The Word that Sparked the Reformation

I’ve heard it said that one spark from a campfire can travel over a mile before burning out. But there is one spark that has managed to travel thousands of miles, even across oceans, and through five centuries of time and has spread a blaze across the world; this spark is the reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The word that sparked this Reformation is the word ‘sola’ or ‘alone’ in English.

In his book Faith Alone:The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul remarks, “It was the sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute…Martin Luther and the Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone. Rome affirms that justification is “by faith,” but not “by faith alone”’ (page 36, 122).

How could such a small word carry so much weight and cause so much controversy? Because the word sola differentiated not between two different ways of understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, but two totally different gospels altogether: the true gospel and a false gospel. In the Roman Catholic view, which hasn’t changed since, our good works contribute to our salvation. In the Reformers’ view, which also hasn’t changed since, we are totally depraved sinners who cannot contribute anything to our salvation except the sin that reveals its necessity.

When you really boil it down, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification is a false gospel that teaches we are not as sinful as the Scriptures reveals us to be, God is not as holy as the Scriptures reveal Him to be, and the cross is not as essential as the Scriptures reveal them to be.

The current leaders of the Church of England have called for Protestants to “repent of the sins of the Reformation.” Some may agree with them and see the Reformation as an unnecessary division in the one body of Christ. Many in our Western age of tolerance consider any divisions, whether doctrinal or anything else, to be from a lack of love. But it would be foolish for us to repent of the sins of the Reformation not only because we weren’t there to do them, but also because it wasn’t a division of the one body of Christ at all. Rather, the Reformation marked a differentiation between those in the true body of Christ and those in a heretical body claiming Christ. As far as the unloving claim, it was love and unity for the protection and preservation of the true body of Christ that drove the Reformers to take the stand they did. Rather than repent of the Reformation, we ought to rejoice in it. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and their fellow Reformers fought for the purity of the gospel and for the purity of the church and we owe them a great debt.

Some have argued that the Reformers held to a view of justification that allowed for sin. They claim that the constant use of the word alone or sola actually implies a salvation that doesn’t have any connection to good works or righteous living. The Reformers were not teaching, however, the unbiblical notion that our justification and our sanctification are not related. Rather, they were teaching that our sanctification flows out of our justification, not vice versa. John Calvin himself noted that while we are saved by faith alone, it is not by a faith that is alone. Justification produces the fruit of sanctification. Where Rome went wrong was that they confused the fruit with the root. If, according to Rome, our salvation is through faith and works, then we have something to boast about and this would turn heaven into a big merit party (“Look at how much I did with my life”). But, aligning themselves with Scripture, the Reformers taught the full and free gospel of God’s grace to guilty sinners who would repent and believe. This is the salvation that consumes the attention of the worship of heaven.

We have so much to be thankful for when we think of the Reformers. They refused to offer to the world a checklist and say, “Here is how to get saved.” Instead they heralded the true gospel of grace and so extended to the world a crucified and resurrected Savior who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

May we never cave to the voices around us that call for an end to our resolve to stand on the gospel of grace. These voices are more than five hundred years old, going back to the garden of Eden where the serpent questioned, “Did God really say?”

May we stand with the Reformers in our own day, no matter what the culture thinks of us and say, “Yes, God did say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Then, may we extend the only true gospel to all types of sinners, while calling them to repent and believe in Christ.

Justification: Will You Stand or Fall?

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. Perhaps some of you have heard that before. I want to take it a step further and say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not only the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, it is the doctrine on which every person stands or falls. I say this because the core issue in view when considering justification is, without a doubt, a question of supreme importance: how does a sinner come into a right and reconciled standing with a holy God?

As you can imagine, throughout the history of the Church many theologians and scholars have tried to answer this question, and because of this, the doctrine of justification quickly became one of the most debated points of theology. Examples abound: St. Augustine and the humanist Pelagius, Martin Luther and the scholar Erasmus, the Reformers and the Roman Catholics, or more currently, the recent controversy brought about by N.T. Wright and his New Perspective on Paul.

Though this has been debated throughout the ages, the Bible is quite clear on the answer: we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

The Problem

I want to begin in Deuteronomy 6 to see the problem.

