Martin Luther on Grace…

The law works fear and wrath; grace works hope and mercy.


The Heidelberg Disputation

A lawdriver insists with threats and penalties; a preacher of grace lures and incites with divine goodness and compassion shown to us; for he wants no unwilling works and reluctant services, he wants joyful and delightful services of God.

Some of the quotes are taken from LINK

Martin Luther

Quoted in The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 8-16, 2008, by R.C.H. Lenski, 746

No man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone. For as long as he is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself, and therefore he is not humbled before God, but presumes that there is—or at least hopes or desires that there may be—some place, time, and work for him, by which he may at length attain to salvation. But when a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace, and can be saved.

—Martin Luther


In the monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me. . . . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.” Elsewhere he recalled: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck at the thought of transubstantiation that he almost fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.’” Fear only compounded his personal struggle for acceptance with God.

In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Scala Sancta (“The Holy Stairs”), supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to fables, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, kissing each step, and seeking peace with God. But when he reached the top step, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?” He felt no closer to God.

Luther received his doctor of theology degree from the University of Wittenberg in 1512 and was named professor of Bible there…But the more Luther studied, the more perplexed he became. One question consumed him: How is a sinful man made right before a holy God?


In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This crass practice had been inaugurated during the Crusades to raise money for the church. Commoners could purchase from the church a letter that allegedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. Rome profited enormously from this sham. In this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel’s famous line was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

This horrible abuse enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. On October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. A few of the theses are as follows:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by the papal indulgences.
  4. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  5. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
  6. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  7. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.


It is possible Luther was still not yet converted. In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had understood the righteousness of God to mean His active righteousness, His avenging justice by which He punishes sin. On those terms, he admitted that he hated the righteousness of God. But while sitting in the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther meditated on this text and wrestled with its meaning. It is worth letting him tell the story in his own words. He writes:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

Luther came to realize that salvation was a gift for the guilty, not a reward for the righteous. Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Thus, justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation. The righteousness of God imputed to believing sinners is, Luther declared, a “foreign righteousness.” That is to say, the righteousness man needs to possess is alien to his experience. It comes from outside of him. It must be given by God—the very righteousness of Jesus Christ.



In his teaching of Scripture, Luther gave evidence of a strong adherence to the doctrines of grace. The main drift of medieval theology was toward a weakening of Augustine’s strict predestinarian stance, but Luther led a charge to reverse this tendency. This is especially apparent in The Bondage of the Will. In this work, Luther asserted the captivity of the human will in spiritual matters, which makes fallen man entirely dependent on sovereign grace. Luther adamantly defended the doctrines of original sin, total depravity, sovereign election, and irresistible grace, both in The Bondage of the Will and other works. He declared that although man is entirely responsible to obey the gospel, he is unable to do so apart from sovereign grace.

Doctrine in Focus:


Luther held firmly to the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. He writes: “He is God, and for His will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it, since there is nothing equal or superior to it, but it is itself the rule of all things. For if there were any rule or standard for it, either as cause or reason, it could no longer be the will of God.”49 The divine will is supreme over all things. Nothing equals it or surpasses it. Thus, no one can thwart God’s purposes. Elsewhere Luther says, “God is dependable—His predestination cannot fail, and no one can withstand Him.”50 God is sovereign over all, Luther asserts, and able to do all that pleases Him. Furthermore, Luther states, “The will of God is immutable and infallible, and it governs our mutable will, as Boethius sings: ‘Remaining fixed, you make all things move.’”51 The will of God governs even the will of man.

Luther spoke frequently of God’s secret will, but he was clear that God is sovereign, whether He reveals His purposes or not. He writes: “God does many things that He does not disclose to us in His Word; He also wills many things which He does not disclose Himself as willing in His Word. Thus He does not will the death of a sinner, according to His Word; but He wills it according to that inscrutable will of His.”52 Elsewhere he adds: “The hidden will of God cannot be searched out by man. . . . We have enough to learn about the humanity of Christ, in whom the Father revealed Himself.”53 He also says: “If it is predestined, it will happen. But it has not been given to us to know what is predestined. Much rather, we are forbidden to know what has been predestined.”54 Luther clearly understood that God is actively reigning over His creation in ways that are often beyond human understanding.

