it now in the hope that some peers might review it, and if need be, critique it below. Enjoy.

(note: this paper deals with issues touched on more briefly — and less completely — in this post from my series on Luther’s Antinomian Disputations for Dummies).



During his life, Martin Luther was clearly no stranger to controversy. After he had become an extremely popular figure in his country subsequent to publishing his 95 Theses, there was no shortage of foes in the church attempting to stop him. The great Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus was the most renowned scholar who, pressured by those in power, attempted to slow the march of the popular reformer.

The story is well-known among church historians: Erasmus wrote against Luther by focusing on man’s “free will”[1], and Luther famously responded that the great Dutch humanist alone had gone to “the heart of the matter, the very jugular of theology”. Luther’s response, of course, was his storied De Servo Arbitrio (On the Enslaved Will in English), which we know as The Bondage of the Will. Here, as is well-known, he argued for absolutely excluding works from salvation, with the soul cast entirely upon God’s grace.

The relationship that Lutherans have had with this book has been complicated, to say the least. Luther himself later said that besides the The Bondage of the Will and The Small Catechism, one could burn everything else he wrote,[2] but evidently, Lutherans themselves have not, traditionally, agreed with this evaluation. Even during Luther’s life, the documents that would become the Lutheran Confessions did not talk about the matter of predestination, a heavy topic in Luther’s Bondage of the Will. And later on, in the 1580 Formula of Concord, Luther’s view of predestination[3] would arguably be rejected even as reading the Bondage of the Will would be commended for the edification of the believer.

Going into detail about the issues surrounding the Bondage of the Will is beyond the scope of this paper (and books have been written on the topic), but examining a related, and seemingly smaller question, is within reach. That topic is the nature of man’s will in the garden, as explained in Luther’s Genesis commentary, written in the last ten years of his life. How did Luther see man’s will before it was enslaved by sin? Further, are we able to draw any significant implications from Luther’s views on the “prelapsarian” will (that is, man’s will prior to the fall) that might help us to understand his views on the redeemed will of man? Again, this paper will endeavor to answer these questions while primarily limiting itself to Martin Luther’s views presented in the Genesis commentary, and particularly Luther’s comments found in first four chapters of that book. Given that these chapters talk about the nature of man both before and after the fall, the author believes it most likely that what Luther taught regarding both the free/unenslaved and redeemed will are likely to be most clearly presented here.


The wider context surrounding the question of the free, or unenslaved will

One of the first things that one notices when examining the early chapters of Luther’s Genesis commentary is how he distinguishes the life in the garden from the life to come. The first life can be labeled as being physical, material, and temporal, whereas the life to come can be identified as being spiritual and eternal. Regarding the first stage of life, Luther talks about how the “tree of life” (not the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) was put in the garden in order to preserve Adam and Eve in their “full bodily vigor, free from diseases and free from weariness” (92 – all subsequent page numbers in this paper are from Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume I, or AE I). According to him, this tree of life would have “preserved his powers and perfect health at all times” (93), even “preserv[ing] perpetual youth” (92). But of course, life with God is about much more than this world! For example, Luther says:

 “…man[, unlike “cows, pigs, and other beasts”] is a creature created to inhabit the celestial regions and live an eternal life when, after a while, he has left the earth. For this is the meaning of the fact that he can not only speak and form judgments (things which belong to dialectics and rhetoric) but also learns all the sciences thoroughly” (46).

In Luther’s view, man was created in the image and likeness of God, and this was “an indication of another and better life than the physical” (57). He was to be “a creature far superior to the rest of the living beings that live a physical life” (56). Unlike Epicurus, who “holds the opinions that man was created solely to eat and drink”, Moses “indicates to those who are spiritually minded that we were created for a better life than this physical life would have been even if our nature had remained unimpaired.” Here Luther approvingly cites Peter Lombard, who said that “Even if Adam had not fallen through his sin, still, after the appointed number of saints had been attained, God would have translated them from this animal life to the spiritual life” (56).[4]

Luther then goes on to say the following:

 “Adam was not to live without food, drink, and procreation. But at a predetermined time, after the number of saints had become full, these physical activities would have come to an end; and Adam, together with his descendants, would have been translated to the eternal and spiritual life. Nevertheless, these activities of physical life – like eating, drinking, procreating, etc. – would have been a service pleasing to God; we could also have rendered this service to God without the defect of the lust which is there now after sin, without any sin and without the fear of death. This would have surely been a pleasant and delightful life, a life about which we may indeed think but which we may not attain in this life….” (57).[5]

Later on in the commentary, Luther even writes that “after this physical life was to come a spiritual life, in which [Adam] would neither make use of physical food nor do other things which are customary in this life but would live an angelic and spiritual life” (AE 1: 65). The implications of these views seem rather clear. Even if Luther is not outright consigning the “new heavens and new earth” of Scripture to an existence that is less than concrete, he is clearly downplaying the physical aspect of life, and elevating the spiritual (even as he later talks about the future life also being a “physical life” which would be “blissful and holy, spiritual and eternal” [80].)

