Is Luther’s Doctrine of Predestination “Reformed”?






Beggars All Reformation & Apologetics

Team Apologian



APRIL 2011



I. Introduction


II. The Hidden God and the Revealed God


III. Luther’s Two Wills of God


IV. Two Lutheran Dilemmas of God’s Two Wills


V. Luther’s Emphasis on Predestination


VI. Avoiding speculation on Predestination


VII. Luther Was Not a Five-Point Calvinist


VIII. Conclusion


IX. Bibliography




I. Introduction

There appears to be nothing more infuriating to a Lutheran than to suggest that Luther was fundamentally a Calvinist in his view of sovereignty and predestination. Executive Director of Concordia Publishing House Reverend Paul McCain states, “Whenever the question of why are some saved and not others comes up, it is common for Calvinists who advocate for the view that God has predestined some to hell, and others to heaven, to try to drag Martin Luther into their argument and claim that they are actually being faithful to what Martin Luther taught. Let this much be clear: Martin Luther did not teach double-predestination.[1]


McCain could have any number of Reformed authors in mind.  In his book Chosen By God, R.C. Sproul lays out his past intellectual resistance to the doctrine of predestination. “My struggle with predestination began early in my Christian life. I knew a professor of philosophy in college who was a convinced Calvinist. He set forth the so-called ‘Reformed’ view of predestination. I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought against it tooth and nail all the way through college.”[2] Part of Sproul’s argumentation for eventually embracing the Reformed view includes a list comparing those who held a similar Reformed type of predestination view against those who do not. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards are stacked against Pelagius, Arminius, Melanchthon, Wesley, and Finny. Sproul points out that such a comparison doesn’t prove one view correct over the other, but “we must take seriously the fact that such learned men agreed on this difficult subject.”[3] Sproul states,


It is important for us to see that the Reformed doctrine of predestination was not invented by John Calvin. There is nothing in Calvin’s view of predestination that was not earlier propounded by Luther and Augustine before him. Later, Lutheranism did not follow Luther on this matter but Melanchthon, who altered his views after Luther’s death. It is also noteworthy that in his famous treatise on theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote sparingly on the subject. Luther wrote more about predestination than did Calvin.[4]


            Luther wrote more about predestination than Calvin? Melanchthon altered the Lutheran view on predestination for subsequent Lutherans?  Such statements could easily lead to equivocating Luther and Calvin’s view of predestination, as well as Luther’s view with the so-called five points of Calvinism.  Some in the Reformed camp have done precisely this. Lorraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination asserts Luther “went into the doctrine as heartily as did Calvin himself” and “He even asserted it with more warmth and proceeded to much harsher lengths in defending it than Calvin ever did.”[5] Duane Edward Spencer’s popular primer on Calvinism places Luther among those “stalwart theologians” that have held  “to the precious doctrines of grace known as Calvinism.”[6] Edwin Palmer’s introduction to Calvinism refers to Luther as a “good Calvinist.”[7]   The classic Steele and Thomas overview of Calvinism includes Luther as a champion listed on the “role call of Calvinists.”[8]


This paper will examine Luther’s views compared to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, giving attention as well to the Calvinistic slogans of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, effectual calling and perseverance. While Luther’s theology may be Reformation theology, it is not Reformed theology. If one fails to take into account Luther’s underlying presuppositions as well as his explicit statements on predestination, the atonement, perseverance, etc., blatant errors against his theology occur. While there are similarities between Luther’s views and the Reformed view, important differences still separate both sides. When the Reformed haphazardly appeal to Luther as one of her own, they do so at the expense of historical accuracy.


II. The Hidden God and the Revealed God

Treating Luther accurately requires reading him according to his own theological paradigms, particularly a basic understanding of his use of contrast and paradox. Luther often contrasted man’s feeble attempt to know God and God as he has revealed himself.  He abhors philosophic speculation about God, of trying to know God as he is in his naked majesty. If a sinful being were to find God as he is in himself, he would immediately cower before God in his absolute majesty and holiness. He would not find himself confronting a loving bearded grandfather with open arms welcoming his creature into his divine presence.  Rather, a sinful creature in God’s presence would be similar to a bug hiding to avoid being smashed by an immense and powerful enemy.[9]  Luther calls the request of Moses to see God’s face “original sin itself, by which we are impelled to strive for a way to God through natural speculation.”[10]


Luther describes God in his bare majesty as the hidden God (deus absconditus). This God has absolute control over everything. Of the agenda of the hidden God, a finite creature can know nothing.  He is the God who enforces his “hidden and awful will” which includes the predestinating punishment for sinners. Of this hidden will, no creature is to speculate on or inquire.[11] In response to Erasmus, Luther explains God as hidden and also revealed (deus revelatus):