God’s sovereign will must be believed even though it cannot be entirely understood, Luther declared. He writes, “You who are listening to me now should remember that I have taught that one should not inquire into the predestination of the hidden God but should be satisfied with what is revealed through the calling and through the ministry of the Word.”55 In short, God’s sovereign foreordination of all things is a subject into which man should not probe, but should be content with what He has revealed.

Doctrine in Focus:


Luther followed in the footsteps of Augustine, Gottschalk, and Anselm. His understanding of the doctrines of sin and depravity, alongside those of grace and election, was in keeping with these forerunners, but he, as well as the other Reformers, provided a more exact description and systematic explanation of the relationship between Adam’s sin and that of the rest of the human race. With his thoroughly biblical understanding, Luther believed that original sin “is a hereditary depravity and corruption of the human nature.”56 Luther grasped, as did all the Reformers, that human nature is infected with sin inherited from Adam and that man is completely incapable of doing any spiritual good. He felt that this doctrine was critically important but was too often misunderstood. Luther says: “It is a great teaching, to know and understand what original sin is . . . all the universities together have not understood what original sin is.”57 The German Reformer recovered the Augustinian view of sin and proclaimed it to the masses.

Luther recognized that Adam’s one act of disobedience resulted in the fall and defilement of mankind. He writes, “Through his sin Adam destroyed us and made us enemies of God who are liable to God’s wrath and judgment and worthy of eternal death . . . I feel and confess that I am a sinner on account of the transgression of Adam.”58 He saw ample evidence of man’s fallenness both in Scripture and in day-to-day life. He says: “How shall a man be able to govern himself in a God-pleasing manner when he knows nothing of God, is born and conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), as we all are, and is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3) and an enemy of God? . . . Why should we poor, miserable people desire to boast loudly of great comfort, help, and counsel against the judgments of God, the wrath of God, and eternal death, when every day and every hour we experience in ourselves and in others that even in trivial, bodily needs we can neither counsel and help ourselves nor seek comfort?”59 The sin of Adam corrupted the entire race.

Adam’s sin, Luther asserted, resulted in the defilement of every human soul. Everyone enters this world already plagued by the poison of sin. He writes:

As soon as they had eaten of the forbidden tree and sinned, their concreated righteousness fell away and perished. Then evil lusts began to arise and grow in them, and they became inclined to pride, unchasteness, wantonness of the flesh, and to all sins, as we now are. For as Adam and Eve were after the transgression, so all their descendants are. For just as Adam had a flesh poisoned with sin, so also all his descendants, born of him, have flesh inclined to all evil. And the sin that was in the parents is also born in all their descendants.60

Expanding on this idea that original sin is passed down from parent to child at the moment of conception, Luther writes: “Through his disobedience and transgression of the divine commandment Adam fell into sin, which polluted his body and soul, so that he was full of sin, wrath, and ungraciousness. This misery and abominable corruption he transmitted to his descendants, that is, to the entire human race. Just as Adam fell into sin and became subject to death, so we all who descended from him must bear sin, sorrows of all kinds, and death, sin’s penalty, simply because we were born from the sinful flesh which was Adam’s since the Fall.”61 In short, every child conceived in the womb inherits a sin nature.

In expositing Psalm 51:5, Luther showed the cause-and-effect relationship between original sin and actual sin. He says: “We are not sinners because we commit this or that sin, but we commit them because we are sinners first. That is, a bad tree and bad seed also bring forth bad fruit, and from a bad root only a bad tree can grow.”62 Original corruption is the root of all sins. Or, put another way, the sin nature is the root and individual acts of sin are the fruit.

In one colorful illustration, Luther compared the sin nature to a beard. He says: “The original sin in a man is like his beard, which, though shaved off today so that a man is very smooth around his mouth, yet grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as a man lives, such growth of the hair and the beard does not stop. . . . Just so original sin remains in us and bestirs itself as long as we live, but we must resist it and always cut off its hair.”63 The corruption within human beings is not permanently eradicated until they are glorified, but it must be battled.

