During the years I’ve taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I’ve frequently been asked whether Luther was a Calvinist. The answer, of course, is no. Calvinism didn’t emerge until the end of Luther’s life. Arminianism emerged long after Luther had passed away. So Luther himself never engaged the controversy that divided Reformed Protestantism after the Reformation.

It’s true: Calvin was called a Lutheran in the early years of his ministry. And there are notable similarities between the two. But as the Reformed movement grew, it grew apart from Lutheranism in some noteworthy ways. And as Lutheran thought developed during and after the Reformation, Lutherans leaned toward Arminians more than Calvinists on a few of the doctrinal issues that divided the latter groups.

So perhaps it’s worth a minute or two to walk through the ways in which Lutherans came down on the five “points” of Calvinism. We should all understand by now that there’s far more to Calvinism than five simple points, that the five points themselves were sharpened after Calvin’s death, and that some think that Calvin himself did not affirm them all. So Calvinist friends, hold your fire. The goal here is not to oversimplify your faith, but to scan the ways that leading early Lutherans addressed the matters fought about most fiercely at the Reformed Synod of Dordt (1618–1619), and in the subsequent debates between Calvinists and Arminians.

Four Branches

Before we attack this matter directly, let me take just a minute to remind us that, technically speaking, the debate between Calvinists and Arminians really divided but a minority of the early Protestant world.

Despite the tendency of some to assume that all evangelicals fall somewhere on the continuum between Calvinism and Arminianism, it is important to remember that there were four main branches of the Protestant Reformation—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Church of England—and that Calvinists and Arminians were on the same branch (though their controversy would captivate the Church of England as well, and was foreshadowed by developments in the doctrine of the English Reformation).

These branches parted gradually over the course of the 16th century. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 16th century, for example, that the lines between the Lutherans and the Reformed were drawn clearly. And it wasn’t until the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the lines were drawn starkly between the Calvinists and Arminians.

Arminianism emerged on the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Arminius and his followers considered themselves to be Reformed. They said they wanted to reform Reformed Protestant theology in response to what they deemed unhealthy Calvinist extremes.

Nevertheless, the Synod of Dordt changed the equation once and for all—and eventually affected people all over the Protestant world. So without any further ado, here’s where the Lutherans came down on the poorly named five points of Calvinism.

Lutherans and the Five Points of Calvinism

I’ll take this question point by point, offering evidence from reliable and accessible translations of classic Lutheran texts and confessions: the American edition of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann et al. (Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1957); the latest English edition of the Lutheran Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Fortress Press, 2000), which contains all the authoritative Lutheran confessions, such as the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord; and Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3d ed., trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs (Augsburg Publishing House, 1899), a compendium of Lutheran scholastic theology. These are exceptionally important Protestant theological sources, which should be read and used frequently by evangelical leaders.

Bear in mind that we are barely scratching the surface in this article. This is a skeletal presentation based on selected representatives of early Lutheran thought. Most Lutherans use the Lutheran confessions when interpreting Bible doctrines such as these. But there is diversity of opinion on the relative weight and authority of the other materials I quote below.

Total Depravity 

Yes, but let’s be careful to articulate this point carefully: 

Augsburg Confession (1530), Art. 2: “since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin is truly sin and condemns to God’s eternal wrath all who are not in turn born anew through baptism and the Holy Spirit.”

Formula of Concord (1577), Epitome, Art. 1: “original sin is not a slight corruption of human nature, but rather a corruption so deep that there is nothing sound or uncorrupted left in the human body or soul”

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. I: “we . . . reject and condemn those who teach that human nature has indeed been greatly weakened and corrupted through the fall but has not completely lost all good that pertains to divine, spiritual matters.” 

The Lutherans continued to distinguish between human nature itself (as created) and human nature as fallen and harmed by devastating sinful qualities. After a debate surrounding the quirky views of Lutheran Matthias Flacius, they concluded that original sin should not be described as the formal/forming substance of fallen human souls, but as an accidental quality of them (most Calvinists agreed): “as far as the Latin words substantia and accidens are concerned, the churches should best be spared these terms in public preaching to the uninstructed, because such words are unfamiliar to the common people.” Nevertheless, “when someone asks whether original sin is a substance (that is, the kind of thing that exists in and of itself and not in another thing) or an accidens (that is, the kind of thing which does not exist in and of itself but exists in something else and cannot exist or be simply in and of itself), necessity compels us to confess clearly that original sin is not a substance but an accidens.” 