We have to argue in one way about God or the will of God as preached, revealed, offered, and worshiped, and in another way about God as he is not preached, not revealed, not offered, not worshiped. To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours… God must therefore be left to himself in his own majesty, for in this regard we have nothing to do with him, nor has he willed that we should have anything to do with him.[12]


According to Luther, in his mercy towards humanity God covers his majesty. He does so not to remain unknown, but in order to reveal himself to humanity.  He clothes himself in various ways so that his creatures are not immediately destroyed by his holiness and glory. This becomes a crucial paradox for Luther. God remains hidden while simultaneously revealing himself.  The hidden God doesn’t reveal aspects of his operation, essence or inscrutable will. But the revealed God uses masks by which to interact with his creation and make his love for creation known. For example, Adam knows God’s presence by the mask of the sound of a breeze blowing through Eden.  God uses the mask of the mercy seat in the tabernacle to reveal himself to the priests of God. After the resurrection of Christ he reveals himself in the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  But the supreme mask God uses is the incarnation. If one were to ask Luther how God has most clearly made himself known, his response would be “in Jesus Christ.” If one wants to know God’s will, one must listen to the voice of Christ.  This revealed God and merciful savior proclaims, “I desire not the death of a sinner.” This revealed God proclaims salvation to all of mankind in a fallen world.


The distinction between the hidden and revealed God plays a significant role in polemics surrounding Luther’s view of predestination. Those of a Reformed persuasion need to consider whether or not the paradigm itself is consistent with Reformed theology. Is this paradox a helpful description of God? Or, does Luther’s paradoxical hidden and revealed God describe a schizophrenic deity with two differing wills?  The hidden God desires the death of certain sinners. The revealed God desires that all sinners live.


Certainly Reformed theology would affirm with Luther that the very being of God is beyond our total comprehension, that God hasn’t revealed himself in totality, and that none know his secret council. Louis Berkhoff states, “Reformed theology holds that God can be known, but that it is impossible for man to have a knowledge of Him that is exhaustive and perfect in every way.”[13] Calvin states, “His essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception.[14] Hendrikus Berkhoff states,  “From the fact of revelation we learn that apart from this event God is for us the hidden one.”[15]


Certainly Reformed theology would affirm with Luther that a sinner before the holy God not covered in the righteousness of Christ stands in eternal judgment.   Certainly Reformed theology would affirm with Luther that Christ is the central revelation of God to humanity (Belgic Confession, Article XXVI). Certainly Reformed theology would affirm with Luther that the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever (Deut. 29:29). As Calvin states, “It follows that he has another hidden will which may be compared to a deep abyss… Moses… bids us not only direct our study to meditation upon the law, but to look up to God’s secret providence with awe.”[16]


III. Luther’s Two Wills of God

But is it Reformed to say that there are two wills of God with different intentions? The question is of particular relevance since some Lutherans assert discussing the doctrine of predestination is no more than speculating about the unrevealed will of the hidden God, a discussion to be avoided entirely. Don Matzat, from the Lutheran radio show Issues Etc. states, “Luther believed that any debate, discussion, or argument over the doctrine of election should be avoided.[17] Matzat cites Luther stating that in discussing predestination,


I forget everything about Christ and God when I come upon these thoughts and actually get to the point to imagining that God is a rogue. We must stay in the word, in which God is revealed to us and salvation is offered, if we believe him. But in thinking about predestination, we forget God ... However, in Christ are hid all the treasures (Col. 2:3); outside him all are locked up. Therefore, we should simply refuse to argue about election.  Such a disputation is so very displeasing to God that he has instituted Baptism, the spoken Word, and the Lord’s Supper to counteract the temptation to engage in it. In these, let us persist and constantly say, I am baptized I believe in Jesus. I care nothing about the disputation concerning predestination.[18]


Lutheran scholar Lowell Green contrasts Calvin’s paradigm that “some were predestined to eternal life, and others to eternal damnation” with Luther and states, “Did Luther follow that line? By no means! Like the Lutheran Confessions, he knew only of an election coming from the gospel.”[19]  


While the Reformed make distinctions between the decretive will and perceptive will of God, and also distinctions between the secret and revealed will of God, they are not making the distinction Luther is making.  A.A. Hodge defines God’s decretive will as “God efficaciously purposing the certain futurition of events” and this will is secret because “although it is sometimes revealed to man in the prophecies and promises of the Bible, yet it is for the most part hidden in God.”[20]  Hodge states God’s will is “one eternal, unsuccessive, all–comprehensive act, absolutely determining either to effect or to permit all things, in all of their relations, conditions, and successions, which ever were, are, or ever will be.”[21]  While mysterious, these wills of God do not stand in paradox or contradiction to one another.


Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper argues Calvinism teaches “the unscriptural doctrine that the will of God is twofold from the outset, as though God had originally decided to save only a part of mankind and to condemn the rest.”[22] Pieper in effect sees this as the Reformed probing the secret council of the hidden God: “We are utterly unable to know God in His absolute being.”[23] “We can know God only in so far as He has, in merciful condescension to our limited human comprehension, revealed Himself to us in Holy Scripture.”[24] The Scriptures according to Pieper proclaim an emphasis on the revealed God: “ ‘What is God’s will as to saving and damning man?’ we must on the basis of John 3:17–18, etc., first think of God as desiring to condemn no one, but to save all men, without exception, by faith in Christ.”[25] God is only “willing to condemn those who refuse to believe in Christ.”[26]


How does Pieper’s paradigm compare to a Reformed exegesis of scripture? A telling example showing the contrast between the two views is 2 Peter 3:9. This verse states that God is not willing that any should perish. Pieper argues that this verse is a proof for gratia universalis for each and every individual[27] demonstrating the will of the revealed God. Pieper chastises Calvinism, not realizing Calvin himself commented on this verse,


If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.[28]


Many Reformed theologians though state the context explicitly explains the meaning:

“The Lord is long-suffering to us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The restrictive word is us. Any refers to “any of us.” This does not solve the problem instantly, however, for us may refer to us human beings (universally) or to a particular group of us. Since 2 Peter is written by a Christian believer to Christian believers and for Christian believers, it is likely that us refers to Christian believers. [29]


Similarly, 1 Timothy 2:4 states that God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. The Reformed argue the context speaks of kinds of men, as verses one and two speak of making prayers and intercession “for everyone¾ for kings and all those in authority.” The text isn’t making a universal claim, but rather speaks of different classes of men. Pieper though sees such exegesis as “anti-Scriptural thought” by “advocates of the gratia particularis divest[ing] the Scripture passages which proclaim the gratia universalis of their plain meaning.”[30] The Reformed ignore “God’s revealed will, His will to save all men,” and instead interpret the passage according to “the will of His pleasure, His hidden will, according to which God’s true intention is to save only the elect.”[31] Contrary to Pieper, many of the Reformed argue that the revealed will of God is for Christ to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and these were purchased by Christ’s blood from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9-10).


Those universalistic passages which Lutherans cull together are often put forth without a careful consideration of the context. Such a statement may seem absurd, but when a theological system begins with an underlying presupposition that God has two wills, what need is there is to probe a passage which one can easily interpret as expressing an underlying interpretive paradox? There’s no need to harmonize a text in which both the revealed and hidden God desire different outcomes. This type of scrutiny is decided before any exegetical work.


Often Lutherans dismiss Reformed argumentation as using “reason” to interpret Scripture rather than simply letting the text speak. “Reason” in the Lutheran polemical sense is seen as that which attempts to make the mysteries of scripture rational to the human mind.  But the same could be leveled against Luther himself in regards to his solution of Christ’s ubiquity in the Lord’s Supper. Or further, one could simply apply the same criticism to Lutheran argumentation: they’ve “reasoned” there are two differing wills in God’s being.  They’ve arrived at the conclusion of paradox by reasoning to it.


IV. Two Lutheran Dilemmas of God’s Two Wills

            Lutherans face two dilemmas on the paradigm of God’s two wills. The first is that of a double standard. They chastise the Reformed for probing the secret council of the hidden God while Luther himself did indeed discuss the secret will of the hidden God in regard to predestination.


Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love. [32]


In chapters 9, 10, and 11 [of Romans Paul] teaches of God’s eternal predestination—out of which originally proceeds who shall believe or not, who can or cannot get rid of sin—in order that our salvation may be taken entirely out of our hands and put in the hand of God alone. And this too is utterly necessary. For we are so weak and uncertain that if it depended on us, not even a single person would be saved; the devil would surely overpower us all. But since God is dependable—his predestination cannot fail, and no one can withstand him—we still have hope in the face of sin.[33]


We know quite well that God does not love or hate as we do, since we are mutable in both our loving and hating, whereas he loves and hates in accord with his eternal and immutable nature, so that passing moods and feelings do not arise in him. And it is this fact that makes complete nonsense of free choice, because God’s love toward men is eternal and immutable, and his hatred is eternal, being prior to the creation of the world, and not only to the merit and work of free choice; and everything takes place by necessity in us, according as he either loves or does not love us from all eternity, so that not only God’s love but also the manner of his loving imposes necessity on us.[34]


This word, therefore, “I desire not the death of a sinner,” has as you see no other object than the preaching and offering of divine mercy throughout the world, a mercy that only the afflicted and those tormented by the fear of death receive with joy and gratitude, because in them the law has already fulfilled its office and brought the knowledge of sin. Those, however, who have not yet experienced the office of the law, and neither recognize sin nor feel death, have no use for the mercy promised by that word. But why some are touched by the law and others are not, so that the former accept and the latter despise the offered grace, is another question and one not dealt with by Ezekiel in this passage. For he is here speaking of the preached and offered mercy of God, not of that hidden and awful will of God whereby he ordains by his own counsel which and what sort of persons he wills to be recipients and partakers of his preached and offered mercy. This will is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most awe-inspiring secret of the Divine Majesty, reserved for himself alone and forbidden to us much more religiously than any number of Corycian caverns.[35]


