A Lutheran Response to Arminianism

Rick Ritchie
Friday, June 29th 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

Since the seventeenth century, Calvinism has been identified with its five-point reply to the Arminian party at the Synod of Dort. Calvinists often complain that this summary of their theology, though accurate in expressing the Calvinists' disagreement with their Arminian opponents, presents a truncated view of what Calvinism really is. Where in the five points do we hear of the covenant or of union with Christ? To properly understand a theology, we must not only know what it says to its opponents, but we need to know how it is to be presented on its own terms.

If a five-point summary is an awkward way to present Calvinism, it is downright foreign to Lutheranism. This is not because Lutheranism lacks a defined doctrine of election. (It certainly has one.) God's gracious election of certain individuals to salvation was affirmed in Article X of the Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran confessions. The darker side of predestination has also been considered. As the great Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse wrote,

Lutheran theology knows about the God of Predestination: This God who makes us responsible for demands which we cannot fulfill, who asks us questions which we cannot answer, who created us for good and yet leaves us no other choice than to do evil-this is the Deus absconditus. This is the God of absolute Predestination. This is the God who hardened Pharaoh's heart, who hated Esau even before he was born, the Potter who fashions pots and before whom one shrinks-and who, nevertheless, thunders in pitiless sovereignty at these unhappy creatures, 'Tua culpa!' Thine is the guilt! (1)

The reason Lutheranism has never been presented according to a five-point scheme is not because it lacks the doctrines that would allow that, but because the Arminians never issued to the Lutherans a five-point refutation of their supposed errors. Lutheran pastors and theologians had enough to keep them busy in teaching their doctrine rightly and refuting those who directly attacked them. Little would have been gained by refuting the errors of somebody else's opponents.

Today the story is different. While presenting its doctrine according to a five-point system is not the most natural way to present the Lutheran doctrines of grace, it is almost necessitated by the fact that American evangelicals have come of age in an environment where the theological categories have been defined by others, and most of those others have been Arminians.

Unless our doctrines are presented in a way such that the contrasts with Arminianism are easily seen, even an otherwise clear presentation of the Lutheran doctrines will produce confusion. For one thing, superficial similarities between the two systems could easily be mistaken for areas of agreement. In addition, there are doctrines that have a fit within the whole structure of Lutheranism, but will at first glance appear disastrous on account of the logical implications that would result from their adoption into an Arminian system. Ribbed vaulting and massive gargoyles might crush a building with glass walls, but it will fit splendidly onto the top of a cathedral whose stone columns and flying buttresses are designed to support their weight.

Arminian Principles Rejected

The best way to compare two theological positions is to compare their underlying principles. According to J. I. Packer, the theological position of the Remonstrants (Arminians) came from two philosophical principles:

[F]irst, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation. (The charge of semi-Pelagianism was thus fully justified.) From these principles, the Arminians drew two deductions: first, that since the Bible regards faith as a free and responsible human act, it cannot be caused by God, but is exercised independently of Him; second, that since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of all who hear the gospel, ability to believe must be universal. (2)

Lutheranism lines up behind Packer and finds these principles to be abhorrent. While Lutheranism never had the occasion to come up against the five points of Arminianism, it had several opportunities to fight against the underlying Arminian principles.

At first glance, Lutheranism might appear to be an amalgamation of Calvinism and Arminianism because, with regard to the five points, it seems to agree with Calvinism on some points and Arminianism on others. We must be careful, however, to look at the underlying principles that motivated the positions. When we do this, we will find that Lutheranism is not in fundamental agreement with the Remonstrants on any of the five points. To demonstrate this, I have put the positions side-by-side (see comparative chart on Arminian and Lutheran positions below).

The two positions of Lutheranism and Arminianism are clearly different at each point, even where there are some similarities. The guiding motif in Arminianism is the free will of man, but in Lutheranism this is rejected. God is the main actor in Lutheranism. While the accompanying chart ought to be sufficient to show that Lutheranism and Arminianism are incompatible, there are two points which it will be especially profitable to look into more deeply: apostasy and unconditional election.

The Problem of Apostasy

Both the Arminians and the Lutherans believe that a true Christian can fall from the faith. When two groups of Christians hold to the same doctrine, we usually are inclined to guess that they hold their position for the same reasons, that a common principle leads them to a common conclusion. In the case of apostasy, both the Arminians and the Lutherans would cite some of the same biblical passages in support of their position (e.g., Heb. 6:4ff, 2 Pet. 2:1), but the Lutheran would reject the philosophical baggage concerning the glories of free will, which would be the stronger element in the Arminian case for apostasy.

For the Arminian, the ability to fall away from grace is merely the flip side of the individual's ability to decide for Christ. If we can decide to accept him, it stands to reason that we must also have the power to reject him.

For the Lutheran, the ability to fall from grace is not the flip side of the ability to decide for Christ, for we do not hold that man has that ability. The use of the term ability is even somewhat misleading in this context. We might as well speak of the ability of an unconscious man to drown in water. The ability to drown is not a special branch of swimming, and neither is apostasy a special branch of spiritual ability.

The Unconditional Election of Grace

Around the turn of the century, the matter of predestination became the subject of furious debate within the American Lutheran church. If you have heard that predestination is not a Lutheran issue, you have heard wrong. The controversy erupted over the question of whether election was a cause of faith, or faith a cause of election. Hundreds of articles on the nature of election appeared in the theological journals of the Lutheran church bodies involved in the dispute. People were even barred from communion over it. In short, the debate was over the doctrine that the Calvinists refer to as unconditional election.

