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Martin Luther on Matthew 23:37

February 12, 2008

[New Testament Passages: Matthew 23:37–Man Must Not Pry into the Secret Will of God]

We come now to the New Testament, where again a host of imperative verbs is mustered in support of that miserable bondage of free choice, and the aid of carnal Reason with her inferences and similes is called in, just as in a picture or a dream you might see the king of the flies with his lances of straw and shields of hay arrayed against a real and regular army of seasoned human troops. That is how the human dreams of Diatribe go to war with the battalions of divine words.

First, there steps forward as a sort of Achilles of the flies that saying from Matthew 23[:37]: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together, and you would not!” If all is determined by necessity, she says, could not Jerusalem rightly reply to the Lord: “Why do you torment yourself with vain tears? If you did not wish us to listen to the prophets, why did you send them? Why impute to us what has been done by your will and our necessity?” That is what Diatribe says. And here is our reply. Let us grant for the moment that this inference and proof of hers is right and good; what in fact is proved by it? The probable opinion which says that free choice cannot will the good? It instead proves that the will is free, sound, and capable of doing everything the prophets have said. But that is not what Diatribe set out to prove.

Indeed, let Diatribe herself reply to the following questions. If free choice cannot will good, why is it blamed for not having given heed to the prophets, to whom as teachers of good things it could not give heed by its own powers? Why does Christ weep vain tears, as if they could have willed what he certainly knows they cannot will? Let Diatribe, I say, acquit Christ of insanity in order to maintain that probable opinion of hers, and our opinion will soon be quit of that Achilles of the flies. This passage from Matthew, therefore, either proves total free choice or it militates just as strongly against Diatribe herself and strikes her down with her own weapon.

We say, as we have said before, that the secret will of the Divine Majesty is not a matter for debate, and the human temerity which with continual perversity is always neglecting necessary things in its eagerness to probe this one, must be called off and restrained from busying itself with the investigation of these secrets of God’s majesty, which it is impossible to penetrate because he dwells in light inaccessible, as Paul testifies [I Tim. 6:16]. Let it occupy itself instead with God incarnate, or as Paul puts it, with Jesus crucified, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, though in a hidden manner [Col. 2:3]; for through him it is furnished abundantly with what it ought to know and ought not to know. It is God incarnate, moreover, who is speaking here: “I would you would not”–God incarnate, I say, who has been sent into the world for the very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering to all men everything necessary for salvation. Yet he offends very many, who being either abandoned or hardened by that secret will of the Divine Majesty do not receive him as he wills, speaks, does, suffers, and offers, as John says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it” [John 1:5]; and again: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” [John 1:11]. It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish. And it is not for us to ask why he does so, but to stand in awe of God who both can do and wills to do such things.

No one, I think, will wish to deny that this will concerning which it is said: “How often would I…” was disclosed to the Jews before God became incarnate, inasmuch as they are accused of having killed the prophets before Christ, and so of having resisted his will. For it is well known among Christians that everything done by the prophets was done in the name of the Christ who was to come, concerning whom it had been promised that he should be God incarnate. Hence whatever has been offered to men from the beginning of the world through the ministers of the word is rightly called the will of Christ.

Here, however, Reason in her saucy, sarcastic way will say: This is a splendidly devised way out, if every time we are hard pressed by the arguments, we have recourse to that awful will of the Divine Majesty, and can reduce our opponent to silence whenever he becomes troublesome; it is just the same as when the astrologers with their epicycles dodge all questions about the motion of the heavens as a whole. Our answer is that this is not our invention, but a principle firmly based on the Divine Scriptures. Thus Paul says in Romans 11[9:19 ff.]: “Why, then, does God find fault? Who can resist his will? O man, who are you to contend with God? Has the potter no right…?” and the rest; and before him, Isaiah 58[:2]: “Yet they seek me daily, and desire to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness…; they ask of me righteous judgments, they desire to draw near to God.” I think it is sufficiently shown by these words that it is not permissible for men to pry into the will of the Divine Majesty.

Our present subject, however, is of a kind which most of all tempts perverse human beings to pry into that awful will, so that it is most of all in place here to exhort them to silence and reverence. In other cases we do not do this, where matters are under discussion for which a reason can be given, and for which we have been commanded to give a reason. But if anyone persists in investigating the reason for that will, refusing to pay heed to our warning, we let him go on and fight with God like the Giants, while we wait to see what triumphs he will bring back, certain that he will do no harm to our cause and no good to his own. For the fact will remain unchanged, that either he will prove free choice capable of doing everything or the Scriptures he cites will militate against himself. In either case he lies prostrate and vanquished while we stand up as victors.

Martin Luther, “Bondage of the Will,” in Luther’s Works, 33:144-147.

 

Compare Calvin on the same.

[to be continued]

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