            These brief excerpts could be compounded by Luther’s extensive argumentation stated throughout his Bondage of the Will. There Luther makes clear assertions of the explicit Biblical teaching that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and that Jacob was loved over Esau, to name only a few examples. Luther argues throughout his book against Erasmus on the freedom of God to do as he pleases as the supreme potter, not from philosophic speculation, but using extensive scriptural argumentation. While he does indeed make a distinction between the hidden and revealed God in this work, this distinction often appears secondary in his argumentation, or perhaps merely stated but not applied.  Luther scholar Paul Althaus makes the following pertinent observations on Luther’s paradigm of the hidden / revealed God in the Bondage of the Will. While not from a Reformed perspective, Althaus clearly finds Luther expressing the will of the hidden God, and if the paradigm is biblical as expressed by Luther:


We must ask whether that distinction [of the hidden / revealed God] is even substantially scriptural. Certainly the Bible is aware of a dark mystery of God's hardening a man's heart. For the Bible, however, this remains only the dark border which surrounds the bright light of God's will to save men. For Luther on the other hand—at least in The Bondage of the Will—this knowledge of the hidden God lies like a wide shadow across the picture of God's revealed will. In comparison to the Bible, a shift in emphasis has taken place. It is one thing not to hide the sobering fact that God also hardens men's hearts and in the fear of God, to take it seriously as the Bible does; it is, however, quite another thing to take—as Luther does—the mystery that confronts us in the history of God's dealing with men and with peoples, a mystery which certainly conflicts with God's will to save as we know it, and develop it into a full-blown doctrine of God's double will, of the duality and extensive opposition between the hidden and the revealed God. It is one thing when Paul discusses God's hardening of men's hearts without immediately understanding it as a final rejection; and it is quite another thing when Luther no longer understands this hardening as a transition to mercy (as Paul does in Romans 11) but interprets it as final rejection. Luther's doctrine of the hidden God, although he bases it on the Scripture, certainly goes beyond Scripture both in its form and in its content.[36]


The second dilemma that Lutherans face is the Biblical record itself. The reason why Luther was able to bring together scriptural argumentation against Erasmus that allegedly probes into the secret council of the hidden God is because the Bible itself discusses predestination and reprobation. For Luther, these biblical teachings were not obscure. To Erasmus Luther states,


The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, discusses these same things, not in a corner, but publicly and before all the world, in the freest manner and in even harsher terms, when he says: “Whom he will he hardeneth,” and, “God, willing to show his wrath,” etc. [Rom. 9:18, 22]. What could be harsher (to the unregenerate nature at least) than Christ’s saying: “Many are called, but few chosen” [Matt. 22:14], or: “I know whom I have chosen” [John 13:18]? We have it, of course, on your authority that nothing more profitless could be said than things like these, because ungodly men are led by them to fall into desperation, hatred, and blasphemy.[37]


Lutherans often insist that discussing all that is entailed in predestination is to be avoided. The Book of Concord states, “If we wish to think or speak correctly and profitably about eternal election or about the predestination and ordering of the children of God to eternal life, we should accustom ourselves not to speculate concerning the absolute, secret, hidden, and inscrutable foreknowledge of God.”[38] Yet, such passages as Romans 8 – 11 probe into that which Lutherans say should be avoided, including the salvation of some and damnation of others.  Ephesians 1 launches into an extensive doxological rejoicing over God’s predestination of his chosen, while 2 Peter 2:7-8 speaks of those who do not believe  “which is also what they were destined for.” The Lord speaks of gospel knowledge hidden from the wise and prudent, but revealed to babes (Matt. 11:25).  Those who don’t believe are not Christ’s sheep (John 10:26).  When the Reformed insist “God did from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sin”(Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11) and that “some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, because of God’s eternal decree,”(Canons of Dort, Article 6) the reason for such confessional statements are the explicit statements of Scripture.


V. Luther’s Emphasis on Predestination

In dialog with Lutherans I’ve been told Luther wrongly went beyond his own paradigms with such statements as those above, in effect delving into the secret council of the hidden God. In fairness to this criticism, I’ve found very few extensive or detailed statements from Luther like those found in his Bondage of the Will after its composition. There are though no explicit statements from Luther regretting his argumentation against Erasmus or that he speculated wrongly about the will of the hidden God. In a 1537 letter in regard to a published collection of his writings, Luther states, “Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism.”[39]