Every aspect of human nature, Luther contended, is corrupted by sin. He asserts that “the Sacred Scripture . . . declares explicitly that nature is corrupt, meaning that the entirety of man is wicked and evil.”64 In other words, “[We] are infected with the poison of original sin from the soles of our feet to the crowns of our heads.”65 Elsewhere Luther writes, “Original sin really means that human nature has completely fallen; that the intellect has become darkened, so that we no longer know God and His will and no longer perceive the works of God; furthermore, that the will is so extraordinarily depraved, so that we do not trust the mercy of God and we do not fear God but . . . follow the desire and the impulses of the flesh.”66 He goes on to say: “Original sin . . . it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a total lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is a propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil.”67 Luther’s biblical diagnosis is that man’s nature is bent toward sin constantly.

Regarding the mind, Luther taught that sin distorts man’s reasoning in spiritual matters. He writes: “When [false teachers] say that by the dictates of right reason they can elicit and perform the good, what is this but to deny that our nature is corrupted by sin? . . . Human reason as well as the will has been blinded and turned away from the good and the true.”68 Concerning the will, Luther said that sin has utterly destroyed the freedom of man’s will. He says, “We are so impetuously foolish and evil that we often sin against our own advantage and are our own worst enemies.”69 He adds, “Our will, especially when it is evil, cannot of itself do good.”70

The worst effect of sin, Luther affirmed, is the way in which it blinds man to his need and helplessness. He writes, “Our nature is so corrupt and we are so inclined to presumption and security in prosperous times that it would be impossible for us to stand if the Holy Spirit did not change our hearts.”71 Man, he said, cannot even understand the way in which God provides justification. He says, “For human nature, corrupt and blinded by the blemish of original sin, is not able to imagine or conceive of any justification above and beyond works.”72 The unconverted mind, he said, can understand only a works righteousness to gain acceptance with God. The thought of a grace-based righteousness is incomprehensible to the carnal mind.

Luther summarizes the full effects of radical corruption in this manner: “Scripture . . . represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive.”73 Man is so depraved that he cannot even know the depths of his defilement.

Doctrine in Focus:


Luther was also deeply convinced of the truth of the unconditional election of God. He believed that before time began, God chose out of fallen humanity those whom He would save. He affirms, “He ordains by His own counsel which and what sort of persons He wills to be recipients and partakers of His preached and offered mercy.”74 He adds:

All things take place according to God’s election. Jacob was loved by God because he had been elected, and he obtained mercy because it thus pleased God from eternity, just as also He said to Moses: “I will show mercy, etc.” (Ex. 33:19). . . . It is solely because of a merciful God that anyone is chosen or is righteous, inasmuch as all men are equally a part of the mass of perdition and no one is righteous before God unless he receives mercy . . . that everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will is evident and proved by the fact that in order that God might show this to be the case and that man might know that it is not due to his own running but to the mercy of God, that he wills and runs.75

Luther saw many examples of God’s election in Scripture. He writes: “He demonstrates His election by the fact that He permits many people to live a good life from their birth and to do great good deeds, and yet they are not saved; again He permits many people to do great evil, and yet they are suddenly converted and saved. Examples of this are Saul and Manasseh. Likewise Judas the betrayer and the thief on the cross, and many other cases of harlots and open sinners.”76 He understood that God’s choices are not man’s choices.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans was Luther’s lecture focus early in his teaching career, and it was in that book that he discovered the truth of justification by faith alone. Not surprisingly, he turned often to this highly doctrinal book to argue the case for sovereign election. In teaching on Romans 8:28, Luther explains, “The term ‘purpose’ in this passage means God’s predestination or free election and deliberation, or counsel.”77 This, he says, is illustrated “in the following chapter on the basis of the two stories of Isaac and Ishmael, and likewise of Jacob and Esau, [in which] the apostle shows that nothing except election distinguished the men, as he expressly says (Rom. 9:8ff).”78 Luther believed that God had every right to choose some men for salvation but to pass over others.