Again, though, the 16th-century Lutherans insisted that original sin has tragically distorted our souls: “the use of the word accidens, when explained on the basis of God’s Word, does not minimize original sin. . . . Luther used the word accidens and also the word qualitas, and he did not reject them. But with the use of these words he very carefully explained and clarified in as many ways as possible what a horrible quality and accidens it is that not only made human nature impure but also so deeply corrupted it that nothing pure and uncorrupted remained in it.”

Unconditional Election 

Yes and no (and not double predestination).  

Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), 7.18: "I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want 'free-will' to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my 'free-will' . . .; but because, even were there no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labor with no guarantee of success, and to beat my fists at the air. If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether he required something more. The experience of all who seek righteousness by works proves that; and I learned it well enough myself over a period of many years, to my own great hurt. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of his, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to his own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and that he is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break him or pluck me from him. . . . Thus it is that, if not all, yet some, indeed many, are saved; whereas, by the power of 'free-will' none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. 11: “Our election to eternal life does not rest upon our righteousness or virtues but solely on Christ’s merit and the gracious will of his Father, who cannot deny himself . . . . Therefore, it is false and incorrect to teach that not only the mercy of God and the most holy merit of Christ but also something in us is a cause of God’s election, and for this reason God chose us for eternal life.” However, the Formula continues, “this teaching gives no one cause either for faintheartedness or for a brazen, dissolute life. For this teaching excludes no repentant sinners. Instead, it calls and draws all poor, burdened, and troubled sinners to repentance, to the recognition of their sins, and to faith in Christ. . . . Accordingly, whoever conveys this teaching concerning the gracious election of God in such a way that troubled Christians gain no comfort from it but are thrown into despair by it, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their impudence, then it is undoubtedly certain and true that this teaching in not being presented according to God’s Word and will.”

Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. 11: “A Christian should only think about the article of God’s eternal election to the extent that it is revealed in God’s Word. . . . In Christ we are to seek the Father’s eternal election. He has decreed in his eternal, divine counsel that he will save no one apart from those who acknowledge his Son Christ and truly believe in him.”

As we move from Luther himself and the Lutheran confessions toward more modern Lutheran thinkers, some teach that election is conditioned on foreseen faith.

David Hollaz (1646-1713, of Jacobshagen and Colberg), as quoted in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, p. 272: “Predestination is the eternal decree of God to bestow eternal salvation upon all of whom God foresaw that they would finally believe in Christ.”

Johann Quenstedt (1617-1688, of Wittenberg), as quoted in Schmid, pp. 288-89:  

Faith, and that, too, as persevering or final faith, enters into the sphere of eternal election, not as already afforded, but as foreknown. For we are elected to eternal life from faith divinely foreseen, apprehending, to the end, the merit of Christ; (b) Faith enters into election not by reason of any meritorious worth, but with respect to its correlate, or so far as it is the only means of apprehending the merit of Christ; or, in other words, faith is not a meritorious cause of election, but only a prerequisite condition, or a part of the entire order divinely appointed in election.

Early Lutheran disagreements on the doctrine of election were debated famously in late 19th- and 20th-century America, where Lutherans divided from one another over whether God elects “unto” faith or “in view of” faith. This American debate usually revolved around the questions whether and how God elects intuitu fidei (in view of faith, or in view of the faith that God himself grants to those he saves). Lutherans of the Ohio Synod, led by F. A. Schmidt of the Ohio Synod Seminary in Columbus, maintained the teaching of many 17th-century Lutheran scholastic theologians that God elects in view of the faith that he foresees in the repentant. Lutherans of the Missouri Synod, led by C. F. W. Walther and Franz Pieper, argued that election is not based on or conditioned by anything that we do, nor any merit of our own. The Ohioans blamed the Missourians of crypto-Calvinism, and of teaching that God does not desire the salvation of all or even seriously/effectively offer his saving grace to the lost. The Missourians accused the Ohioans of works righteousness.

Limited Atonement 

No (though Luther himself was inconsistent).