Or stated more specifically, and for our purposes in this paper, he is elevating and drawing attention to those who are “spiritually minded”, and who act “in obedience to God and submission to His will” (65)[6], vis a vis those who only know and live according to worldly, “Epicurean” desires. Important here then is also what he goes on to state: “Adam had a twofold life: a physical one and an immortal one, though this was not yet clearly revealed, but only in hope” (57).

Before we can dig more deeply into the implications of these words, it will be important to examine more closely how Luther views the nature of man as God created Him, that is, in the image and likeness of God.


Man’s creation in God’s image and the exclusion of free will from the same definition

Luther does not spend much time talking about man’s likeness – though what he does say about it is significant (see below) – but he does discuss in great detail man’s creation in God’s image.

Regarding the nature of the “image of God” in man, Luther writes: “I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent. Memory, will, and mind we have indeed; but they are most depraved and seriously weakened, yes, to put it more clearly, they are utterly leprous and unclean” (61). Elsewhere, he says “after the Fall death crept like leprosy into all our perceptive powers, so that with our intellect we cannot even understand that image”, “no one can picture in his thoughts how much better nature was then than it is now” (62), and “we have no experience of [the image of God], but we continually experience the opposite” (63).[7]

Not long before saying these things, he mentions the negative effects St. Augustine’s view of the image of God[8] had in the history of the church. Augustine had said that “the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and will” (60). Ever concerned to guard the doctrine of justification, Luther counters:

 “…although I do not condemn or find fault with that effort and those thoughts by which everything is brought into relationship with the Trinity, I am not at all sure that they are very useful, especially when they are subsequently spun out further; for there is also added a discussion concerning free will, which has its origin in that image. This is what they maintain: God is free, therefore since man is created according to the image of God, he also has free memory, mind, and will. In this way many statements are carelessly made, statements that are either not properly expressed or later on are understood in a wicked way. Thus this was the origin of the dangerous opinion that in governing men God permits them to act under their own impulse. From this assertion came many inconvenient ideas. It is similar to the quotation: ‘God, who created you without you will not save you without you.’ From here the conclusion was drawn that free will co-operated as the preceeding and efficient cause of salvation. No different is the assertion of Dionysius, though more dangerous than the former, when he says that although the demons and the human beings fell nevertheless their natural endowments, such as the mind, memory, will, etc., remain unimpaired. But if this is true, it follows that by the powers of his nature man can bring about his own salvation” (60, 61, bold mine).

This statement, especially the part which I have italicized above, will be addressed later in the paper. For now though, let us explore how Luther himself defines the “image of God”. He says the following:

 “…my understanding of the image of God is this: that Adam had it in his being and that he not only knew God and believed that He was good, but that he also lived in a life that was wholly godly; that is, he was without the fear of death or of any other danger, and was content with God’s favor” (62, 63, bold mine).

One notes that Luther talks about man not living a life that was wholly godly, but living in a life that was wholly godly. This, of course, places the emphasis on what God has created man to be, in the pattern of what Luther says in his explanation of the first article of the Apostle’s Creed. Of course man would eventually lose this image of God through sin. Regarding the passage “On whatever day you eat from this tree, you will die by death”, Luther writes:

 “..if they should transgress His command, God announces the punishment… as though He said: ‘Adam and Eve, now you are living without fear; death you have not experienced, nor have you seen it. This is My image, by which you are living, just as God lives. But if you sin, you will lose this image, and you will die’” (62, bold mine).

In spite of this, we might think, fearful warning[9], one thing that immediately stands out about Luther’s commentary is that Luther gives the impression that man, created in the image of God, was perfectly at ease with his Creator.[10] For example, Luther writes that prior to the fall, man’s “intellect was clearest, his memory was the best, and his will was the most straightforward – all in the beautiful tranquility of mind, without any fear of death and without any anxiety” (62), and also asks “who [now] could understand what it means to be in a life free from fear, without terrors and dangers, and to be wise, upright, good, and free from all disasters, spiritual as well as physical?” (65, italics mine) Of course, by way of contrast, in Reformed theology, there is the notion of a covenant of works, whereby man was to earn his final salvation through his deeds, but in Luther’s Genesis commentary, one looks in vain for such a concept.[11]

What else does Luther say about the image of God in man that we should recognize, “now [that] we wretched men have lost that bliss of our physical life through sin…”? (80)

First of all, we cannot ignore Luther’s brief comments about man being in the likeness, or similitude, of God. Like many theologians, Luther here insists on distinguishing between the image and likeness, evident when he says, for example, “Satan assails the greatest strength of man and battles against the likeness of God, namely, the will that was properly disposed toward God” (150).[12] One notes that while Luther has excluded the will – which he elsewhere says was good, sound, upright and righteous (141,142) – from his definition of the image of God, he has included it here.