After God gave His law to the people Israel a second time as they were on the banks of the Jordan River, Moses told them in Deut. 6:25, “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.” Moses knew the law represented a perfect Lawgiver and that just as God is righteous, so would Israel be if they kept it. But we know what happened don’t we? Israel not only didn’t keep the law, they rejected the law. They refused to obey God and went their own way. They therefore have a problem, they need a perfect righteousness to be accepted in God’s sight, but they don’t have it. And as our own hearts have shown us, Israel’s problem is not only Israel’s problem, it’s man’s problem. Ever since the fall we refuse to honor God as God in our lives and go our own way. Because of this we lack a righteousness that would put us in right standing with God.

So what are we to do? What can we do?

The Answer

To answer this problem as we ought to I want to turn to the Bible to see four passages that give the remedy.

a) Genesis 15:5-6

“And God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

In context when we come to Genesis 15 we find ourselves in the middle of God unfolding His promise to Abraham. Abraham doubts God, thinks his servant will be his heir, God corrects him and continues to make His promise plain. Even though Abraham is old, God says he will be the father of a multitude and the nations will be blessed through him. The significance of this moment in 15:6 is that it clearly shows Abraham looking to the promise of God by faith, and then shows God counting that faith to Abraham as righteousness. This word ‘counted’ in English is the Hebrew word ‘chashav’ which is important because this word is a legal term used other times in the Old Testament when legal declarations were made. That God uses it to ‘count’ Abraham as righteous signifies that God made a legal, binding, and unchanging declaration about who Abraham was not because of what he did, but because of his faith in the promise. So we have the beginning of the unfolding of justification by faith alone.

b) Romans 4:1-5

It just so happens that Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 a few times in his letters. One of those moments is Romans 4:1-5, where he says “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”

In this portion of Romans 4 Paul in v1-3 points out that Abraham was indeed justified by faith and not by works of any kind. But in v4-5 and throughout the rest of chapter Paul states that this was not just a pattern present in Abraham’s life, it’s a pattern present for all men as well. Just as Abraham was not able to boast before God for any of his works, so too no man is able to boast before God for any works. And just as God counted Abraham as righteous by faith then, so too God will count (or legally declare) any man righteous by faith now if that faith in is His Son Jesus who justifies the ungodly, or saves sinners by His perfect work. This solves our Deut. 6:25 problem, and shows that we can be given a perfect righteousness before God through faith. But it doesn’t answer the question of how that righteousness is given to us and it doesn’t tell us what the source of that righteousness is. To see that we must move onto our next passage.

c) 2 Corinthians 5:19-21

“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So what is the source of the righteousness in our justification? Jesus Christ is the source. In 2 Cor. 5:19-21 we see the glories of Jesus’ reconciling righteousness. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. How did God do this? By not imputing our sins to us and imputing them to Jesus as well as imputing the righteousness of Jesus to us, which reconciles us to God. This is a double imputation and a great exchange. Jesus, who never sinned receives our sin, and we who never had any righteousness receives His righteousness. So how are given a righteousness through faith?

John Calvin comments on this passage saying, “How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offenses but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God’s judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ’s righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own.”

So, see that in this double imputation God does not just remove our sin and leave an empty void in us. He removes our sin and fills us with Christ’s righteousness at the moment of salvation (by grace through faith) and, as John Fesko says, “right then and there the believer, like Abraham, is counted righteous.”

 d) Romans 4:23-25

“But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

This last reference is an important one, because too many people only speak of justification in terms of the cross and not the resurrection. Paul makes this point in this passage quoting Genesis 15:6 again saying the words “it was counted to him” were not only for Abraham, they’re for us as well. Then Paul goes on to speak of our faith in “Jesus…who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Paul is saying when Jesus rose from the grave, the resurrection was proof that the Father had accepted Jesus’ payment for sin and placed Jesus back into the His full favor. Since faith unites us to Christ, in both His death and resurrection, God’s approval of Christ results in God’s approval of all who are united to Christ. Therefore as Jesus was validated by His resurrection, so are all those united to Christ by faith, which means the final Day of Judgment to come has already been settled for the believer. So our justification not only involves our past and our present, it involved our future as well. In this sense Jesus was “raised for our justification.”

Remember, on this doctrine every man who has lived, is living, and who will live stands or falls before our holy God. Will you stand? Or will you fall?


