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What Did Luther Believe About Predestination? – His Final Word on the Subject

Luther Addresses the Problems that Occur When Christians Misunderstand Predestination

But it pleases me to take from this passage the opportunity to discuss doubt, God, and the will of God; for I hear that here and there among the nobles and persons of importance vicious statements are being spread abroad concerning predestination or God’s foreknowledge. For this is what they say: “If I am predestined, I shall be saved, whether I do good or evil. If I am not predestined, I shall be condemned regardless of my works.” I would be glad to debate in detail against these wicked statements if the uncertain state of my health made it possible for me to do so. For if the statements are true, as they, of course, think, then the incarnation of the Son of God, His suffering and resurrection, and all that He did for the salvation of the world are done away with completely. What will the prophets and all Holy Scripture help? What will the sacraments help? Therefore let us reject all this and tread it underfoot.

These are devilish and poisoned darts and original sin itself, with which the devil led our first parents astray when he said (Gen. 3:5): “You will be like God.” They were not satisfied with the divinity that had been revealed and in the knowledge of which they were blessed, but they wanted to penetrate to the depth of the divinity. For they inferred that there was some secret reason why God had forbidden them to eat of the fruit of the tree which was in the middle of Paradise, and they wanted to know what this reason was, just as these people of our time say: “What God has determined beforehand must happen. Consequently, every concern about religion and about the salvation of souls is uncertain and useless.” Yet it has not been given to you to render a verdict that is inscrutable. Why do you doubt or thrust aside the faith that God has enjoined on you? For what end did it serve to send His Son to suffer and to be crucified for us? Of what use was it to institute the sacraments if they are uncertain or completely useless for our salvation? For otherwise, if someone had been predestined, he would have been saved without the Son and without the sacraments or Holy Scripture. Consequently, God, according to the blasphemy of these people, was horribly foolish when He sent His Son, promulgated the Law and the Gospel, and sent the apostles if the only thing He wanted was that we should be uncertain and in doubt whether we are to be saved or really to be damned.

But these are delusions of the devil with which he tries to cause us to doubt and disbelieve, although Christ came into this world to make us completely certain. For eventually either despair must follow or contempt for God, for the Holy Bible, for Baptism, and for all the blessings of God through which He wanted us to be strengthened over against uncertainty and doubt. For they will say with the Epicureans: “Let us live, eat, and drink; tomorrow we shall die” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32). After the manner of the Turks they will rush rashly into the sword and fire, since the hour in which you either die or escape has been predetermined.

But to these thoughts one must oppose the true and firm knowledge of Christ, just as I often remind you that it is profitable and necessary above all that the knowledge of God be completely certain in us and that we cling to it with firm assent of the heart. Otherwise our faith is useless. For if God does not stand by His promises, then our salvation is lost, while, on the other hand, this is our comfort, that, although we change, we nevertheless flee for refuge to Him who is unchangeable. For in Mal. 3:6 He makes this assertion about Himself: “I the Lord do not change.” And Rom. 11:29 states: “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Accordingly, this is how I have taught in my book On the Bondage of the Will and elsewhere, namely, that a distinction must be made when one deals with the knowledge, or rather with the subject, of the divinity. For one must debate either about the hidden God or about the revealed God. With regard to God, insofar as He has not been revealed, there is no faith, no knowledge, and no understanding. And here one must hold to the statement that what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether devilish. With them nothing more is achieved than that we plunge ourselves into destruction; for they present an object that is inscrutable, namely, the unrevealed God. Why not rather let God keep His decisions and mysteries in secret? We have no reason to exert ourselves so much that these decisions and mysteries be revealed to us.

Moses, too, asked God to show him His face; but the Lord replies: “You shall see My back, but you will not be able to see My face” (cf. Ex. 33:23). For this inquisitiveness is original sin itself, by which we are impelled to strive for a way to God through natural speculation. But this is a great sin and a useless and futile attempt; for this is what Christ says in John 6:65 (cf. John 14:6): “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” Therefore when we approach the unrevealed God, then there is no faith, no Word, and no knowledge; for He is an invisible God, and you will not make Him visible.

Furthermore, God has most sternly forbidden this investigation of the divinity. Thus when the apostles ask in Acts 1:6, “Has it not been predestined that at this time the kingdom should be restored?” Christ says to them: “It is not for you to know the times” (Acts 1:7). “Let Me be hidden where I have not revealed Myself to you,” says God, “or you will be the cause of your own destruction, just as Adam fell in a horrible manner; for he who investigates My majesty will be overwhelmed by My glory.”

And it is true that God wanted to counteract this curiosity at the very beginning; for this is how He set forth His will and counsel: “I will reveal My foreknowledge and predestination to you in an extraordinary manner, but not by this way of reason and carnal wisdom, as you imagine. This is how I will do so: From an unrevealed God I will become a revealed God. Nevertheless, I will remain the same God. I will be made flesh, or send My Son. He shall die for your sins and shall rise again from the dead. And in this way I will fulfill your desire, in order that you may be able to know whether you are predestined or not. Behold, this is My Son; listen to Him (cf. Matt. 17:5). Look at Him as He lies in the manger and on the lap of His mother, as He hangs on the cross. Observe what He does and what He says. There you will surely take hold of Me.” For “He who sees Me,” says Christ, “also sees the Father Himself” (cf. John 14:9). If you listen to Him, are baptized in His name, and love His Word, then you are surely predestined and are certain of your salvation. But if you revile or despise the Word, then you are damned; for he who does not believe is condemned (Mark 16:16).

