Part I: Historical Survey
It has been
said that Luther can be understood without Calvin but not Calvin
without Luther. Neither man can be understood without Augustine.
It is difficult to know precisely what Calvin owed to Luther
because we still do not know the steps in Calvin's theological
development that led to the revolution which occurred in his
theology and turned him from an ardent supporter of Mother Church
into one of its most scornful critics.
The same is true to some extent
of Luther. Of the actual conversion of either man we know surprisingly
little. Contrary to popular fancy the precise date of Luther's
conversion cannot be determined. (1) It can only be bracketed within a period of some
four years and the exact details are still unclear except that,
one day, while he was reading Romans 1:16 and 17 a whole new
light on the meaning of faith began to dawn on his soul. And
the details of Calvin's conversion can be known only by implication
from remarks he makes in his commentary on Psalms and on Romans,
as T. H. L. Parker has explained in his biography of John Calvin.
(2) About all that
can be said is that it occurred quite suddenly, probably in 1533.
The course of Luther's change of
heart and mind is traceable in his growing confrontation with
the appalling moral corruption of the Church of Rome, especially
in the matter of raising money by the sale of indulgences and
the circus-like display of supposed relics which the devout paid
to see or were even encouraged to purchase. It was a public
scandal because, as Calvin was to point out later with biting
scorn, there were several heads of John the Baptist, two bodies
of Saint Anne, three of Lazarus, and at least fourteen nails
of the cross, along with far more bones than Peter and Paul ever
had! (3) And now
recently, we have been hearing of the supposed finding of Peter's
actual tomb, including his real (?) bones. One official, the
1. Luther: see article by Carl S. Meyer in
New International Dictionary of the Christian Church,
edited by James Douglas, Earl Cairns, James Ruark, Grand Rapids,
Zondervan, 1974, under Luther, p.609.
1 of 16
2. Calvin: see T. H. L Parker, John Calvin: A Biography,
Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975, pp.162f.
3. Ibid., p.136.
Elector Frederick the
Wise of Wittenberg (where Luther spent some time first as a Friar
and later as a Professor at the University), had amassed a collection
of some seventeen thousand relics, which included straw from
the Saviour's manger, 204 fragments of the children slaughtered
by Herod, and even a vial of the Virgin's milk. (4) The whole amazing charade
could, of course, succeed only so long as people were kept in
ignorance of what was taking place elsewhere. One could believe
in the local relic, a nail for instance, provided that one did
not know there were thirteen other nails scattered throughout
Christendom! Lack of travel and communication kept alive a system
of worship that was utterly fraudulent but highly lucrative.
And in the midst of all the deception, simple people sought to
purify their lives and succeeded only in impoverishing their
bodies. Luther had appeared at just the right moment. Under ordinary
circumstances, a man confronting Mother Church as Luther did,
and being excommunicated for his pains, would either have been
forced to repent (recant) and been received back into the fold
a chastened (i.e., silenced) man, or handed over to the civil
authorities and removed from society either by imprisonment or
death. But the situation had changed radically as a result of
a series of signal events over the previous two centuries. These
included the perfection of gunpowder as an explosive weapon (c.1320),
the Black Plague (13481350), the development in Europe of
block printing (c.1450), and the fall of Constantinople (1453)
The contributing ingredients in the new
ferment were introduced within a comparatively short space of
time. The perfection of gunpowder, as an explosive weapon of
war, brought the old feudal form of society to an end. The feudal
lord was no longer safe in his castle. Its walls and towers could
be demolished with the newly developed cannons that gunpowder
had made possible. As a consequence it became necessary for the
great barons to form private armies for personal protection,
with the result that common men became mercenary soldiers, and
these mercenary soldiers earned wages. Thus wealth began to be
distributed in an entirely new way, and the whole economy of
Europe began to change.
The Black Plague had a traumatic
effect on society, for people witnessed on an enormous scale
the carrying away by this awful disease of rich and poor, noble
and common, saintly and reprobate alike. No one had been spared
for their righteousness, while many who had been considered the
dregs of human society and most assuredly under the judgment
of God had escaped untouched. The moral shock of this
indiscriminate devastation had been sobering indeed, and a great
many orthodox religious assumptions were severely challenged.
The development of block printing
had the effect of enormously expanding the available literature.
It has been estimated that about 1450 there were
4. Edith Simon. The Reformation in
The Great Ages of Man, New York, Time Inc., 1966, p.16.
perhaps a hundred thousand
handwritten manuscripts in the whole of Europe.