TODAY 1553: John Calvin & Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus was a thinker who seems to have been the first to describe the “pulmonary transit” of blood through the lung from the heart’s right ventricle to the left auricle.  He didn’t, however, stick to anatomical studies, he ventured into theology.  By doing so, he embraced a heretical view by rejecting the Trinity and by advancing theories that seemed to many theologians to entail pantheism.  He published these ideas in his book The Restitution of Christianity.

In 1540 Servetus commenced a correspondence with John Calvin denying the Trinity and the divine sonship of Christ.  After authorities condemned Servetus to death for heresy, he showed up in Geneva, where he was soon recognized and imprisoned.  John Calvin visited him in prison many times, laboring with him to change his views, embrace orthodoxy, and avoid death but Servetus clung to his unorthodox views.

Today, October 26, 1553, Geneva’s city council condemned Servetus to death with the words, “Let him be condemned to be led to Champel, and there burned alive, and let him be executed tomorrow, and his books consumed.”  Calvin asked that the heretic be given a more humane death than burning.  The council refused.

J.I. Packer describes it like this:

The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:

  1. The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
  2. Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later–two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
  3. The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.
  4. The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by Geneva’s Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.
  5. Calvin, whose role in Servetus’ trial had been that of expert witness managing the prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and after the trial seeking to change his views.
  6. When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful alternative, but his request was denied.
  7. The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer and the gentle Melanchthon, fully approved the execution.

The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity (that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy or tolerate it), and it was Calvin’s insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus’ death.

What do you think?  Is this episode a detriment to Reformed Theology?  Or is this episode defensible?  I’m afraid that the answer isn’t quite clear.  I say that because Calvin’s Geneva existed in a vastly different time than we do now, and operated by vastly different laws/worldviews.  There was no separation of church/state, so someone could be imprisoned for theological offense as well as civil offense.  This was the norm.

It is not our norm.

Many people who reject Reformed Theology today use this episode as fuel for their fire, further prompting them toward a hatred of all things Calvinistic.  Some even go so far as saying Calvin killed Servetus himself.  Others, like myself, who hold the Reformed/Calvinistic worldview think of this episode, not as a blemish, but a historical lesson on the importance of love and theology.

Right theology is a life and death issue.  Love was displayed in Calvin’s repeated attempts to persuade Servetus of the truth.  Regardless of what cultural milieu we find ourselves in we must never forget these two important things: theology and love.

John Piper has a caution for us all:

So the times were harsh and immoral and barbaric, and had a contaminating effect on everyone, just as we are all contaminated today by the evils of our time. Their blind spots and evils may be different from ours. And it may be that the very things they saw clearly are the things we are blind to. It would be foolhardy to say that we would have never done what they did under their circumstances, and thus draw the conclusion that they have nothing to teach us. In fact, what we probably need to say is that some of our evils are such that we are blind to them, just as they were blind to many of theirs, and the virtues they manifested in those times are the very ones that we probably need in ours. There was in the life and ministry of John Calvin a grand God-centeredness, Bible-allegiance and iron constancy. Under the banner of God’s mercy to miserable sinners we would do well to listen and learn.

Prayer: A Mixture of Faith and Error

Prayer is a glorious gift we have been given by God.  It is the heartbeat of the Christian life.  It is communing with the most pleasant company anyone could ever have.  In prayer we grow closer to God by receiving more of God.  Our hearts, and therefore our lives, are further conformed to the image of His Son Jesus.  Our resolve to stand strong amid hard days, trials, or suffering is increased.  But prayer can be frustrating.  Why?  Have you ever been praying about something for a long time and been confused as to why God doesn’t give us what we’re asking Him for?  I have.

Confusion with how and why God answers some prayers over others isn’t a rare experience, I think it’s normal Christian experience.  This becomes further distressing to the soul when we know we’re praying for something good, something that God tells us to pray for in His Word.  Why then doesn’t God give those things to us?  If we ask, won’t we receive?  If we seek, won’t we find?  If we knock, won’t He open the doors?  Not always.

In Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God he makes a statement I’ve never read before in any book on prayer and it concerns this very thing.  On page 102 he says, “Gifts from God that are not acknowledged as such are deadly to the soul, because they thicken the illusion of self-sufficiency that leads to overconfidence and sets us up for failure.”  You see why God doesn’t give us all we ask for?  Keller later gives the reason: because our hearts are “discordantly arranged and fatally unwise.”  In His wisdom God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he knows some of the things we ask for aren’t good for us.  He knows if He was to give those things to us that our hearts would interpret those things as the fruit of our own effort and our pride will be increased.  These things will ruin us and bring nothing but self-congratulatory ego-ism into our souls.

