Scripture's clear promise of eternal election has been obscured by denominational divisions, with the effect that election is seen as a teaching of Scripture to be used more for debate than for the strengthening of faith. The most important debates focus on how to use the teaching for what all Scripture was intended: comfort and hope from the promise of the gospel (Romans 15:4).
Do Lutherans, as some have heard from Calvinists, really say there have been true children of God who are now eternally lost? That would remove hope from God’s good news of eternal election. Do Lutherans, as some synergists insist, really teach the doctrine of eternal security, that anyone who has ever believed the gospel will inherit eternal life even without remaining in the word of Christ? That would remove terror from God’s law, which sternly condemns us in order that we continue to take refuge in Christ as the one who has faced and defeated that terror for all people. The truth is that the Lutheran Church adamantly opposes both errors as threats to faith in the gospel.
After distinguishing the Lutheran teaching from the Calvinistic and synergistic extremes, this essay will demonstrate that it is not someone's inference from Scripture but rather that it is plainly stated in the unadorned words of Scripture. The church that takes its stand on the bare words of Scripture concerning justification by faith alone and concerning eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ also stands firmly on the bare words of Scripture concerning election.
That stance on eternal election is stated succinctly by an influential theologian of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod: "In short, the recognition of one's election and faith in the Gospel are identical" (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, III:483). Against Calvinism, Pieper was saying there are true believers who completely fall away from Christ because they stopped believing the gospel. However, against synergism, he was also saying all those who stop believing with saving faith will be brought back to faith since they are among the elect.
Pieper was not saying that one must progress to the point of knowing about the doctrine of election to have saving faith. Rather, he was saying that any penitent sinner who believes the gospel thereby believes that he is among the elect. That is based in part on Paul's addressing Christian congregations as the elect, as will be seen.
Pieper could take both the warnings concerning apostasy and the promises of election seriously by considering the former as law and the latter as gospel. The law says that if you fall away from the faith and do not repent, you will perish eternally. The Lutheran confessions, especially the Formula of Concord, say the same thing.
While the law of God does threaten his wrath, his gospel cannot since it is by definition nothing but good news. Against Calvinism, Pieper correctly taught that the gospel, including the promise of preservation, is available to all since God sincerely desires the salvation of all, as the Formula of Concord also emphasizes. Consider also these gospel excerpts from the article of the Formula of Concord on eternal election:
Thus this doctrine affords also the excellent, glorious consolation that God was so greatly concerned about the conversion, righteousness, and salvation of every Christian, and so faithfully purposed it… that before the foundation of the world was laid, He deliberated concerning it, and in His [secret] purpose ordained how He would bring me thereto [call and lead me to salvation], and preserve me therein.
It can be seen that "every Christian" and "me" refer to the same person: every believer, every Christian. That would mean God was concerned enough with the salvation of every child of God to preserve him or her in it.
Therefore, whoever would be saved should not trouble or harass himself with thoughts concerning the secret counsel of God, as to whether he also is elected and ordained to eternal life, with which miserable Satan usually attacks and annoys godly hearts. But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God's eternal election of all of God's children to eternal life...
The formula said there that all of God's children have been elected to eternal life. That includes those of God's children who have fallen away from the faith before returning again.
Far from leading to fatalism, apathy, or lawlessness, the good news of the election of all God's children motivates the Christian life. The Formula continues with the exhortation to live in repentance, in the forgiving promises of word and sacrament, and in confident prayer:
According to this doctrine of His they should abstain from their sins, repent, believe His promise, and entirely trust in Him; and since we cannot do this by ourselves, of our own powers, the Holy Ghost desires to work these things, namely, repentance and faith, in us through the Word and Sacraments. And in order that we may attain this, persevere in it, and remain steadfast, we should implore God for His grace, which He has promised us in Holy Baptism, and, no doubt, He will impart it to us according to His promise, as He has said, Luke 11:11ff : If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him!
The Formula of Concord likewise affirms these articles among others:
4. That He will justify all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith, and will receive them into grace, the adoption of sons, and the inheritance of eternal life.
5. That He will also sanctify in love those who are thus justified, as St. Paul says, Eph. 1:4.
6. That He also will protect them in their great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh, and rule and lead them in His ways, raise them again [place His hand beneath them], when they stumble, comfort them under the cross and in temptation, and preserve them [for life eternal].
7. That He will also strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work which He has begun in them, if they adhere to God's Word, pray diligently, abide in God's goodness [grace], and faithfully use the gifts received.
In short, God will raise and preserve for eternal life "all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith" (paragraphs 18-20), and he will do so by means of his word and sacraments and in response to prayer grounded in his promises.
Pieper (III:483-484), following Luther and the Formula of Concord, instructed us to discern our election in the wounds of Christ, that is, in the promise that he takes the sins of the world away (III:482-483). Here is an example of how the Formula grounds the assurance of election in the universality of the atonement (paragraph 70):
But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God's eternal election of all of God's children to eternal life: He testifies to all men without distinction that it is God's will that all men should come to Him who labor and are heavy laden with sin, in order that He may give them rest and save them, Matt. 11:28.