Fifty years later as the result
of the invention of the printing press there were over nine million
books in Europe. (5)
The consequence of this was a new demand by ordinary people for
education, particularly for the ability to read. And mental horizons
were stretched, and many new challenges to traditional beliefs
resulted. The Church became less and less the keeper of the world's
Finally, the fall of Constantinople
in 1453 to the besieging Moslem Turks had an enormous effect
upon European history. It resulted in the flight to the West
of the Greek scholars who with their learning and their manuscripts
had established themselves in the East after the fall of Rome
in 410, leaving Europe impoverished by their departure. For the
collapse of the West had broken its link with the classical learning
of the Greek world, a break which severed the Western world from
its very roots, and robbed it of a vital connection with the
cradle of most of its intellectual heritage. When these Eastern
scholars came back into the West with their ancient learning
and their books, they introduced an intellectual blood transfusion
which was both healthful but also upsetting to the Western world.
And now the same Turks, who had
captured Constantinople and shattered the equanimity of the Eastern
branch of the Christian Church, were headed up into Europe and
were threatening Western civilization. Charles V, father of Philip
II of Spain of Armada fame, saw the remnant of his Holy Roman
Empire threatened unless he could present a united front against
the Turks now advancing into Hungary under the able leadership
of Suleiman the Magnificent (15201566). But here was the
problem: Charles's empire was sadly divided. It was no longer
Roman (i.e., Roman Catholic) for there had appeared on the scene
a man named Luther who had already caused a serious rift in the
German province and made the united front that was so important
(since Germany marked the empire's eastern border) virtually
Luther's intense search for peace
with God is well known in its broad outlines and we do not need
to detail it here. The larger historical background sketched
above contributed to Luther's success in establishing an independent
movement because the monolithic structure of the Church of Rome
had been weakened by the events of the previous centuries. And
Charles V, who might have preserved its cohesion, was distracted
by other divisions within his own empire.
Luther was born in 1483. He was
converted dramatically somewhere between the years 1514 and 1518.
The precise date is not certain, but the fact of his conversion
most certainly is. Luther was transformed into a new man,
5. Ibid., p.13
full of tremendous assurance
and hungry to search and feed upon the Word of God and to study
the works of those Church Fathers (chiefly Augustine) whose writings
illuminated his own experience. He had discovered the truth of
Augustine's statement written eleven centuries before: "The
saved are singled out not by their own merits but by the grace
of the mediator; that is, they are justified . . . as by a free
Like Augustine, Luther saw clearly
that the root of man's problem lay in a disobedient and rebellious
will. Man is not free. His will is in bondage. Every effort
man makes to secure salvation by his own efforts only strengthens
that will, a will basically at enmity with God. The salvation
of man must therefore reside not in man's will but in God's.
The great classical
and "Christian" humanist of the day was a man named
Erasmus (14661536) with whom Luther corresponded at length
on the crucial issue of the effects of the Fall of man on the
freedom of his will. Erasmus was an ethical Pelagianist to all
intents and purposes, saying on many occasions that "to
imitate the life of Jesus was far more important than to argue
about dogma." But to Luther this was a vast over-simplification
of the problem. Many were indeed trying to do just this,
but how few had any peace in their progress! What was wrong was
that man's will was corrupt. The most earnest aspirant after
holiness of life found himself saying with Paul, "Oh wretched
man that I am!"
Erasmus held that the secret was
education. Luther argued that the secret was complete transformation
of the will. The will, he maintained, is in bondage to wickedness
and such a corrupted source of human energy could not, in the
very nature of things, turn itself around and wish its own demise.
All man's struggles to correct his evil tendencies only confirmed
these tendencies. The sole result of these struggles was the
strengthening of the very will which by its corrupted nature
was the cause of these tendencies in the first place. It was
simply impossible for man to will to be truly holy because he
had only a corrupt will to carry forward his good intentions.
The principle was self-defeating. The situation, humanly speaking,
was quite hopeless as Luther's own experience had taught
But this, Erasmus protested, was
to invite a total breakdown of morality. Who would try to correct
his ways if he was told that even to attempt it was useless?
But Luther had the answer. It was indeed useless to attempt self-reformation,
but that did not mean that there was nothing left for man to
do! He could turn to God alone for his salvation and abandon
all dependence upon human effort.
In his justly famous essay to Erasmus
On the Bondage of the Will, Luther crystallized the issue
in section VII:
6. Ibid., p.38.
It is essential for a Christian to know
whether or not the will does anything in those things which pertain
unto salvation. Let me tell you, this is the very hinge upon
which our discussion turns. It is the very heart of our subject.
For our subject is this to inquire what "free-will"
can do, in what it is passive, and how it stands with reference
to the grace of God. . . .
