August 10, 2020

God’s Sovereignty in Lutheranism: An Interview With Josh Strodtbeck (2- Pastoral Care)

luther-p11.jpgHow does Lutheranism present the sovereignty of God in pastoral care?

2. How would the difference between Lutheran and Reformed views of God’s sovereignty be evidenced pastorally?

Since Calvin borrowed a lot from Luther, there are obviously going to be similarities. And since Calvinism is a pretty diverse tradition, I think that in some contexts, Calvinism looks pastorally quite similar to Lutheranism. On the other hand, in other contexts it can be radically different. In the more common versions of TULIP, justification is an instantaneous, one-time event done by God alone based solely on his eternal, sovereign will and thus ceases being relevant after your conversion. In other formulations, justification is a decree made by God after a lifetime of sovereignly directed covenant-keeping. So already, the idea that the pastor’s actions have anything to do with justification is taken out of the picture.

So what is there for the pastor to do? Without justification, things can become extremely Law-driven. For example, there are some Reformed pastors who envision the Church as a home-school cult where even suggesting that there are benefits to the local public school gets you excommunicated. That simply doesn’t happen in Lutheranism. I know secondhand of a woman from a Reformed church that got excommunicated for not articulating baptism exactly right, and for the Reformed, excommunication means being driven out of the community. I’m not saying there aren’t any obsessive nutballs in Lutheranism, far from it. But our crazies tend to be overprotective shepherds chasing off perceived wolves rather than inquisitors rooting out the impure.

As I said before, we Lutherans are huge on justification, and we believe that God justifies man by forgiving his sins in the Word and Sacraments. Preaching, baptizing, and communing are obviously pastoral actions, so the pastor sees himself chiefly in the business of justification. God is literally forgiving people’s sins through him. When you go to a Lutheran pastor and blurt out all that heinous evil you’ve been engaged in for the last ten years, the first thing he’s going to do is forgive your sins in Christ’s name. With a typical Calvinistic emphasis on sovereignty as, a Calvinist just plain can’t do that. After all, you might not be elect. Christ might not have died for your sins, and thus God may not forgive you at all. So any language about forgiveness and justification is so heavily qualified by predestination language as to make it an abstract conditional formulation you can’t grab onto and apply to yourself. Besides, the Reformed have traditionally viewed absolution as God’s sovereign right and thus not really the business of the pastor.

In less election-obsessed versions of Calvinism, the Law is much more central to pastoral actions than it is in Lutheranism. For example, in Chapter XIV of the Second Helvetic Confession on Sacerdotal Confession & Absolution, the “Gospel” is defined mostly with law terms, being reconciled to God is understood as “faithful obedience,” and most importantly, the Office of the Keys is understood as opening “the Kingdom of Heaven to the obedient and shut it to the disobedient.” That’s not to downplay what it says about absolution and the obvious influences of the Lutheran Reformation there, but this particular Reformed confession hedges its justification language with obedience language in a way that we Lutherans simply don’t. I think that’s tied up with divine sovereignty–God is a lawgiver who demands to be obeyed.

So pastorally, Lutheranism is very much centered on forgiveness. I think that basically comes down to what we believe the Gospel, the Sacraments, and the Office are for. I didn’t get into it much, but we see the pastoral office as a kind of real presence of Christ on earth. When the pastor executes the duties of his office, Christ himself is doing them. And remember, those duties center around justification and service, not some kind of authoritarian “vicar of Christ” concept. The pastor is an ambassador of Christ, not a vicarious co-regent. So in a way, the ministry is really where you see divine sovereignty in action. When he’s absolving, baptizing, and officiating at the altar, he’s speaking God’s words, not his own, so as I see it, what he says has all the force of God speaking the universe into existence. If God says I’m baptized in his name, that’s his body & blood for the forgiveness of my sins, and that my sins are forgiven, who am I to argue? What looks to others as some guy in a cassock cleaving to the vestiges of Rome and saying things only God has a right to, we see as God breaking the power of hell with a word. What’s more sovereign than that?

Stay tuned for more…..


  1. I agree with you. The Reformed-Puritan especially the Baptist and Baptistic-type tend be self-righteous, Pharisaical, self-appointed fruit inspectors … ’nuff said. Bottom line, Neo-legalism … and theologically, the attack on the Reformation central doctrine of justification by faith alone today is the logical outcome of the pastoral tradition.

  2. So it’s a straight choice between the Law or election in Calvinism? News to me! ; )

    Attempting to be serious, I’d point out that while confessional theory and actual practice can be at significant variance, the truth is that someone who was influenced deeply by the Three Forms would parse their Calvinism neither in terms of a legalistic law-keeping nor in terms of inscrutable decrees.

