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Article 10 — Of Free-Will

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 10 Mar 2017

Tom Woolford chooses to look at Article 10 as part of our 40 Days in the 39 Articles.

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 calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

Article 10 claims to be about free will, but might more clearly be titled, ‘Of the bondage of the will.’ The Article does not stress the freedom and ability of the natural human will, but its slavery and inability: “the condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot…”

The bondage and inability of the natural human will was one of the earliest theological principles of the Protestant Reformation. In 1525, Martin Luther penned On the Bondage of the Will to rebut the humanist Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus, whose On Free Will had been published a year earlier. The Latin title of our Article may be identical to Erasmus’ title, but its theology (rooted in Augustine’s teaching) is identical to Luther’s!

Why was the bondage of the will so central to Reformation theology? It is because it is part-and-parcel of the nature of God’s grace and our salvation.

The unreformed Roman church did not consider itself Pelagian: it taught the absolute necessity of God’s grace for salvation. But in the theology of the dominant ‘Modern Way’ (via moderna) — which was officially sanctioned as dogma at the Council of Trent — grace worked in a particular way. In short, a man or woman had to do their best to believe, seek, love, and obey God; if they did so, God would treat their paltry efforts as if it were perfect righteousness. This was summed up in the medieval axiom, “God will not deny grace to the one who does their best” — or, colloquially, “Do your best: God does the rest!”

Fundamental to the via moderna model was the principle that human beings had at least some natural ability within themselves to turn to God in penitence and faith — some innate capacity to do good works. In particular, the doctrine demanded that the human will had to be sufficiently free and able to respond to the offer of God’s grace. The Council of Trent accordingly expressly anathematized those who taught that “the free will of man is lost and extinguished.” On this matter, the post-Reformation Roman church has been remarkably consistent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) is as emphatic as Trent was that man’s nature is such that “he might of his own accord seek his Creator” (paragraph 1730).

Article 10’s explicit denial of a man’s ability to “turn and prepare himself” for faith is thus a direct repudiation of a fundamental presupposition of the Roman doctrine, and a vital step in the evangelical understanding of the gospel. It is the logical outworking of Article 9 (Of Original Sin) with respect to humanity’s natural standing before God, and the logical prerequisite for Article 11’s teaching on how believers are justified by God in Christ — “by Faith only” with no space for “our own works or deservings.” Only with belief in Article 10’s account of our inveterate disinclination and utter inability in ourselves to call upon God, can we have a gospel of salvation that is truly by grace alone.

Article 10, ostensibly about human will, is thus in reality fundamentally about securing the sheer graciousness of divine grace in the economy of salvation. Given Article 10, I have nothing to boast in except Christ crucified.


Polemically, Article 10 reminds us of an enduring fundamental difference between us and Rome. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation it is fashionable both to express regret about the division in the church, and to claim that most of the differences were exaggerated and have now been overcome. Article 10 emphatically declares ‘Not so!’

Article 10 underwrites a monergistic (from mono — ‘one,’ and ergo — ‘to work’) doctrine of justification. This contrasts it with a synergistic (‘syn’ — together; so ‘working together’) doctrine. It teaches that our state of spiritual death — the utter inability of the bound human will — means that everything that goes into our coming to spiritual life has to belong to God. His is the whole initiative; his is the decisive, effective will.

The Roman church still baulks at Article 10, because it still teaches synergism — the cooperation of a man or woman with God for salvation. Admittedly, since Article 10 was written, Protestant versions of synergism have arisen — even within the Anglican fold (Arminianism, Wesleyanism) — with the effect of obscuring what was once a clear dividing-line between Rome and the churches of the Reformation. But at root there is still no compromise possible nor middle ground conceivable between monergism and synergism: either the work is God’s alone, or it is not. I am unapologetic for the doctrinal distance that Article 10 continues to put between us and Rome.

Apologetically, Article 10 should make us careful about how we talk about ‘free will’ in our defence of the Christian faith. We can and should talk about free will — even if we are impeccable Calvinists! — as part of our apologetic, provided we do so in a manner consonant with Articles 9 and 10. Why is there so much evil in our world? Men and women freely will it. For what are unbelievers judged and punished by a just and holy God? For what they have freely willed and done. When we sin, we sin freely and willingly. No-one else forces us to choose evil — not the Devil, not even Adam; and above all, not God. Our wills are by nature free, but free to will only as our nature directs: that is, to sin.

But ‘free will’ must not feature in our answers to questions about faith and salvation. In answering the questions, ‘Why do you believe?’ or ‘Why are you saved?’, we must not reach within — to our ‘free will,’ our “natural strength and good works” — to answer. Article 10 forbids it, because Scripture forbids it (Ephesians 2:1-10). We must reach entirely outside ourselves, to the merit of Christ and the grace of God.

Personally, Article 10 should instil in us the great gospel-wrought virtues of hope, humility, and gratitude:

1.  Hope.
Article 10 is not, despite its bleak view of the human will, a counsel of despair but a counsel of hope. If in the gospel, life is promised to me — despite knowing that I am dead in my sins and transgressions — then that promise cannot but offer real, unquenchable hope; especially to those who know more clearly than others the sinfulness of their hearts.

2.  Humility.
If it weren’t for Article 10, I could still find things to boast in — not least that I, unlike those deplorable unbelievers, have freely chosen to seek after God! Belief in the ability of human will freely to turn to God for salvation, if it isn’t swallowed by the Charybdis of despair, will sooner or later be shipwrecked on the Scylla of pride.

3.  Gratitude.
What an amazing, generous God we have who loves those described in Article 10! He loves those who, left alone, would not love him. When I see what I am like (Articles 9 and 10), I marvel at what God is like. And I know the only appropriate response is a life of humble thankfulness.

To read more about Luther’s teaching on free will, you could read the article from Churchman by Lee Gatiss on “The Manifesto of the Reformation: Luther vs Erasmus on Free Will.”

Tom Woolford is an ordinand from Blackburn Diocese.

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