Sproul probably isn’t in error in his claim that Luther wrote more about predestination than Calvin did in his Institutes, if indeed Sproul is comparing this to The Bondage of the Will. Throughout his career though, Calvin did indeed write more on the subject than Luther did. After his Bondage of the Will, only a handful of brief statements can be corralled together.  Sproul isn’t alone in making such comparative claims. One of the more extensive studies on Luther and Predestination was put together by Harry Buis  “especially concentrating on the demonstration of the fact that Martin Luther held as strong a doctrine of predestination as did John Calvin.”[40]  Buis strains every statement from Luther he can find through a Reformed paradigm. Buis claims Luther made a number of statements on the “main points of Calvinism” “which were more extreme than any which Calvin ever made.”[41] Many of the statements Buis compiled though speak only of Luther’s lifelong belief that the human will was enslaved, a topic often addressed by Luther. He spends considerable time with the Bondage of the Will, but avoids any full discussion of Luther’s paradigm of the hidden / revealed God.  Buis will take the most meager statement as proof for Luther’s Calvinism. For instance, Of 2 Peter 3:9 Buis says Luther questioned if Peter actually wrote it. This serves as proof for Luther’s Calvinism! Rather though, Luther was probably alluding to the doubts of Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, chapter 3, paragraph 1. Luther actually states of 2 Peter in the same context, “Yet it is credible that this is nonetheless the apostle’s letter.”[42] Buis cites extensively from Luther’s pre-Reformation commentary on Romans, yet this writing precedes Luther’s paradox of the hidden / revealed God, and also stems from a time in which Luther himself was plagued by doubts about his own predestination. Buis then concludes his treatment of Luther with a number of citations from Luther’s Table Talk, a writing not from Luther’s hand. While having good intentions, Buis demonstrates that those from a Reformed perspective need to be careful with contexts, not allowing one’s own theological paradigms to interfere with reading texts accurately.


But not all from a Reformed perspective are so haphazard with Luther. Herman Bavinck posits much differently than Buis: “Luther accordingly, increasingly avoided the speculative doctrine of predestination, the will of divine good pleasure, the hidden God, preferring to focus on the ministry of Word and sacraments, to which grace is bound, and giving increasing prominence to God’s universal redemptive will, his expressed will.”[43] After sifting through the statements culled together by Buis, Bavinck appears to be correct. Luther’s later statements about predestination have more of a pastoral emphasis rather than polemical or doctrinal. 


VI. Avoiding speculation on Predestination

Indeed the secret things belong to the Lord, but that God ordains some to salvation while others are passed over and left in their sins is not biblically a secret thing. While Luther’s Bondage of the Will agreed with and argued this point, the later Luther emphasized avoiding unnecessary speculation about predestination. “We should refrain from debates about predestination and from similar discussions. They are fraught with danger and mischief, because they inquire into the will and hidden counsels of God apart from the Word. They want to investigate and explore too inquisitively why God has revealed Himself in one way or another, and why He so earnestly endeavors to persuade our will to believe.”[44]


In his lectures on Genesis toward the end of his life, Luther revisited the topic of predestination briefly. He mentions The Bondage of the Will, highlighting his distinction of the hidden / revealed God:


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. 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 devilish. With them nothing more is achieved than that we plunge ourselves into destruction; for they present an object that is inscrutable, namely, the unrevealed God. Why not rather let God keep His decisions and mysteries in secret? We have no reason to exert ourselves so much that these decisions and mysteries be revealed to us.[45]


Such later comments from Luther are often brought out against Reformed theology’s use of Luther.  Pastor McCain states, “When Calvinists appeal to [The Bondage of the Will] in support of their doctrine of predestination, they do so most often taking this document in isolation from the rest of his writings and teachings.”[46] Yet when one works through Luther’s later writings, he nowhere repudiates his earlier statements. 


Did Luther think the topic was never to be discussed? How could Luther so vigorously engage the topic in the Bondage of the Will, but years later say that all should avoid the subject? Luther did have a solution, often overlooked: only specially qualified men should be those who discuss the mystery of predestination. Commenting on God being grieved that he made man in Genesis 6:6, Luther states,


This is the simple and true meaning. If you refer these words to the will of the divine essence, that God had determined this from eternity, such a discussion is fraught with peril and cannot be carried on except by spiritual men and such as have been well trained by their trials, men like Paul, who dared carry on a discussion about predestination. [47]


The extreme caution that Luther suggested over predestination came not only from his earlier pre-Reformation experiences, but also from his experiences as a pastor.  He came across those who were preoccupied with predestination internally struggling with questioning whether or not they were of the elect. In a 1531 letter to a woman troubled about her election, Luther explains he himself was plagued by such doubts and “brought to the brink of eternal death by them.”[48] He counsels her not to probe into the secret council of God, to recognize that such speculation come from Satan, and that she should look toward Christ for her assurance. “In this way, I say, and in no other, does one learn how to deal properly with the question of predestination. It will be manifest that you believe in Christ. If you believe, then you are called, then you are most certainly predestined.” [49] In commenting on John 17, Luther states:


