Augsburg Confession XVIII and XIX: “Free Will,” and “The Cause of Sin”

In our study of the Augsburg Confession last month we covered a few articles that were a little lighter than some others. For the most part, these were articles that – properly understood – aren’t necessary to salvation. Christians may legitimately have differences of opinion over involvement in political offices or over the return of Christ. Our articles this month bring us back into territory that is really important. In short: after the fall into sin, what are humans capable of salvation-wise? In other words, are we able to cooperate in our own salvation and, if so, to what extent? The article on free will is one that separates us from the Roman Catholic Church on the one side and nearly all Protestants on the other. Article XVIII on Free Will:

1 Our churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do things subject to reason. 2 It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness. For “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). 3 This righteousness is worked in the heart when the Holy Spirit is received through the Word [Galatians 3:2–6].

4 This is what Augustine says in his Hypognosticon, Book III:

We grant that all people have a free will. It is free as far as it has the judgment of reason. This does not mean that it is able, without God, either to begin, or at least to complete, anything that has to do with God. It is free only in works of this life, whether good or evil. 5 Good I call those works that spring from the good in nature, such as willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn various useful arts, or whatsoever good applies to this life. 6 For all of these things depend on the providence of God. They are from Him and exist through Him. 7 Works that are willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, and so forth, I call evil.

8 Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who teach that without the Holy Spirit, by natural power alone, we are able to love God above all things and do God’s commandments according to the letter. 9 Although nature is able in a certain way to do the outward work (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder), yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, and so on.[1]

The real meat of this article is the question of what a person can contribute to salvation. The answer is nothing. We covered that already in Article IV (“People cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.”) Those opposed to the reformers charged them with saying that humans have no free will at all. That isn’t what we’re saying. What we are saying is that, while we’re free to do some things, there are some things that we are incapable of doing by our own free will.

Now, we are talking about humans as we exist now – after the fall into sin. Taking that into account, we believe that we are free to choose and do things that are civilly righteous. We can be good neighbors, pay our taxes, be good lawyers and judges. These things all proceed from natural reason. However, we are unable, after the fall, to choose to do things that are righteous in God’s eyes. One can only do works pleasing to God after the Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Word. How does this affect the regular person? This means that we cannot make ourselves Christians. After the fall, we are incapable of choosing to believe in God. Nor are the good works that people do apart from faith actually good works, according to God. The Holy Spirit makes that happen through the Word and Sacraments.

On the flip side, we reject the idea that one can, naturally, choose to believe in God and do what He commands. This is a heresy called Pelagianism, which was condemned by the Church catholic over 1,500 years ago. However, that idea still floats around in various church bodies. We agree that it is possible to do things that, on the surface, seem pleasing to God. We can not murder people and refrain from stealing. In reality, those things are only pleasing to God when they proceed from faith. Apart from the Holy Spirit, there is no faith and thus, no pleasing God. Since the fall into sin, humans are incapable, apart from the Holy Spirit, of choosing to believe in God or do what He desires.

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Article XIX is another short one that shouldn’t cause us to pause too long. Basically, it confesses where sin comes from – not God. In the above article, we said that humans are incapable of choosing to believe in God or do what He desires. Humans are free only to sin. Now, God makes humans. We all agree on that. Does that make God the author of sin? That’s what the Lutherans were accused of saying. But, it isn’t what we say. Here is article XIX on the cause of sin:

Our churches teach that although God creates and preserves nature, the cause of sin is located in the will of the wicked, that is, the devil and ungodly people. Without God’s help, this will turns itself away from God, as Christ says, “When he lies, he speaks out of his own character” (John 8:44).[2]

In the Lutheran church, we believe that God created mankind. He formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. In His mercy, He continues to form each and every person in their mother’s womb. However, God does not make sin. God originally made both the angels and mankind with free will, the ability to freely choose between good and evil. Both mankind and some angels chose evil. The angels who chose evil were forever cast out of heaven. Man, was cast of out Eden. The fall into sin introduced a corruption to human nature. Whereby, before man was perfect, after the fall the human nature is corrupted by sin. This includes our will – which is where sin comes from.

By His mercy, God continues to create and preserve human nature, even in its corrupted form. The cause of sin is the devil and the evil will of wicked people. In the Catechism, we learned it like this, “the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.” Without the help of God, without the gift of faith created by the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, the human will only turns away from God. This is where sin comes from, not God. The bigger question is: why does God allow this to be? For the answer to that, we will have to wait until the Resurrection. Next month we’ll cover only one article, a big one, Good Works. See you then!


[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 40–41.

[2] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 41.

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