The Missouri-Synod theologians claimed that the cause of God's election was his graciousness toward individuals, not any faith, goodness, or receptiveness-not even lack of resistance-that he saw in them. The theologians of the other Lutheran church bodies said that this view of election was in conflict with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Missouri-Synod theologians claimed that the opposite was true.

Election and justification by faith alone together guarantee that salvation is all of grace. Both tell us that salvation does not come to us on the basis of merit. Just as receiving salvation by means of faith guarantees that we do not contribute to salvation, as faith is a gift from God and merely receptive, so also, knowing that God predestined us to salvation before we had done anything good or evil guarantees the same thing-unless we say that God chose us because he saw that we would come to faith.

Some of the theologians who claimed that election took place in view of foreseen faith wanted to make election into a form of justification that took place in eternity. Just as God reckoned a person righteous in time when a person trusted him, these theologians said that God would make this declaration in eternity when he looked into the future and saw this faith. The Missouri-Synod theologians said that they did not so much object to the content of this view as much as the language. Perhaps this was the case, they concluded, but this was not what the Scriptures meant when they talked about election.

What was more insidious was that some theologians saw faith to be a human contribution to salvation. It was not a work of God the Holy Spirit who brought a person to faith through the message of the gospel, but a work of man-man's small contribution to his salvation. This resembled the Arminian argument that God had lowered the cost of salvation to bargain-basement prices; instead of keeping the law, now God just required faith. This type of faith was no faith at all. It was a hindrance to faith!

This matter had come up in the Lutheran church more than once before. Philip Melanchthon, Luther's co-reformer and one of the authors of the Lutheran confessions, said later in his career that there were three causes of election, man's nonresistance to grace being one of these causes. Later theologians sometimes fell into speaking of conversion as the result of "new powers imparted by grace," or "right conduct over against grace." This always turned out to be the grossest form of moralism. The "faith" that is required bears an uncanny resemblance to works. In each case the sinner is thrown back onto himself for deliverance.

A person's stand on unconditional election is indicative of his true adherence to salvation by grace alone through faith alone. If nonresistance or right conduct become the grounds of election, you can bet that the "faith alone" that is being talked about is not faith at all, but a work of man. Credit may be given to God after the fact for giving us this power, but who could see in this type of faith the empty hand of which the reformers spoke? A new power from God may sound like a gracious gift, but beware! If the new power is the ability to save oneself by following the right principles, it is best left unwrapped. The Missouri-Synod theologians were very careful to ensure that gifts remained gifts and good news remained good news. If we wish to do the same, we had better guard our doctrine of unconditional election.

Concluding Advice

For those who have grown up under the prevailing teaching in American churches (I mean Arminianism), Reformation theology often comes across as unusual. Even when it does not, it is often passed off as a peripheral issue. "I don't care how I was saved, I just care that I was saved," is a common response from those who assume that they can know that they were saved when they don't know how. This is no side issue, however. Wrong principles on this issue will always lead to disaster, in this life if by grace not in the next.

If you want to discover just how pervasive Arminian principles are, just check to see how many clear biblical passages you have been systematically taught to misinterpret. How many times has the verse "Behold I stand at the door and knock" (Rev. 3:20) been taken to mean Christ standing at the door of our hearts asking us if we will let him save us, when it is Christ standing at the door to the church in Laodicea? How often have we heard that "God has voted for us, Satan has voted against us, and we cast the deciding vote" when Romans 8:31 teaches that if God is for us who can be against us? We are told to make a decision for Christ, but we say that we do not want to be bothered with hearing about what he has decided about us.

If the introduction to Reformation theology is causing some grief, do not be surprised. That is normal. To find out that God has no interest in allowing our destiny to remain in our hands is a scary thought only when we trust ourselves more than God. It might cause sleepless nights. It might inspire heated arguments. We might wish to avoid these for the sake of love-but love of what? Certainly not God. God is the primary one to whom we relate, and he will not have one of his creatures loved above himself. To avoid dealing with central questions concerning salvation out of love is not spiritual; it is carnal. Any time spent on these issues will be worthily spent.

Read about these things. Do not assume that since these arguments have been going on for centuries, there must be no solution. You might be surprised to find that at least at the level of basic principles, the Bible is quite clear. The fact that the debate has run on for centuries does not mean that equally clear-minded Christians could not come to agreement, but that there are spiritual factors that prevent Reformation principles from being accepted. The old Adamic nature loves itself above God and wants to be captain of its own destiny. This, and not God's lack of clarity on vital issues, is why the conflict continues. If you wish to become convinced of this, take and read.

1 [ Back ] Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1938), pp. 138-139. Sasse is here speaking of the hidden God. This is God in his unfathomable majesty. When we are looking at the hidden God, predestination is double. But Sasse is also committed to the single predestination of the Lutheran confessions. Single predestination is a doctrine in light of God as he has revealed himself in Christ. Sasse says that what we have here are two sides of God which cannot be harmonized without doing violence to Scripture. I suggest that my readers read this chapter in Sasse before charging him or me with departing from the Lutheran confessions on this point.
2 [ Back ] J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), pp. 3-4.
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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Friday, June 29th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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