My Absence and a Look at Free Will and Justification and Works

I’ve been extremely busy of late for the reason that I am entering into a PhD program. Well technically I am somewhat in except I had to revise my proposal to fit the parameters of the Historical Theology degree in place of the Religion Studies one that I was originally pursuing. During this whole revision period I had to familiarize myself with the original German language of the Anabaptists if you want to call it that. It is more like a semi-decent means of translating the material but anyway that explains why I have not posted anything in a while.

Even though I have not posted some good results was achieved overall in my understanding of Anabaptistica while writing the proposal. My comprehension of the nascent Anabaptist view of free will and justification has improved greatly. In order to accomplish this I had to return to a place where I initially caught the notion that the Anabaptists held to the notion of free will which was in the Brüderliche Vereinigung or the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. The very first article strongly states:

Baptism shall be given to all those who have been taught repentance and the amendment of life and [who] believe truly that their sins are taken away through Christ, and to all those who desire to walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death, so that they might rise with Him; to all those who with such an understanding themselves desire and request it from us; hereby is excluded all infant baptism, the greatest and first abomination of the pope. For this you have the reasons and the testimony of the writings and the practice of the apostles. We wish simply yet resolutely and with assurance to hold to the same.[1]

The portion of note is where the Brotherly Union speaks of “all those who desire to walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death, so that they might rise with Him; to all those who with such an understanding themselves desire and request it from us”.  J. C. Wenger translates this section as “to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves.”[2] This passage was extremely controversial in the 16th century, so much so one would lose their life behind it.

To understand why this was the case one has to narrow the focus to be more specific, attention has to be on the term “desire” or “wish” in the case of Wenger’s rendering. These terms if read by someone that was Reformed they would immediately go on the offensives because of their belief in predestination. That one term challenges the very essence of the Reformed view of salvation. This is best illustrated in Ulrich Zwingli’s criticism of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union in his In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 (Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists, 1527). He wrote:

For when they say that remitted are the sins of all who wish to walk in the resurrection of Christ and to be buried with him in death, they elevate free will, and next to that justification by works. For it is in our choice or power to walk in the resurrection of Christ, or to be buried with him in death, it is open for anyone to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence. Then Christ spoke falsely the words: “No one can come to me except the Father who sent me draw him.”[3]

It is apparent that Zwingli immediately took notice of the term and how it is associated with the concept of free will.[4] The act of desiring something or to wishing for something is situated at the point prior to action but results from the unhindered mental conception of something. Zwingli rightfully sees it as an action thus exercising the free will is a work that leads to righteousness. In the previous quote he said that the first article elevates “justification by works” alongside free will. He charges “For they who trust in works make Christ of no effect”.[5] The reasoning is that Zwingli believes that if a person can wish or desire to “walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death” and ultimately to choose “to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence” they control their salvation. This is stated even though the Swiss Brethren qualified their statement by saying that the person had to be repentant and modified their way of life prior to baptism. Zwingli acknowledged this but he felt that it was just subterfuge on the part of the Brethren. He wrote “[T]hey conceal justification by works, and though they admit remission of sins through Christ here, they clearly deny it elsewhere.”[6]

The Swiss Brethren never refuted the claim that they believe in free will. It is implied throughout all of their extant writings. However they did deny the notion of works righteousness. They believed they are saved by faith that works. That is works are so interconnected with faith that salvation is not possible without them. Around the same year as the drafting of the Brüderliche Vereinigung its primary contributor Michael Sattler is credited with penning the work known as Von der Gnugthuung Christi or Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ. In this document Sattler demonstrates the reality and gravity of the role works play in salvation. When speaking of the Protestant Reformers or “scribes” as he disapprovingly calls them Sattler critiques their interpretation of certain salvation related texts.

the scribes interpret as if a person could be saved through Christ whether he do the works of faith or not. If such were the case, why then should Paul say [in] Romans 2 that God will render to everyone according to his works, namely eternal life to those who strive after glory, praise and immortality with perseverance in good works, but to those who are quarrelsome and are not obedient to the truth, but are obedient to the evil, there will come disfavor and wrath, tribulation and anxiety, [namely] upon all the souls of men who do evil. He says, [in] Romans 2, Not those who hear the Law are righteous, but those who do the Law.[7]

Sattler reference to the second chapter of Romans encompasses verses 5-13 that advances the concept of:

“the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”

This scriptural passage contains what some at present deem “eschatological justification”, that is in due course the God of the Bible will render judgment on the entire world or a final justification will be carried out based on works one has exhibited in life.[8] In light of this we see that the Swiss Brethren didn’t deny justification through faith but the type of faith they spoke of is one that would be immediately accompanied by works or rather the works are a crucial component of faith.