Wherefore, friend Erasmus, you certainly
at the same time assert also that the mercy of God alone does
all things, and that our own will does nothing, but is rather
acted upon and so it must be, otherwise the whole is not ascribed
to God [my emphasis].
This is indeed
the crux of the matter. But Erasmus replied (Section XXIII):
"What a floodgate of iniquity would these ideas, publicly
proclaimed, open unto men! What bad man would ever amend his
life?" Whereupon Luther responded (Section XXIV):
Who (you say) will endeavour
to amend his life! I answer, No man! For your self-amenders without
the Spirit of God do not regard, since they are hypocrites. But
the Elect and those that fear God will be amended by the Holy
Spirit; the rest will perish unamended. Nor does Augustine say
that the works of none, nor that the works of all are
crowned, but only the works of some. Therefore there will
be some whose lives will be amended.
You say, who will believe that
he is loved of God? I answer, No man will believe it! No man
can. But the Elect shall believe it; the rest shall perish without
believing it, filled with indignation and blaspheming as you
describe them. Therefore, there will be some who shall believe
considers how man's will is turned from enmity against the will
of God to a wholehearted embracing of it. "When God works
in us," he writes, "the will, being changed and sweetly
breathed on by the Spirit, desires and acts not from compulsion
but responsively" (Section XXV, his emphasis).
Apart from the grace of God, man's will is free only in the sense
that a slave is free who has come to accept his slavery as the
normal condition of his life. The will of fallen man is immutably
the bondslave of evil. "When it acts in character it commits
mortal sin." This was a direct challenge to the official
position of the Roman Catholic Church which argued that such
a doctrine would relieve man of all responsibility for doing
evil on the ground that ability determines duty.
Such heretical views could lead
only to excommunication but the Church no longer held the absolute
power over the individual that it once had and although Luther
was excommunicated, he could not be turned over to the civil
authorities as he might have been fifty years before.
Luther's boldness won to his side
many disciples who had long been chafing at the restraints placed
on their personal freedom by a demanding and powerful hierarchy.
Though he himself was in sufficient danger that he needed to
be "hidden" in Wartburg Castle, reports of his stand
against the Church and of his bold statements and challenges
to current religious
practices were soon being
printed and read widely throughout Germany. For a spirit of independence
among the German states had come into being and many of their
princes were rejoicing in this new sense of freedom. Groups of
followers soon began to form themselves into what amounted to
It was then that Charles V, seeing
this crucial segment of his empire becoming divided when he most
needed a unified front against the Turks, decided he must heal
the rapidly widening theological rift. And so he called a Congress,
hoping thereby to reunite the "separated brethren"
with the established Church.
On January 21,
1530, the Emperor commanded the Lutherans in Germany to present
a Confession of their Faith before a joint meeting with the theologians
of the Church of Rome. At this meeting conciliation was to be
attempted. The Congress was held at Augsburg.
In the meantime, it should
be borne in mind that Calvin (15091564) had not yet publicly
formalized his theology. The first edition of his Institutes,
which was presented in much briefer form than the work now familiar
to the world, was not issued till six years later. His initial
studies and discussions had taken place while he was in France
preparing himself for the legal profession. Circumstances had
caused him to flee to Switzerland so that it was in Geneva that
his influence came to have its greatest impact. He was well acquainted
with Luther, who was twenty-six years older than he, and Calvin
respected Luther's work. There is no doubt that those who most
influenced Calvin when he came to know the Lord had themselves
been influenced greatly by Luther. Luther reciprocated this respect.
But there was never any close working relationship between the
followers of the two men. They were temperamentally different,
and subsequent history in many ways reflected these differences.
Thus the call by the Emperor to the Lutherans in Germany did
not involve the Calvinists in France or Switzerland.
But this command appearance of Luther's
followers provided the occasion for the elaborate formalization
of Lutheran theology under conditions of considerable challenge.
And it was prepared in a remarkably short time.
In the immediate future, Luther thus
stood out as a theologian in a way that Calvin did not until
sometime later. By the time Calvin had crystallized his thinking
sufficiently to issue a fifth edition of his Institutes
in very substantially enlarged form (1559), Luther had been dead
some thirteen years; and Lutherans themselves had departed in
certain respects from their master's original position regarding
the part played by man in his own salvation. Calvinists, by contrast,
did not shift their position significantly for a long time. The
precise direction of this departure in Lutheran theology was
ultimately to have serious consequences, and it is therefore
important to observe how this subtle change came about and upon
what it hinged.
document known as the Augsburg Confession was read before the
assembled churchmen, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, on June 25,
1530. Only five months had been allowed for its preparation.
The details and references which follow are taken from the official
Lutheran English translation of the Book of Concord. The
formulators deliberately made a particular effort to emphasize
the points of agreement with Rome rather than their differences.
