Free Will from Luther to the Brethren

Tammy Graham

[6]Many people consider Martin Luther (1483-1546) the father of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, a formidable theologian and skilled polemicist, became a folk hero: his "priesthood of all believers" appealed to the low born, and his war with the papacy enticed the political leaders who were eager for more power. All Protestant reformers looked to Luther as the first to break free from the Roman church. Historian Franklin Littell testifies to this fact in his The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (1964): "Martin Luther was adored as a champion by many different groups and classes for as many different reasons."(2) Huidreich Zwingli (1484-1531), a parish priest educated in the humanist tradition in German Switzerland, shared many of Luther's beliefs. He advocated a return to scripture and acquired many Swiss followers.

As reformers built upon and departed from both Luther and Zwingli's theologies, more conflict arose. Some of the more radical reformers (3) in Switzerland and Germany formed their own exclusive congregations. Known by their detractors as Anabaptists, these Swiss and South German Brethren advocated strict adherence to the scripture, adult baptism, spiritual withdrawal from the world, separation from the state, a return to the early church, and pacifism. The Brethren adopted the idea of the importance of faith to salvation from Luther and Zwingli, but their assumptions about human will departed from those of their predecessors. The mainstream Protestant reformers argued that the human will lies in bondage to sin and can in no way earn salvation. The Brethren, from their beginning, denied this fundamental aspect of the Lutheran and Reformed confessions and affirmed the role of free will in the economy of human salvation.

Luther's assertion of "justification by faith," the belief that faith alone, not good works, makes human beings righteous before God, was the inspiration for the Reformation. Battling a church that emphasized good works and voluntary cooperation with God's grace, Luther argued that works contribute nothing to one's salvation. A passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans led Luther to his understanding of salvation and faith, as he explained in Freedom of a Christian:


Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God, according to Rom. 10 [:91: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Furthermore, "Christ is the end of the law that everyone who has faith may be justified" [Rom. 10: 41. Again, in Rom. l [:17], "He through faith is righteous shall live."(4)

True good works flow from faith, from "spontaneous love in obedience to God," but "the works themselves do not justify [one] before God."(5) Works do not earn salvation, but a person who has faith naturally does good works.

Luther's understanding of faith, however, was not human-centered: God instills faith in human beings; consequently, God is solely responsible for salvation. The word faith has many possible meanings, but Luther scorned all but his:

Faith is not something dreamed, a human illusion, although this is what many people understand by the term. . . . [Wihen they hear the gospel, they miss the point; in their hearts, and out of their own resources, they conjure up an idea which they call "belief," which they treat as genuine faith. All the same, it is but a human fabrication, an idea without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart. (6)

In "Commentary on Galatians," he argued that true faith comes from above. He explained it in terms of the righteousness it produces:

But this most excellent righteousness, of faith I mean (which God through Christ, without works, imputeth into us), is neither political nor ceremonial, nor consisteth in our works, but is clean contrary: that is to say, a mere passive righteousness . . . . For in this we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but only we receive and suffer another to work for us, that is to say, God.(7)

For Luther, faith is not voluntary belief, but rather an unmerited gift from God.

Because faith "is something that God effects in us,"(8) because human beings are essentially corrupt, Luther granted humanity no free will in the economy of salvation. Although he argued that Christians are free from working for salva-tion and can do works freely out of love, he believed that God originally chose the saved and the damned: "it is by providence that it was first decided who should, and who should not, have faith; who should conquer sin, and who should not be able to do so."(9) In The Bondage of the Will, his polemical debate on human will with Desiderius Erasmus, Luther summarily rejected the idea of free will:


the power of "free-will" is nil, and it does no good, nor can do, without grace. . . . "free-will" is obviously applicable only to the Divine Majesty If "free-will" is ascribed to men, it is ascribed with no more propriety than divinity itself would be-and no blasphemy could exceed that! (10)

Luther argued that although human beings could will, they could only will evil. Anything good that appeared to come from humanity actually came from God; the human creature is merely an agent of divine providence.

Zwingli's understanding of faith, free will, and predestination was much like Luther's, for he argued that faith comes from God alone. In his introduction of a volume of Zwingli's works, G. W. Bromiley describes the basic principles behind Zwingli's definition of faith:

The sole causality of God necessarily involved for Zwingli a rigorous doctrine of the divine predestination and election, for all that is good in man derives from God, and faith itself is possible only where God himself has sovereignly decreed to give it.(11)

Zwingli's understanding of faith and eternal election led him to his argument that humanity does not have the free will to choose to do good or to choose sal-vation. He echoed Luther in his proclamation that everything a person wills is sinful: "It is quite evident that works done apart from the will of God are done without faith, and if they are done without faith then according to Paul's judg-ment they are sin."(12) When human beings are called to God, they do not have the choice to refuse his irresistible grace: "such defeat cannot happen to God, for he whom He calls is forced to respond whether he will or not."(13)