Second, one also sees how the likeness of God goes hand-in-hand with an explanation of the original righteousness that Adam had in the garden.  Over and against the sin-minimizing scholastic theologians who maintained that man’s original righteousness was “added to man as a gift, as when someone places a wreath on a pretty girl”, Luther said it was “not a gift which came from without, separate from man’s nature, but that it was truly part of his nature, so that it was Adam’s nature to love God, to believe God, to know God, etc.” (165 ; for more on goodness and uprightness of man’s original nature see, e.g., 115, 153, 156, and 163).

Thirdly, when Luther writes also about the glorious restoration of the image of God, whereby Christ’s righteousness restores the believer’s own original righteousness, he is now willing to talk about man’s will.  His entire description of the full restoration of God’s image in man is worth quoting in full (all the bold are mine):

 “But now the Gospel has brought about the restoration of that image. Intellect and will have remained, but both very much impaired. And so the Gospel brings it about that we are formed once more according to that familiar and indeed better image, because we are born again into eternal life or rather into the hope of eternal life by faith, that we may live in God and with God and be one with Him, as Christ says (John 17:21)

And indeed, we are reborn not only for life but also for righteousness, because faith acquires Christ’s merit and knows that through Christ’s death we have been set free. From this source our other righteousness has its origin, namely, that newness of life through which we are zealous to obey God as we are taught by the Word and aided by the Holy Spirit. But this righteousness has merely its beginning in this life, and it cannot attain perfection in this flesh. Nevertheless, it pleases God, not as though it were a perfect righteousness or a payment for sin but because it comes from the heart and depends on its trust in the mercy of God through Christ. Moreover, this also is brought about by the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit is given to us, who offers resistance in us to unbelief, envy, and other vices that we may earnestly strive to glorify the name of the Lord and His Word, etc.

In this manner this image of the new creature begins to be restored by the Gospel in this life, but it will not be finished in this life. But when it is finished in the kingdom of the Father, then the will will be truly free and good, the mind truly enlightened, and the memory persistent

Until this is accomplished in us, we cannot have adequate knowledge of what that image of God was which was lost through sin in Paradise. But what we are stating faith and the Word teach, which, as if from a distance, point out the glory of the divine image. Just as in the beginning the heaven and the earth were unfinished masses, so to speak, before the light had been added, so the godly have within themselves that unfinished image which God will on the Last Day bring to perfection in those who have believed His Word.

Therefore that image of God was something most excellent, in which were included eternal life, everlasting freedom from fear, and everything that is good” (64, 65, bold mine).

Again, Luther’s view of man’s place in God’s world is unique among the 16th century reformers. It is worth pointing out here that when Luther says, for example, “rather into the hope of eternal life by faith”, at the beginning of the long quotation above, he is echoing the biblical concept of hope – as being that in the future which is certain and secure.

That this is in fact what Luther means can be clarified in part by looking at what he says elsewhere in the commentary, namely: “[Satan] envied man….that after so blissful a physical life he had the sure hope of eternal life, which [he] himself had lost” (82, italics mine). Elsewhere, he speaks of, for example, “the clear hope of a certain resurrection and of [full] renewal in the other life after this life” (196). How that security is obtained – apart from our works – is in part dealt with in the topic of the following section.


Man’s prelapsarian will, in relation to things below and things above

As in Luther’s famed Bondage of the Will, the distinction between “things above” and “things below” – and its important relation to the matter of “free will” – makes an appearance in the Genesis commentary:

 “But once the male and the female are so created, man is then procreated out of their blood through the divine blessing. Although this procreation is something has in common with the brutes, it detracts nothing from that glory of our origin, namely, that we are vessels of God, formed by God Himself, and that He himself is our Potter, but we are His clay, as Is. 64:8 says. And this holds good not only for our origin but throughout our whole life; until our death and in the grave we remain the clay of this Potter.

Moreover, this helps us to learn something about the properties of free will, a subject with which our opponents concern themselves so extensively. In a certain way we indeed have free will in those things that are beneath us. By the divine commission we have been appointed lords of the fish of the sea, of the birds of the heavens, and of the beasts of the field. These we kill when it pleases us; we enjoy the foods and other useful products they supply. But in those matters that pertain to God and are above us no human being has a free will; he is indeed like clay in the hand of the potter, in a state of merely passive potentiality, not active potentiality. For there we do not choose, we do not do anything; but we are chosen, we are equipped, we are born again, we accept, as Isaiah says (64:8): ‘Thou are the Potter; we, Thy clay’” (85, bold mine).

A couple interesting points stick out here right away. First of all, Luther is talking about “free will” not so much in philosophical terms, but about it in terms of who has the power in man’s relationship to God. Man is able to “have his way” with the other creatures God has made, but when it comes to his standing before God, man must and can only be passive. He is powerless before the Almighty Creator, and this, evidently, whether or not he finds himself on the right or wrong side of God’s will.