You must kill the other thoughts and the ways of reason or of the flesh, for God detests them. The only thing you have to do is to receive the Son, so that Christ is welcome in your heart in His birth, miracles, and cross. For here is the book of life in which you have been written. And this is the only and the most efficacious remedy for that horrible disease because of which human beings in their investigation of God want to proceed in a speculative manner and eventually rush into despair or contempt. If you want to escape despair, hatred, and blasphemy of God, give up your speculation about the hidden God, and cease to strive in vain to see the face of God.

Otherwise you will have to remain perpetually in unbelief and damnation, and you will have to perish; for he who doubts does not believe, and he who does not believe is condemned (Mark 16:16).

Therefore we should detest and shun these vicious words which the Epicureans bandy about: “If this is how it must happen, let it happen.” For God did not come down from heaven to make you uncertain about predestination, to teach you to despise the sacraments, absolution, and the rest of the divine ordinances. Indeed, He instituted them to make you completely certain and to remove the disease of doubt from your heart, in order that you might not only believe with the heart but also see with your physical eyes and touch with your hands. Why, then, do you reject these and complain that you do not know whether you have been predestined? You have the Gospel; you have been baptized; you have absolution; you are a Christian. Nevertheless, you doubt and say that you do not know whether you believe or not, whether you regard as true what is preached about Christ in the Word and the sacraments.

But you will say: “I cannot believe.” Thus many are troubled by this trial, and I recall that at Torgau a little woman came to me and complained with tears in her eyes that she could not believe. Then, when I recited the articles of the Creed in order and asked about each one whether she was convinced that these things were true and had happened in this manner or not, she answered: “I certainly think that they are true, but I cannot believe.” This was a satanic illusion. Consequently, I kept saying: “If you think that all these things are true, there is no reason why you should complain about your unbelief; for if you do not doubt that the Son of God died for you, you surely believe, because to believe is nothing else than to regard these facts as the sure and unquestionable truth.”

God says to you: “Behold, you have My Son. Listen to Him, and receive Him. If you do this, you are already sure about your faith and salvation.” “But I do not know,” you will say, “whether I am remaining in faith.” At all events, accept the present promise and the predestination, and do not inquire too curiously about the secret counsels of God. If you believe in the revealed God and accept His Word, He will gradually also reveal the hidden God; for “He who sees Me also sees the Father,” as John 14:9 says. He who rejects the Son also loses the unrevealed God along with the revealed God. But if you cling to the revealed God with a firm faith, so that your heart is so minded that you will not lose Christ even if you are deprived of everything, then you are most assuredly predestined, and you will understand the hidden God. Indeed, you understand Him even now if you acknowledge the Son and His will, namely, that He wants to reveal Himself to you, that He wants to be your Lord and your Savior. Therefore you are sure that God is also your Lord and Father.

Observe how pleasantly and kindly God delivers you from this horrible trial with which Satan besets people today in strange ways in order to make them doubtful and uncertain, and eventually even to alienate them from the Word. “For why should you hear the Gospel,” they say, “since everything depends on predestination?” In this way he robs us of the predestination guaranteed through the Son of God and the sacraments. He makes us uncertain where we are completely certain. And if he attacks timid consciences with this trial, they die in despair, as would almost have happened to me if Staupitz had not delivered me from the same trial when I was troubled. But if they are despisers, they become the worst Epicureans. Therefore we should rather impress these statements on our hearts, such as John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” Through whom? Through Me. “He who sees Me also sees the Father” (cf. John 14:9). And God says to Moses: “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20). And we read (Acts 1:7): “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. But go, and carry out what I command.” Likewise (Ecclus. 3:22): “Seek not the things that are too high for you, and search not into things above your ability; but the things that God has commanded you, think on them always, and in many of His works be not curious.” Listen to the incarnate Son, and predestination will present itself of its own accord.

Staupitz used to comfort me with these words: “Why do you torture yourself with these speculations? Look at the wounds of Christ and at the blood that was shed for you. From these predestination will shine. Consequently, one must listen to the Son of God, who was sent into the flesh and appeared to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to make you sure about predestination. And for this reason He says to you: ‘You are My sheep because you hear My voice’ (cf. John 10:27). ‘No one shall snatch you out of My hands’ ” (cf. v. 28).

Many who did not resist this trial in such a manner were hurled headlong into destruction. Consequently, the hearts of the godly should be kept carefully fortified. Thus a certain hermit in The Lives of the Fathers advises his hearers against speculations of this kind. He says: “If you see that someone has put his foot in heaven, pull him back. For this is how saintly neophytes are wont to think about God apart from Christ. They are the ones who try to ascend into heaven and to place both feet there. But suddenly they are plunged into hell.” Therefore the godly should beware and be intent only on learning to cling to the Child and Son Jesus, who is your God and was made flesh for your sake. Acknowledge and hear Him; take pleasure in Him, and give thanks. If you have Him, then you also have the hidden God together with Him who has been revealed. And that is the only way, the truth, and the life (cf. John 14:6). Apart from it you will find nothing but destruction and death.