(7) This set policy
is reflected in a number of the Articles in the arrangement of
In such matters as the "veneration
of the saints" an effort was made to allow that their example
should be an inspiration, and even the Emperor's warlike aims
were commended by referring to the blessing of God upon David
In the matter of the Real Presence
in the communion symbols of bread and wine a compromise was made
which many evangelicals would later find dangerous (p.34).
Baptism is admitted as a necessity
for salvation but there is insufficient stress on the fact that
it is not the rite itself but the symbolism which is the key
to its significance. The grace of God is said to be "offered
through baptism," a blanket statement which invites one
to believe that the mere sprinkling of water on the unbelieving
by the unbelieving would still guarantee this grace (p.33).
absolution of the sinner by the priest are admitted, though the
actual word priest is avoided. Such a confession seems
to be made a prerequisite for receiving communion, which was
an easily misunderstood concession to the Roman Catholic view
of the offices of the priest as an essential mediator
Stress was laid on the freedoms
which man does possess in certain less important areas of social
and cultural life rather than on the bondage which enslaves his
will in the more crucial aspects of his spiritual life. "Man
possesses some measure of freedom of will which enables him to
live an outwardly honourable life and to make choices among the
things that reason comprehends. But without the grace, help,
and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making
himself acceptable to God."
Not unexpectedly, as first drafted,
this Confession was objected to by a number of Lutherans. There
had not been sufficient time. Everything had been done in haste
and under pressure from the Emperor. As a consequence an alternative
Confession of Augsburg was formulated by opponents of the first
one; and although it was not presented at the first Congress,
7. Book of Concord, translated by Theodore
Tappert, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1959, p.24.
* Clearly a concession to Rome, which believes just this.
side by side with the first Confession. This is how it appears
now in the official English edition of the Book of Concord.
Thus the concessions did not go unchallenged even by the
Meanwhile the Church of Rome presented
a Confutation which was so positive that Charles V presumed
it had completely demolished the Lutheran presentation. But the
Lutherans were not even provided with a copy of this Confutation.
Thus when they came to reply to it they had to depend on
memory and notes taken down by those present at its reading.
A defense of their own Confession was, however, prepared at once,
most of the work being done by Philip Melancthon, whose views
on some of these vital issues were rather less positive than
Luther's were. This defense statement was ready by September
22, but the Emperor refused to give it a hearing.
Melancthon then further revised
the defense and continued working at it, assisted now by a copy
of the Roman Catholic Confutation, until it had become
a far more elaborate defense which was in time to form a kind
of official Lutheran Confession. This document, along with certain
other documents of a similar nature, was signed by a number of
Lutheran representatives in 1537.
Melancthon's reply was thereafter
referred to as the Apology of the Confession and it disagreed
with the original in subtle ways. Particularly was this the case
with reference to the subject matter of this present volume.
The total inability of man to initiate his own salvation in any
way whatsoever was underscored (p.101). And even more pointedly
it is stated: "Men really sin even when they do virtuous
things without the Holy Spirit; for they do them with a wicked
heart and (Romans 14:23) 'Whatsoever does not proceed from faith
is sin'." Melancthon reflected the current of thought in
his day when he explained this by adding: "Such people despise
God when they do these things, as Epicurus did in not believing
that God cared for him or regarded or heard him. This contempt
for God corrupts works that seem virtuous, for God judges the
One needs to bear in mind that
for centuries men had sought, by retreating to the monasteries
and endeavouring to fill their lives with good works often having
the nature of genuine self-sacrifice, to gain merit in the belief
that such a life would predispose God to favour them with saving
grace. This pervasive emphasis on the merits of the "religious
life" was so entrenched in the medieval mind that the Reformers
were forced to counteract it with statements which must strike
the ordinary reader as extreme. Entrenched error requires strong
measures which to the casual reader may seem equally erroneous.
The issue here is a recurring one.
We are too easily convinced that a man's natural goodness will
not only predispose him to desire salvation but
will also predispose
God to respect his desire for salvation more than He will that
of an evil man. Yet we know this is not so. Sinners and harlots
go into heaven before the worldly righteous (Matthew 21:32).