Luther and other early Lutherans usually taught a general doctrine of the atonement (a view codified in the Book of Concord). 

Early in his life, during his lectures on Romans (1516), Luther made a famous statement affirming a limited atonement, one that Calvinists like Timothy George have used to argue that Luther was with Calvin on this issue. As we have seen above, moreover, Luther believed in unconditional, particular election. He believed that the elect alone would be saved on the basis of the atoning work of Christ. But his usual tendency, especially later in his life, was to stress the Scripture promise that whosoever repents and believes will be saved, that it is not salutary to seek the hidden decrees of God, and that the atoning work of Christ was broad and powerful enough to cover the sins of the whole world. He worried far more often about biblical consistency and pastoral utility than about logical precision. Modern Calvinists have often charged him with logical inconsistency (though he was certainly not the first to favor an asymmetrical layout of these issues).

Here’s the famous early affirmation of limited atonement:

Luther, Lectures on Romans (1515-1516), from the scholia at Rom. 15:33 (“Now the God of peace be with you all,” LW 25:375–76): “The second argument [against predestination] is that ‘God desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4). . . . these verses must always be understood as pertaining to the elect only, as the apostle says in 2 Tim. 2:10 ‘everything for the sake of the elect.’ For in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all, because he says: ‘This is my blood which is poured out for you’ and ‘for many’—he does not say: for all—‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 14:24, Matt. 26:28).”

Here are some later, more definitive statements of Luther:

Luther, Bondage of the Will (1525), 4.12: “We say, as we have said before, that the secret will of the Divine Majesty is not a matter for debate, and the human temerity which with continual perversity is always neglecting necessary things in its eagerness to probe this one, must be called off and restrained from busying itself with the investigation of these secrets of God’s majesty, which it is impossible to penetrate because he dwells in light inaccessible, as Paul testifies [1 Tim. 6:16]. Let it occupy itself instead with God incarnate, or as Paul puts it, with Jesus crucified, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, though in a hidden manner [Col. 2:3]; for through him it is furnished abundantly with what it ought to know and ought not to know. It is God incarnate, moreover, who is speaking here: “I would . . . you would not”—God incarnate, I say, who has been sent into the world for the very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering to all men everything necessary for salvation. . . . It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish. And it is not for us to ask why he does so, but to stand in awe of God who both can do and wills to do such things.”

Luther, “Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 1533,” in Day by Day We Magnify You: Daily Readings for the Entire Year Selected from the Writings of Martin Luther, rev. ed., p. 10: “[Christ] helps not against one sin only but against all my sin; and not against my sin only, but against the whole world's sin. He comes to take away not sickness only, but death; and not my death only, but the whole world's death.”

Luther and Melanchthon to the Council of the City of Nürnberg, April 18, 1533, a letter that speaks into the controversy in  Nürnberg over private vs. public confession of sins in the church,  in LW 50:76-77: 

Even if not all believe [the word of absolution], that is not reason to reject [public] absolution, for each absolution, whether administered publicly or privately, has to be understood as demanding faith and as being an aid to those who believe in it, just as the gospel itself also proclaims forgiveness to all men in the  whole world and exempts no one from this universal context. Nevertheless the gospel certainly demands our faith and does not aid those who do not believe it; and yet the universal context of the gospel has to remain [valid].

Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537), at John 1:29, in LW 22:169: “There is nothing missing from the Lamb. He bears all the sins of the world from its inception; this implies that He also bears yours, and offers you grace.”

Now the Lutheran doctrine as codified later on:

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art.11: “if we want to consider our eternal election to salvation profitably, we must always firmly and rigidly insist that, like the proclamation of repentance, so the promise of the gospel is universalis, that is, it pertains to all people (Luke 24:47). Therefore, Christ commanded preaching ‘repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.’ ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ for it (John 3:16). Christ has taken away the sins of the world (John 1:29); his flesh was given ‘for the life of the world’ (John 6:51); his blood is ‘the atoning sacrifice for . . . the whole world’ (1 John 1:7; 2:2). Christ said, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28). ‘God has imprisoned all in unbelief, that he might have mercy on all’ (Rom. 11:32). ‘The Lord does not want any to perish but all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9). He is ‘Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him’ (Rom. 10:21). ‘Righteousness’ comes ‘through faith in Christ’ to all and ‘for all who believe’ (Rom. 3:22).’This is the will of the Father, that all who . . . believe in Christ shall have eternal life’ (John 6:39, 40). . . . We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals his will through it, namely, that he wills to work through his Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved.”