    I think the Second Helvetic is more defensible at this point than Josh makes out. The language is Scriptural, even if it’s in minority use (see Romans 1:5, 10:16). The First Helvetic was accused of being “too Lutheran”, so perhaps there were concerns that a creeping anti-nomianism was overtaking the Swiss Reformed movement (I’m not accusing Lutherans of being anti-nomian, but anti-nomianism is the Lutheran heresy in much the same sense as legalism is the Reformed one). In that case, it would be little surprise that Bullinger would seek to retain all the best parts of the First Helvetic, while ensuring that any perceived rejection of the Law and sovereignty of God were removed.

  3. So it’s a straight choice between the Law or election in Calvinism? News to me!

    Obviously not. These kind of black and white, all or nothing comments are really getting old. I’m speaking in terms of tendencies and trends, not hard-edged universal absolutes.

    someone who was influenced deeply by the Three Forms would parse their Calvinism neither in terms of a legalistic law-keeping nor in terms of inscrutable decrees.

    The only Three Forms pastor I’ve ever had the chance of discussing things much with parsed everything in terms of law-keeping, especially faith.

  4. Patrick Kyle says

    The kind of Lutheran pastoral care that Josh is talking about allows a person to face the truth about their own sinfulness and deal with it without lying to themselves or others.(Or reinterpreting the Scriptures to water down the requirements of the Law.) Even when you are struggling with particular sins, there is a motivation to come to church. (absolution and forgiveness) In many traditions,those struggling with sin and temptation,when confronted with repeated Biblical harangues and condemnations every Sunday simply stop coming to church. Lutheran Pastoral care has kept me in the faith and the church.

  5. MIchael and Josh,

    Just a note to say thank you for running this series. I hope there are more to come. I am a reformed Baptist and find Josh’s explanations very helpful in understanding the differences between Reformed and Lutheran approaches…something I knew existed, but didn’t know in what ways they were different (specifically on predestination and the pastoral outworkings of it). So, this is very helpful and enlightening. I eagerly await more!

    By the way, simply for helping me grasp how well this represents contemporary Lutheranism as a whole, would Josh consider himself from the more conservative side of Lutheranism or what? This is an honest question, as I am sadly under-informed on what’s what in the Lutheran community and theology.


  6. I can’t speak for Josh, but he’s LCMS, which is quite conservative, but not to some of the extremes of a few fanatical Lutherans.

  7. Well, I did give a disclaimer about confessional theory and actual practice. : ) I honestly don’t think you can read the Heidelberg Catechism or Belgic Confession and think that Ursinus or de Bres are saying that the Christian life and faith are Law-driven.

    But I don’t just want to harp: it is actually very helpful to hear the Lutheran perspective on this, which I don’t find as bewildering as you might think. I must be one of those “diverse Calvinists”. : )

  8. I would consider myself on the confessional end of the Lutheran spectrum. That means I understand Lutheranism in terms of unreserved subscription to the Book of Concord, but I’m also not into any kind of theology of repristination, and I’m certainly against taking our theological cues from Protestantism. That means things like justification and Christology hold primacy over things like biblical inerrancy. In the Protestant world, you generally have to pass some kind of biblical inerrancy litmus test before you even get a hearing. In my circles, inerrancy is a big enough deal, but look at it this way: Rick Warren believes in inerrancy. Richard Hays doesn’t. One’s got things to say that I’m interested in hearing because of his Christology. The other is a theologically bankrupt hack. Which is which?

  9. Thanks Michael and Josh for your responses. That helps me understand Josh’s perspective a bit better. I’m all ears for what’s next in the series!

    Your point on the primacy of justification and Christology is well taken. We certainly see how a biblical understanding of justification needs to hold a primal place in today’s theological climate. Plus, too many guys get a pass for claiming to hold to inerrancy but effectively diluting the message of Christ to the point of making it trivial, andy yes, even bankrupt.

  10. For a far broader understanding of today’s Calvinism, I suggest you contact Lyle Bierma.

    Seriously, do an on line interview with him, or something.

  11. Scott said “I am sadly under-informed on what’s what in the Lutheran community and theology.”

    Scott, here are four links that can quickly expose you to conservative, Confessional Lutheran community and theology.






  12. In Lutheran thinking, the pastor is simply the channel of the ‘means of grace’. The Word and the Sacrament happens through him.

    To some extent the believer is also a channel of the means of grace, for each time the Gospel is being shared by the believer to the world, the believer takes part with God in declaring what Christ has accomplished for the world – the forgiveness of their sins. He also declares what God declares – it is finished, your Saviour has answered for you.

