In the earliest editions of his Loci Communes Theologici ("Common Topics of Theology"), Luther's friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon did not address in great detail the doctrine of predestination. In the Loci of 1521, for instance, he discussed it only briefly in the section dealing with the freedom of the human will. Following the teaching of Luther he stated: "If you relate human will to predestination, there is freedom in neither external nor internal acts, but all things take place according to determination." (1) Other than this statement, he avoided the discussion of predestination, stating that man should be very cautious about delving into the mysteries of God, but rather look to Christ and his redemption.
Later in his career (c. 1535), however, while never claiming to drift from the doctrine as taught by Luther, he began to focus not on the sovereignty of God and his power to elect, but rather on God's gift of election as a comfort to the Christian believer. "First, he has demonstrated with manifest miracles that there certainly is a definite gathering of people which he loves, cares for, and will adorn with blessings…. And in order that we may continue to possess this comfort, it is useful to say something about the doctrine of predestination." (2) Thus, believers are to cling to the words of Christ in John 10:27, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me, and I give them life eternal, and they shall never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hands." Therefore, says Melanchthon, a Church of the elect will always remain.
In his formulation of the doctrine of election, Melanchthon continually placed great stress on God's electing people on account of Christ through faith. Furthermore, election is never to be viewed apart from the gospel message. In many ways, the same could be said of Luther. In fact, on this point the two men were not as different as some have thought. Says Luther: "If men believe the gospel, they shall be saved. Indeed all the saints have had confidence and comfort with their election and with eternal life, not because of a special revelation of their predestination, but rather by faith in Christ." (3) When asked where to look for assurance of election, Luther responds, "Rather, hold to the promise of the gospel. This will teach that Christ, God's only son, came into the world in order to bless all nations on the earth, that is, to redeem them from sin and death, to justify and to save them." (4) Here one sees the many similarities between Luther and Melanchthon.
Yet Luther places more importance on the fact that election is all part of God's immutable sovereignty. In Melanchthon, we can see Luther's affirmation of the sovereign will of God effectuated through the universal call of the gospel. Always affirming that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that allows us to believe, Melanchthon explains that we must, therefore, assent to the promise of the gospel. Luther teaches that we are unable to ascend to God and reiterates the absolute necessity for God to descend to us. "They are elect," Peter says. How? "Not of themselves but according to God's purpose; for we are not able to raise ourselves to heaven or create faith within ourselves. God will not admit all men into heaven. He will very carefully count those who belong to him." (5) The difference is thus subtle, but real. For both men, the faith that results from the election of God on account of Christ is a gift of God through the Word. Yet, for Melanchthon, it is necessary to act on this gift, while Luther allows this gift of God to stand alone through grace. In other words, Luther's doctrine of election is summed up by the Reformation hallmarks, sola gratia soli Deo Gloria (by grace alone and to God alone goes all the glory). On the other hand, for Melanchthon, election can be explicated by the phrase, propter Christum per fidem (on account of Christ through faith).
The Formula of Concord, which is the Lutheran confession written seventeen years after Melanchthon's death, in many ways reads as though it had been written by him. It affirms all the hallmarks of a Melanchthonian view of election:
- Election as Propter Christum: "We should accordingly consider God's eternal election in Christ, and not outside of it." (6)
- The universal call to repentance and belief: "If we want to consider our election to salvation profitably, we must by all means cling rigidly and firmly to the fact that as the proclamation of repentance extends over all men (Luke 24:47), so also does the promise of the gospel." (7)
- The elect are brought into salvation per fidem: "God has ordained in his counsel that the Holy Spirit would call, enlighten, and convert the elect through the Word and that he would justify and save all who accept Christ through faith." (8)
- Finally, that the only cause of reprobation is man's stubborn will in rejecting the call through the Word: "The reason for such contempt of the Word is not God's foreknowledge but man's perverse will." (9)
The Formula of Concord, though, goes further in delineating the difference between God's eternal foreknowledge and God's eternal decree of election. The Formula states that God's eternal foreknowledge extends to all while his eternal election extends only to the children of God. (10) In doing so, the Formula clarifies an area that Melanchthon (with his stress on faith) leaves unclear. It affirms a sort of "middle road" between Luther and Melanchthon. God's decree of election remains sovereign and his call universal. "Our election to eternal life does not rest on our piety or virtue but solely on the merit of Christ and the gracious will of the Father, who cannot deny himself because he is changeless in his will and essence." (11)
Later Lutheranism, as represented by the seventeenth-century dogmaticians, did not always follow this careful formulation. Some of the dogmaticians lost this paradoxical image of God as having a will that is both partly hidden and partly revealed, sovereign and merciful, the freedom of his divine will and the bondage of ours, the careful distinction between God's Law and his life-giving Gospel. In many of the dogmaticians, these concepts were philosophically formalized, thus losing their life and vitality. The careful molding of Luther's concept of God's sovereign will with Melanchthon's teaching of God's saving will was lost. Rather, many of the great dogmaticians followed Melanchthon's emphasis on God's universal saving will alone. This led many (for example, the great Johann Gerhard) to teach the synergistic doctrine of intuitu fidei (God elects in view of foreseen faith). The efficacy of God's eternal decree became dependent on the faith of each individual. God wills all to be saved, but God's will does not come to pass unless we make the decision to believe. This led many to look to themselves for assurance rather than to Christ. Faith became a human work which had the ability to manipulate the decree of God. The result is a theology that focuses on man rather than God, a theology of glory rather than the theology of the Cross.
Much can be learned from Melanchthon's teaching concerning election. It is certainly profitable and biblical to view election not on the basis of Law but on the basis of the Gospel. Surely, it is proper to teach that the entire number of those who are to be saved is chosen (electus) for the sake of Christ (propter Christum), and we should seek no other cause. Great benefit is also found in affirming the scriptural teaching that the gospel must be believed. That we must trust in Christ alone as our only hope for salvation is the whole of the good news of Christ. This Melanchthon not only affirmed but taught until his death.
Yet, to take this doctrine and lose sight of God's sovereignty to save those whom he elects is to go against the Scriptures themselves. This Melanchthon did not do. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Melanchthon's followers took his emphasis on faith and the universality of the call beyond his own position, and thereby fell into great error. Our faith must not be seen as the cause of our election. Rather, faith is the product of election through the Word, by which we are brought into the benefits of Christ. As Melanchthon himself has said: "God's mercy is the cause of election, but it is necessary that this be revealed in the Word and that the Word be accepted. Thus he definitely offers this universally, and this is repeated in other chapters: 'All who believe in the Son shall not be confounded (Rom. 9:33; 10:11).'" (12)
This article originally appeared in Modern Reformation, November/December 1998. It has been shortened in this reprint.