Michael Sattler wrote “just as one speaks of justification through Christ so must one also speak of faith, [namely] that repentance is not apart from works, yea not apart from love (which is an unction), for only such an anointed faith as one receives from the resurrection from the dead is [at all a] Christian faith, and [it alone] is reckoned for righteousness”.[9] When a person experiences justification it is not attained without faith and said faith is characterized by works of repentance and love. Love is a sign that we have in our possession genuine Christian faith.

Returning to my original topic it can be said that the main problem that the Reformed had with teaching free will was that it ultimately implied that humans has the means to determine their destinies by means of their attitude towards God. And since works is a part of defining faith one can potentially lose their salvation or do not pass the irrevocable adjudication for a lack of deeds. It totally takes the matter out of the hands of God, thus contradicting the Reformed doctrines of predestination and God’s maximal sovereignty.


[1] John Howard Yoder, ed., trans., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 10.

[2] J. C. Wenger, “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 19, no. 4 (1945): 249.

[3] Ulrich Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Reformer of German Switzerland, Vol. 1, ed. and trans. Samuel Macauley Jackson, Classic Reprint (1901; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2012), 179.

[4] Ulrich Zwingli wrote his In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 in Latin. Prior to his replies he wrote out each article of the Brotherly Union in Latin as well.  When translating Zwingli’s Latin text into English Samuel Macauley Jackson employed “wish” in the fashion Wenger did years later. I have not found the Latin text of In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 to see exactly what term was employed.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] John Christian Wenger, “Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ: An Anabaptist Tract On True Christianity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 20, no. 4 (1946): 247.

[8] From a scriptural context this judgment applies to the believer and unbeliever alike. For the Apostle Paul says that those who are not a part of the Christian faith will be judged by their obedience to the law God instilled in all people—that is the law of conscience.  However it appears that Sattler applies this passage to the believer even though he qualifies elsewhere in the document “How then did Christ do enough for our sins? Answer: [He did enough,] not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world, insofar as they believe on Him and follow Him according to the demands of faith”. Romans 2 does not seem to indicate that the unbeliever can only attain a good judgment from God through believing in Christ as Sattler states.

[9] Ibid., 251-2.


Anabaptism: Two Kinds of Obedience

A dualistic view of the world permeated Swiss Brethren thought. The things of God and Christ in contrast to those of Satan, spirit versus flesh and light versus dark. In their estimation there was a correct way to do something and an inaccurate way.  How one demonstrated obedience was posited by the Brethren, as in other areas there was a wrong and right way to not only show but view obedience.[1] This is seen in a tract of Swiss Brethren origin entitled Two Kinds of Obedience believed to have been written by Michael Sattler.

No time is wasted by Sattler he begins the tract by stating the whole premise which is where the title originates. Sattler writes:

Obedience is of two kinds, servile and filial. The filial has its source in the love of the Father, even though no other reward should follow, yea even if the Father should wish to damn His child; the servile has its source in a love of reward or of oneself. The filial ever does as much as possible, apart from any command; the servile does as little as possible, yea nothing except by command. The filial is never able to do enough for Him; but he who renders servile obedience thinks he is constantly doing too much for Him. The filial rejoices in the chastisement of the Father although he may not have transgressed in anything; the servile wishes to be without chastisement although he may do nothing right. The filial has its treasure and righteousness in the Father whom it obeys only to manifest His righteousness; the servile person’s treasure and piety are the works which he does in order to be pious. The filial remains in the house and inherits all the Father has; the servile wishes to reject this and receive his lawful (gesatzten) reward. The servile looks to the external and to the prescribed command of his Lord;-the filial is concerned about the inner witness and the Spirit. The servile is imperfect and therefore his Lord finds no pleasure in him; the filial strives for and attains perfection, and for that reason the Father cannot reject him.