It was certain devout and honourable women who were first stirred
up against the Christians (Acts 13:50). These were not
irreligious people; they were people who had achieved recognition
in the community as being devout. And they were not sinners particularly,
for they were considered "honourable" people. Being
women they were presumably more religiously inclined and less
aggressive than many of their contemporaries. Yet they were among
the first anti-Christian Gentiles! Wesley was later to make the
same discovery. But we still persist in the impression that such-and-such
a person, because he or she is such a nice individual, is a good
prospect for conversion. Election is clearly not contingent on
any such predisposition towards natural human goodness in man
himself. All experience proves this and yet we cannot shed the
feeling that it ought to be. Melancthon in his Article on Justification
(IV. 322) quotes with approval Augustine's words: "God leads
us to eternal life not by our merits but according to his mercy."
In 1536 the
Smalcald Articles were issued in an attempt to reach an
even more general agreement among the Lutherans. It was at the
time anticipated that certain concessions would be required to
achieve unity among themselves for it was believed that they
would soon be called up by the Pope (Paul III) to a Council to
be held in Mantua in 1537. However this Council never actually
materialized. Luther himself had been growing increasingly weary
of the divisions among his followers and the failure of some
of them to adorn the Gospel by their lives. It was therefore
Luther personally who drafted the Smalcald Articles under
orders from the Elector of Saxony. Among those called to sign
them was Melancthon who, not unexpectedly, did so only with reservations.
For Melancthon and Luther had been growing steadily apart in
Augustine's influence upon Luther's
thinking is clearly revealed throughout. One of these Articles
holds that it is "an error and not to be believed . . .
that man has free will to do good." Nor is it to be believed
that "if man does what he can, God is certain to grant him
grace" (p. 302). This was the point at issue increasingly
between Luther and Melancthon.
The divisions continued among Luther's
followers and it was not until 1580, or fifty years to the day
after the first attempts had been made to reach concord for the
Augsburg Conference, that a measure of agreement was finally
achieved permitting the issuance of the Formula of Concord,
which was to become the official Confession of the Lutheran
8. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, chapter 21.
this time Luther had
been dead for thirty-four years. Both the Roman Catholics (who
seemed by then to have accepted Lutheranism as a permanent part
of the German scene) and the Calvinists (who did not view with
favour the divisions within the Protestant movement) had been
putting pressure on the Lutherans to come to some agreement.
The internal peace of the land was felt by the German princes
to be threatened until this was achieved. For three years draft
after draft was proposed until it reached a form sufficiently
acceptable to all shades of opinion within the German Lutheran
Church that 8,188 theologians, ministers, and teachers in the
participating territories finally signed what came to be called
"The Solid Declaration." On June 25, 1580, the complete
Book of Concord went on sale.
It is a revealing document but
it unfortunately holds within it the seeds of betrayal of the
basic truth which Luther stood for at the beginning. For he had
said that man contributed nothing whatsoever towards his own
salvation. In this he was in entire agreement with Calvin's view
that man was not merely spiritually sick: man was dead.
Perhaps it was Melancthon's subtle influence that modified this
stern but realistic view. Whatever the cause, the end result
was a document which ended up by allowing man a small part to
play in his own salvation. It is a small part, truly.
Yet because it is essential, it once more made man the determiner
of his own destiny. Man, not God, was sovereign in his salvation.
To see how this came about, we must briefly review the Formula.
The Formula started well.
It seems so very explicit that as one reads it one rejoices in
its faithfulness to the Word of God and its realistic view of
fallen man. Thus in Article II on Free Will, under the
heading of Contrary False Doctrines (Section 4), it is
We reject, likewise, the teaching
that while before his conversion man is indeed too weak by his
free will to make a beginning, convert himself to God, and whole-heartedly
obey God's law by his own powers, yet after the Holy Spirit has
made the beginning through the preaching of the Word and in it
has offered his grace, man's will is forthwith able by its own
natural powers to add something (though it be little and feeble)
to help, to cooperate, to prepare itself for grace,
to dispose itself to apprehend and accept
it, and to believe the Gospel.
I have added
the emphasis, but even without the italics what could be more
plain and positive in denying to unregenerate man any role whatever
in his salvation! So also in Section 9: "Likewise Luther's
statement that man's will in conversion behaves 'altogether passively'
(that is, that it does nothing at all) must be understood as
referring to the action of divine grace in kindling new movements
within the will." (10)
9. Book of Concord, translated by Theodore Tappert,
Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1959, p.471.
10. Ibid., p.472.
Regarding the place of foreknowledge in Election,
the Formula of Concord is equally explicit. Article
XI, Sections 2 and 4, read:
God's foreknowledge extends
alike over good people and evil people. But it is not a cause
of evil or of sin which compels anyone to do something wrong:
the original source of this is the devil and man's wicked and
perverse will. Neither is it the cause of man's perdition; for
this, man himself is responsible. God's foreknowledge merely
controls the evil and imposes a limit on its duration so that
in spite of its intrinsic wickedness it must minister to the
salvation of his elect. . . .