Luther also addressed the doctrine of election in his introduction to his commentary on Romans, affirming that if not for God’s election of some to receive salvation, no one would be saved:

In chapters 9, 10, and 11 he teaches of God’s eternal predestination—out of which originally proceeds who shall believe or not, who can or cannot get rid of sin—in order that our salvation may be taken entirely out of our hands and put in the hand of God alone. And this too is utterly necessary. For we are so weak and uncertain that if it depended on us, not even a single person would be saved; the devil would surely overpower us all. But since God is dependable—His predestination cannot fail, and no one can withstand Him—we still have hope in the face of sin.79

Luther made this same point when commenting specifically on Romans 9:16, saying: “Concerning the statement, ‘It depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy,’ I respond: . . . ‘You must despair, give God the glory, and confess that you did not start it.’ When I was a monk I depended on such willing and exertion, but the longer [I worked at it] the farther away I got. What I have now I have not from exertion but from God. So in this passage Paul was saying everything against presumption, so that we may say, ‘Lord, whatever [good] there is in us exists by Your grace.’”80 It is clear that Luther believed that salvation depends on the determinative will of God, not the will of man.

That thought prompted Luther to rejoice that God’s election puts the outcome of salvation entirely in His hands. Luther says, “God has taken my salvation out of my hands into His, making it depend on His choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by His grace and mercy.”81 Fallen man can never choose to believe on Christ due to the deadening effects of original sin. But by His electing love, God makes salvation certain for His elect.

Luther insisted that the doctrine of election should be preached because it humbles man, thus preparing the unconverted soul for the gospel. He says: “It is thus for the sake of the elect that these things are published, in order that being humbled and brought back to nothingness by this means they may be saved. The rest resist this humiliation, indeed they condemn this teaching of self-despair, wishing for something, however little, to be left for them to do themselves; so they remain secretly proud and enemies of the grace of God. This, I say, is one reason, namely, that the godly, being humbled, may recognize, call upon, and receive the grace of God.”82 Commenting elsewhere on the humbling effect of this doctrine, he writes:

No man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone. For as long as he is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself, and therefore he is not humbled before God, but presumes that there is—or at least hopes or desires that there may be—some place, time, and work for him, by which he may at length attain to salvation. But when a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace, and can be saved.83

When a man is thus brought to the end of himself and receives God’s salvation as a gift, Luther said, the doctrine of God’s election becomes beautiful and sweet. He affirms, “The matter of predestination and election . . . is not as deep a subject as is commonly thought, but rather is a wonderfully sweet thing for those who have the Spirit.”84 Elsewhere he adds, “This will is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most awe-inspiring secret of the Divine Majesty, reserved for Himself.”85 The doctrine of sovereign election should instill awe and reverence in a believer’s heart.

Luther concluded that the doctrine of election is “very strong wine and the most complete meal, solid food for those who are perfect, that is, the most excellent theology.”86 However, “he who has not denied himself and learned to subject his questions to the will of God and hold them down will always keep asking why God wills this and does that, and he will never find the reason.”87 The unconverted heart will always reject this teaching. One must be taught by God in order to receive it.

Doctrine in Focus:


There is disagreement as to what Luther believed about the extent of the atonement. On occasion, Luther spoke of the atonement as limited and particular. He writes, “Christ did not die for all absolutely.”88 Elsewhere he says, “For in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all, because He says: ‘This is My blood which is poured out for you’ and ‘for many’—He does not say: for all—‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 14:24, Matt. 26:28).”89 Here Luther appears to be arguing for a definite atonement exclusively for the elect.

Other selections from Luther’s writings also seem to indicate belief in a particular atonement. In explaining 1 Timothy 4:12, Luther observed a clear distinction in Christ’s saving work. He writes: “‘He is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.’ This passage clearly distinguishes between ‘all men’ and ‘those who believe.’ The latter He saves eternally, but not the former. Accordingly, when we make a distinction of salvation between faithful and faithless people, we must draw from those passages this conclusion, that Paul here refers to general salvation. That is, God saves all the faithful, but He does not save the faithless in the same way.”90 The context of this statement shows that Luther was thinking about the difference between common grace and saving grace. Luther recognized that the nonelect enjoy temporal, nonsaving benefits from the death of Christ. But Christ’s death was redemptive only for those who believe, namely, the elect. Luther likewise states:

In the first place, He [Christ] did not make a testament for all, because “He disinherits some,” as He says in John 17:9: “I am praying for them, not for the world.” Likewise in John 17:20: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in Me through their word.” Likewise because He did not say “for all” but “which will be shed for many” (Mark 14:24; Matt. 26:28). And here (Heb. 9:15) we read: “So that those who are called may receive the promised eternal salvation.” But this touches on the subject of predestination, which is either too difficult or too harsh for our feeble intellect to be able to grasp. Therefore, to speak rather humbly, He left the legacy only to those who fear His name and believe in Him.91

Here Luther acknowledged that Christ’s sacrifice was not for all, but for those given to Him by the Father.