He is wise.  He knows some of the things we ask for are the things we don’t need to ask for and some of the things we don’t ask for are the very things we need to be asking for the most.  John Calvin gives us hope in prayer by recognizing this very thing, “God so tempers the outcome of events according to His incomprehensible plan that the prayers of the saints, which are a mixture of faith and error, are not nullified.”

Knowing that your heart is mixed with faith and error shouldn’t stop you from praying.  It should motivate you in prayer, because you already know that YOU WILL ask for the wrong things in prayer.  Cry, ask, appeal, seek, and knock for many things, many times – God will answer you.  When the answer isn’t what you want it to be, wield the weapon of prayer and ask God to give you rest in His wise will.

John Calvin on Music

In his writing and preaching John Calvin touched on almost every topic of concern to human life, including music.  Here is an excerpt from Calvin’s preface to the Genevan Psalter:

“Now among the other things which are proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the principal; and it is necessary for us to think that it is a gift of God deputed for that use. Moreover, because of this, we ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting [it to] our condemnation, where it was dedicated to our profit and use. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve all honest things; and that it should not give occasion for our giving free rein to dissolution, or making ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it should not become the instrument of lasciviousness nor of any shamelessness…

“And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another….

“What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him.

“As for the rest, it is necessary to remember that which St. Paul hath said, the spiritual songs cannot be well sung save from the heart.…For a linnet, a nightingale, a parrot may sing well; but it will be without understanding. But the unique gift of man is to sing knowing that which he sings. After the intelligence must follow the heart and the affection, a thing which is unable to be except if we have the hymn imprinted on our memory, in order never to cease from singing. For these reasons this present book, even for this cause, besides the rest which has been said, ought to be singular recommendation to each one who desires to enjoy himself honestly and according to God…”

Inventing gods and Squashing them by Eternal Truth

Surely just as waters boil up from a vast, full spring, so does an immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind, while each one, in wandering about with too much license, wrongly invents this or that about God Himself. (John Calvin: Institutes, book 1, chapter 5, paragraph 12)

What then are we to do about such a dreadful truth?

We must come, I say, to the Word where God is truly and vividly described to us from His works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. (John Calvin: Institutes, book 1, chapter 6, paragraph 3)

Human Faculties 101

I have often found it fascinating to read vivid and plain descriptions of ordinary things.  John Calvin does this very well in most things, especially regarding the faculties God has given man.

Thus let us, therefore hold – as indeed is suitable to our present purpose – that the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will.  Let the office, moreover, of understanding be to distinguish between objects, as each seems worthy of approval or disapproval; while that of the will, to choose and follow what the understanding pronounces good, but to reject and flee what it disapproves. (Institutes, 1.15.7)

How does the mind play into these faculties?

God provided man’s soul with a mind, by which to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and with the light of reason as a guide, to distinguish what should be followed from what should be avoided. (Institutes 1.15.8)

So you see, according to Calvin, the way the God-given faculties work together.  First, our understanding distinguishes between the goodness or badness of an object.  Second, those things the understanding finds worthy of approval the will chooses to embrace while those things the understanding finds worthy of disapproval the will chooses to turn away from.  Here in Calvin, the will and the mind almost play identical roles.  I think the difference is that the mind, or the thinking part of man, is what houses both the understanding and the will.  How then is this compatible with the soul?  The mind is not merely the brain, but the whole faculty of the awareness present in man.  Thus, the soul of man (which some could rightly call the “heart”) includes the mind, the understanding, and the will.

This is all brought back to prominent focus when we linger over the thought of what God does inside a person in the salvation of that person.  He changes the nature of our soul so that all within us (heart, mind, understanding, will) no longer sees Jesus Christ as foolishness but for the first time sees and savors Jesus Christ as worthy of infinite worship.  He makes all of us new.  Praise God for His work in man!