    Justification is the hub of Lutheran thinking.

    The Cross is their theology and it is not just one idea that is equal to other ideas in the Christian life. It is where Christian life is lived, under the shadow of the Cross.


  13. “Preaching, baptizing, and communing are obviously pastoral actions, so the [Lutheran] pastor sees himself chiefly in the business of justification. God is literally forgiving people’s sins through him.”

    Yeesh! I had no idea! Thanks, Michael, for running this very enlightening series. Whatever happened to One Mediator Between God And Man?

  14. I just wanted to say that this series has been not only interesting and informative, but (dare I say?) sovereignly well-timed for me and my family. We just started attending an LCMS church in the last few weeks after almost a decade of going to evangelical churches of varying levels of Reformed-ness for over a decade and finally feeling like we were hitting a wall with respect to Reformed theology.

    We have really enjoyed the LCMS so far, but as non-theologians it’s been hard to know just exactly where the differences are coming from and whether or not those differences are legitimate alternate interpretations of Scripture or just heresy. (There’s the Reformed streak in me showing up.) Josh’s articles have been clear without being dumbed down and have really helped us. So, thanks, and keep it coming.

  15. Uh, strike one of those “decades”. Too early in the morning and not enough coffee yet.

  16. Yeesh! I had no idea! Thanks, Michael, for running this very enlightening series. Whatever happened to One Mediator Between God And Man?

    The pastor isn’t a mediator; he’s an ambassador. He’s not propitiating God on your behalf–he’s giving you God’s gifts.

  17. Mike,

    Let me attempt to clarify, about your post. Lutherans (and Catholics) see priests, pastors and even ordinary people as channels for God’s grace and mediation. His Grace is the water in a stream bed, and we servants of God, as merely as the bed of the stream. Without God, we would be as dry as a desert, but with Him, we can help Him reach out to water the thirsty ones.

  18. Patrick Kyle says


    A couple of good intros to the Lutheran faith and thought are ‘The Spirituality of the Cross’ by Gene Veith ( an absolutely excellent little volume) which can be found at along with some other cool resources. The other one is “Why I am a Lutheran: Jesus at the Center” by Daniel Preus. This can be found at ( I think both books are published by CPH. Either would be a great resource to help get you started.

  19. Eric,

    Thank you for the links. I will check them out. Now I have no excuse for being under-informed! Blessings!

  20. Are we saying God forgives sins at the point the pastor says so? Or is the purpose just to draw the congregation to the point where they acknowledge their need of forgiveness and seek it from God?

    To my Baptist viewpoint, it sounds like a mystical grant of mass forgiveness without regard to the state of the hearer. (This is a common argument against liturgical services–dead formality instead of our genuine vibrant services. 😛 ) I guess the question, to me comes down to this: Is the result the same if, say, a layman granted absolution? Is the result the same if the individual goes directly to God, without the intervention of a pastor or layman? Is God’s work or God’s grace, or whatever we’re calling it, available for the individual without a human intermediary?

  21. Phil,

    On Heidelberg/Belgic confession, I was happy with them but I could not sign Dort. So here are just a few that tipped me over to the BoC.

    In the BoC I found

    1. Justification held primary.
    1.The sacraments were strongerly stated.
    2. Law and Gospel was a policy.

    Hence the Lutheran tradition has always been marked by these because their BoC said more. They are marked by these and identified by these, they are a bit more homogenous. Compared to the Calvinistic confessions which stated less, there is a lot of heterogeneity in Calvinism – you get Prebyterian Calvinism, Baptistic Calvinism, Episcopalian Calvinism and even Charismatic etc etc.

    In fact, isn’t there even a question amongst the Calvinists today as to who is the “Truly Reformed”?

    Lastly I judge the BoC to have a good handle on the nature of Christian life.

    Matt P,

    The Lutheran pastor does not hand to the believer his own forgiveness for the sins of his people. That would be blasphemous. No, when he absolves, he hands over the same forgiveness won by Jesus for the sinner at the Cross. The Cross is the ground of what the pastor does (or ought to be doing at least). He ministers the benefits of the Cross to the sinner.

    The sinner hears again what Jesus said at the Cross – Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Note that this was stated by Christ before you were born, before you can do anything for God etc etc. While we were yet sinners Christ already died for us.

    Well of course, why seek forgiveness if you do not think you are a sinner at odds with God in the first place?

    Anyway I will leave that to Josh who is more capable of clarifying this issue than I.