Regarding Luther’s understanding of the specific intent of the atonement, Timothy George writes, “Luther restricted the scope of the atonement to the elect.”92 Still, it must be acknowledged that at times Luther seemed to speak of a universal atonement, and most Luther scholars agree that he taught a universal atonement in most if not all of his writings.93 A possible solution is put forward by Raymond Blacketer in his essay “Definite Atonement in Historical Perspective,” where he notes that “while the Lutheran confessional tradition would ultimately endorse universal atonement, Luther himself reflects the tradition of Augustinian particularism.”94 In the end, we must conclude that while Luther was clear in his teaching on most aspects of sovereign grace, his true beliefs on the doctrine of definite atonement remain uncertain.

Doctrine in Focus:

IRRESISTIBLE CALL In contrast with his position on the atonement, Luther clearly believed strongly in the effectual nature of the sovereign call of God that draws the elect to faith in Christ. With his strong understanding of human depravity, Luther recognized that God must overcome the spiritual deadness and stubborn resistance of sinful men if any are to believe unto eternal life. He writes: “But what do the words ‘The Father must draw you’ mean? . . . Outwardly He [the Father] draws by means of Christ’s Word, and inwardly through the Holy Spirit. Christ ascribes these works to the Father in order to distract us from our reason and human wisdom, and to impress upon us that we must view His Word not as the word of a mere man but as the Word of the Father. For He declares: ‘Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.’”95 Here Luther affirmed that conversion is entirely the work of God, not man alone or man in cooperation with God. As he says elsewhere, “Faith is not our work; for I am drawn to Christ, whom I neither feel nor see.”96 He clearly saw that God must draw the elect to Christ and work faith in them.

Expanding on the means by which God “draws” sinners to Himself, Luther focused on the role of the Spirit. He writes: “The ungodly does not ‘come’, even when he hears the word, unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly; which He does by shedding abroad His Spirit. When that happens, there follows a ‘drawing’ other than that which is outward; Christ is then displayed by the enlightening of the Spirit, and by it man is rapt to Christ with the sweetest rapture, he being passive while God speaks, teaches and draws, rather than seeking or running himself.”97 Through the Holy Spirit, the Father works regeneration and belief.

Luther contended that the one who believes in Christ does so because he is eternally predestined and personally called by God to do so. He states, “If you believe, you are called; if you are called, you surely are also predestinated.”98 He adds, “Without the Holy Spirit and without grace man can do nothing but sin and so goes on endlessly from sin to sin.”99 Salvation cannot happen unless God acts on the dead sinner.

The will of the natural man, Luther insisted, cannot choose to come to God to accept the offer of salvation. He writes:

To say: man does not seek God, is the same as saying: man cannot seek God, as you may hence gather: If there were potency or power in man to will good, the movement of Divine omnipotence would not suffer it to remain inactive or keep holiday. . . . Paul’s whole aim is to make grace necessary to all men, and if they could initiate something by themselves, they would not need grace . . . “free-will” is utterly laid low, and nothing good or upright is left to man; for he is declared to be unrighteous, ignorant of God, a despiser of God, turned away from Him and unprofitable in His sight. . . . Here is unbelief, disobedience, sacrilege, blasphemy towards God, cruelty and mercilessness towards one’s neighbor, and love of self in all the things of God and of man! Here you have the glory and potency of “free-will”!100

Luther was adamant on this impotency of the will. In explaining John 6:44, he says: “When Christ says in John 6: ‘No man can come to Me, except My Father which hath sent Me draw him’ (v. 44), what does He leave to ‘freewill’? . . . Here, indeed, He declares, not only that the works and efforts of ‘free-will’ are unavailing, but that even the very word of the gospel (of which He is here speaking) is heard in vain, unless the Father Himself speaks within, and teaches, and draws. ‘No man, no man can come,’ He says, and what He is talking about is your ‘power whereby man can make some endeavour towards Christ.’ In things that pertain to salvation, He asserts that power to be null.”101 No man has the power to believe the gospel on his own.