Second, the language of “potentiality” sticks out. A related footnote here reads the following: “By ‘passive potentiality’ is apparently meant the idea that the only possibility a man has lies in what can be done to him rather than in anything that can be done by him” (85, fn 9). Interestingly, this same kind of active and passive language occurs in Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputations (elevated to prominence in recent years by Gerhard Forde) – along with a reference to the prelapsarian will of man! Theses 14 and 15, respectively, read: “Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity” and “Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.”[13]

What here, is meant by these terms, “passive” and “active capacity”? Fortunately, Luther himself tells us what he means in his explanations of these theses. In his explanation of thesis 14, Luther argues that fallen man’s free will is dead, “as demonstrated by the dead whom the Lord has raised up”. That thing which a man who is dead in sin does in an active manner, is only a thing done towards death. Luther’s explanation to thesis 15 is a bit more difficult to grasp, so I will first quote it and then comment on what it means:

The Master of the Sentences [i.e. Peter Lombard], quoting Augustine, states, ‘By these testimonies it is obviously demonstrated that man received a righteous nature and a good will when he was created, and also the help by means of which he could prevail. Otherwise it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault.’ He speaks of an active capacity, which is obviously contrary to Augustine’s opinion in his book, Concerning Reprimand and Grace (De Correptione et Gratia), where the latter puts it this way: ‘He received the ability to act, if he so willed, but he did not have the will by means of which he could act.’ By ‘ability to act’ he understands the original capacity, and by ‘will by means of which he could,’ the active capacity.

The second part, however, is sufficiently clear from the same reference to the Master.”[14]

What may not be immediately clear here is that Luther is saying that Lombard’s idea of the “active capacity” of the will and Augustine’s idea of the will are simply at odds. For Luther, the scholastics in general really taught that the soul’s natural powers, fueled by God’s grace, produce the necessary faith, which is also a conscious and free decision in response to God’s call. On the other hand, for Augustine, man prior to the fall did have the ability, or potential, or capacity, to act in accordance with God’s will, but it was fully dependent on God’s prior activity. In other words, this simply means that man, as he was created, always needed God and was always meant to be fully and trustingly dependent on Him.

As Gerhard Forde put it in his book about the Heidelberg Disputations, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, “active capacity” simply means “not acted upon from without”.[15] Luther is saying that Adam, even in his prelapsarian state, needed to be acted upon from without and hence did not have the kind of active capacity to do good that Lombard promoted.

But would this then mean that Lombard was right in his criticism: “it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault”? Not at all – for man was always able to resist the goodness of God. Prior to the fall, already having the promise of a “share in immortality” (117), man operated in a “state of grace” and was really to be the one through whom God had chosen to do His work – man was to be His mask.

“Not my will, but His be done” was the watchword, just as it was with our Lord. The will could remain in a state of innocence, but only when receiving from God. “What do we have that we have not received?” the Apostle Paul asks. And as Luther notes elsewhere, for human beings to see themselves anything other than receivers was to fundamentally misunderstand who God was.[16]

“But why”, one might ask, “was man always able to resist the goodness of God?” If God had created man perfectly, why should man have been able to, as the Formula of Concord states, both “able not to sin” and “able to sin”? This great mystery continues to challenge us to this day.

It is not that there is nothing more to say about this topic from Luther’s commentary though. In some parts of the commentary, Luther writes that Adam and Eve, as those who were “led by the Spirit”, had in some sense been created perfect (150: “man was created perfect and according to the likeness of God”). Elsewhere however, he says that we were, by virtue of our only having a mortal life, “imperfect” (115: “he was endowed with extraordinary perception and an upright yet imperfect will”), even if he was also “innocent and righteous”. In the third place, he writes that at the proper time, Adam would be translated into the heavenly kingdom, leaving behind the “innocence of a child” (“so to speak”) for the “virile innocence which angels have and which we, too, shall have in the future life”. Luther goes on to write:

 “I call it the innocence of a child because Adam was, so to speak, in a middle position and yet could be deceived by Satan and fall into disaster, as he did. The danger of such a fall will not exist in that perfect innocence which will be found in the future and spiritual life.”

Luther maintains that the command about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil communicates the following:

“You can remain in the life for which I have created you. And yet you will not be immortal in the same way as the angels. Your life is, as it were, placed in the middle: you can remain in it and afterwards be carried to an immortality that cannot be lost; contrariwise, if you do not obey, you will become a victim of death and lose your immortality…[this is] the deathless life in which there would be no further opportunity of sinning” (111, bold mine).[17]

I have italicized above the words saying they could “remain in it”. How could they do this? There are a couple things to consider. First of all, there is no reason to say that now, the focus can no longer be on receiving God’s gifts, but is rather some “legal scheme”, as Forde might put it.

The author’s mind moves quickly to what Luther says about God sharing the goodness of Eve with Adam:

 “Moses adds, ‘And He brought her to Adam,’ is a sort of description of betrothal, which is worthy of special note. Adam does not snatch Eve of his own will after she has been created, but he waits for God to bring her to him. So Christ also says (Matt. 19:6): ‘What God has joined let no man part.’….” (134).

