Can one be certain of one’s salvation?


Interview with Dr Martin Luther

(Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, SELK)

The form of a fictional interview does not give a truly authentic account of Martin Luther, since the individual passages are not in their original contexts. Nevertheless, it brings interesting new distinctions to the fore. The quotations were nonetheless carefully and cautiously written into today’s German and then translated. But read for yourself.

QUESTION: Dr Luther, we have an appointment for a discussion on the subject of assurance of salvation and free will. I would like to start with a very central question: Can a Christian really be certain of his eternal salvation?

Martin Luther: “This is our foundation: The Gospel does not call us to look at our good works and our perfection but to God Himself, who gives the promise, and to Christ Himself, our Mediator. … I cling to God, who cannot lie. For he says: Behold, I give my Son unto death, that he may redeem you from sin and death by his blood. (Puts his hand on his heart.) Then I cannot doubt unless I want to deny God altogether.

And this is the reason that our theology is certain, for it brings us to the point that we do not look to ourselves, but bases us on what is outside of ourselves, that we do not build on our own powers, conscience, feeling, person and works, but rely on what is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot fail. …[we] know … truly that [we] are loved by God…” (Explanation on Galatians 4:6, the original German quote from Walch, 2nd edition, vol. 9, col. 508-509)

Q: Dr Luther, we are saved not through feelings or works, but by what exactly?

Luther: “And this also we cannot discern better than from the words of Christ …: ‘He that believes and is baptised will be saved.’ Therefore, state it most simply thus, that the power, work, profit, fruit, and end of Baptism is this, namely, to save. For no one is baptised in order that he may become a prince, but, as the words declare, that he be saved. But to be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ, and to live with Him forever.” (Large Catechism, Part IV, 2, 23-25)

Q: Mr Luther, can children already believe?

Luther: “We bring the child [to baptism] in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptise it upon that, but solely upon the command of God.” (Large Catechism, Part IV, 4, 57)

 Q: But, Mr Luther, you yourself quoted from the Bible: “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.” Surely faith is what baptism is all about?

Luther: You are twisting my words. “…when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound (as stated) to our faith, but to the Word. …just as those who unworthily go to the Sacrament [Lord’s Supper] receive the true Sacrament, even though they do not believe.” (Large Catechism, Part IV, 4, 53-54)

Q: So a Christian can sin as he likes, because he is baptised?

Luther: No, “God does not want us to lead a shamefully evil life; for he cannot bear it, and it is condemned. But if you lead a good life, you also want to cling to it. But he does not want that either. Therefore, you must take care that you remain on the middle path, that you do not waver to the left or to the right, and that you lead a quiet, pure life before the world, but do not pride yourself on it. For whether I sleep or wake, I do not earn heaven for myself.” (Original German quote from WA 17, Vol. I, p. 312b)

Q: What should a baptised Christian do, if he has sinned? Wouldn’t he then have to be baptised again?

Luther: “And here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, includes also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism. … Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism.” (Large Catechism, Part IV, 4, 74 & 79)

Q: Oh, that’s surprising! It is said everywhere that you have abolished repentance and confession?

Luther: “If thousands upon thousands of worlds were mine, I would rather lose everything than have the smallest piece of confession be removed from the church. … For forgiveness in confession is spoken by the priest in God’s stead, and thus it is nothing other than God’s word, that he may comfort our hearts.” (Original German quote from WA 30, Vol. 3, p. 569)

Q: But man must surely do something for his salvation, he has to at least freely choose Jesus Christ out of his own free will, must he not, Mr Luther?

Luther: “Rotterdam” is all I can say, more precisely “Erasmus of Rotterdam”! I had an extensive dispute with this professor about free will as early as 1525. A clever mind, but he would not and could not follow me. I explained it to Erasmus as follows: “Since free will has lost its freedom, has been forced into the bondage of sin and cannot want anything good, I can gather nothing else from these words than that free will is an empty word whose content is lost.” (De servo aritrio, 1525: WA 18, pp. 600-787, According to the original German translation by Prof. Dr. Martin H. Jung, in: Luther lesen, Göttingen, 2016, p. 130)

Q: Now that is your own opinion, one can also see it differently!

Luther: “But the [Holy] Scriptures portray man as one who is not only bound, wretched, imprisoned, sick and dead (Ephesians 2:1), but who, under the influence of his master, Satan, adds to all this misery that of blindness, thinking himself free, happy, redeemed, powerful, healthy and alive.” (Luther lesen, p. 131)

Q: Then why doesn’t God just redeem all people if things are so bad for us?

Luther: “God desires all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), since he came to all with the word of salvation. The fault lies with our will that does not accept it, as Matthew 23:37 says: ‘How often would I have gathered your children together … and you were not willing!’” (Luther lesen, p. 135)

Q: But that is not logical, Dr Luther….

Luther: “But why the [divine] Majesty does not cancel this guilt of our will or change it for all people – since this is, after all, not within the power of man – or why he imputes this guilt to man – although man cannot be free from it – it is not for us to ask.” (Luther lesen p. 135)

Q: I have to ask you again, Mr Luther…

Luther (a little louder): “And even if you ask as much as you like, you will still not fathom it, as Paul says in Romans 9:20: ‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’” “For thus I can easily prove that even a stone or a tree trunk has free will, since it can move both upwards and downwards, but by its own power only downwards, and upwards only with the help of others.” (Luther lesen, p. 135 and p. 128)

Q: What about human decisions of the will, when it is not a matter of faith, for example in politics and society?

Luther: “A certain measure of free decision you may rightly grant to man, but to grant him free will in divine matters, that goes too far.” (Luther lesen, p. 125)

Q: And the faith in us is entirely the work of God?

Luther: Yes, “true faith, however, is a divine work in us which transforms us and gives us the new birth out of God (John 1:13) and kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, spirit and all powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh, there is a living, working, active, the mighty thing about faith, so that it is impossible that it should not work good without ceasing.” (Preface to the Epistles of James and Jude, 1522: WA.DB 7, pp. 384-386, based on the transcription by Prof. Dr. Martin H. Jung, in: Luther lesen, Göttingen, 2016, p. 96)

Q: Your view of free will sounds remarkably similar to what modern brain researchers say. What do you think of that?

Luther: I don’t know anything about that! “We are to hear God’s word with fear and deal with it in humility, but not descend upon it as we please … For God’s word is not to be trifled with. If you are not able to understand it, take your hat off to it.” (WA, Vol. 20, p. 571b)

Q: Professor Dr Luther, thank you for lending us your words.

The questions were asked by Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, Hanover, Germany (SELK) and translated by Angelika Johannes, Panbult. (Reprinted with permission)


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