We are free in matters that are below us. For example, we can choose the color of our socks or to help our neighbor. However, we are not free in matters that are above us because they are beyond our abilities. For example, life and faith are above us, and can only be gifts from God.
Martin Luther considered his work “The Bondage of the Will” to be one of his best. It was written in response to Erasmus who asserted the freedom of man’s will in spiritual matters. Said Luther:
Before man is created and is a man, he neither does nor attempts to do anything toward becoming a creature, and after he is created he neither does nor attempts to do anything toward remaining a creature, but both of these things are done by the sole will of the omnipotent power and goodness of God, who creates and preserves us without our help; but he does not work in us without us, because it is for this he has created and preserved us, that he might work in us and we might cooperate with him, whether outside his Kingdom through his general omnipotence, or inside his Kingdom by the special virtue of his Spirit.
In just the same way … before man is changed into a new creature of the Kingdom of the Spirit, he does nothing and attempts nothing to prepare himself for this renewal and this Kingdom, and when he has been recreated he does nothing and attempts nothing toward remaining in this Kingdom, but the Spirit alone does both of these things in us, recreating us without us and preserving us without our help in our recreated state, as also James says: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of his power, that we might be a beginning of his creature” [James 1:18]—speaking of the renewed creature.
But he does not work without us, because it is for this very thing he has recreated and preserves us, that he might work in us and we might cooperate with him. Thus it is through us he preaches, shows mercy to the poor, comforts the afflicted. But what is attributed to free choice in all this? Or rather, what is there left for it but nothing? And really nothing!
— Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, page 243.
Faith is above us, therefore, faith “is the gift of God.” No one can boast because faith is not by works, choices, or cooperation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and this (faith & grace) is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8-9). Through His Word of promise, God alone gives faith and God alone preserves faith.
On the other hand, the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do are below us. (Ephesians 2:10). That is where we cooperate with God. As Luther says, God “preaches, shows mercy to the poor,” and “comforts the afflicted” through us. Because of God we do these works willingly. (Philippians 2:13).
God works through us to do His work here in this world. His Word from above creates in us new life and new impulses so that we willingly do His good will. It is God alone who gives us life and faith and makes us clean and holy so that according to his will we willingly do the good works that are below us. (Philippians 2:13). And in heaven we will be rewarded for those good works. (Ephesians 6:8).
But the good that comes from above is a pure gift. (James 1:17-18). Faith, from beginning to end, is a miracle from God: a working of His divine power to raise the dead to spiritual life. Faith is not partly God’s work and then partly our work any more than life itself is partly God’s work and partly our work. Yes, we live, but the life we live is the life God gives.
Likewise, we believe, but faith is God’s gift of trust and spiritual life. The Word of promise creates faith. “When we believe, our hearts are brought to life by the Holy Spirit through Christ’s Word.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIIA (V). Repentance, 44-46).
A living tree produces fruit. Life comes from God, and the life in the tree gives life to the fruit. The fruit does not give life to the tree. Those who resist the Holy Spirit and refuse to produce fruit, may lose life. (Luke 13:7). But God alone makes alive and preserves life, and it is because of His life in us (faith) that we produce the fruit of life (good works and choices). Even though we can willingly do the good works below us that God has prepared for us to do, the life and faith that comes from above is God’s work alone. (John 6:29, 15:16).
After conversion, can a Christian perfect faith by choosing to believe? No. True faith by definition is founded on only Christ, and not at all on our will, choices, or decisions. (Matthew 16:17 and 1 Corinthians 3:11). Christ alone is “the author and perfecter of our faith,” therefore, we must “fix our eyes on Jesus” and not on our choices. (Hebrews 2:12). Christ makes faith secure. “On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” (CW, 382). Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6). Like life itself, faith, from beginning to end, is a gift that comes from above. (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, we should diligently pray, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).