If anyone wants to know whether he is elect or how he stands with God, let him simply look to the mouth of Christ, namely, to this passage and ones like it. For though one cannot say with certainty who will be [called] in the future or who will finally endure, it is nonetheless certain that those who have been called and have come to hear this revelation (that is, Christ’s Word), as long as they also accept it seriously (that is, they regard and believe it as entirely true), they are the ones given to Christ by the Father. Those who are given to Him He will uphold and protect so that they will not perish, as He says in John 6 [:39]: “This is the will of the Father, who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me.” And later in this chapter [John 17:12]: “Those whom You have given Me I have guarded, and not one of them has been lost except the son of perdition.” Again, in John 10 [:28], He speaks of the sheep who hear His voice: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall tear them out of My hand.”[50]


Luther though wasn’t simply concerned with those who struggled with scrutinizing their election. He was also faced with those promoting pure antinomian fatalism. “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.’”[51] Luther attacks such lawless fatalism as “devilish and poisoned darts and original sin itself,”[52] “for what end did it serve to send His Son to suffer and to be crucified for us? Of what use was it to institute the sacraments if they are uncertain or completely useless for our salvation? For otherwise, if someone had been predestined, he would have been saved without the Son and without the sacraments or Holy Scripture.”[53] “Therefore we should detest and shun these vicious words which the Epicureans bandy about: “If this is how it must happen, let it happen.”[54]


The irony for Lutherans is that Calvin shared many of Luther’s concerns.  Does Calvin suggest probing the secret council of God in order to determine one’s election? No, Calvin states, “We cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election...if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.”[55] His most famous caution comes from book III of the Institutes:


Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. Since we see so many on all sides rushing into this audacity and impudence, among them certain men not otherwise bad, they should in due season be reminded of the measure of their duty in this regard. First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by his Word the secrets of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us.[56]


A difference between Luther and Calvin though is Calvin didn’t think discussions of predestination were to be avoided completely. “There are others who, wishing to cure this evil, all but require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef.”[57] Calvin argues the Scriptures are the school of the Holy Spirit. Since the Scriptures make plentiful reference to predestination, it is useful to study. “Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry.[58] The Reformed tradition thus developed a full and robust treatment of predestination.


VII. Luther Was Not a Five-Point Calvinist

While the similarities and differences above show that Luther’s view of predestination is fraught with misunderstanding from both Lutherans and Calvinists, the Reformed need to steer clear of claiming Luther was a five-point Calvinist.  It’s easy to think that simply because Luther believed in a form of predestination, he therefore logically embraced all the other petals of the Calvinistic tulip.


Luther’s comments about the bondage of the will have been oft repeated by Calvinists in describing total depravity. Calvinists maintain, “Man in his natural state is incapable of doing anything or desiring anything pleasing to God. Until he is ‘born again’ of the Holy Spirit, and given a living human spirit, man is the slave of Satan who drives man to fulfill the desires of the flesh which are enmity with God.”[59] Similarly Luther stated,  The human will is placed between the two like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills, as the psalm says: ‘I am become as a beast [before thee] and I am always with thee’ [Ps. 73:22 f.]. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.”[60]


From such strong statements from the Bondage of the Will, Calvinists may think the other doctrines of Calvinism for Luther must follow logically. As the paradigm goes, if one admits man is sin’s slave and dead in sin, all the other petals of the tulip logically follow. This type of reasoning though doesn’t work with Luther.  When Luther approached the Scriptures, he rejected the medieval use of the logical, “ergo” (therefore). He thought that theology was not systematic theological "reasoning." It is not simply the matter of moving from one human conclusion to another. Theology is always a matter of “denote.” For instance, instead of making an argument X + Y therefore= Z, Luther would express the same argument by his use of “nevertheless.” That is, X + Y nevertheless Z. This is the underlying grid of Luther’s use of paradox in his theology.


In Luther’s early commentary on Romans he comments on “God will have all men saved” (1 Tim 2:4).  He says that saying like this “must be understood only with respect to the elect” and that “Christ did not die for absolutely all.”[61] From such comments it appears easy to conclude Luther taught limited atonement.  Other than this pre-reformation comment, there is no other evidence that Luther maintained such a view throughout his life on the extent of the atonement. Luther would instead go on to say things like, “[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.”[62] For Luther, the revealed God did indeed die for the sins of every human being.  Quotes similar to this are peppered throughout his later writings. For Luther, the Scriptures state that Christ died for all men and not all are saved. Nevertheless, Christ died for all men, and wants all men saved. Lutheran theologian Siegbert Becker explains his church followed this paradigm:


The Lutheran Confessions, in introducing the doctrine of universal grace into the discussion of predestination, preface this move with the remark, “Of  this we should not judge according to our reason.” The Brief Statement of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which all synods of the former Synodical Conference recognized as orthodox, says of these two doctrines, “Blind reason indeed declares these two truths to be contradictory; but we impose silence on our reason.” Thus Lutheranism sets itself against any decree of double election, and it specifically denies that the non-election of men is a cause of their damnation.”[63]