What I mean is this: all – even Adam’s corresponding response to God’s gifts – is a gift of God, and will follow the pattern of goodness and good moral order ordained by God and received by man. To say this is by no means to ignore the humanness of this situation, retreating into impersonal and abstract notions of goodness, and, as Forde would put it “legal schemes”. The reason that the humanness of the situation is not lost is because we also need to say that any good work that Adam does in response to God’s gift will not be for his own glory and crown but rather the “crown” for whom the work is good – that is the neighbor loved by God (see I Thes. 2:19 and Philippians 4:1).

And this brings us to the second matter: that of Adam’s activity as inspired and motivated by God’s Holy Spirit. It would seem, by both passively and actively consenting to the goodness of Godpassively in terms of receiving His gifts of love and grace – like an infant willing to be nothing but given to – and actively in terms of receiving the “good works… prepared beforehand” that His “poems” (ποίημα) should walk in them (Eph. 2:10) – like the man ready to follow his leader into war (please note that these good works would not preclude the good work of consistently attending to the word of God, simply taking time to rest in His certain care, and sit at His feet). One notes that by definition, any notion of consent means that you are not acting alone, but with another, responding to one another.

Again, at this point it is perhaps essential to mention the distinction here with the Reformed idea of the “covenant of works”, something it might seem a man like Gerhard Forde cannot avoid consigning Adam Eve’s prelapsarian existence to. The fact of the matter is, as has been shown time and again throughout this paper, Adam and Eve already were in a stable and secure relationship with God and it was from this security – and not the hope of an eternal life of God by their works – from which they lived. One should also recall at this point Luther’s persistent point that, post-fall, good works were never meant to be that which would effect believers’ salvation, but rather were to be done for the good of the neighbor in response to God’s goodness to them in the promise of Christ (189-199).

Of course, not every person claiming the name “Lutheran” is likely to agree with the idea here that Luther is allowing for some sort of active participation (i.e. “active consent” instead of Lombard’s “active capacity”) when it comes to either man’s prelapsarian or lapsarian will. They might point out, for example, that Luther rejected the idea, born of a medieval allegory, that Eve was “the lower part of reason”, in part because this interpretation of Genesis 3:14 “is the source of the familiar secular discussions about free will and about reason’s striving toward the supreme good.” (which turns theology into philosophy and “specious prattle”) (165)

That said, earlier in the commentary, Luther also states that man, with a nature that “somewhat excelled the female” would have, in the face of the serpent’s temptation, have crushed the serpent saying “Shut up! The Lord’s command was different.” He goes on: “Satan… directs his attack on Eve as the weaker part…” (151). Here, there is certain a focus on an aggressively active will in Adam, motivated entirely on the basis of God’s word.

Therefore, here it seems that the one who resists man’s active participation in the fulfillment of the commandments of the First table in particular (as well as the commandments in general) must ask whether the authors of the Formula of Concord believed that they were being faithful to Luther’s views when they insist that man does not cooperate in regards to his justification but does cooperate in regards to his sanctification.

In safeguarding the doctrine of justification against Rome, Luther was certainly right to make the critical distinction that he did between “things above” and “things below”. That said, we also must not forget that many of the “things above” come to us in the midst of the “things below”…. The final section of this paper will address the various contexts –historical and teleological – surrounding man’s ongoing sanctification in the Garden of Eden that God has revealed to us.


Man’s will, teleology, and divine revelation

Regarding the issue of the context for man’s spiritual growth in the Garden of Eden, Luther notes that “while the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden, the outward worship of the church is established by divine authority – the worship in which they would have born witness of their obedience to God if they had avoided the devil’s snares” (140).


 “[This tree] was forbidden; and… in this respect they should obey so gracious a Creator… In this way Adam and Eve, resplendent with innocence and original righteousness, and abounding in peace of mind because of their trust in God, who was so kind, walked about naked while they discoursed on the Word and command of God and praised God, just as should be done on the Sabbath. But the, alas, Satan interfered and within a few hours ruined all this, as we shall hear” (144, bold mine).

Further, it is important to note here that: “the Law given to the unrighteous is not the same Law that was given to righteous Adam” (109). “[W]e have a different Word, which Adam did not have when his nature was perfect…” What he goes on to say connects all of this with the need even Adam and Eve had to actively and consciously fight temptation, consenting to the work of God’s Spirit, through His word, within them:

 “….this tree in the middle of the garden would have been like a temple in which this Word would be preached: that all the other trees were wholesome, but that this one was destructive. Therefore they should have learned to obey God and to render Him the service of refraining from eating of it, since God had forbidden it.