Not all denominations receive Scripture's good news that all of God's children have been elected to eternal life. Taking the Presbyterian Church as an example, the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly makes the promises of the gospel conditional on evidence of conversion. Since, by contrast, the scriptural article of election is a promise of the gospel, there are only at most two teachings on election consistent with the gospel:
- Teaching #1. Those true children of God who will fall away without ever returning believed the gospel promise of justification but not the gospel promise of election. That would mean God's children can be divided between those who believe the gospel for election and those who believe the gospel for justification but not for election. Were that the case, it would give special urgency to providing instruction on the article of election.
- Teaching #2. There is only one gospel promise, the promise made in baptism, which includes all the benefits of Christ's universal atonement, including justification and preservation to eternal life. Later instruction on the details of the two natures of Christ, election, etc. are important for the preservation of faith by the means of grace but adds no promises to that of the Trinitarian baptism formula. Pieper put it well: "Every poor sinner, therefore, who keeps his faith focused on the Gospel, without any side glances in the direction of the Law, is eo ipso [thereby] believing his eternal election." That includes those poor sinners who have not received specific instruction on the article of election.
In other words, if there is a promise of preservation, then either it is the promise of the gospel that all believers accept, as Pieper argued (Teaching #2), or it is a separate promise that some believers do not accept (Teaching #1). Again, Teaching #1 would divide faith that justifies from faith in the promise of election. In other words, there would have to be a Stage 1 gospel and a Stage 2 gospel. First, believe the Stage 1 gospel that your sins are forgiven. Then, believe the Stage 2 gospel that you are elect. According to that scheme, those who believe the first promise but not the second permanently fall from faith. In that case, the doctrine of election should receive special emphasis beyond the emphasis it has in Scripture.
No, there is only one gospel: election is promised by the same gospel that promises justification. Those who believe one promise thereby believe the other (Teaching #2).
Not everyone believes. Pieper correctly attributes a lack of faith solely to the stubborn rejection of the offer of salvation Christ makes to all, sincerely desiring their salvation. At the same time, Pieper also correctly attributes faith solely to the grace of God. There should be no question that election is a cause of saving faith. Pieper rightly stressed, "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed." While aware of the apparent contradiction, Pieper points out that all attempts to resolve it lead to either Calvinism or synergism.
The Lutheran teaching on election (Teaching #2, above) did not originate with the Formula of Concord but can be traced at least as far back as Luther's Large Catechism:
Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.
As the Large Catechism says, everyone confessing faith in the second article of the Creed (that Jesus Christ is Lord) thereby confesses faith that he "preserves us in" righteousness. Indeed, every baptized child of God has justifying and sanctifying faith and thereby believes all articles of gospel, including its promise of preservation in righteousness. It is not that everyone who is baptized necessarily believes, but rather than all who believe the promise of baptism are elect. Since the promise of the good news that Jesus is Lord includes the promise of preservation, all who believe the gospel will be preserved in the true faith to the end. Otherwise, God would break his promise that was received in faith.
What about the threats of Scripture against those who only believe for a time? Of course, the word "believe" has meanings in the language of the New Testament apart from its specifically Christian meaning, "believe with saving faith," and context always determines how a word is used. For example, the Fourth Gospel spoke of children of Satan who had believed in Christ without really keeping his word (John 8:31-33, 43-44, 51, ESV):
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone…" "Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death."
See also John 2:23-25 and 5:37-38. The threats in John 15:1-10 and other Scriptures about what happens to those who believe without remaining in the word of Christ pertain to the law, not to election, since election is pure gospel. Citing Romans 10:11, Pieper observed (III:485),
There is no cause for concern lest time believers be deceived when preservation of the faith is promised them in the Gospel and thus their eternal election is revealed to them. This is a purely hypothetical case. He who confidently believes God's gracious promise to keep him in faith will not fall away finally.
Thus, Pieper distinguished "time believers" from elect believers. The citation of Romans 10:11 is apt: "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." A literal translation of the Greek reads, "The one believing [present] in him will not be shamed [future]."
Similarly, consider Romans 8 ("whom he justified, he glorified") and other Pauline passages: "Christians can and should be assured of their eternal election. This is evident from the fact that Scripture addresses them as the chosen ones and comforts them with their election, Ephesians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13" (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1932 Brief Statement).
That is just a sampling of the Scriptures that promise preservation and eternal election. John 6:40 is particularly clear: "For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
Amen. Surely God will keep that promise.
Are you anxious about whether you are one of the elect? Do you fear that your faith in Christ may one day wither and die? There is good news for you. Since you now believe in the Son of God, you most certainly will be resurrected when he returns. He himself told you, "this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40).
Yes, baptized child of God, he will doubtless keep you in his word and in the one true faith unto life everlasting.