The filial is not contrary to the servile, as it might appear, but is better and higher. And therefore let him who is servile seek for the better, the filial; he dare not be servile at all.[2]

From the offset dual forms of obedience is posited, the “servile” and the “filial”. Sattler’s tract does not address what to do in its entirety but rather the attitude one is supposed to possess concerning obedience unto God and Christ. The opening form is an unquestioning slavish disposition, the individual does it because of fear, laziness and selfishness. They dread the consequences of disobedience and they will only do what is required of them by their master and nothing more. The other is has a familial attachment to God as a father and the individual is obedient out of love for their Creator. The filial wants to do the will of God because it brings him or her joy to do so. They desire nothing out of it but the satisfaction of knowing they have been obedient to their Lord and their Father.

Also the servile variety of obedience is not favored by God because He knows the reasons for the servile’s compliance. That is the servile only seeks what he or she desires and to look virtuous in the eyes of onlookers and nothing else thus it is imperfect. The actions may be appropriate but the longing that perpetuates the actions fall short in the eyes of God. It should be the aim of the servile to transcend their current state of mind in order to acquire the mindset of the filial or not attempt to serve in any fashion whatsoever.

The servile is Moses and produces Pharisees and scribes; the filial is Christ and makes children of God. The servile is either occupied with the ceremonies which Moses commanded or with those which people themselves have invented; the filial is active (sehefftig) in the love of God and one’s neighbor; yet he also submits himself (unterwindet er sich) to the ceremonies for the sake of the servants that he may instruct them in that which is better and lead them to sonship (kindschafft). The servile produces self-willed and vindictive people; the filial creates peaceable and mild-natured persons; the servile is severe (schwer) and gladly arrives quickly at the end of the work; the filial is light and directs its gaze to that which endures (die were). The servile is malevolent (ungünstig) and wishes no one well but himself; the filial would gladly have all men to be as himself. The servile is the Old Covenant, and had the promise of temporal happiness (seligkeit); the filial is the New Covenant, and has the promise of eternal happiness, namely, the Creator Himself. The servile is a beginning and preparation for happiness; the filial is the end and completion (volkomenheit) itself. The servile endured for a time; the filial will last forever. The servile was a figure and shadow; the filial is the body and truth.[3]

Here Sattler likens the mental disposition of the servile with Moses who represents the behavior found in the Old in contrast with filial that parallels Christ and the conduct found in the New. A servile mindset only creates legalists while the filial manifests Spirit filled heirs of God. The servile’s focus is on the minutest details of traditions and liturgies while the filial’s motivation is loving God and their neighbor. The filial will submit him or herself to “ceremonies” not for the reasons that the servile would do so. The filial does so in order to show the sevile the path to what is better. A servile mentality only produces egotistical and vengeful individuals in contrast to the peaceable filial. One may start with a servile outlook but they should not remain in that state perpetually. Their view should not be happiness that only exist in the present but happiness with eternity in view. Sattler continues with his “familiar Anabaptist distinction between the lower ethical standards of the Old Testament and the higher law of the New.”[4]

According to the Old Testament only he who murdered was guilty of judgment; but in the New, he also who is angry with his brother. The Old gave permission for a man to separate from his wife for every reason; but not at all in the New, except for adultery. The Old permitted swearing if one swore truly, but the New will know of no swearing. The Old has its stipulated punishment (roach), but the New does not resist the evil.

The Old permitted hatred for the enemy; the New loves him who hates, blesses him who curses, prays for those who wish one evil; gives alms in this manner that the left hand does not know what the right has done; says his prayer secretly without evident and excessive babbling of mouth; judges and condemns no one; takes (zeuget) the mote out of the eye of one’s brother after having first cast the beam out of one’s own eye; fasts without any outward pomp and show (misszierung) ; is like a light which is set on a candlestick and lightens everyone in the house; is like a city built on a hill, being everywhere visible ; is like good salt that does not become tasteless, being pleasing not to man but to God alone; is like a good eye which illuminates the whole body; takes no anxious thought about clothing or food, but performs his daily and upright tasks ; does not cast pearls before swine (sewe)y nor that which is holy before dogs; seeks, asks and knocks; finding, receiving and having the door opened for him ; enters through the narrow way and the small gate; guards himself from the Pharisees and scribes as from false prophets ; is a good tree and brings forth good fruit ; does the will of his Father, hearing what he should do, and then doing it.[5]

The Swiss Brethren’s above “description of Christian faith and life” is comprised of “Biblical phrases taken from the words of Christ”.[6] The reason being that to the Anabaptists Christ was the center of their faith. He was the exemplar in which they were to strive after and emulate. His words illustrate the filial form of obedience. The filial does not just seek the barest minimum in what is required of him or her but they go above and beyond. It is not enough not to physically commit a homicide but a person with a filial disposition will endeavor to rid their hearts and minds of any negatives feelings and thoughts that could compel them to murder.