In this way uncorrupted nature, which had the true knowledge of God, nevertheless had a Word of command which was beyond Adam’s understanding and had to be believed. Moreover, this command was given to Adam’s innocent nature that he might have a directive or form for worshipping God, for giving thanks to God, and for instructing his children. Since the devil sees this and knows that this command is beyond the understanding of the human being he tempts Eve so that she herself may not proceed to ponder whether this is God’s command and will or not. This is the beginning and the main part of every temptation, when reason tries to reach a decision about the Word and God on its own without the Word” (154).[18]

Moving on specifically to lay out the teleological truths one may gather from divine revelation, Luther forthrightly states that “man is a unique creature and that he [alone] is suited to be a partaker of divinity and immortality” (AE 1: 115).[19] Related to this goal, Luther elsewhere says the following:

 “It is revealed in the Word of God, which alone, as I said, imparts true information about the two main causes, the effective and the final; knowledge of these, if available, is considered to be of the greatest importance also in matters pertaining to nature. What advantage is there in knowing how beautiful a creature is man if you are unaware of his purpose, namely, that he was created to worship God and to live eternally with God?” (131)

He goes on to say:

 “The main goal, then, to which Scripture points is that man is created according to the likeness of God; in eternity, therefore, he is to live with God, and while he is here on earth, he is to preach God, thank Him, and patiently obey His Word. In this life we lay hold of this goal in ever so weak a manner; but in the future life we shall attain it fully. This the philosophers do not know. Therefore the world with its greatest wisdom is most ignorant when it does not take advantage of Holy Scripture or of theology. Human beings know neither their beginning nor their end when they are without the Word. I say nothing about the remaining creatures” (131).

While it is not absent in his other writings (see, for example, pp. 64, 65 and also the Large Catechism), Luther’s talk in this commentary and elsewhere does not really abound in talk about the believer’s faith and love becoming more mature. It is particularly noteworthy that, in this commentary, Luther, to my knowledge, does not ever talk about the possibility of prelapsarian Adam’s faith and love becoming more mature during the course of their earthly, physical life. Nevertheless, I contend that this is not because he did not believe that this should have occurred, but rather because of concerns about this point being used to by Roman Catholic polemicists to nefarious purposes.

As can be seen above, clearly Luther thought that the notion of “free will” was rather toxic and had been abused greatly by the Roman Catholic Church and others. Even today, great Christians like C.S. Lewis, have made statements like “in order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.” Luther would have undoubtedly had concerns with even a statement like this, and justifiably so.[20] Therefore, he was not eager to use the term in a positive sense, even as he did use the term early on in his ministry – even to books written for the Christian layman (see his exposition on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in AE 42: 47, 48).

Luther’s particular writings always need to be considered in light of the whole of his corpus, or misunderstandings are liable to be the result. For example, at times he seems to clearly conflate man’s status as creature and his fall into sin. In his Deuteronomy commentary, for example, Luther says that “from his creation man has free knowledge and power to rule and deal with those lesser than himself”, but that he is not capable of governing himself and pleasing his superior (“There free will ends; there he is necessarily blind, powerless, yes, dead and condemned”).[21] In like fashion, in his Genesis commentary he says at one point that “matrimony was divinely instituted and commanded for those who cannot live a chaste life without it” (96). Here, one might wonder: “Is Luther saying that the only reason that God gave man marriage in the first place because of His foreknowledge of man’s sin?” Here, I think, one must take into consideration what Luther says elsewhere about procreation being a purpose of marriage in this physical, earthly life.[22]

So were Adam and Eve created and placed in the garden with the desire that they would mature and grow in sanctity and strength? One is hard pressed to argue why this would not be the case. We can, after all, be pleased with the sapling that we plant in our back yard. But as it grows it provides both shade and fruit, and we then become more pleased with it. It was no less “sinless” as a sapling, being exactly what it should be. It was, however, not “perfected”, i.e. not in a position to bear fruit and give shade…

And here, we must note this: even our Lord Jesus – even He who was immortal and without corruption and sin! – became perfect on earth according to His human nature. In short, God became a son of man – and learned obedience, grew in favor with God, and became perfect (complete) – that we might become a son of God.[23]

It is highly doubtful to this reader at least that Luther would have any problem in saying this. Applying this to God’s goals for humanity prior to the Fall, it would, again, of course be wrong to think that the original righteousness that is attributed to man’s nature is something possessed by and for himself.  Here, it was something given to Him by God in which, acted upon from without (by God), he was to grow – and, contra the scholastics, never under his “own impulse”.

And of course, as Luther was fond of pointing out, the life of God’s children, even in the midst of great suffering, was meant to ultimately be a spontaneous life of joyful service – featuring an utter selflessness and self-forgetfulness… even towards God Himself. In his Advent postil of 1522, for example, we read this startling quotation:

 “If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature.”[24]

Here we see something of the ideal kind of faith that Luther famously talked about in the introduction to the book of Romans in his translation of the Bible: the Christian acting in a wholly spontaneous manner, eager to do the good to and for one’s neighbor God had given them as a pure gift (note Paul’s selflessness in Romans 9:1-5 – ready to give us his own justification for his neighbor!) – and whom He Himself would have us focus on (as He does not need our good works). Even as one should not restrict talk of the Christian life to just this (i.e., see the first part of this section as well, and the discussion on fighting temptation, for example).

And of course, when we talk about this original and restored righteousness we should also not lose sight the bigger picture talked about in the first part of the paper – where Luther contrasted this earthly life with the life to come.  Here we connect God’s ultimate goals for us, noted at earlier points in this paper, with the goals that He accomplished for us in Christ. Luther says the following when he talks about God making man a “living soul”:

 “In the state of innocence no doubt this image was reflected in a unique way in Adam and Eve…even after sin the Gentiles concluded… [man] is a rather outstanding creature among all the rest of the creatures.

