January 22, 2021

God’s Sovereignty in Lutheranism: An Interview With Josh Strodtbeck (3- Assurance)

luther.jpgIn this question, Josh deals with the sensitive subject of assurance. Can a believer know they are saved? This is bound to be controversial and informative.

3. Adam O’s piece on “Why I Am Not A Calvinist” centers on the issue of assurance. Can Calvinists know they are elect or are they in a
similar situation to Roman Catholics?

In terms of systematic theology, I suppose it depends on the Calvinist. In terms of practical reality, I’ll just say that Holy Spirit isn’t beholden to filter the Gospel of Luke through Reformed systematics when and if it’s read publicly in a Reformed church. If a Calvinist hears Jesus say “Man, your sins are forgiven” in the story of the paralytic and walks home realizing Jesus was talking to him, so much the better.

Even theologically speaking, I have to be careful here. There are a lot of versions of Calvinism, and not all are equally committed to limited atonement. Calvin himself said, “He is no believer, I say, who does not rely on the security of his salvation and confidently triumph over the devil and death” (I.19).

But realistically, Westminster is way more influential in American Calvinism than anything Calvin said. After all, the Westminster Standards and not the Institutes have been the official confession of most English-speaking Calvinists since the 17th century. Almost anything good Calvin borrowed from the Lutheran Reformation is casually dismantled and refashioned in a quite different mold by Westminster. And in my opinion, Westminster is the only Reformed confession rigorously consistent on the matter of limited atonement. So if you look at Westminster, it bases assurance on anything and everything except the proclamation from the pulpit that Jesus died for you…because the pastor isn’t allowed to say that. Sure, it mentions “promises,” but when a Lutheran says “promise,” he means “an unassailable promise God has made to you in Christ.” When Westminster says “promise,” it means “a promise contingent upon fulfillment of covenant conditions.” In that context, the only assurance a Calvinist can have is the kind based on a positive self-assessment.

The scary thing about TULIP is that uncertainty about predestination means uncertainty about the atonement. For the Calvinist, as long as his predestination is up in the air, so is his atonement. So the only recourse Westminster gives him is a subjective experience, which obviously is subject to uncertainty. Ochuck’s description is hardly unique. The ironic thing is that in obsessing about predestination about the answer to salvation by works, Calvinists have come full circle and based assurance on works anyway.

I knew a guy who went to a large PCA church here in Kentucky. We got to talking, and I straight-out asked him, “Did Jesus die for your sins?” His answer: “I know that if God wants me to, I’ll be saved.” It was just depressing. To him, all the passages in the Gospels where Jesus is forgiving people left and right aren’t talking to him. They’re merely historical narratives of Jesus forgiving some other person’s sins. The Gospels are a dead letter to him. And I think that’s how most Calvinists look at the Bible, and it’s reflected in their sermons. The Bible is largely a compilation of historical information, data for systematic theology, and conditions to fulfill. That’s not too different from Catholicism–Trent treats forgiveness in Christ and atonement as abstract truths you should believe in, but not necessarily apply to yourself.

People who read my blog won’t be surprised when I say this, but Calvinism kills itself with the sacraments. People who read theology as abstract doctrinal formulations don’t see what the big deal is about Lutheranism vs Calvinism on the sacraments. We both baptize babies, and we both talk about Jesus being present in the Supper. So in abstract, philosophical terms, it’s not all that different. But in Law-Gospel terms, in homiletical and kerygmatic terms, it’s enormous. For Calvinists, the Supper is just like the atonement. If you’re not elect, then you’re not regenerate, then you don’t have true faith, so Jesus isn’t even there to begin with, and he sure as heck isn’t telling you your sins are forgiven.

Westminster’s doctrine of communion is actually nearly identical to Trent’s (remember that the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy communion are practically two different sacraments in Trent)–it’s all about making you a better person and strengthening your soul with nary a word about forgiveness. The reason Luther was so insistent on the objective, identifiable real presence is that he knew that if you make the reality of the sacrament dependent on your own faith, you lost the whole thing and would be stuck obsessing on whether or not you really had faith rather than believing what Jesus said about “for the forgiveness of sins.”

The same goes for baptism. Mostly what baptism does is place a bunch of conditions on you and your parents. Anything it promises is either conditional or not a promise of forgiveness of resurrection. I’ve even heard some Calvinists say that if you’re not elect, you didn’t get a real baptism; you just got wet. We Lutherans always look to baptism as establishing us in Christ and as God declaring us his forgiven children. We take “therefore reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ” very seriously when it comes to baptism, so all this vague stuffabout “inauguration into the covenant community” isn’t anything we have time for. It doesn’t assure anyone of anything except that infant baptism can be reconciled with limited atonement.

So yeah, I think that in the end, the Calvinist is in the same place the Catholic was before the Reformation, and for similar reasons. Both Calvinists and Catholics agree that the Lutheran doctrine of grace is unbecoming of God; he’s too good to just tell you you’re forgiven and expect you to believe it. Catholics say it doesn’t satisfy God’s justice, and Calvinists say it doesn’t satisfy his sovereignty. And the end result is pretty similar–you’ve got to be living up to a pretty high standard to qualify for believing that God’s forgiven your sins.

Stay tuned for more…..


  1. Josh,

    I think you’ve got it right on the bulk majority of “calvinist”. And WOE to the poor wretched soul that wonders into a formerly wesleyn type SB church turned “TULIP”, the heat is really turned up then, but NO assurance at all.

    I’ve always detected in Calvin’s own writings that he was more of Luther than either American Puritans or TULIP modern calvinist.

    Calvin himself seem to put the crucifixion at a universal level, and in fact said as much (Christ died for all without exception, something that is shocking for most TULIP calvinist to hear of today). Many times Calvin actually says this very thing. But the application of the blood on the mercy seat unto the elect only, His High Priestly prayer. His reasoning, I think, is that all can be sure Christ died for them and they have a part of Him, but only the elect are given the faith to believe it and receive it. The reason Calvin would say is 1. That one may freely proclaim Christ’s death for all without exception or caveats and 2. That the believer could believe it so without fear of doubt. It’s tricky, but most of todays ‘calvinist’ would fall over dead if they grasped that about J. Calvin himself.

    BTW, I may be at that large KY PCA church you are speaking of. I’m not sure but I can tell you, I’ve run into the very thing you said myself.

    Me I’m about 99% Luther, and 1% Calvin overall. On baptism I’m 100% Luther (because that’s where the devil warred with me in great terror while I was SB), its the Lord’s Supper that gets me, I admit I’m a fence rider on that one between the two. I just can’t seem to know what to do there!


    Larry KY

  2. Eric Phillips says


    Could be you’re over-thinking the Supper. Lots of people jump straight to, “Isn’t it possible He could have meant X?” without first asking themselves, “What reason is there to doubt that He literally meant what He said?”

  3. I just can’t seem to know what to do there!

    Go with whichever Scripture says! Duh!

    Seriously, if you are interested in further reading on the subject, especially if you want a good explanation of what Lutherans actually believe and why, Herman Sasse’s This is My Body is excellent. If you’re more interested in a more historic text, Martin Chemnitz’s Lord’s Supper is pretty much the definitive 16th century work on the subject. Neither book is expensive.

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