Comments from Luther similar to the Calvinistic concept of irresistible grace are sparse. In his 1517 Disputation Against Scholastic Theology he states, “The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.”[64] Such themes though are rarely expounded on. Commenting on John 6 Luther states,


For you must believe that there is no higher grace and divine work than that someone comes to hear the Word of Christ gladly with all his heart and takes it seriously, regarding it as great and precious. For, as has been said, not everyone concerns himself with this, nor does it come from human understanding or choice. It takes more than reason and free will to be able to grasp and accept it, as Christ says in John 6 [:44]: “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” And again [John 6:45]: “Whoever hears it and learns it from My Father comes to Me.” [65]


But commenting on the same verses he states, “ ‘Only take heed lest you fall away.’ In sum, whoever is clinging to Christ possesses sheer grace and cannot be lost, even if out of weakness he should fall like St. Peter, so long as he does not despise the Word like the crude spirits who boast of the Gospel yet pay no attention to it.[66] In Luther’s theology therefore, it is possible to be drawn by the father and eternally lost. In the Smalcald articles, Luther states,


40. In the case of a Christian such repentance continues until death, for all through life it contends with the sins that remain in the flesh. As St. Paul testifies in Rom. 7:23, he wars with the law in his members, and he does this not with his own powers but with the gift of the Holy Spirit which follows the forgiveness of sins. This gift daily cleanses and expels the sins that remain and enables man to become truly pure and holy.

41. This is something about which the pope, the theologians, the jurists, and all men understand nothing. It is a teaching from heaven, revealed in the Gospel, and yet it is called a heresy by godless saints.

42. Some fanatics may appear (and perhaps they are already present, such as I saw with my own eyes at the time of the uprising) who hold that once they have received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins, or once they have become believers, they will persevere in faith even if they sin afterwards, and such sin will not harm them. They cry out, “Do what you will, it matters not as long as you believe, for faith blots out all sins,” etc. They add that if anyone sins after he has received faith and the Spirit, he never really had the Spirit and faith. I have encountered many foolish people like this and I fear that such a devil still dwells in some of them.

43. It is therefore necessary to know and to teach that when holy people, aside from the fact that they still possess and feel original sin and daily repent and strive against it, fall into open sin (as David fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), faith and the Spirit have departed from them.

44. This is so because the Holy Spirit does not permit sin to rule and gain the upper hand in such a way that sin is committed, but the Holy Spirit represses and restrains it so that it does not do what it wishes. If the sin does what it wishes, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present, 45 for St. John says, “No one born of God commits sin; he cannot sin.” Yet it is also true, as the same St. John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”[67]

VIII. Conclusion

            The Reformed take the subjects of providence and election as profound, mysterious, completely inscrutable, and to be treated with caution, but not to be avoided. That God chooses to save some leaving others in their sin isn’t a concept arrived at by reason, but discovered because the Holy Spirit revealed it in Scripture.  To avoid any subject revealed in Scripture is to avoid truth, and that which God has given to us.


The Reformed do not seek assurance of salvation by probing God’s predestinating decrees.  They find such comfort, as Calvin says, with the outward Word of God, “For just as those engulf themselves in a deadly abyss who, to make their election more certain, investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word, so those who rightly and duly examine it as it is contained in his Word reap the inestimable fruit of comfort. Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with god’s call, and to end with it.”[68]


Rather than a doctrine that produces a fearful anxiety, the Reformed hold that predestination is fundamentally an expression of God’s grace. It eliminates all works from salvation, save those performed by Christ for his people.  It should provoke humility rather than pride as believers continually realize their entire dependence on the Lord.


While Luther certainly believed in double predestination, it was expressed in a much different way than the Reformed posit.  To claim Luther’s allegiance though to a bare stated five points of Calvinism is fraught with contextual danger.  Anyone attempting to baldly attribute these five popular theological slogans without qualification to Luther do not have his writings on their side.   For Luther it is the hidden God who predestines, but this God is not to be sought after or scrutinized. He is to be avoided entirely. As a pastor, Luther was concerned about those who would be entangled by scrupulous introspection, something that plagued him. Therefore, discussions about predestination were best avoided.  The emphasis was placed on the positive proclamations of the gospel.  He would advise his hearers to cling to the positive voice of Christ’s gospel.  For Luther, discussions of predestination provide little comfort to the Christ’s sheep. Luther use of paradox allowed for an unlimited atonement in scope. He rarely discusses any sort of irresistible grace, and even those with the Holy Spirit can have that Spirit depart.