Johann Quenstedt, as quoted by Schmid, p. 363:  “The personal object [of Christ’s satisfaction for sin] comprises . . . each and every sinful man, without any exception whatever. For he suffered and died for all, according to the serious and sincere good pleasure and kind intention of himself and God the Father, according to which he truly wills the salvation of each and every soul, even of those who fail of salvation.”

Johann Gerhard (1582-1637, of Jena), as quoted in Schmid, p. 363: “If the reprobate are condemned because they do not believe in the Son of God, it follows that to them also the passion and death of Christ pertain. For otherwise, they could not be condemned for their contempt of that which, according to the divine decree, does not pertain to them.”

Bear in mind that, as shown in recent work by Jonathan Moore, Richard Muller, and other scholars (who disagree amongst themselves regarding the finer points at issue), early Reformed understandings of the scope of the atonement were more complicated than many people assume. There were so-called hyper-Calvinists and, later, some promoters of what in the United States was called “Gethsemane doctrine” (because of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane “not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me,” John 17:9) who denied that Christ intended to die for any but the elect. But most early Calvinists tried to affirm at least the “sufficiency” of Christ’s atoning work to cover the sins of the whole world. Many others were hypothetical universalists who taught unconditional election and unlimited atonement simultaneously. See Jonathan D. Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology (Eerdmans, 2007); Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Baker Academic, 2012); and Douglas A. Sweeney, Nathaniel Taylor, New Haven Theology, and the Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 107. 

Irresistible Grace  

In Bondage of the Will, 2.8, Luther denies that God compels or forces people to convert: “When God works in us, the will is changed under the sweet influence of the Spirit of God. . . . it desires and acts, not of compulsion, but of its own desire and spontaneous inclination.” But, of course, the most famous (or notorious) thing about his Bondage of the Will is Luther’s denial that we initiate this change:  “our salvation is not of our own strength or counsel, but depends on the working of God alone.” Further, “man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills . . . . If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it” (2.8).

Toward the end of his life, Luther tried to clarify a misunderstanding regarding language such as this in his Bondage of the Will. Early in 1542, while lecturing on Genesis 26:9, he digressed from the verse itself in the following manner:

I hear that here and there among the nobles and persons of importance vicious statements are being spread abroad concerning predestination or God’s foreknowledge. For this is what they say: "If I am predestined, I shall be saved, whether I do good or evil. If I am not predestined, I shall be condemned regardless of my works." I would be glad to debate in detail against these wicked statements if the uncertain state of my health made it possible for me to do so. For if the statements are true, as they, of course, think, then the incarnation of the Son of God, his suffering and resurrection, and all that he did for the salvation of the world are done away with completely. What will the prophets and all Holy Scripture help? What will the sacraments help? Therefore let us reject all this and tread it underfoot.

Luther went on to say that people should stop attempting—arrogantly—to plumb the depths of the mind of God, and should focus instead on the way of salvation God has graciously revealed. He warned that the devil often leads us to despair of our salvation by prompting us to ponder predestination. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, he said (Is. 55). His ways are not our ways. So we should trust and obey the things that he has condescended to give us. “God reveals his will to us through Christ and the gospel. But we loathe it and, in accordance with Adam’s example, take delight in the forbidden tree above all the others.”

Beginning in the last year of Luther’s life (1546), a similar caveat was added to the Bondage of the Will, although we don’t know for sure if Luther authorized it: 

I could wish indeed that another and a better word had been introduced into our discussion than this usual one, "necessity," which is not rightly applied either to the divine or the human will. It has too harsh and incongruous a meaning for this purpose, for it suggests a kind of compulsion, and the very opposite of willingness, although the subject under discussion implies no such thing. For neither the divine nor the human will does what it does, whether good or evil, under any compulsion, but from sheer pleasure or desire, as with true freedom. . . . The reader’s intelligence must therefore supply what the word "necessity" does not express, by understanding it to mean what you might call the immutability of the will of God and the impotence of our evil will, or what some have called the necessity of immutability though this is not very  good either grammatically or theologically.