Neither Luther nor Zwingli denied the importance of human works in the earthly life. In "Freedom of a Christian," for example, Luther emphasized Christian love, born of faith, and both he and Zwingli stressed the need for Christians, acting as instruments of God, to promote the Gospel. Zwingli illustrated this understanding of the human role in religion in his treatise "Of the Education of Youth." He explained that an educator's job is to teach an understanding of God and to prepare a child for faith, not to instill faith:

it is beyond our human capacity to bring the hearts of men to faith in the one God even though we had an eloquence surpassing that of Pericles. For that is something which only our heavenly Father can do as he draws us to himself. Yet it is still the case, in the words of St. Paul, that "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God," though this does not mean that very much can be [9] accomplished by the preaching of the external word apart from the internal address and compulsion of the Spirit.(14)

Human beings cannot choose or teach someone to be faithful, for "faith follows election,"(15) God's eternal decree to save some people and damn others, and God chooses when he will make people faithful. Both Luther's and Zwingli's concep-tion of the church and human religious duties emphasized God's power and God's use of human beings, not human will.

Like many of the churches created during the Reformation, the Brethren, or Anabaptists, began with Luther's and Zwingli's ideas, but almost immediately found the ideas and the reformers lacking. Franklin Littell quotes some Brethren viewpoints about the two Protestant leaders: "They said of Luther that he 'tore down the old house, but built no new one in its place,' and of Zwingli that he 'threw down all infirmities as with thunder strokes, but erected nothing better in place."'(16) Historians date the origin of the Anabaptist movement from January, 1525, when Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) baptized Georg Blaurock (1480?-1528) at the house of Felix Mantz in Switzerland. From their beginning the Brethren were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. Punishments for "re-baptizing" ranged from banishment and fines to death by drowning. The Brethren also offended other believers-including Zwingli, who "ruthlessly suppressed" them(17)-because they rejected the state church, refused to participate in any state activities, and shunned non-Brethren.

The Brethren also departed from Luther and Zwingli in their assertion that faith is an act of human will.(18) Grebel believed that "faith is demanded of all who are to be saved,"(19) but, unlike Luther and Zwingli, assumed that faith is a conscious choice, a choice embodied in the sacrament of believers' baptism. Grebel explained that the Brethren rejected infant baptism in "children who have not yet come to the discernment of the knowledge of good and evil" and denounced it as a "senseless, blasphemous abomination, contrary to all Scripture."(20) The Brethren instead insisted that only those people who have faith and a mature understanding of the gospel are to be baptized. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith of 1527, the first attempt to bring all the Brethren together under one confession,(21) speaks of the believer's duty to ask for baptism:


Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves.(22)

Baptism is not a passive act, not an action bestowed upon infants; one must "demand" it because she or he wills it and truly believes.

In one of the Brethren's earliest systematic treatments of the subject of free will, On Free Will (1525), Balthasar Hubmaier described the importance of free will in terms of the three "parts" of every human being: flesh, spirit, and soul.(23) After the fall, the flesh, or body, "can do nothing except sin," while the spirit "has remained utterly upright and intact" because "it did not in any way consent" to original sin. The soul "through the disobedience of Adam was ... maimed in will and wounded" but remains "remediable through the Word of God (Ps. 19:7), which teaches us anew to will or not will what is good and what is evil."(24) Hubmaier asserted that the soul, "awakened by the Word of God" and "enlightened through the Holy Spirit,"(25) can choose between the way of the flesh and the way of the spirit.

Rejecting Luther and Zwingli's assumptions of predestination and irresistible grace, Hubmaier insisted that a person's eternal fate depends upon the choices that person makes in life:

If thou wilt enter the life, keep the commandments; if ye want to live according to the flesh, ye will die; if ye will walk according to the spirit, ye shall live. Hence arose the proverb of the ancients: Man, help thyself, and then I will help thee. God speaks forth and gives strength through his Word. Now through the power of the Word man can help himself--or can willfully neglect to do so--and this is brought home to him. Therefore it is said God created you without your aid, but he will not save you without your aid. Since God first created the light, whoever will receive it may do so according to God's promise. Whoever despis-es it, falls, by God's judgment, into darkness (John 1: 5 ff; 3: 19). The talent that one would not use, but hides it in a napkin, is justly taken from him (Matt. 25: 24 ff.).(26)

Hubmaier placed extraordinary influence on the will, arguing that if a person does not willfully follow God, she or he will not be saved. Other Brethren writ-ers agreed with Hubmaier and even argued that God cannot refuse a person who [11] honestly strives to follow the will of God. In "Two Kinds of Obedience," Michael Sattler described filial obedience, which comes from the love one has for God, and wrote "the filial strives for and attains perfection, and for that reason the Father cannot reject him. "(27)