  22. Matt,

    I am an LCMS Lutheran. I joined the LCMS after 20+ years as a baptist/modern evangelical. I hope I can speak to your question.

    Luther was all about the doctrine of justification, or simply put, how one’s sins are actually forgiven and heaven is opened to us. When I was being catechised, my pastor hammered home to me that we are saved by GRACE (meaning the unmerited forgiveness of sins) ALONE throught FAITH ALONE.

    This has a unique meaning to Lutherans. We believe Christ died for the sins of the whole world. But how is this forgiveness delivered to individual people? The “means” or “delivery” of grace is brought to the world by the Holy Spirit through the work of the church. This includes the proclaimation of the Gospel and the Sacraments. We believe that the hearing of the Word creates saving faith and the Word with water (baptism) and the Word with wine and bread literally deliver the grace of God to us. This is what Scripture teaches.

    Our pastors are called and ordained by the church, (in the LCMS this means the congregation, not a set heirachy), to administer the Word and Sacraments. This pattern of being “called” was established with the apostles in the Scriptures. Pastors hold a unique function in the life of the church. A Lutheran lay person could and should perform an emergency baptism and teach the Word to his family, and tell a repentant sinner his sins are forgiven in Christ. But a Lutheran would also say believers should receive the Grace of God in the Church through the pastor. This is what Christ intended when He called us to be His Bride.

    In our church services, before the Pastor announces absolution to the congregation we have corporate confession. I wouldn’t call it a mystical grant of mass forgiveness, but the troubled conscience can accept the words of the Pastor as if they were said by Christ Himself. On the flip side, the publicly unrepentant sinner would be barred from the Lord’s Table by the pastor and most likely would not participate in the confession.

    As an example:

    After WWII, several Nazi criminals faced with the death sentence asked to be absolved by a Lutheran Pastor. A couple of the criminals refused to repent of their war crime sins. The Pastor withheld absolution from these men. The Pastor was exercising the office of the Keys just as Christ did when he withheld forgiveness from the self-righteous but freely forgave those who were sorry for their sins.

    It’s pretty simple really. When I go to church, I hear God’s law and I am convicted of my sin, I hear the Gospel and faith is sparked in me by the Holy Spirit. Faith leads me to repentance and rejoying in what Christ did for me. I receive His Body and Blood shed FOR ME into my physical being during communion, which we also consider to be a fortaste of the heavenly feast, and my faith is strengthened even more. I go home in Peace. This is what Lutherans call living in the shadow of the cross.

    Sorry this is so long 🙂


  23. Josh S

    You’ve written about the role of a pastor in giving God’s gift. In light of the priesthood of all believers, is this role limited to the pastor (in Lutheran teaching)?

  24. Mary,

    Thanks for the “long” comments. I find this very helpful in understanding the Lutheran perspective, especially from someone who’s an “insider” and having to explain things in condensed form. I have been completely unexposed to this theology before (raised Baptist), so thank you for opening the window, so to speak, and letting us look in on your thinking.

    I find these concepts fascinating and am letting them soak into my mind. For the first time, I appreciate how cross-oriented the Lutheran approach is, and how focused on Law and Gospel it is. We certainly can learn from this in our reformed and baptistic circles.

  25. The Lutheran teachings recognize the right of all believers to hear the confessions of other believers and to announce God’s forgiveness on Christ’s behalf, in Christ’s name.

  26. Are we saying God forgives sins at the point the pastor says so?

    As I’ve said before, the pastor is an ambassador, given specific duties to perform. This is established when Jesus told his disciples in Matthew, “Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” John’s version is even more transparent: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” We take these words of Jesus very seriously in the Lutheran church.

    Is the result the same if the individual goes directly to God, without the intervention of a pastor or layman?

    When you are praying silently in your room, no word is spoken to you. It’s not that God doesn’t forgive your sins in his heart or something like this, it’s that he has appointed specific ways of declaring this to you. Paul says that faith comes by hearing, so why stay away from where you can hear that which your faith needs?

  27. There are times when I pray silently in my room and come away from that with the comfort of the Gospel, knowing that I am, indeed forgiven. But there are times when the devil nags at me — “Did God really forgive you when you prayed there that night in the dark? Did you really mean that prayer enough to be forgiven?”

    When those doubts arise, I can look to the words Christ spoke to His apostles (quoted by Josh): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” and I can know that those words of forgiveness were, indeed, spoken to me. I can cling to that promise given in John’s gospel, delivered through the words of a pastor.

    Really, the pronouncement of forgiveness to the individual sinner is not so much different than a preacher’s general proclamation of the Gospel to an unbeliever. In both cases, it is God working through Christians to deliver the good news of Christ.