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 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 (1348-1350), 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 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 literature.
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 (1520-1566). 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 impossible.
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, 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 favour." (6)
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 (1466-1536) 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 oversimplification 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 him.
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:
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...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):
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).
Who (you say) will endeavor 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.Luther next 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.
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 it.
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 "Lutheran congregations."
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 (1509 -1564) 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.
The 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 the wording.
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 (p. 46).
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 springing of water on the unbelieving by the unbelieving would still guarantee this grace (p. 33). *
* Clearly a concession to Rome, which believes just this.Confession and 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 (p. 61).
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 honorable 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, it was subsequently published 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 Lutherans themselves.
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 (Rom. 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 heart" (p. 112).
One needs to bear in mind that for centuries men had sought, by retreating to the monasteries and endeavoring 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 (Matt. 21:32). It was certain devout and honorable 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 "honorable" 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." (8)
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 their theology.
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 Church. By 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 celled "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 stated:
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. (9)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)
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...The theme of the Total Depravity of unregenerate man and the powerlessness of his will towards good is reaffirmed 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:
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 to it.
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 describe 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 therein." (11)This complicated 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):
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.The formulators 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).
Accordingly, we believe that after the Fall and prior to his conversion not a spark of spiritual power has 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 to God. (12)
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:
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." (13)In summary, the wording could not be more explicit. Having declared that man cannot "prepare himself, or help, do, effect, or cooperate 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 cooperate in anything as could a stone or block or lump of clay." (15)
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.
Thus begins 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 block." (17+ 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 (Ezek. 36:26). He is spiritually inanimate. We know this 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 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" (Eph. 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 (Eph. 2:3) and that it is of the same lump of clay that one vessel is appointed for honor and another for a contrary purpose (Rom. 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 neighbor?" 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. "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16) becomes food for the soul and we worship the Savior 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 and unnecessarily?
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 overridden 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 insisting. 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 willeth but of God that showeth mercy (Rom. 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" (v. 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 (Gen. 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 Tim. 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?" (Jer. 17:9).
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 cooperators 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)
1. Carl S. Meyer, "Luther"
in New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 609.
2. T. H. L Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, pp. 162f.
3. Ibid., p. 136.
4. Edith Simon. The Reformation in The Great Ages of Man, p. 16.
5. Ibid., p. 13.
6. Ibid., p. 38.
7. Book of Concord, p. 24.
8. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will. IX.21.
9. Book of Concord, p. 471.
10. Ibid., p. 472.
11. Ibid., p. 512.
12. Ibid., p. 521.
13. Ibid., p. 526.
14. Ibid., p. 521.
15. Ibid., p. 525.
16. Ibid., p. 530.
17. Ibid., p. 532.
18. Ibid., p. 539.
19. Charles A. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. n4.
20. History of Christian Thought, p. 219.