Predestination or the eternal election
of God, however, is concerned only with the pious children of
God in whom He is well pleased. It is a cause of their salvation,
for He alone brings it about and ordains everything that belongs
The theme of
the Total Depravity of unregenerate man and the powerlessness
of his will towards good is re-affirmed so frequently and with
such emphasis that it would almost seem monotonous were it not
of such crucial importance. It was a crucial issue then, and
it is a crucial issue still. In the treatment of Original Sin
(Article I, Section 7) it is stated: (11)
Likewise we reject and condemn
those that teach that although man's nature has been greatly
weakened and corrupted through the Fall, it has nevertheless
not entirely lost all the goodness that belongs to spiritual
and divine matters, or that the situation is not the way that
the hymn we sing in our churches describes it, "through
Adam's fall man's nature and being are wholly corrupted,"
but that human nature has of and from man's natural birth something
that is good ‹ even though in only a small, limited, and
poor degree ‹ such as the faculty, aptitude, skill, or ability
to initiate and effect something in spiritual matters or to cooperate
Article was apparently directed rather specifically against Melancthon's
tendency to take a softer and more humanistic view of the depth
of human depravity.
Once again this subject is broached
under the heading of Free Will or Human Powers. With great
firmness is stated the following (Article II): (12)
In order to settle this controversy
in a Christian way according to the Word of God, and by God's
grace to bring it to an end we submit the following as our teaching,
belief, and confession. We believe that in spiritual and divine
things the intellect, heart, and will of unregenerate man cannot
by any native or natural powers in any way understand, believe,
accept, imagine, will, begin, accomplish, do, effect, or cooperate,
but that man is entirely and completely dead and corrupted
as far as anything good is concerned.
Accordingly, we believe that after
the Fall and prior to his conversion not a spark of spiritual
11. Ibid., p.512.
12. Ibid., p.521.
remained or exists in man by which he
could make himself ready for the grace of God or to accept the
proffered grace nor that he has any capacity for grace by and
for himself or can apply himself to it or prepare himself for
it, or help, do, effect, or cooperate towards his conversion
by his own powers either altogether or halfway or in the tiniest
or smallest degree, of himself as coming from himself, but is
a slave of sin (John 8:34), the captive of the devil who drives
him (Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26). Hence according to its perverse
disposition and nature, the natural free will is mighty and active
only in the direction of that which is displeasing and contrary
of the Concord have virtually exhausted the English language
to make their point. What else could have been said! Again it
is apropos to add that they seem to have been particularly concerned
to protect their Confession from any taint of Melancthon's softness
in the matter, for they state quite simply before making this
lucid and exhaustive declaration that Melancthon ("one part"
he is euphemistically called) "held and taught . . . that
man nevertheless still has so much of his natural powers prior
to his conversion that he can to some extent prepare himself
for grace and give his assent to it" [my emphasis].
Augustine had struggled with the
matter of human assent. The formulators of Concord evidently
felt it appropriate to underscore their rejection of Melancthon's
doctrine of assent and to set forth the circumstances regarding
Augustine's similar rejection of the doctrine of assent. Accordingly,
they comment on 1 Corinthians 4:7 ("What have ye that ye
did not receive? If then ye received it, why do ye boast as if
it were not a gift?") by saying: (13)
It was this passage in particular
which by St. Augustine's own statement persuaded him to recant
his former erroneous opinion as he had set it forth in his treatise
Concerning Predestination: "The grace of God consists
merely in this, that God in the preaching of the true Gospel
reveals his will; but to assent to this Gospel when it is preached
is our own work and lies within our own power." And St.
Augustine says further on, "I have erred when I said that
it lies within our power to believe and to will, but that it
is God's work to give the ability to achieve something to those
who believe and will."
the wording could not be more explicit. Having declared that
man cannot "prepare himself, or help, do, effect, or co-operate
towards his conversion by his own powers, either altogether,
or halfway, or in the tiniest or smallest degree," (14) the formulators of Concord
reinforced this by saying: "In his own conversion or
regeneration man can as little begin, effect, or co-operate in
anything as could a stone or block or lump of clay." (15)
13. Ibid., p.526.
14. Ibid., p.521.
15. Ibid., p.525.
They continue: "Therefore
men teach wrongly when they pretend that unregenerate man still
has enough power to want to accept the Gospel." (16)
And yet, having spoken so clearly
on the issue, having declared their position so unequivocally,
having exhausted the dictionary to find words to reinforce their
affirmation of man's Total Depravity of spirit, the formulators
of Concord then gradually shifted the emphasis and ended up with
a final pronouncement which undid the whole thrust of their Confession!
