Luther vs. Calvin on salvation

Here’s a question that resulted from a Calvinist friend of mine who is hiding behind that “we agree on the essentials” to justify the differences between all of the protestant traditions.

I’d like to use the differences between teaching on salvation to show that they don’t agree on the so-called essential doctrines.

Could I rightfully say that Luther taught that faith leads to salvation, while Calvin taught that salvation leads to faith, or am I simplifying things too much by doing so?

Note: I’ll also point out that there is no list of essential and non-essential doctrines in the bible, but that will come later.

To start, I must say that this is a terrible attitude to have and far too common among the Catholics here.

Salvation is by grace through faith which produces works. Calvinists and Lutherans agree; it’s only when we try to complicate things that we succeed. I however see it as useless.

I have an annoying nack of not being able to explain Lutheran though on justification - frankly it would take a year for me to explain it, and frankly it can’t be reduced to a few words.

On my brief studies of Calvin’s thought, I know their theology can’t be reduced to a sentence.

So reducing both to a sentence is almost asking for a rebuttal.

If you’re looking for an easier way of showing that Lutherans and Calvinists don’t agree, then the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist would almost be easier - but then again, the Calvinist position can’t be reduce to a simple “They don’t believe!” either, there’s much more going on than just reducing their theology about the Eucharist as “it’s just a symbol.”

Thanks for the response, dronald, but it doesn’t really address the question. From the Catholic POV, there really aren’t any “essentials doctrines.” A belief is either true or it’s not true.

If Calvin taught that God alone determines salvation by His own sovereignty and Luther taught that God determines salvation by they faith of the believer, than that is a huge difference.

To say that Lutherans and Calvinists agree that grace alone saves is a cop-out because you could then add Catholics to that. We all believe we are saved by grace alone. Where we differ is one how grace is achieved.

Your friend is defending a straw man and here’s why: “protestantism” is, quite frankly, a useless, Romocentric label that really means “every-Western-Christian-who-isn’t-in-communion-with-Rome-for-whatever-reason.” I’m not sure why your friend feels compelled to “defend” another communion’s beliefs. Frankly, we Lutherans have more in common with Roman Catholics than with the Reformed.

Lutherans believe that Justification is a gift which we receive by Grace (which God brings to us in Word and Sacrament), through Faith in Christ. Here’s an interesting read.

Very good point. I’m not trying to pick on Lutherans or Calvinists on salvation, but just looking for an important and distinct difference on what they would consider “essential.”

As I understand it, Luther taught that:

  1. The Holy Spirit comes to the sinner and gives him faith
  2. God helps the will to apprehend the gospel through the Word of God since the human will is unable to do so due to original sin
  3. Through the work of the Holy Spirit the human heart consents to the gospel
  4. By faith, the sinner becomes one with Christ

Calvinism teaches:

  1. Election/Predestination
  2. Effective calling: an act of God the Father, speaking through human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people himself in such a way that they respond in saving faith
  3. Before the sinner can respond to God’s effective calling, he must be regenerated, which is a secret act of God in which he imparts spiritual life to us. It is this work of God that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith
  4. Conversion (faith and repentance): our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation.

The essentials that both views teach is that (whatever one’s theological rationalization of this mystery) no one can come to new spiritual life without first being awakened by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

Are you sure about that? What do you make of Fatima? Or other Marian doctrines, prior to Vatican I? Just something to ponder. :wink:

Your friend might not see this as a particularly divisive issue, at least, in the same way that you and I would. I think it becomes our duty, as Christian brothers, to explain why it is important – but remain mindful of Whom we share in common.

That’s actually the point, and some people hate it. That we all believe some of the same things but how we reach those beliefs can differ. So we do exactly what the Bible (specifically Paul) says not to do and cause quibbles over nothing.

Your friend sounds like he wants to push unity and it sounds like your goal to break that up, even though you all believe in one thing. It’s not okay imo.