[1] The tract is also a condemnation on soterianism.

[2] John Christian Wenger, “Two Kinds of Obedience: An Anabaptist Tract On Christian Freedom,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 21, no. 1 (1947): 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 19.

Michael Sattler’s 20 Thesis

Some have deemed the following Michael Sattler’s “20 Thesis”; it demonstrates pre-Schleitheim Confession beliefs of the Anabaptists.

  1. Christ came to save all of those who would believe in Him alone.
  2. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who believeth not will be damned.
  3. Faith in Jesus Christ reconciles us with the Father and gives us access to Him.
  4. Baptism incorporates all believers into the body of Christ, of which He is the head.
  5. Christ is the head of His body, i.e., of the believers or the congregation.
  6. As the head is minded, so must its members also be.
  7. The foreknown and called believers shall be conformed to the image of Christ.
  8. Christ is despised in the world; so are also those who are His; He has no kingdom in this world, but that which is of this world is against His kingdom.
  9. Believers are chosen out of the world; therefore the world hates them.
  10. The devil is prince over the whole world, in whom all the children of darkness rule.
  11. Christ is the Prince of the Spirit, in whom all who walk in the light live.
  12. The devil seeks to destroy. Christ seeks to save.
  13. The flesh is against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.
  14. Those who are spiritual are Christ’s; those who are carnal belong to death and to the wrath of God.
  15. Christians are wholly yielded and have placed their trust in their Father in heaven without any outward or worldly arms.
  16. The citizenship of Christians is in heaven and not on earth.
  17. Christians are the members of the household of God and fellow citizens of the saints, and not of the world.
  18. But they are true Christians who practice in deed the teachings of Christ.
  19. Flesh and blood, pomp and temporal, earthly honor and the world cannot comprehend the kingdom of Christ.
  20. In sum: There is nothing in common between Christ and Belial.[1]

The 20 Thesis is originally a part of an epistle Michael Sattler sent to Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and Wolfgang Capito (1478-1541) two Strasbourg Reformers. The points of addressed related to “baptism, the Lord’s Supper, force or the sword, the oath, the ban, and all the commandments of God.”[2] These points functioned as a summary of Anabaptist beliefs Sattler attained via a meeting with the Gemeinde in Strasbourg. Sattler himself verifies the above by writing to Bucer and Capito, “I recently spoke with you . . . on several points, which I together with my brothers and sisters have understood out of Scripture, namely out of the New Testament”.[3]

The contents of the 20 Thesis is very fascinating and one can see obvious parallels with the articles in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. Yet, one aspect genuinely stands out is the seventh thesis, which some have taken to denote that Sattler held to predestination.  It states, “The foreknown and called believers shall be conformed to the image of Christ.” To comprehend what is meant it must be read in blocks of text. Points 5-7 need to be looked at jointly to comprehend what Sattler meant in point seven. They read, “Christ is the head of His body, i.e., of the believers or the congregation. As the head is minded, so must its members also be. The foreknown and called believers shall be conformed to the image of Christ.” Addressing these ideas, C. Arnold Snyder elucidates:

Just as the outer baptism of water is the visible manifestation of the believer’s faith, so the community of baptized believers is the visible body of the risen Christ. The believing community, as the tangible “body of Christ,” will bear all the marks of Christ himself. Here again there is strict conformity between inner reality and outward manifestation: the believers will be spiritually conformed to Christ (Christ-minded), but this inward conformity must bear fruit in a visible conformity with Christ’s actions and commands.[4]

According to Snyder, the emphasis is on conformity to Christ’s image as evidenced by one’s thinking and actions. In general-fashion, Sattler paraphrased or directly quoted scripture within his writings while the overall theme dictated the emphasis. As Sattler delineated in the letter the subject matter had nothing to do with predestination.

In addition, it is widely known that amongst the Anabaptists especially during that early period there “was a very un-Protestant emphasis on the role of free will in the process of salvation.”[5] Also shortly, after his letter to Bucer and Capito the Schleitheim Confession was inscribed and it too had statements that conveyed the thought of free will.

[1] John Howard Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 22-23.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1984), 113.

[5] J. H. Burns, ed., The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 189.