Man does have a say! Man can refute the grace of God! Man has
the power of assent! It is on page 532 that we see the first
concession to semi-Pelagianism:
When the Word of God is preached,
pure and unalloyed according to God's command and will,
and when people diligently and earnestly listen to and meditate
on it, God is continually present with his grace and
gives what man is unable by his own powers to take or to give.
the leaven of synergism again. The pejorative phrase is underlined.
It is a crucial error. The Formula has just finished saying,
and rightly, that man's heart or will or whatever it is that
might respond by listening diligently and earnestly, and meditating
upon the Gospel, is a stone, a block. It is indeed
a stone, inanimate, without life. The lump of clay cannot listen
earnestly or reflect upon what is said. The dead know not anything
at all. As reasonably would one go to the morgue and preach to
the corpses laid out there for burial! What could they possibly
hear and reflect upon?
But now it is being argued that
man's part is of his own will "to attend" to the Gospel:
to expose himself to it, to prepare himself for it, not merely
to hear a sermon which might be entertaining or intellectually
stimulating but to hear the Word of God, to understand it, to
receive it with the inner ear. He is therefore no longer a mere
object upon whose ears the Word of God impinges like all other
sounds. He is to make himself an attentive listener, consciously
seeking to know the will of God. And he is to do this, apparently,
entirely as the result of the inner promptings of his own heart.
This is to be his contribution; this is what he can do and must
do as his part towards his own salvation. Thus in spite of what
has been said in this respect, we are now told: "In this
case it is correct to say that man is not a stone or a
We are therefore to understand that although man is a
stone or a block he is not to behave like one.
Now, in his powers of reasoning
man is certainly not a stone or a block. But in his ability to
comprehend spiritual truth he is. He does have a heart of stone
(Ezekiel 36:26). He is spiritually inanimate. We know this
16. Ibid., p.530.
17. Ibid., p.532.
by revelation and it
is amply confirmed by experience. We hear the Gospel preached
but it does not speak to us at all until the Lord opens our ears
or our hearts that we may inwardly "attend" to it (Acts
16:14). We in turn speak to others and set forth the way of salvation
to them as clearly as it is possible to do so by using the Word
of God, but until they, too, are born again they hear nothing
either. A newly converted man will frequently say afterwards,
"Why did you not tell me these things before?" He has
heard a voice, as the bystanders heard the sound of a voice when
the Lord spoke to Paul on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:7). But
he, like them, has heard only sounds without meaning. There is
something supernatural about this. Any other piece of information
communicated in the same language at the same level of sophistication
will normally be grasped immediately. But spiritual truth is
totally incomprehensible to the natural man. Something actually
does not get through, as though the channels of communication
were closed. There is no way of accounting for this fact except
by saying that sin has closed man's understanding to certain
kinds of truth. This is true of every unregenerate man. Apart
from the prevenient grace of God no man either will or can consciously
and deliberately place himself in the position of listening for
the Word of God. It is something entirely outside his experience
to listen in this way.
And so the formulators, ignoring
this fact or simply failing to recognize it, begin to question
"whether man in his conversion (i.e., at the time of his
conversion) behaves like and really is a block," or whether
he may not in fact be sufficiently alive to deliberately close
his mind to what is being said, as though he actually knows what
is being said. And they conclude "in the light of the previous
discussion" that they are to be condemned who argue that
God coerces the wills of men and compels man to be converted
against his will.
Here, then, is man's contribution.
He puts himself deliberately in the way of hearing the Gospel,
and when he hears it he does not resist it. As the formulators
finally sum up the situation: "Towards this work the will
of the person who is to be converted does nothing but only
lets God work in him until he is converted" [my emphasis].
(18) How Luther
would have grieved at this fatal concession to the autonomy of
man! As Charles Hodge said on this issue, "The Lutherans
themselves admitted it as a 'divinely necessitated logical inconsistency'
once they had rejected the consequences of their avowed belief
that man really was spiritually dead." (19)
How did this
change come about? It was the result of the search for
a rational explanation of why some are elected and others are
not. It is clear
18. Ibid., p.539.
19. Charles A. Hodge, Systematic Theology,
Grand Rapids, Eerdman's, 1973 reprint
[1871-73], vol.II, p.724.
from Deuteronomy 29:29
that this is one of the secret things hidden in the mind of God.
"The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those
things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for
ever..." It is revealed to us that we are "chosen in
Him before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4).
It is not revealed to us why we are chosen and not others.
It is revealed to us that the saved were formerly even as the
unsaved (Ephesians 2:3) and that it is of the same lump of clay
that one vessel is appointed for honour and another for a contrary
purpose (Romans 9:21).
