Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)
As American as apple pie, is the notion that human beings we created with a free will. Most people, and Christians, view humanity's beginning as a sort of "godly experiment." The all-powerful God creates the world, sets up mankind as a unique creature, and then waits to see what will happen. "Does my creation love me, or not? Will they choose my ways, or their own?" And so the thought goes...
In an adult instruction text, for example, a Lutheran pastor teaches the idea of free with these words:
"Adam and Eve had the choice of obeying God or disobeying (free will). God commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God wanted to see if they loved Him. But they disobeyed God, and they plunged the human race into sin."
The first time I taught adult instruction, I was surprised by these words, and had the class take out their pencils and make a few editions to the paragraph. When I got done with it, the paragraph read like this:
"Adam and Eve simply obeyed God. God commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They did what they were created to do. But Satan interfered, and they disobeyed God, and they plunged the human race into sin."
Most Christians, and Lutherans for that matter, are a bit confused about this. They try to make sense of a world where 1) man was given free will, but 2) then is saved by grace alone. But these two ideas cannot both be true. If man was given free will in matters of salvation, that is, if man was able to fix the problem of sin, than what need does he have for Christ? Or on the other hand, if man is saved by grace alone because of the death and resurrection of Christ alone, than what role does he play in his salvation? No matter which way we approach things, either there is no free will, or, there is no need for Christ.
To be sure, God does give us reason, which does equip us to make choices in earthly matters: how best to discipline our children, which house to buy, where to park the car, for example. If this is what you mean by free will, then we can agree that free will exists. Unfortunately, this is typically not all that is meant by the term.
You see, our understanding of the pure Gospel is confused when we take whatever free will we have in earthly matters according to our reason, and apply it to heavenly matters -- matters of salvation. We reduce the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ when we say, "I can decide what to wear this morning by my reason, I must be able to decide how I should be saved (or even if I need saving)."
In the meaning of the 3rd Article of the Apostles' Creed, Lutherans confess:
"I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him."
That doesn't sound like a free will, a will that is free to choose between two options. That sounds like a will that is bound in its condition, and will never choose Christ.
Luther understood correctly what the Scriptures teach about the human condition (after the fall):
"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
"The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21).
"The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Romans 8:7).
"Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ" (Ephesians 2:5).
"Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Corinthians 3:5).
The passages don't paint a picture of a man free to choice what he things is reasonable, or even what he knows is good for him. On the contrary, the Scriptures teach us to confess that "man's heart is evil from his youth," that "we were dead in our trespasses," that "we are (not) sufficient in ourselves." No free will here. The Scriptures teach clearly that man is bound to his fleshly appetites.
Which is why the meaning of the 3rd Article of the Apostles' Creed also confesses:
"but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."
The reading from John 15 above teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the true vine. He alone is the source of life -- the source of salvation. The only way to receive that new life in Christ, to receive the benefits of the cross, is to be connected to that vine, Jesus Christ. And that only happens when God's Word is proclaimed and heard.
Romans 10 teaches that "faith comes from hearing" the Word of God. In other words, the preaching of repentance (Law), followed by the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of salvation (Romans 1:16). Only this Gospel is capable of turning human beings that our slaves to sin (John 8), bound to their fleshly desires, into men and women that see their savior and cling to His promises. Only by the Gospel does the Holy Spirit produce a saving faith that believes in Jesus Christ and comes to Him.
When we see our human condition correctly, that after the fall we are hostile to God and enemies of the Word, then we are able to see our Savior in all His glory--for in Him alone is there forgiveness, life and salvation.
And when your Old Adam raises his ugly head, and whispers doubt into your heart, go to your pastor, and beg him to hear the holy Absolution, or to receive Jesus' body and blood...again and again and again. For only in the pure Gospel, are we bound sinners, freed to new life!
Thanks be to God. Amen.