“…if I ask how it is proved that the existence of ‘free-will’ in man is indicated and implied wherever the phrases ‘if thou art willing,’ ‘if thou shalt do,’ ‘if thou shalt hear,’ are used, she will say, ‘BECAUSE THE NATURE OF WORDS AND USE OF LANGUAGE AMONG MEN SEEM TO REQUIRE IT.’ Therefore, she bases her judgment of things and words that are of God upon the CUSTOMS AND CONCERNS OF MEN; and what is more perverse than that, when the former are HEAVENLY and the latter EARTHLY? Thus in her stupidity she betrays herself as thinking of God only as of man.
But what if I prove that the nature of words and use of language, even among men, is not always such as to make it an act of mockery to say to the impotent, ‘if thou art willing,’ ‘if thou shalt do,’ ‘if thou shalt hear’? How often do parents thus play with their children, bidding them to come to them, or do this or that, only in order that it may appear HOW IMPOTENT THEY ARE, and that they may be compelled to call for the help of the parent’s hand? How often does a faithful physician tell an obstinate patient to do or stop doing things that are impossible or injurious to him, so as to bring him by experience of himself to a knowledge of his disease or weakness, to which he cannot lead him by any other course?...If now, God, as a Father, deals with us as with His sons, with a view to showing us the impotence of which we are ignorant; or as a faithful physician, with a view to making known to us our disease; or if, to taunt His enemies, who proudly resist His counsel and the laws He has set forth (by which He achieves this end most effectively), He should say: ‘do,’ ‘hear,’ ‘keep,’ or: ‘if thou shalt hear,’ ‘if thou art willing,’ ‘if thou shalt do; it can be fairly concluded from this that therefore we can do these things freely, or else God is mocking us? Why should not this conclusion follow rather: therefore, God is trying us, that by His law He may bring us to a knowledge of our impotence, if we are His friends? Or else, He is really and deservedly taunting and mocking us, if we are His proud enemies? For this, as Paul teaches, is the intent of divine legislation (cf. Rom. 3:20, 5:20; Gal. 3:19, 24)” (Martin Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” pp. 152-153).
The above quote from Martin Luther is the summary of his rebuttal to Erasmus’ claim of commands as an indication of expectation from God to mankind.
I agree with him—the Law was to show mankind his inability to keep it. However, there is more to the Law than just the fact that it shows us our inability to keep every jot and tittle of it. The Law was also given with the purpose of the Law being fulfilled.
Let’s look at Romans 3:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says (AC) speaks to those who are subject to the law, (AD) [g] so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may become subject to God's judgment. (AE) [h] 20 For no flesh will be justified [i] in His sight by the works of the law, (AF) for through the law [comes] the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
In Romans 3:9-18, Paul has used Old Testament references from the book of Psalms to show that man is guilty before God. But what is man guilty of? Transgressing God’s Law—because “the law…speaks to those who are subject to the law.” Every person on the face of the earth is subject to God’s judgment because all sinned in Adam:
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, (S) and death through sin, (T) in this way death spread to all men, (U) because all sinned. (Rom. 5:12, HCSB)
Because all of mankind sinned (in that Adam represented mankind, and sinned in the Garden), man is guilty of transgressing God’s Law.
And this act of transgression is important because it shows us that “the whole world” is “subject to God’s judgment” (Rom. 3:19). We read these words in Romans 3:23-24—
23 For all have sinned (AN) and fall short of the [l] glory of God. 24 They are justified freely by His grace (AO) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-24, HCSB)
The entire world, EVERY person, is guilty of transgressing God’s Law, of disobeying God’s commands, of rebellion against God.
And if man is considered “guilty” for disobeying God’s commands, then this implies that man had a DUTY to KEEP the Law!
Paul says this about the law in Romans 3:31—
31 Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not! (BA) On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:31, HCSB)
So we “uphold” the law, not abolish it. The word in the Greek for “uphold” in Romans 3:31 is “histanomen,” which means “to uphold or sustain the authority or force” of something. To uphold the Law, then, means that we sustain the authority of the Law, we continue to honor the Law as the revelation of God to us.
So, contrary to popular thought, we don’t do away with the Law; for Jesus Himself said in Matthew 5,
“Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I DID NOT COME TO DESTROY BUT TO FULFILL. For I assure you: Until Heaven and earth pass away, NOT THE SMALLEST LETTER OR ONE STROKE OF A LETTER WILL PASS FROM THE LAW UNTIL ALL THINGS ARE ACCOMPLISHED. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven. But WHOEVER PRACTICES AND TEACHES THESE COMMANDMENTS WILL BE CALLED GREAT IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. For I tell you, unless YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS SURPASSES THAT OF THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-20).
In verses 21ff, the Lord Jesus begins to give a new interpretation of the Law, NOT a new Law itself! If the Law was simply to show us our inability, but not to give us rules to live our lives by, then why would Jesus go into such a long discourse about the Spirit of the Law instead of the “letter”?
And what about the Lord’s words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23?
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected THE MORE IMPORTANT MATTERS OF THE LAW—JUSTICE, MERCY, AND FAITH. These things should have been done WITHOUT NEGLECTING THE OTHERS” (Matt.23:23).
In this verse, the Lord doesn’t tell the Pharisees that keeping the Law is a BAD thing—rather, He tells them that there were OTHER things of the Law that they neglected! They should have practiced justice, mercy, and faith WHILE KEEPING THE OTHER PORTIONS OF THE LAW!!
And Paul talks about Christ’s fulfillment of the Law and what that means for the believer:
“What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, GOD DID. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and a sin offering, IN ORDER THAT THE LAW’S REQUIREMENT WOULD BE ACCOMPLISHED IN US WHO DO NOT WALK ACCORDING TO THE FLESH BUT ACCORDING TO THE SPIRIT. For those whose lives are according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those whose lives are according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit…for the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because IT DOES NOT SUBMIT itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those whose lives are in the flesh are unable to please God. YOU, HOWEVER, ARE NOT IN THE FLESH, BUT IN THE SPIRIT, SINCE THE SPIRIT OF GOD LIVES IN YOU” (Rom. 8:3-5,7-9a).
The word for “accomplished” in Romans 8:4 is “plerothe,” which is the subjunctive form of ‘pleroo,” which means “to fulfill.” We mentioned earlier in this post that Jesus talks about Himself fulfilling the Law in Matthew 5:17 (not abolishing the Law). Those of us who are in Christ, then, fulfill the Law first, because we have Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21); secondly, according to Romans 8, we have the Spirit in us; and the way to please God is to walk according to the Spirit, which is the only way that the Law will be fulfilled in us.
I won’t go into more proof against Luther’s position. But I will say that, everywhere in Paul’s letters, he constantly used the Old Testament to exhort the people of God. If the Old Testament was to be done away with (and not only the letter), then why, according to Scripture, are we urged to walk according to the Spirit and fulfill the Spirit of the Law (which gives life) instead of the letter? It seems then, since “His [Christ]divine power has given us EVERYTHING REQUIRED FOR LIFE AND GODLINESS, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3), then we have no excuse to walk according to God’s requirements. To just say that the Law shows me my inability to keep it still leaves me without any indication of God’s expectation. Surely, then, God expects me to do more than just ACCEPT that I cannot keep the Law…