There is no doubt that the raw
material of elect and non-elect alike is basically the same.
We are made of the same stuff. This is revealed. What is still
hidden is "Why me and not my neighbour?" And our minds
being what they are, we become locked in with the problem, particularly
at certain stages of our development. We cannot let it go. We
become certain in our own minds that there is an answer, and
that the answer will be humanly satisfying and so comprehensible
in its rationality that men will be persuaded to believe it.
We ourselves believe the fact of Election and wonder at the goodness
of God, and gain unbounded assurance from it. "You have
not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16) becomes
food for the soul and we worship the Saviour and glorify God,
but it is still a certainty born of faith and not of reasoned
assent. Nevertheless we try to uncover the rationale behind it.
Lutherans at that time, and a host
of thoughtful men since, have argued thus among themselves: If
God elects some to be saved, He must have allowed others to be
lost. The judicial reason they are lost is their own guilt. But
the fact that others equally guilty were not left to suffer for
their sins (for the elect are saved from them) rests in the sovereign
good pleasure of God, which pleasure was manifestly not extended
to include the non-elect. If it is not God's good pleasure that
any should be lost, a fact to which Scripture bears abundant
testimony, then for what possible reason would He not exercise
his sovereignty and good pleasure over all the lost rather than
over only some? Does He not then displease Himself arbitrarily
If unnecessarily, is it not also
unjustly? His foreknowledge tells Him that men will resist his
grace. That is why Election to Salvation has to be a divinely
initiated and sovereignly effected act. Those who are allowed
to resist are clearly being allowed to resist unnecessarily if
the initial resistance of the elect can be over-ridden at God's
good pleasure. And so it almost seems that we have to "save
the face of God" by supposing that the reason some are saved
is that these by nature (and of their own free will) do not resist.
The saved in no way contribute positively to their salvation,
except in so far as they negatively do not offer resistance
to the Spirit of God.
We are on the horns of a dilemma
if we must rationalize Election. Either God condemns men unnecessarily,
though not unjustly ‹ for they are
sinners. Or men are
different, some bend by nature unresisting and others resisting.
God foreknows who will not resist, and thus elects them to salvation
on the basis of that foreknowledge. Such human reasoning leads
us inevitably to contradict what is revealed, for what is revealed
tells us that unregenerate man is dead and all dead men are equally
dead with neither the will to resist or yield. So that it is
not of him that wills but of God that shows mercy (Romans 9:16),
and Scripture everywhere affirms this fundamental truth. The
whole process is initiated and completed by God in Christ who
is the author and finisher of our faith.
Did those who tried to rationalize
Election in this way not remember that Paul was coerced by the
sovereign grace of God? Did they not remember, too, how a certain
man made a feast and sent out invitations, only to have every
one of the invited guests decline the invitation so that the
lord who had thus been rebuffed said to his servants, "Go
out and bring them in" (Luke 14:21)? And when there was
still room, had he not said, "Go out now and compel them
to come in" (verse 23)? It is significant, moreover,
that in Matthew 22:10, which is part of an account of the same
event, we are told that those who were thus brought in were "both
good and bad."
Some are brought, some compelled.
In either case the initiative is God's. Lot, his wife, and his
daughters were "taken by the hand" and brought out
of Sodom (Genesis 19:16). Paul was turned about with violence
because he "kicked against the pricks" of the goad
of God's grace (Acts 9:5).
Unregenerate man does not listen
attentively to the Gospel ‹ though he will listen to the
preaching of what is not the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3). If men are
in church because they seek salvation in God's way, they are
there because God has first begun to awaken them to their need.
If they are there for any other reason it is for the wrong reason.
They seek social recognition, or commercial advantage, or to
satisfy intellectual curiosity, or for purely esthetic reasons,
or because they need to belong somewhere, or because they are
determined to prove their own merit in the sight of God, or for
a hundred other subtle reasons. "The heart is deceitful
above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
No! Dead men do not consent to
being given life. They can neither refuse nor consent until after
life has been given. Only then can they ratify it. The formulators
of Concord, after all their care to do otherwise, end up by making
men necessary co-operators with God, who evidently requires their
consent to have his Election confirmed in the elect. Man, not
God, becomes sovereign after all. As Louis Berkhof said: "Notwithstanding
the strong assertions that man owes his salvation entirely to
God, it is held that man can frustrate the divine operation effectively,
so that the decision really lies with him." (20)
20. Berkhof, Louis, History of Christian Doctrines,Edinburgh,
Banner of Truth Trust, 1975 reprint , p.2l9.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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