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Erasmus on Faith & Works


Martin Luther (a.d. 1483-1546) was an extremist. He believed all deeds were inherently corrupt and that only by an act of God’s sovereign grace could one be saved. Thus, ultimate salvation has nothing at all to do with works, it was entirely granted on the basis of faith alone in the words of God alone. Furthermore, the faith one has is itself a gift from God bequeathed to those he has predestined for salvation. Although Luther has now been dead for 465 years, he continues to cast a long shadow. All one has to do is listen to Christian radio, watch TV preachers, or peruse the local Christian bookstore to find virtual unanimous agreement on this issue (unless one happens to tune in to a Catholic program). It seems that non-Catholics universally condemn “works righteousness” and “salvation by works” as if the worst action would be to actually do something other than merely believe. Somehow, faith is good and works are bad. Those who strive to be holy are misguided while those who humbly confess they are incapable of doing good are virtuous. For some reason, I never see the bumper sticker “striving to obey God”, but frequently see the one that says “not perfect, only forgiven.”

Others, in Luther’s own time disagreed with his extremist position on salvation. One such thinker was Desiderius Erasmus (a.d. 1455-1536). He agreed with some of Luther’s points, especially in relation to the immorality of many in the Catholic Church, but he firmly disagreed with Luther’s virulent attack on good deeds. In an effort to combat him, Erasmus wrote the following little parable:

A father lifts up a child who has fallen and has not yet strength to walk, however much it tries, and show it an apple which lies over against it; the child longs to run, but on account of the weakness of its limbs it would have fallen had not its father held its hand and steadied its footsteps, so that led by its father it obtains the apple which the father willingly puts in its hand as a reward for running. The child could not have stood up if the father had not lifted it, could not have seen the apple had the father not shown it, could not advance unless the father had all the time assisted its feeble steps, could not graps the apple had the father not put it into his hand. What, then, can the infant claim for itself? And yet it does something. But it has nothing to glory about in its powers, for it owes its very self to its father. (Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will)

Let us take this parable in relation to the three tenses of salvation. In the first place, God saves someone by forgiving him of sin when he believes the gospel. This is the Father lifting the child who cannot get up otherwise. As the son of God lives, he must exhort moral effort so as to obey the Father who kindly assists such effort graciously through the Holy Spirit. The result is a partnership in which both work together for the desired end (resurrection). Then at last the day of death arrives and the child of God rests his faith in the promises of the loving Father to bring the kingdom. At long last, the apple is given, the child is resurrected and graciously lavished with immortality so as to enjoy God, the Messiah, and the saints in a renewed world forever. For example, Erasmus, says:

For since there are three stages in all things–beginning, progress, and end–they attribute the first and last to grace, and only in progress say that free choice achieves anything, yet in such wise that in each individual action two causes come together, the grace of God and the will of man… (ibid.).

Thus, the Christ-follower does not earn salvation but he or she must walk the narrow path, otherwise salvation will be forfeited. Only by balancing both God’s part and ours in the process of salvation can we stay true to Scripture which teaches both–that we will not inherit the kingdom if we fall into sin and that salvation is a free gift graciously granted by God when we believe the gospel.

6 Responses to “Erasmus on Faith & Works”

  1. on 16 Mar 2011 at 11:06 amBrian Kelly

    This section in James really does help us understand the relationship between belief and actions. From what I understand this is why Luther had a problem with the Book of James.
    For those that teach that faith is a sovereign gift from God, I wonder if the devils received their faith as a gift from God?

  2. on 16 Mar 2011 at 8:19 pmDoubting Thomas

    Great article! I especially love the conclusion where you said, “Thus, the Christ-follower does not earn salvation but he or she must walk the narrow path, otherwise salvation will be forfeited.”

    I pray that I will always be able to continue to walk the narrow path that is pleasing to our Father. Thanks…

  3. on 05 Apr 2011 at 12:55 amGeorge

    What use is it ,my brethen,if someone says he has faith but has no works?Can that faith save him? Even so faith,if it has no works is dead,being by itself.But someone may well say,You have faith and I have works;show me your faith without the works,and I will show youmy faith by my works. We need to remember 1 COR ;13-13But now faith,hope,love,abide these three ,but the greatest of these is love. Faith has been spoken of much as of late,but without love faith and works are useless.

  4. on 05 Apr 2011 at 10:51 pmDoubting Thomas

    Hi George,
    Welcome to K.R. You said, “Faith has been spoken of much as of late, but without love faith and works are useless.”

    I agree completely. I think it is clear that “love” is the greatest commandment. My favorite hymn is “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I believe the proper title is “We are one in the Spirit.” In addition to what Paul said in Corinthians Y’shua said;

    Matthew 22:37-40 (English Standard Version)

    “…You shall ‘LOVE’ the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall ‘LOVE’ your neighbor as yourself. (40) On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Emphasis mine)…

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  6. on 03 Jul 2018 at 2:55 pmTigran VOSKANYAN

    Romans 4:5 King James Version (KJV)
    5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.


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