Luther’s Pastoral Approach to Predestination

Martin Luther was aware of the challenges of certain doctrinal issues. Predestination has always been an area that can produce philosophical anxiety and deep-seated fear. Luther’s pastoral touch is evident in this section from his Table Talk. Notice how he pushes us away from what we can’t know about God to what we can and do know about him.

Concerning predestination, it is best to begin below, at Christ, as then we both hear and find the Father; for all those that have begun at the top have broken their necks. I have been thoroughly plagued and tormented with such cogitations of predestination; I would needs know how God intended to deal with me, etc. But at last, God be praised! I clean left them; I took hold again on God’s revealed Word; higher I was not able to bring it, for a human creature can never search out the celestial will of God; this God hides, for the sake of the devil, to the end the crafty spirit may be deceived and put to confusion. The revealed will of God the devil has learned from us, but God reserves his secret will to himself. It is sufficient for us to learn and know Christ in his humanity, in which the Father has revealed himself.

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Election as Mission Impulse

One of the most common objections to election and predestination is evangelism in missions. If God chooses men and women why do we share the gospel with them? What’s the point? Paul seems to think pretty differently about this. Look at what he says about it.

“I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they may too obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).

Election is no hindrance to Paul when he thinks about missions and winning the lost. It is in fact the opposite. This text helps us understand that election is a driving force and impulse for Paul in the missionary task. It gives him confidence that God is sovereign over all things including the people he is sharing with. It gives him strength to persevere in the midst of affliction and persecution because he knows his labor will not be in vain—how can it be when God has chosen men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Election as Identity

The New Testament uses many diverse terms and images to describe our new identity in relationship to God, which comes as a result of his saving grace. For example we are described as saints, the church, children of God, people of God, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, a holy priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, the beloved of God, sojourners, exiles, and those for whom Christ died. These are precious titles that we gladly embrace. We draw strength and comfort from them as we are reminded of God’s great care for us.

The New Testament also identifies us as the chosen and the elect of God (Mt 24:22, 24, Lk 18:7, Rom 16:13, Col 3:12, Tit 1:1, 1 Pet 1:1, 2:9, 2 Jn 1, 13). Just as we are the children of God we are those who have been graciously chosen by God. The doctrine of election defines who we are—we cannot escape it and why would we want to. This truth about us and our relationship with God is just as precious as every other identity we are given by God. This is who we are. This epithet is one that is intended to create in us great gratitude, humility, confidence, assurance, and hope.

This is a very different starting point for a discussion on election. If you remove yourself from the debate that swirls around the doctrine of election and read the New Testament with fresh eyes you will find that this doctrine serves very specific pastoral purposes. Besides being an identity for the people of God it is used by the NT authors to encourage unity in the body, foster humility before God, drive us to our knees in praise, give us fuel for the task of mission, grant us confidence in the last day, and create within us a hushed reverence for the freedom and mystery of God.

The Trinity and Election

The Father is the focus of most discussions about election. Election being the gracious and loving action of God in eternity past whereby he selected us to know his mercy and rescue from our sin that we might be brought back to him. 1 Peter 1:1-2, however, helps us understand the vital role of each of three persons of the Trinity in this wonderful grace. Note all three persons of the Trinity in this passage.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. 

The idea of being elect exiles is the controlling thought of the two verses. The three prepositional phrases all modify this one major idea. In other words, each of the three persons is mentioned along with a specific work he is accomplishing and this is all in connection to election. This can be illustrated as follows.

To the elect exiles

  • according to the foreknowledge of God
  • in the sanctification of the Spirit
  • for obedience to Jesus Christ
  • and for sprinkling with his blood

The Father sets his love on us before the creation of the world. His foreknowledge here refers to his loving selection of us apart from our effort and solely by his grace. Here we see that the Father is the great architect of the saving work of the Triune God. It was in the Father’s heart to save us by his grace.

The sanctification of the Spirit is the moment when we are definitively set apart for God as his holy possession. When the Spirit regenerates us, washes us, and indwells us we are united to Christ and sanctified before the Father. This work of sanctification is the result of election. This work of sanctification also makes tangible the electing grace of God. The grace of God intended for us before time began is brought into the material present.

The work of the Son is touched on next. The cross is the hinge of all the work of God. The cross is the result of election but also the means by which God secures his chosen people. Election brings about the cross and it brings about the application of Christ’s work to us. Election also intends to bring about transformation in the believer—it produces obedience.

Every work of God involves all three persons of the Trinity. There is not one single thing that God does that does not include the Father, Son, and Spirit. One person may take the lead and play the primary role in the work but the other two are always present and contributing. In election the Father plans, the Son is faithful and obedient unto death, and the Spirit sets us apart. Out of election flows the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the sprinkling of Christ’s blood over our sinful lives, and the obedience to Christ that marks all disciples of Jesus. The present work of the Spirit in applying the work of Christ to our lives is a tangible expression of the Father’s electing grace. We are chosen by the Triune God. The Triune God executes his plan perfectly as he saves us fully.

What can we say? The purpose of election is to overwhelm us with the reality of undeserved grace and mercy. If we contemplate God’s kindness and love toward us in election we will find ourselves with Paul on our knees exclaiming: Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways! To him be the glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:33, 36). We will worship as we grasp a fraction of what is going on here in election.

God also intends his electing grace to produce in us comfort and assurance. Paul communicates to the church in Ephesus that they are beloved and favored by the Triune God. He roots much of his encouragement in the fact that God has chosen us in his love (Eph 1:2-5). The doctrine of election was never intended to engender philosophical debate. Every treatment of this doctrine in the New Testament is pastoral to the core. The New Testament authors were missionaries and pastors who wanted to encourage their people by showing them the heart of relentless and passionate God in pursuit of them. Election is a mighty expression of God’s love toward us.

As election encourages us it also humbles us. Election has a way of assaulting every vestige of pride in the human heart. It undermines human effort before God and strips us naked before him. It communicates to us loud and clear that salvation belongs to the Lord. God alone saves. We are the saved, God is the Savior. Election will not allow us to confuse these two roles. We bring nothing to the table here and therefore can take no credit. This is incredibly freeing if we allow it to be. It will produce people who boast in the Lord alone.