With this thought in mind, Luther was quick to refute those who held that man contributes to his salvation. He says: “Granted that they attribute very little to ‘free will,’ yet they teach that we are able to obtain righteousness and grace by that ‘very little.’”102 Luther believed man contributes nothing to his salvation, not even “very little.”

Luther described the radical change that comes over the human will when God issues His saving call. He writes: “If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil.”103 Elsewhere he adds: “The will does nothing. It is rather the substance in which the Holy Spirit works also in those who resist, as in Paul. But working on the will of him who resists He moves the will to consent.”104 When God changes a sinner’s heart, that person no longer hates and resents God. He now wants God and joyfully accepts His offer of salvation.

In the end, Luther had no doubts that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. He writes: “We are people who have been born, not fashioned by man, but ‘begotten.’ This is not our work. As little as a child contributes to its being born, so little do we contribute to our being spiritually born. God is the Father . . . the ‘Word of Truth’ is the mother.”105 No one contributes to his natural birth. Neither, Luther reasoned, does anyone contribute to his supernatural birth.

Doctrine in Focus:


Luther affirmed that God’s sovereign grace preserves the salvation of the elect. He writes: “When you have Him as your Shepherd, you will surely not want. Yes, you already have what you shall have—eternal life. Nor will you ever perish. Nor shall any power be so great and mighty that it could snatch you out of His hand. Of that you can be sure. For this Shepherd’s voice will surely not lead you astray.”106 Similarly, in expounding John 10, Luther paraphrased the words of Christ as the words of His sheep, saying: “I shall never perish, neither shall any man snatch me out of His hand; I shall have eternal life (John 10:28). And He will keep this promise, no matter what happens to me.”107 Luther was confident about the eternal preservation of every believer. He understood that none of the elect can be snatched out of the Father’s hand.

While explaining 1 John 2:19, Luther affirmed that perseverance is a mark of those who are truly saved. He says, “The Day will reveal those who have been of us and have been born of the Gospel of truth, and vice versa. ‘For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.’”108 Luther knew that all who are in Christ will never lose their salvation. Conversely, those who profess Christ but later apostatize reveal that they are not numbered among the elect.

Despite living amid many dangers in this world, the elect are held secure by God. Luther notes: “He saves us . . . and exposes His elect to as many rapacious forces as are mentioned here, all of which are striving to pull the elect down into damnation so that they might be lost, in order to show that He saves us not by our own merits, but purely by His own election and immutable will, in the very face of so many rapacious and terrifying adversaries who try in vain to harm us.”109 The key words here are “in vain”—nothing can separate God and His children. Expanding on this idea elsewhere, Luther writes: “God exposes His saints to so many evils, which are all like grasping hands, and yet He does not lose His saints. In this way He shows sufficiently clearly the firmness of His election, that it cannot be hindered by any creature, although He leads every creature up against it.”110 Election makes God’s people eternally secure, because He completes what He begins.

Doctrine in Focus:


Luther ardently upheld God’s sovereign choice in salvation as well as its biblical corollary—reprobation. George notes, “Luther did not shrink from a doctrine of absolute, double predestination.”111 Against the objection that such a view turns God into an arbitrary ogre, Luther answered—with Paul—that “God wills it so, and in so willing He is not evil. For all things are of Him, as the clay is the potter’s. Therefore He gives commands that the elect might fulfill them and the reprobate be enmeshed in them, so that He might show both His anger and His mercy. Then ‘the prudence of the flesh’ says: ‘It is harsh and wretched that God should seek His glory in my misery.’ Note how the voice of the flesh is always saying ‘my,’ ‘my’; get rid of this ‘my’ and rather say: ‘Glory to Thee, O Lord!’ And then you will be saved.”112 Luther believed that men ought to submit to the biblical teaching of election and reprobation as the wise plan of God. To be sure, Luther was convinced that no one who examines the Scriptures can escape this truth. Luther affirmed both that God brings some to salvation and that He wills the destruction of the nonelect.

OLUME TWO –AD 100 – 1564



• Foreword: J. Ligon Duncan III
• Afterword: R. Albert Mohler Jr.

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