The Brethren also believed that once a person chooses to believe and follow Jesus, free will is still important; in fact, it is gains strength. Hubmaier argued that the soul of an individual who has heard and heeded the scripture gains complete freedom: "So now, the soul, after restoration, is whole, through the sent Word, and is truly made free."(28) He wrote of the will of the soul in powerful, active phrases; paraphrasing I Corinthians he called it "a celestial, indestructible, glorified, and spiritual body for action and fulfillment."(2)(9) It can "command the flesh, tame it, dominate it."(3)o Hubmaier emphasized the believer's ability to do good:

[The soul] can now freely and willingly be obedient to the spirit against the flesh and can will and choose the good, just as though it were in Paradise, and it can reject and flee from evil.(31)

John Denck, of the South German Brethren and a baptizand of Hubmaier, particularly emphasized free will in his writings and agreed with Hubmaier that the soul can will for good. In Whether God is the Cause of Evil (1526), Denck argued that God has given freedom of choice to those people who believe:

If he already takes away the creaturely [that is, the evils of unbelief], as often hap-pens for many, then he gives man absolute free choice, as he gave in the begin-ning, in such a way that man might grasp either the good or the bad.(32)

Human beings have the choice for salvation and the ability to choose good over evil.

The Brethren demonstrated their understanding of free will in their concept of a church in which voluntary assent is essential. Historian Harold J. Grimm described Grebel's "free confessional church" (33):

[12] It was Grebel's conception of a free church, consisting of freely committed and practicing believers, as opposed to the Volkskirche, or inclusive state church of the Catholics and most Protestants, which formed the basic doctrines of the Anabaptists.(34)

The underlying ideas of human choice and free will conditioned many of the beliefs of the Brethren. They did not believe in a state church because a person cannot be born into a religion; that person must choose after he or she has heard the word of God. Their conception of the church absolutely required human free will and believers' baptism. They sought to restore the original church, a church that they considered founded on voluntary acceptance. C. Henry Smith, author of Story of the Mennonites, described the ideal of the Brethren church: "the whole movement was an attempt to restitute the apostolic church in its original purity and simplicity, and to restore Christianity once more to a basis of individual responsibility. "(35)


1. This paper has had a convoluted and difficult journey. I thank Frank Luttmer for giving his non-existent free time to help me to put it in order. I also think David Voelker for fixing and finishing the HHR in such a short period without completely panicking. You did a fine job, Dave.
2. Franklin H. Littell, The Origins of Secratarian Protestantism (New York: Macmillan, 1964),3.
3. Historians distinguish between the Radical Reformation and the mainstream Protestant Reformation, which includes Lutheranism, the Reformed tradition, and the Anglican reform. (See, for example, George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Journal Pub., 1992.) Anabaptist was a pejorative label given to those people who "re-baptized" others.
4. Martin Luther, "Freedom of a Christian," Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 55.
5. Ibid., 68.
6. Luther, "Preface to Romans," Selections, 23.
7. Luther, Commentary on Galations," Selections, 101.
8. Luther, "Preface," 23.
9. Ibid., 32.
10. Luther, "Bondage of the Will," Selections, 188.
11. G. W. Bromiley, "General Introduction," Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 33.
12. Huldreich Zwingli, "An Exposition of the Faith," Zwingli and Bullinger, 270.
13. Zwingli, "On True and False Religion," Great Voices, 162.
14. Zwingli, "On the Education of Youth," Zwingli and Bullinger, 104.
15. Zwingli, "An Account of the Faith," Great Voices of the Reformation, ed. Harry Emerson Fosdick (New York: Modern Library, 1952), 185.
16. Littell, 2.
17. Bromiley, 28.
18. Although the early Brethren held a variety of beliefs, they all agreed on this fundamental aspect of their church.
19. Conrad Grebel, "Letter to Thomas Muntzer," Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George Hunston Williams (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 81.
20. Ibid.
21. Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650 (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 218.
22. Michael Sattler, "The Schleitheim Confession of Faith," Great Voices, 288.
23. A similar conception of the flesh, soul, and spirit can be found in Erasmus, whose most likely influenced the reformers with humanist education.
24. Hubmaier, "On Free Will," Spiritual and Anabaptist, 119-121.
25. Ibid., 124.
26. Ibid., 125.
27. Michael Sattler, "Two Kinds of Obedience," Great Voices, 296.
28. Hubmaier, 126.
29. Ibid., 121.
30. Ibid., 126.
31. Hubmaier, quoted in George Hunston Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1992), 335.
32. John Denck, "Whether God is the Cause of Evil," Spiritual and Anabaptist, 97.
33. Grimm, 218.
34. Ibid., 266.
35. Henry C. Smith, Story of the Mennonites (Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1981), 14.