Paul’s thoughts go back to this when he quotes the following words from I Cor. 15:45: ‘It is written: The first human being, Adam, was made a living soul; but the last Adam, a quickening spirit.’ ‘Living soul’ he calls the physical life, which consists of eating, drinking, begetting, growing, all of which are also present in the brutes. But by antithesis he says that the last Adam was made a quickening spirit, that is, such a life as has no need for those animal requirements of life. Paul also teaches that even if Adam had not sinned, he would still have lived a physical life in need of food, drink, rest. He would have grown, procreated, etc., until he would have been translated by God to a spiritual life in which he would have live without any animals qualities, if I may use this expression, namely, from within, from God alone, not from without, as he had previously, on herbs and fruits. This would have been in such a manner that he would still have flesh and bones and would not be a mere spirit like the angels.

…Through the mouth of Moses God wanted, also in this passage, to point to the hope of a future and eternal life, which Adam, had he remained in the state of innocence, would have had as his possession after this animal life….” (86).

All this said, I’m still looking forward to the wedding feast of the Lamb being a real feast with real food, even if, strictly speaking, Luther is correct to insist that we will no longer need to eat.



In this conclusion I will briefly wrap up what has been discussed here and go on to make some comments that might be even more controversial than the ones above.

In Martin Luther’s Genesis commentary one notes how, in spite of the concerns he has with terms like “free will”, he is able to talk about man’s will and its importance in God’s plan for man. While never meant to operate by its own power man’s will nevertheless was meant to both passively and actively consent to all the good gifts that God meant to give His creatures. Lutherans in particular, having a rich understanding of these two emphases in their doctrines of justification and sanctification, should be able, better than most, to do full justice to statements in Scripture that might at first glance appear difficult to reconcile. For example, passages like “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (I Cor. 9:22) on the one hand, and “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Cor. 3:7) on the other. Or “…even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (I Cor. 10:33) on the one hand, and “so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (I Thes. 2:4), on the other.  Or “…to this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29), on the one hand, and “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (I Cor. 15:10), on the other.

Luther said, “In every single man God precedes with grace and works before we pray for grace and cooperate.”[25] What else can those who believe “what do we have that we have not received?” think? And still, we can be challenged more. Looking at someone like the Apostle Paul, we might go so far to say that God appears to choose to save Paul and also further chooses to make him, by influencing him further through His love, to be a willing cause of his neighbor’s salvation. Would Paul be horrified to take such credit for himself? Apart from Christ to be sure, but it doesn’t seem that Paul thinks that he should necessarily be left out of the equation. God surely could have chosen to pick another man for the task (Luther: “the will of God comes even without our prayer…), but it seems Paul might rather say, “thanks be to God that I have been blessed to play a part in this”. Lutherans who assert that even the unregenerate can decide, in a “things below”-act, to hear the Word of God (which can convert them), perhaps ought to hesitate to think that they cannot – because of God’s “things above” working in the midst of the “things below” – play a critical, conscious, and active role in God’s causing many to come to a saving knowledge of Him. That more and more might be able to receive something like, and even better than, the Paradise that they were meant with the Triune God from the beginning of all things…

“He frees those who are overwhelmed by death, and transports them to eternal life. This he does…. By crushing the head of the serpent. Accordingly, we now find Adam and Eve restored, not indeed to the life which they had lost, but to the hope of that life. Through this hope they escaped, not the first fruits of death, but its tithes; that is, although their flesh must die for the time being, nevertheless, because of the promised Son of God, who would crush the head of the devil, they hope for the resurrection of the flesh an eternal life after the temporal death of the flesh, just as we do” (197-198).




[1] Erasmus was always trying to find the middle road between the “extremes,” regardless of the truth. The free will, he said, is “the ability of the human will according to which man is able either to turn himself to what leads to eternal salvation, or to turn away from it.” “They say that man cannot will anything good without special grace,… cannot complete anything without… the constant help of divine grace. This opinion seems to be pretty probable, because it leaves to man a striving and an effort, and yet does not admit that he is to ascribe even the least to his own powers.” “The Formula of Concord, Article II, Of the Free Will”, Milwaukee Metro North Pastoral Conference; September 21, 1991.

[2] 127 volumes in German, much more than the 65 or so volumes now available in English American Edition [henceforth AE]).

[3] A good article by Matthew Block on the topic:

[4] Footnote 88 reads here: “Cf. Peter Lombard, Sententiarum libri quatuor, II, Dist. XX, Patrologia, Series Latina, CXCII, 692-694.”

[5] Luther goes on here: “But this we have, that we believe in a spiritual life after this life and a destination for this life in Paradise, which was devised and ordained by God, and that we confidently look for it through the merit of Christ.” He later states also: “…now the present life is separated from the future life by that awful intermediate event, death. In the state of innocence that intermediate event would have been a most delightful one; by it Adam would have been translated to the spiritual life, or, as Christ calls it in the Gospel, to the angelic life (Matt 22:30), in which physical activities come to an end. For in the resurrection of the dead we shall not eat, drink, or marry” (111). Luther elsewhere talks about how that transformation would have taken place in much the same way that God made Eve from Adam’s rib while he slept (130).