The best book in English on this thorny set of issues in early Lutheran dogmatics is Robert Kolb, Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord (Eerdmans, 2005).

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. 2: “people resist God the Lord with their will until they are converted. . . . they resist the Word and will of God until God awakens them from the death of sin and enlightens and renews them. Although God does not force human beings in such a way that they must become godly (for those who persistently resist the Holy Spirit and stubbornly struggle against what is recognized truth, as Stephen said of the obdurate Jews in Acts 7:51, will not be converted), nonetheless God the Lord draws those people whom he wants to convert and does so in such a way that an enlightened understanding is fashioned out of a darkened understanding and an obedient will is fashioned out of a rebellious will. Scripture calls this creating a new heart. . . . God makes willing people out of rebellious and unwilling people through the drawing power of the Holy Spirit, and . . . after this conversion of the human being the reborn will is not idle in the daily practice of repentance but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that he accomplishes through us.”

Leonhard Hutter (1563-1616, of Wittenberg), as quoted in Schmid, p. 475:  

There have been those who asserted that the will of unregenerate man in conversion is in a hostile attitude, so that the Holy Spirit effects conversion by violent drawings, or by a kind of force, in those who are unwilling and resisting. This opinion has elements of both truth and falsehood in it. For it is true that the natural man can do nothing of himself but resist the Holy Spirit. . . . Thus it is also true, that some have been converted when they were violently raging against God. But what is hence inferred is most false, viz., that they were converted while repugnant and reluctant. For it is most certain that they in whom this resistance does not cease never are converted to God. . . . Others answer, that man in conversion not only does nothing, but is converted while unconcerned and not knowing what is being done with him. This opinion manifestly savors of Enthusiasm. . . . For, although unregenerate man cannot know of himself and of his own powers what is being done with him, yet the Holy Spirit removes this stupor and illuminates his mind, so that now he knows what is being done with him and yields his consent to the Holy Spirit.

Perseverance of the Saints 

No, not in the way that many assume.

Luther, Smalcald Articles (1537), 3.3: “it is necessary to know and teach that when holy people—aside from the fact that they still have and feel original sin and also daily repent of it and struggle against it—somehow fall into a public sin (such as David, who fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy against god), at that point faith and the Spirit have departed.”

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. II:  “if the baptized act against their conscience, permit sin to reign in them, and thus grieve the Holy Spirit in themselves and lose him, then, although they may not be rebaptized, they must be converted again”

David Hollaz, as quoted in Schmid, p. 465: “The grace of regeneration is lost when sins subversive of conscience are deliberately committed (1 Tim. 1:19). But regeneration lost may be recovered by the penitent (Gal. 4:19). Men regenerate, aided by the preserving grace of God, should be carefully on their guard, lest, by the malicious repetition of sin, they do injury to conscience; but if, nevertheless, they are overcome by the machinations of the devil, the enticements of the world, and the suggestions of the flesh, and fall three or four times, or oftener, into mortal sin, they need not at all doubt of the converting and regenerating grace of God.”

For Lutherans, the elect will certainly persevere in faith. God is not impotent to carry out his decrees respecting salvation. But not everyone who is born again is among God’s elect. It is possible for regenerated people to apostatize. So perseverance is largely a matter of walking in step with the Spirit, persevering, and encouraging other people to do the same.

Conclusion

The wrong thing to conclude from this evidence is that Lutherans are hesitant Calvinists, or two-and-a-half-point Calvinists, or imperfect Arminians. Lutherans are Lutherans. Their theological frame of reference is not closely related to the Calvinist-Arminian continuum. Lutherans have their own theological history, one that has contributed in major ways to the evangelical movement. In fact, the Lutheran tradition, even more than the Reformed, is the one from which groups like the Evangelical Free Church and the Covenant Church have come—though few would guess this anymore, as even leaders in these groups pay more attention to the history of Reformed Protestantism than the kind of Lutheran Pietism from which they first came.

I hope this article can play a role in connecting evangelical Protestants to the Lutheran Reformation once again.

Douglas A. Sweeney is professor of church history and the history of Christian thought and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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Douglas A. Sweeney


Douglas A. Sweeney is professor of church history and the history of Christian thought and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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