Prior to the 19th century, orthodox, confessional Lutheran and Reformed theologians used to read each other’s work and interact more than they do now. I’m not entirely sure when we stopped talking to each other but it seems clear to me that few of the orthodox Lutherans with whom I’ve talked are deeply knowledgeable about Reformed theology. Further, it seems that most Reformed folk are equally ignorant of what confessional Lutherans actually teach.
Stephen writes to ask,
…how would you assess modern-day confessional Lutheranism, its strengths and weaknesses, similarities with/departures from confessional Reformed teachings? The confessional Reformed identity you promote has similarities of course to confessional Lutheranism, e.g. in its dislike for ‘pietistic’ religion and its concern for the importance of the sacraments. In particular, how would you counsel a Reformed believer tempted by what was on offer in Lutheranism to ‘convert’, or for that matter, what would you say to a Lutheran regarding the benefits of the Reformed faith? One area I recently encountered myself (having done some exploration of Lutheran writings) is that of sanctification: the concept of progressive sanctification receives little attention in Lutheranism, which seems to dislike any talk of progress “in us,” emphasizing instead what we have already received in baptism. Any thoughts you might have on this and other areas of disagreement would be much appreciated.
Thanks for writing, Stephen. Traditionally it has been considered that there is much agreement between confessional Lutheran and Reformed theology (e.g., the basic law/gospel distinction, the doctrine of justification, total depravity, unconditional election, sola Scriptura, three uses of the law) but there have been a few areas of major disagreement.
- In soteriology, in the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort (1619), the Reformed churches rejected the confessional Lutheran doctrine of the resistibility of grace in favor of the perseverance of the saints.
- The Lutheran orthodox deny the Second of Doctrine of the Synod of Dort, i.e., definite atonement.
- Lutheran orthodoxy teaches a different Christology than confessed by the Reformed churches. We confess that Jesus’ humanity, though glorified and ascended, remains local (i.e., in one place at one time). We confess that he is “everywhere present” by the power and in the person of the Holy Spirit. Lutherans confess that his humanity is everywhere present.
- The Lutherans and the Reformed have also disagreed over the theory and practice of worship (and also over the numbering of the ten commandments).
- In obedience to the second commandment (as we number them), in light of the formal principal of the Reformation (sola scriptura), we confess the Regulative Principle of Worship: we may do only that in worship which God has commanded. The Lutherans teach that we may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. Unfortunately, today, because few Reformed churches practice the RPW as confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 96) and in the WCF (ch. 21) even those who consider themselves arch opponents of all things Lutheran tend to be practical Lutherans in their approach to and practice of worship.
On the doctrine of sanctification we should proceed carefully. I asked this very question once at a colloquy of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals in the late ’90s, and earned a stern rebuke from my colleague Richard Muller. Obviously it left a mark. I could think of several Reformed works on the doctrine of sanctification, but I could not think of any major Lutheran works on sanctification. Indeed, when I asked the Lutheran theologian David Scaer about this, he agreed that there were not a great number of such volumes. I did not understand what you have already discovered, that Lutherans tend to teach their doctrine of sanctification under the heading of baptism. When we compare the best Reformed teaching on sanctification with the best Lutheran teaching, the differences are not as great as some seem to imagine.
Nevertheless, I suspect there are differences. For example, in an online essay by my friend David Scaer, he wants rightly to say that sanctification is by grace as much as justification is by grace. He rightly wants to challenge and correct the notion that we begin by grace in justification but finish (sanctification) by works.
In this essay, however, he is quite critical of any talk of “cooperation” with grace in sanctification. I have no doubt that David knows much more about the (quite complicated) Book of Concord (1580) than I do, but notice in the Epitome of the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Churches confess,
But, on the other hand, it is correctly said that in conversion God, through the drawing of the Holy Ghost, makes out of stubborn and unwilling men willing ones, and that after such conversion in the daily exercise of repentance the regenerate will of man is not idle, but also cooperates in all the works of the Holy Ghost, which He performs through us.
Perhaps “cooperate” is not quite the right verb. We should, however, agrees with Belgic Confession (Art 24):
We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.
Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification– for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.
So then, we do good works, but not for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”— thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ “
Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works— but it is by his grace that He crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.
In the brief essay to which I referred above, David doesn’t say which “Protestants” he has in mind but the Reformed churches agree that believers are no longer under the curse of the law. We agree that we are not sanctified by the law, but we confess that the law is the norm for our sanctification. As Walter Marshall explained in The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, and as Mike Horton has recently explained in The Gospel-Driven Life, the gospel is the power of the Christian life. The law never gives us the ability to do what it commands. Only God the Spirit does that, through the word of the gospel. Nevertheless, as the Epitome says, we are not idle. Sanctification is by grace alone, but that grace is operative in us and through us and enables us to grow in Christlikeness in this life.
Judging by some Reformed literature I read, I suspect that we do not often read the Lutherans deeply or carefully and I don’t see much evidence in Lutheran literature that they have been reading our writers (or even confessions) well or carefully. There are very real and perhaps irreconcilable differences between the confessional Lutheran and Reformed churches but there are genuine areas of agreement. It would be well if we could at least talk with one another more frequently to come to a clearer understanding what those areas are.