A few years ago I got into listening to some Lutheran podcasts and reading some of their works. This corresponded with a class I took in seminary on the Reformer Martin Luther. We read Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, as well as some of Luther’s own writings, such as his Bondage of the Will. I really came away from my study with an appreciation of Luther’s work, especially in his recognition of the importance of Scripture, the necessity of grace in salvation, and his understanding of justification by faith alone.
At the same time, I became aware of some of the distinctives of Lutheranism. One of those distinctive is their understanding of the doctrine of election. Election is the idea that God chooses His people. Most biblically literate Christians recognize that election is taught in Scripture. The question is the relationship between personal faith and God’s choice. The two most popular views are the Calvinist view, which teaches that God’s choice of a person results in their personal faith in Christ, and the Arminian view, which teaches that God chooses a person because they put their faith in Christ.
Now, there are a number of other corollaries that are debated depending on how one puts the big picture together (and how consistent one is with their chosen system). The Arminian view tends to be rooted in the view that God loves all people and wants everyone to be saved, and so Jesus died on the cross to make possible the salvation of all people. While the Holy Spirit is needed to convert people, He acts by restoring people’s free will by which they can choose to embrace or reject the gospel, so that if a person is lost, it is because they did not choose to turn to God. However, those who believe may later choose to walk away from God and so fall away from the faith and forfeit salvation.
The Calvinist tends to start with majestic sovereignty over all things and humanity’s bondage to sin. They reason that man is so sinful that God must do a work of grace in which He enables the sinner to turn to Christ in faith. In light of several important Scripture passages, the Calvinist believes that God chooses to enable some particular individuals to respond in faith to the gospel, and Jesus died to actually save those people. God consequently enables them to respond, and his enablement always accomplishes its intended effect. In this way of thinking, if a person is lost, it is because God did not choose them. Similarly, if a person is converted, they will continue in the faith because of God’s grace which empowers them to persevere.
This question of election is probably one of the most difficult questions in Christian theology, and one that every believer needs to work through. After having worked through the issue over a number of years, I find myself persuaded mostly of the Calvinist position, though on the basis of my study of Scripture I have found warrant for a somewhat softened position, which is sometimes called “moderate Calvinism.”
It was while in my studies on this topic that I came across the Lutheran position, which I am sympathetic to (although I don’t completely agree there either). Lutherans, like Calvinists, reject free will and embrace God’s choice of his people for salvation, which they claim preserves the principle of grace alone. On the other hand, they embrace God’s desire that all people be saved and affirm that Christ died in order that all people might be saved, which they claim preserves the principle of universal grace. They also believe that a person may walk away from the faith and thus forfeit salvation. On the basis of many of the things that I have read on their view, I think they would say that if a person is saved, it is because God chose them; but if a person is lost, it is because of their own sin. God chooses some for salvation, but God doesn’t choose the others for damnation. Why some and not others? It is a mystery.
I think there is a lot to be said for this view. First, I would affirm that God does choose to save particular individuals. I could reference a number of passages, but perhaps John 6:37 and 44, Acts 13:48 and Rom 9:6-29 might be a good starting place. Similarly, in some sense God really does desire that all people be saved (see 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9; cf. Matt 23:37). Furthermore, Christ died for all people (1 Tim 2:6; 4:10; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 2:2), although His death will only ultimately benefit those whom He has chosen. However, it is important (in my thinking) to affirm that Christ died for all people so that the offer of salvation is understood as a genuine offer (if you are interested, this is the multiple intentions view of the atonement).
Of course there are some downsides as well. The Lutheran view is so set on preserving this tension in Scripture that in my opinion it resists legitimate harmonizations. In other words, they just leave God’s choice of particular individuals for salvation and God’s love for all people sitting side by side without trying to show how they might relate to one another. There are, in my opinion, some perfectly legitimate ways of doing so. Second, I think the issue of apostasy is a real problem. I think the “means of salvation” view of the Scripture passages that warn against falling away preserves the legitimate tension between assurance and caution without resorting to the view that allows that a truly regenerate person could fall away from the faith (see p. 52 of Schreiner’s article here for the “means of salvation” view). Third, I think that the language of “calling” in Paul’s letters seems to indicate that God works effectively in the hearts of the elect (those who are chosen by God for salvation) in such a way that they freely embrace the gospel (Rom 8:30; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor 1:18, 26-31; cf. Phil 1:29, etc.). I understand this work of “drawing” or “calling” to be (ultimately) 100% successful (see John 6:37).
In other words, I find the desire on behalf of the Lutherans to affirm God’s election to salvation and God’s desire for all people to be saved helpful. I also appreciate their desire to allow the atonement and election to stand side by side without allowing the universality of the one or the particularity of the other redefine the other. However, I disagree with their account of the possibility of apostasy and denial of effectual grace. While I don’t agree with them 100%, I appreciate their perspective and find them to be a helpful dialogue partner in my journey to understand God’s Word better.
If you are interested in investigating the Lutheran doctrine of election, here are a couple of resources that I found helpful: In this post, the author claims that the difference between Lutheranism and Calvinism is that Calvinism places election at the center, whereas Lutherans place the cross at the center. Here is a clear and helpful explanation of their view. Here is the teaching according to the Formula of Concord, which is an important doctrine for the Lutheran church. Also, here is a series of blogposts that I wrote based off of a paper I did on Luther’s view of God as hidden and revealed. [Feel free to discuss the issues here if you are interested, however, I don’t have time to argue about it, and I will not approve comments that appear to be angry or unedifying 🙂 ]