[6] Those who don’t think Luther ever highlighted obedience should see his commentary on Deuteronomy (AE 9), and his discussion of the Ten Commandments in the Large Catechism. In addition, in 1519 Luther also expounded on the Lord’s prayer, and contrasting the new man in the Christian with the old Adam (“The old Adam is simply the evil leaning in us towards wrath, hatred, unchastity, greed, vainglory, pride, and the like.” [AE 42: 43]), Luther stated, for example, things like the following: “No matter how good our will may be, it is still immeasurably inferior to God’s will” ; “….this good will in us must be hindered for its own improvement.” ; “God’s only purpose in thwarting our good will is to make of it a better will” ; ultimately, he stated, man is to be “delivered from his own will, and knows nothing except that he waits upon the will of God” ; “Now that is what is meant by genuine obedience, a thing which, unfortunately, is entirely unknown in our day” ; “sure, he gave you a free will. But why do you want to make it your own will? Why not let it remain free?” and “A free will does not want its own way, but looks only to God’s will for direction. By so doing it then also remains free…” (AE 42: 47, 48).

[7] Luther goes so far as to say “Our adversaries today maintain the foolish position that the image and similitude of God remain even in a wicked person” (90).

[8] “Augustine has much to say in his explanation of this passage [Gen. 1:26], particularly in his book On the Trinity. Moreover, the remaining doctors in general follow Augustine, who keeps Aristotle’s classification: that the image of God is the powers of the soul – memory, the mind or intellect, and the will. These three, they say, comprise the image of God which is in all men.

Moreover, they say that the similitude (or likeness, as distinct from image) lies in the gifts of grace. Just as a similitude (likeness) is a certain perfection of an image, so, they say our nature is perfected through grace. And so the similitude of God consists in this, that the memory is provided with hope, the intellect with faith, and the will with love. In this way, they say, man is created according to the image of God; that is, he has a mind, a memory, and a will. Likewise, man is created according to the similitude of God; that is, the intellect is enlightened by faith, the memory is made confident through hope and steadfastness, and the will is adorned with love” (60).

[9] Luther’s translation of God’s warning is a far cry from even St. Augustine’s: “I will kill you.”

[10] Again, one is reminded of what Luther writes in his Small Catechism, about the first article of the Apostle’s Creed: “… and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true. (SC II.1)”

[11] See Pastor and AALC professor Jordan Cooper’s blog post on the topic here:

[12] Interestingly, although Luther says that “whatever the husband has, this the wife has and possesses in its entirety” (137), Luther in this passage is talking about men and women sharing the things in this world and human beings’ purposes in common. Of their own qualities by nature, Luther writes “Although both were created equally righteous, nevertheless Adam had some advantage over Eve”, and that “the perfect nature [of] the male somewhat excelled the female”, seeing the male as not only physically stronger, but stronger in other ways as well (151). That said, also see Luther’s comments on pp. 184-185 for his reaction to the insistence of some scholastics that Eve was the “lower part of reason”. This is also mentioned later on in this paper.

[13] AE 31: 49.

[14] Ibid, 49-50.

[15] Forde, Gerhard, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Eerdman’s, 1997, 57.

[16] AE 11: 411.

[17] Elsewhere he writes: “It is not our business to determine or to investigate too inquisitively why God wanted to create man in this middle condition, or why man was so created that all people are brought into being from one through procreation [unlike the angels]…” (112).

[18] Luther also explains elsewhere that the tree had this “death-dealing” power because of the Word of God coupled with it, much like the serpent that was raised up in the wilderness had “life-giving” power to save. (AE 1: 227)

[19] Pastor and AALC seminary instructor Jordan Cooper discusses this here:

[20] Summary of Lewis’ view provided by Pastor John Fraiser, who points out the very real problems with this argument (“Human Machines, Free Will, and Moral Evil”, Brothers of John the Steadfast blog, Jan. 22, 2013, One wonders why Lewis, in order to make his salient point, did not say something less controversial, like “Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be automatons/robots”?

[21] AE 9: 51.

[22] In any case, one must also always remember that those who wrote the Lutheran Confessions seemed willing to challenge Luther himself from Scripture when it came to his views on predestination.

[23] Luther: “If Christ had to surrender his will, which after all was good, yes, undoubtedly and always the best, in order that God’s will be carried out, why should we poor little worms make such a fuss about our will, which is never free of evil and always deserves to be thwarted?” (AE 42: 45)

[24] Wingren, Gustaf, Luther on Vocation, Wipf and Stock, 2004, 120.

[25] Quoted in, “The Formula of Concord, Article II, Of the Free Will”, Milwaukee Metro North Pastoral Conference; September 21, 1991



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Posted by on September 15, 2017 in Uncategorized



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