Lutherans are correct that Luther was not a Calvinist. He didn’t wrangle over the extent of the atonement, or perseverance, but they do not do their founder any good by downplaying his belief that the hidden God predestines some to life and others to death. As Luther himself states, well-trained Godly theologians are those only who should dare discuss the subject. Some Lutherans have taken Luther’s warnings beyond what he intended, so as to never discuss predestination and to avoid discussions with Calvinists.  


IX. Bibliography

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.


Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.


Becker, Siegbert W.  The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of   

          Martin Luther. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999.


Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company,



Berkhof, Louis.  Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company,



Boettner, Lorraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian

           and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932.


Buis, Harry. Historic Protestantism and Predestination. Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and

          Reformed Publishing Company, 1958.


Calvin, John. Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Catholic Epistles. Forgotten Books, 2007.


__________.  Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol.

          XX – XXI. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.


Hodge, A.A. Outlines in Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing house, 1972.


Luther, Martin. Lectures on Romans. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961.


___________. Luther's works Vol. 1-55. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.


Palmer, Edward H.  The Five Points of Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980.


Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House,



Spencer, Duane Edward.  Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture.

           Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979.


Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986.


_________. Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker

          Books, 1997.


Steele David, and Curtis Thomas. The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, and

          Documented. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company,



Stiener, Margarete and Percy Scott. Day By Day We Magnify Thee. Philadelphia: fortress

          Press, 1982.


 Tappert, T. G. The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran

          Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000.



___________. Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Vancouver: Regent College


          Publishing, 2003.




[1] Paul McCain, Refuting Calvinist Claims that Luther Taught Double Predestination, available from:


[2] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God  (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 11-12.


[3] Ibid., 15.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932), 1.


[6] Duane Edward Spencer, Tulip: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 6-7.


[7] Edward H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980), 19.


[8]  David Steele, and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, and Documented (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2004), 74.


[9] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 12, ed. J. J.  Pelikan (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1955), 312.  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. J. J.  Pelikan (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1958), 14. Henceforth, all references to Luther’s Works are designated LW.


[10] LW 5:44. It’s important to mention Luther did not completely disdain natural theology. He simply didn’t think it of much value. See Siegbert W. Becker, The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999), 24- 67.


[11] LW 33:138. Luther states the “hidden and awful will of God”  “ordains by his own counsel which and what sort of persons he wills to be recipients and partakers of his preached and offered mercy. This will is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most awe-inspiring secret of the Divine Majesty, reserved for himself alone and forbidden to us much more religiously than any number of Corycian caverns.”


[12] LW 33: 138-139.


[13] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 30. 


[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 52 (I.5.1).


[15] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 60.


[16] Calvin, 212-214 (I.17.2).


[17] Don Matzat, Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Predestination, available from:


[18] Ibid.


[19] Lowell Green, “Luther’s Understanding of the Bondage of the Will in Melanchthon and Later Theologians,” Reformation and Revival Volume 7 no. 4 (fall 1988):  138.


[20] A. A. Hodge, Outlines in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing house, 1972) 151.


[21]Hodge, 153.


[22] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), 36.


[23] Ibid., 37.


[24] Ibid.


[25] Ibid., 38.


[26] Ibid..


[27] Ibid., 21.


[28] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Catholic Epistles (Forgotten Books, 2007), 386. 


[29] R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997),  170.


[30] Pieper, 27-28.


[31] Pieper, 28.


[32] LW 33:62.


[33] LW 35:377.


[34] LW 33:198.


[35] LW 33:138.


[36] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 278.


[37] LW 33:59.


[38] T. G. Tappert, T. G. The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000),  618. “Confessional Lutheran theology teaches a particular election.  The eternal election of God, says the Formula of Concord, extends only over the children of God. This election is a cause of man’s conversion and of his final salvation.” Siegbert W. Becker, The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999), 206.


[39] LW 50: 171.


[40] Harry Buis, Historic Protestantism and Predestination (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958), 2.


[41] Ibid., 61.


[42] LW 30: 198.


[43] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 356.

[44] LW 4:133


[45] LW 5:43.


[46] Paul McCain, Refuting Calvinist claims That Luther taught Double Predestination, available from:


[47] LW 2:49.


[48]  Theodore Tappert, Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 115.


[49] Ibid., 116.


[50] LW 69:50.


[51] LW 5:42.


[52] LW 5:42.


[53] LW 5:43.


[54] LW 5:45.


[55] Calvin’s Institutes, III.24.5.


[56] Ibid., III:21:1.


[57] Ibid., III.21.3.


[58] Ibid.


[59] Spencer, 24-25.


[60] LW 33:65.


[61] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 252.


[62] Margarete Stiener and Percy Scott, Day By Day We Magnify Thee (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1982), 1. See also D. Martin Luthers Werke 37: 201, Sermon for first Sunday in Advent, 1533.


[63] Becker, 206.


[64] LW 31:11.


[65] LW 69:50.


[66] LW 69:50-51.


[67] Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 309.


[68] Calvin, III.24.5.