How to Know if You’ve Been Endowed With Reason

Have you ever wondered if you’re wise or have been endowed by God with wisdom?  John Calvin will clear this up for you:

But without controversy, just as man was made for meditation upon the heavenly life, so it is certain that the knowledge of it was engraved upon his soul.  And if human happiness, whose perfection it is to be united with God, were hidden from man, he would in fact be bereft of the principal use of his understanding.  Thus also, the chief activity of the soul is to aspire thither.  Hence the more anyone endeavors to approach to God, the more he proves himself endowed with reason. (Institutes, 1.15.6)

The more you endeavor to approach God through His Word, the more evident your wisdom becomes.

A Humorous Moment in Calvin

God is not without a sense a humor.  Theologically, this appears often in the most unexpected places.  Such is the case with the theologically robust Institutes from John Calvin.  It does take a theological mind to understand this humor, so if you find yourself wondering why this is funny, read it again.

When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious. (1.14.1.)

Nuggets of Gold from Calvin about the Word

Scripture is superior to all human wisdom. (Institutes, 1.8.1)


The Power of Scripture is clear from that fact that human writings, however artfully polished, there is none capable of affecting us at all comparably.  Read Demosthenes, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, and others of that tribe.  They will I admit allure you, delight you, move you, enrapture you in wonderful measure.  But betake yourself from them to this Sacred Reading.  Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that compared with deep impression, such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish.  Consequently, it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures, which so far surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor, breathe something divine. (Institutes, 1.8.1)


Those for whom prophetic doctrine is tasteless ought to be thought of as lacking taste buds. (Institutes, 1.8.2)

Why Calvin Wanted to Study the Word

Many people tell me they do not like John Calvin.  Of all the reasons I hear (which is many) one rises to the top.  People tell me the reason they don’t like Calvin is because “systems of doctrine rid our faith of the mystery that is present and eradicates true love for God.”  I obviously do not agree with such thoughts.  In my opinion that claim is theologically lazy, because everyone does theology.  The real question is whether one does it well or poor.  But let’s hear from Calvin himself on this:

Consequently, we know the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of His essence, which we ought more to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate Him in His works whereby He renders Himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates Himself. (Institutes Book 1, chapter 5, paragraph 9)

You see why Calvin sought to do such deep theology?  You see what Calvin sought to avoid?  It is clear from the above quote that Calvin thought it was wrong for us to “meticulously” search out God and His works.  What are we to do instead?  Adore Him and His works.  How do we do that?  By contemplating (studying, pondering, thinking deeply about) those things where God renders Himself near to us because it is in His works that He communicates Himself to us.  Where has God communicated His works to us?  His Word.

This is nothing more than Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but what is revealed belongs to us…”

There are things we cannot ever know about God – they are secret, and we should never try to meticulously search them out.  But notice that’s not all of what God is.  So for us to remain in the “secret” or the “mysterious” is sinful neglect the knowledge of God, like I said it’s lazy.  God is more than mystery, there are also things He has revealed about Himself to us.  Where are these revealed things?  In His Word.  Those things which are revealed we ought to press into, devote our life to, and study with all our might.  Hear Calvin again:

Not to take too long, let us remember here as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to to hold one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word.  Furthermore, in the reading of Scripture we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. (Institutes, 1.14.4.)


John Calvin: The Theologian

John-Calvin2Last but not least (at all!) on my list of those who’ve influenced me most who are currently dead is the theologian and reformer John Calvin.  I did save him for last because Calvin has had an enormous impact on me.  And it is partly what you’d expect but partly something you wouldn’t expect too.

You’d expect Calvin to have influenced me theologically, and he does.  Reformed theology (aka – Calvinism) has re-oriented my Biblical worldview for the better, so much so that I now believe “reformed” to be synonymous with “Biblical.”  Do you think this is crazy?  Some do.  I don’t.  Simply because when you read Genesis – Revelation you see one thing streaming forth as supreme above all else, the glory of the grace of God as both God’s greatest desire Himself, and the thing which satisfied the human soul like no other.  The system of theology put forth in Calvinism does nothing except increase that one main thought, fanning it into flame.  Out of all present systems of theology, none ring truer or more Biblical than this.

How did Calvin influence me in a way you didn’t expect?  Simple.  In all of his theology, all of his doctrinal explanation, all of his divisions and sub-sections of Scriptures grand themes, Calvin aimed at one goal alone – the worship of God.  For Calvin, theology was a means to an end, namely worship.  That’s why in his robust and greatest of all works he produced, the Institutes, chapter 1 says the aim of this all is to produce more adoration in the worship of God in his soul.  Is this true of you?  Does your doctrine serve your worship?  Or do you worship doctrine for just that, doctrine?  This is challenging to me, but O’ so sweet!  I love John Calvin, love reading him, and am eternally grateful for how he continues, though dead, to point me to Christ.