But He manifested himself in the flesh to snatch us from death, from the power of the devil. From this knowledge must come great joy and delight that God is unchangeable, that He works in accordance with unchangeable necessity, and that He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13) but keeps His promises. Accordingly, one is not free to have such thoughts or doubts about predestination; but they are ungodly, vicious, and devilish. Therefore when the devil assails you with them, you should only say: “I believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, about whom I have no doubt that He was made flesh, suffered, and died for me. Into His death I have been baptized.” This answer will make the trial disappear, and Satan will turn his back.

Thus on other occasions I have often mentioned the noteworthy example of a nun who underwent the same trial. For under the papacy there were also many godly persons who experienced these spiritual trials, which are truly hellish and thoughts of the damned. For there is no difference at all between one who doubts and one who is damned. Therefore whenever the nun felt that she was being assailed with the fiery darts of Satan (cf. Eph. 6:16), she would say nothing else than this: “I am a Christian.”

We must do the same thing. One must refrain from debates and say: “I am a Christian; that is, the Son of God was made flesh and was born; He has redeemed me and is sitting at the right hand of the Father, and He is my Savior.” Thus you must drive Satan away from you with as few words as possible and say: “Begone, Satan! (Matt. 4:10.) Do not put doubt in me. The Son of God came into this world to destroy your work (1 John 3:8) and to destroy doubt.” Then the trial ceases, and the heart returns to peace, quiet, and the love of God.

Otherwise doubt about some person’s intention is no sin. Thus Isaac doubts that he will live or have a pious host. About a man I can be in doubt. Indeed, I should be in doubt. For he is not my Savior, and it is written (Ps. 146:3): “Put not your trust in princes.” For man is a liar (Ps. 116:11) and deceitful. But one cannot deal doubtfully with God. For He neither wants nor is able to be changeable or a liar. But the highest form of worship He requires is your conviction that He is truthful. For this is why He has given you the strongest proofs of His trustworthiness and truth. He has given His Son into the flesh and into death, and He has instituted the sacraments, in order that you may know that He does not want to be deceitful, but that He wants to be truthful. Nor does He confirm this with spiritual proofs; He confirms it with tangible proofs. For I see the water, I see the bread and the wine, and I see the minister. All this is physical, and in these material forms He reveals Himself. If you must deal with men, you may be in doubt as to the extent to which you may believe a person and as to how others may be disposed toward you; but concerning God you must maintain with assurance and without any doubt that He is well disposed toward you on account of Christ and that you have been redeemed and sanctified through the precious blood of the Son of God. And in this way you will be sure of your predestination, since all the prying and dangerous questions about GOD’S secret counsels have been removed—the questions to which Satan tries to drive us, just as he drove our first parents.

But how great would our first parent’s happiness have been if he had kept the Word of God carefully in sight and had eaten of all the other trees except the one from which he had been forbidden to eat! But he wanted to search out why God had forbidden him to enjoy the fruits from that one tree. In addition, there was Satan, the malicious teacher who increased and abetted this curiosity. Thus he was hurled headlong into sin and death.

Thus God reveals His will to us through Christ and the Gospel. But we loathe it and, in accordance with Adam’s example, take delight in the forbidden tree above all the others. This fault has been implanted in us by nature. When Paradise and heaven have been closed and the angel has been placed on guard there (cf. Gen. 3:24), we try in vain to enter. For Christ has truthfully said: “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). Nevertheless, God, in His boundless goodness, has revealed Himself to us in order to satisfy our desire. He has shown us a visible image. “Behold, you have My Son; he who hears Him and is baptized is written in the book of life. This I reveal through My Son, whom you can touch with your hands and look at with your eyes.”

I have wanted to teach and transmit this in such a painstaking and accurate way because after my death many will publish my books and will prove from them errors of every kind and their own delusions. Among other things, however, I have written that everything is absolute and unavoidable; but at the same time I have added that one must look at the revealed God, as we sing in the hymn: Er heist Jesu Christ, der HERR Zebaoth, und ist kein ander Gott, “Jesus Christ is the Lord of hosts, and there is no other God”—and also in very many other places. But they will pass over all these places and take only those that deal with the hidden God. Accordingly, you who are listening to me now should remember that I have taught that one should not inquire into the predestination of the hidden God but should be satisfied with what is revealed through the calling and through the ministry of the Word. For then you can be sure about your faith and salvation and say: “I believe in the Son of God, who said (John 3:36): ‘He who believes in the Son has eternal life.’ ” Hence no condemnation or wrath rests on him, but he enjoys the good pleasure of God the Father. But I have publicly stated these same things elsewhere in my books, and now I am also teaching them by word of mouth. Therefore I am excused.

(From the American Edition of Luther’s Works 5:43-50; Luther’s Genesis Commentary, commenting on Genesis 29:9).