James R. Rogers’ recent essay “Credit the Calvinists” asks why Calvinists and not Lutherans have become the public faces of the doctrine of predestination. “For whatever reason,” he writes, “Lutherans are not widely identified with predestinarian doctrine.” And this, he notes, is “despite Luther counting his book-length rejection of free will, On the Bondage of the Will, as the only thing he wrote that he would rank with his Small Catechism.” As a Lutheran, I feel I should make a brief attempt—however imperfect its execution may be—at answering this question, for the benefit of the readers of First Things.
First off, it must be noted that Luther’s opinions are not necessarily the opinions of his spiritual descendants. The fact that Luther called The Bondage of the Will his favourite book would by no means mean any other Lutherans were required to agree.1 Nor should the 1932 doctrinal statement of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, however good and proper it is (and it is good, I hasten to add), be considered the voice of all worldwide confessional Lutherans. Instead, the text confessional Lutherans for centuries have acknowledged as the standard of their faith is The Book of Concord (an authoritative explanation of Christian doctrine based on the Scriptures, supported by reference to the church fathers). Other works may act as supplemental explanations of the Confessions, but these supplements aren’t necessarily binding for all confessional Lutherans around the world.
That all said, Rogers certainly isn’t wrong to say that Lutherans teach predestination. As he notes, it’s in our confessions (see Article XI of the Formula of Concord). The trouble instead with Rogers’ essay is that it implies the Lutheran doctrine is more-or-less the same as the Calvinist one. To be sure, Rogers lists some of the differences between the Lutheran doctrine and the Calvinist; he notes rightly that Lutherans affirm neither “double predestination” nor “limited atonement,” while Calvinists do. But while he recognizes these differences, Rogers doesn’t seem to think they alone explain why Calvinists and not Lutherans are associated in the pubic mind with “predestination.”
I disagree: the doctrinal differences between the two are the key to the whole thing. Indeed, the disparity between the identification of Calvinists with predestinarian doctrine vis à vis Lutherans is precisely because the concept of predestination that exists in the public mind is Calvinist, not Lutheran. People hear the word “predestination” and think of the Calvinist doctrine of double-predestination—the idea that God has chosen some to be saved and chosen others to be damned (or, put in less inflammatory language, that God has chosen some to be saved and others he has not so chosen). Either way it amounts to the same thing: those who are damned are damned because of God’s (lack of) choice. Calvin himself writes, “We assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined both whom he would admit to salvation and whom he would condemn to destruction” (Institutes 3.21.7).
Such a doctrine is abhorrent to Lutherans. And, indeed, contemplation of such a doctrine was abhorrent also to Luther. In his Lectures on Genesis, given in the last decade of his life, Luther speaks at length on the subject of predestination once more (I will quote only bits of it in what follows, but you can read the whole thing in LW 5:43-50): “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.’… 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?”
A fair point, indeed. If salvation is dependent solely upon God’s predestining us—His sovereign will—then what is the point of the Sacraments or the Word, or even the Sacrifice of Christ? Luther defines for us here the problem which arises when Christians fixate on predestination—namely, that we begin to consider the subject apart from the actual salvific act of Christ at the cross. We move away from Scripture’s teachings and substitute our own reason and logic (resulting in thoughts like those listed above, eg, “If I am already predestined one way or the other, then nothing I do or believe can change that.”)
Luther here warns us that the subject of predestination cannot be properly (or safely) considered except in the context of the means of grace: God’s Word and His Sacraments. These are the things by which faith is given. These are the things by which Christians are kept in that faith and prevented from falling away. These are the things by which God’s predestination is made manifest in the world. As such, predestination cannot be rightly considered apart from them. Here Luther is urging us to thrust aside contemplation of predestination in favour of contemplation of Christ.2
Lutherans eschew in particular the doctrine of double-predestination—the conclusion that God’s predestinary grace (which Lutherans affirm) should logically necessitate His also having chosen others to be damned (which Lutherans deny). It certainly sounds reasonable: if God has predestined His people to salvation from before the beginning of time, than surely He must also have “unselected” the rest. It’s perfectly logical.
But this is precisely the sort of reliance on reason Luther so often lambasts. Such attempts to, through our own reason and strength, peer into things God has not revealed in Scripture are sins. He says the same in his Lectures on Genesis: “This is how I have taught in my book On the Bondage of the Will and elsewhere, namely, that a distinction must be made when one deals with the knowledge, or rather with the subject, of the divinity. For one must debate either about the hidden God or about the revealed God [ie, God as we know Him through Christ, a God of mercy]. With regard to God, insofar as He has not been revealed, there is no faith, no knowledge, and no understanding. And here one must hold to the statement that what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish. With them nothing more is achieved than that we plunge ourselves into destruction.”
Doctrines such as double-predestination, built on reason but not Scripture, do nothing except increase doubt among faithful Christians. They lead us away from contemplation of Christ’s mercy at the cross (where God has demonstrated visibly and powerfully that He desires all sinners to be saved) towards the contemplation of things not revealed in Scripture. “These are delusions of the devil,” Luther says in his Lectures on Genesis, “with which he tries to cause us to doubt and disbelieve, although Christ came into this world to make us completely certain. For eventually either despair must follow or contempt for God, for the Holy Bible, for Baptism, and for all the blessings of God through which He wanted us to be strengthened over against uncertainty and doubt…. After the manner of the Turks, they will rush rashly into the sword and fire, since the hour in which you either die or escape has been predetermined.”
Lutherans look to God as revealed in Christ; they do not speculate about unrevealed aspects of God’s will. Consequently, Lutherans affirm only that which they see affirmed in Scripture. Scripture tells us that Christ died for the whole world (John 3:16-17). So we believe it. Scripture also tells us that God desires all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). So we believe it. It further tells us that God has predestined those who will be saved (Ephesians 1:3-6). We believe this too. And yet, Scripture tells us that not all people will be saved (Matthew 25:41). This we also believe. We are willing to accept the seeming paradox, that an almighty God who predestines believers to be saved and who earnestly desires the salvation of all nevertheless will see some not saved.
The Scriptures do not teach that God has predestined to be damned those who will be damned. Indeed, as the Formula of Concord warns, “this would be to ascribe to God contradictory wills” (SD 11:35). God tells us in His Word that He wills the salvation of all; He cannot simultaneously have willed that some not be saved. It is clear then that, insofar as Lutherans teach predestination, we do not teach it in the way which the world understands the word. It should not be surprising, therefore, that since Lutherans teach a doctrine different than that which the world calls “predestination,” we have not been associated with the term. The reason why is as simple as answering why Lutherans aren’t associated with the term “Calvinist” in public discourse: it’s because the word doesn’t describe who we are.
1 I also feel the need to note that The Bondage is often misread as if it’s teachings were identical to Calvinist teachings on predestination; I am hardly the first to suggest it is not. At any event, we must not read this one book as if it were the only or last thing Luther wrote on the subject of predestination.
2 Luther recalls: “Staupitz used to comfort me with these words: ‘Why do you torture yourself with these speculations? Look at the wounds of Christ and at the blood that was shed for you. From these predestination will shine.’”