Monday, December 21, 2009

Martin Luther, Right On Predestination

Martin Luther and Predestination:

At the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathering this past April, a noted Reformed theologian presented a paper on "grace alone." He defined "grace alone," not by the cross of Jesus Christ, but by the doctrine of predestination or election. In the course of his presentation, he attempted to demonstrate that Martin Luther was a participant in the historic Protestant predestination debate. In my estimation he failed to accurately present Luther’s position.

Luther’s approach to predestination, which I happen to believe is the best approach, can be summarized by three points:

1) In dealing with the issue of election or predestination, Luther understood the impasse at which one arrives by retaining the total depravity of man, universal grace, and God’s election of individuals, but he never tried to harmonize the teachings. He feared that he would be forced to make concessions that would violate biblical truth.

Luther believed that divine election was the cause of our salvation. The doctrine was for the comfort of the believer. He wrote: "The human doctrine of free will and of our spiritual powers is futile. The matter (salvation) does not depend on our will but on God’s will and election."* Since salvation is totally of God’s doing, the doctrine of election comforts those who believe. We can say, "I belong to God! I have been chosen by God. I am one of his sheep!"

While accepting divine election, Luther refused to embrace the logical conclusions that led to an atonement limited to the elect and irresistible grace. He retained universal grace and man’s power to resist and reject the Gospel. For Luther, it was a mystery. Concerning investigating the doctrine he wrote: "we are not allowed to investigate, and even though you were to investigate much, yet you would never find out."

Luther believed that Christians are eternally secure, but in Christ. After admonishing his readers to continue to look to the cross of Christ, he wrote:

For if you concern yourself with this alone and believe that it has happened for your sake, you will certainly be preserved in this faith.... Look for yourself in Christ alone. . . . Then you will find yourself eternally in him.

2) The doctrine of predestination was not central in Luther’s theology. The substance of sola gratia or "grace alone" was not in the doctrine of election but in the cross of Jesus Christ. He believed that one should follow the systematic presentation of Scripture, especially as illustrated in the Book of Romans. He writes:

In chapters nine, ten, and eleven (of Romans) the apostle teaches about the eternal predestination of God.... Follow the order of this Epistle: first be concerned about Christ and the Gospel, in order to recognize your sin and his grace; then fight against your sins.... Adam must first be quite dead before a man is able to bear this subject and to drink this strong wine. Watch that you do not drink wine while you are still an infant. Every doctrine has its limit, time, and age.

Later Lutheran theologians varied in their positioning of the doctrine of election in their systematic presentation of Biblical doctrine. Francis Pieper, for example, in his three-volume Christian Dogmatics, presented the doctrine of election at the very end of his work, immediately before his section on the end of the age.

3) Luther believed that any debate, discussion, or argument over the doctrine of election should be avoided. He wrote:

A dispute about predestination should be avoided entirely... 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.

Martin Luther did not know of the confusion and contentions that would later exist among Christians and the major heresies such as Universalism and the rebirth of Pelagianism that would arise as the result of the debates over the doctrine of predestination. If he had known, he most certainly would have reminded us of his words: "For this you should know: All such suggestions and disputes about predestination are surely of the devil."

Perhaps the great Reformer John Calvin, if he had been able to see all the contentions that would arise in reaction to his position on predestination, might have stopped where Luther stopped and allowed a mystery to be just that - a mystery!

*All Luther quotes are taken from What Luther Says by Ewald Plass under the heading "Election."

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