Brief Bio:

Born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France, Jean Calvin was raised in a staunch Roman Catholic family. The local bishop employed Calvin’s father as an administrator in the town’s cathedral. The father, in turn, wanted John to become a priest. Because of close ties with the bishop and his noble family, John’s playmates and classmates in Noyon (and later in Paris) were aristocratic and culturally influential in his early life.

At the age of 14 Calvin went to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university study. His studies consisted of seven subjects: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Toward the end of 1523 Calvin transferred to the more famous College Montaigu. While in Paris he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannis Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin. During this time, Calvin’s education was paid for in part by income from a couple of small parishes. So although the new theological teachings of individuals like Luther and Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples were spreading throughout Paris, Calvin was closely tied to the Roman Church. However, by 1527 Calvin had developed friendships with individuals who were reform-minded. These contacts set the stage for Calvin’s eventual switch to the Reformed faith. Also, at this time Calvin’s father advised him to study law rather than theology.

By 1528 Calvin moved to Orleans to study civil law. The following years found Calvin studying in various places and under various scholars, as he received a humanist education. By 1532 Calvin finished his law studies and also published his first book, a commentary on De Clementia by the Roman philosopher, Seneca. The following year Calvin fled Paris because of contacts with individuals who through lectures and writings opposed the Roman Catholic Church. It is thought that in 1533 Calvin experienced the sudden and unexpected conversion that he writes about in his foreword to his commentary on the Psalms.

For the next three years, Calvin lived in various places outside of France under various names. He studied on his own, preached, and began work on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, an instant best seller. By 1536 Calvin had disengaged himself from the Roman Catholic Church and made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, war had broken out between Francis I and Charles V, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva.

But Calvin’s fame in Geneva preceded him. Farel, a local reformer, invited him to stay in Geneva and threatened him with God’s anger if he did not. Thus began a long, difficult, yet ultimately fruitful relationship with that city. He began as a lecturer and preacher, but by 1538 was asked to leave because of theological conflicts. He went to Strasbourg until 1541. His stay there as a pastor to French refugees was so peaceful and happy that when in 1541 the Council of Geneva requested that he return to Geneva, he was emotionally torn. He wanted to stay in Strasbourg but felt a responsibility to return to Geneva. He did so and remained in Geneva until his death May 27, 1564. Those years were filled with lecturing, preaching, and the writing of commentaries, treatises, and various editions of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Was Luther a Calvinist?

Douglas Sweeney:

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 14:24Matt. 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 1:72:2). 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 6:3940). . . . 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.


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.

Despairing Over the Visible Results of Ministry

In 1555 John Calvin wrote this in a letter to Philip Melanchthon:

It behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results.

What was Calvin trying to do here?  He is trying to encourage Melancthon, that is clear, but notice how he encourages him.  Calvin encourages his friend by saying that we can be obedient to God, doing what he requires of us, even when we don’t like the results.

Now we have to ask a question here to get deeper – “Why we would not like the results of our obedience to God’s call?  The results could cause anything.  The results could cause us to be beaten up.  The results could cause us to be killed, mocked, ridiculed, scorned, or shamed.  Here’s a lesson for us postmodern people – there could be no visible results at all on our obedience to God.  Things could look on the surface exactly the same as they did before.  Interesting huh?  Calvin seems to believe that you can be obedient to God and successful in ministry even when you’re in despair concerning the results from your labor.  Do we believe this?  We ought to.  And we ought to take heart – God is always working.

What is a Pastor?

What is a pastor?  Hebrews 5:1-4 says:

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.  And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

What does this mean?

There is no threshing himself into a fever of impatience or frustration, no holier-than-thou rebuking of the people, no begging them in terms of hyperbole to give some physical sign that the message has been accepted.  It is simply one man, conscious of his sins, aware of how little progress he makes and how hard it is to be a doer of the Word, sympathetically passing onto his people (whom he knows have the same sort of problems as himself) what God has said to them and to him. (Calvin’s Preaching, T.H.L. Parker, 1992, page 119)