Steido01, it’s nice to hear that you believe that Lutherans have more in common with Rome than Reformed. My wife is Lutheran (although ELCA) and I think a lot of the differences between the two are in our language more than our theology.

My Calvinist friend isn’t really defending anything “Protestant” or any other group’s believes. He’s basically saying that his beliefs alone are correct, Rome is wrong on everything, but other protestant groups are “Okay” because they “agree (with him?) on the essentials.”

I just want to be able to show him that they don’t agree on the essentials at all, depending on what the definition of essential is. I thought salvation would be a good one since from my point of view the two “founders of the reformation” differ on it.

No, the friend’s goal is certainly not unity. He’s under the false impression that Catholicism teaches a works-based salvation system. His claim is that every other group teaches the whole predestination of the elect or whatever, and differences in protestant groups don’t matter because they all believe that too.

And my goal is not to break up unity at all. It’s quite the opposite. Think John 17:21 from a Catholic point of view.

I just realized I put a “thumbs down” icon on the title of this thread. That was supposed to be a question mark. :eek: That’s what I get for trying to quickly post stuff during the lunch break, I guess.

Ah, I see. In that case, best of luck. Some people can be awfully hard-headed. Justification and predestination might not be the best examples to start with, since the differences between communions is often in the fine details (which can’t really be boiled down to a sentence).

Yeah, false impressions are a drag. But I still do believe that we all believe similar things.

I meet with a few Lutheran pastors and a Presbyterian about once a week and discuss the readings for the coming Sunday from the common Lectionary.

Honestly, I am hard pressed to find differences in our beliefs.
In fact, the Prsb. Pastor has often explained Catholic beliefs better than I could but he professed them as their own *including *the belief in the real presence.

We had a nice discussion about redemptive suffering this week and found we had to drag in figurative Baptists into the discussion to make it an “argument”.

One Lutheran pastor took exception with being identified as “a” anything; such as “a” Lutheran, or “a” Catholic, etc. :shrug:

May I offer a few essentials to run by your friend?
From the Formula of Concord:

…we reject the following errors:

17] 1. As when it is taught that God is unwilling that all men repent and believe the Gospel.

18] 2. Also, that when God calls us to Himself, He is not in earnest that all men should come to Him.

19] 3. Also, that God is unwilling that every one should be saved, but that some, without regard to their sins, from the mere counsel, purpose, and will of God, are ordained to condemnation so that they cannot be saved.

20] 4. Also, that not only the mercy of God and the most holy merit of Christ, but also in us there is a cause of God’s election, on account of which God has elected us to everlasting life.

21] All these are blasphemous and dreadful erroneous doctrines, whereby all the comfort which they have in the holy Gospel and the use of the holy Sacraments is taken from Christians, and therefore should not be tolerated in the Church of God.


On the other hand, we unanimously reject and condemn all the following erroneous articles, which are opposed and contrary to the doctrine presented above, the simple faith, and the [pure] confession concerning the Lord’s Supper;

That in the Holy Supper the body of Christ is not received orally with the bread; but that with the mouth only bread and wine are received, the body of Christ, however, only spiritually by faith.

27] 6. That the bread and wine in the Holy Supper are nothing more than [symbols or] tokens by which Christians recognize one another.

28] 7. That the bread and wine are only figures, similitudes, and representations of the far absent body and blood of Christ.

29] 8. That the bread and wine are no more than a memorial, seal, and pledge, through which we are assured that when faith elevates itself to heaven, it there becomes partaker of the body and blood of Christ as truly as we eat bread and drink wine in the Supper.

If your friend is willing to give up the U-L-I-P of the TULIP, and recognize the real and substantial presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, received not only spiritually by faith, but also orally by the mouth, then we can talk about it.
As it stands, there are too many essentials of the faith we disagree on to make such a claim.


Your statements are slightly misleading. Yes, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod never accepted the Formula for Agreement for your stated reasons, but the Agreement reached was thus:
“That the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC) declare that they are in full communion with one another. In the specific terms of full communion as they are developed in our study, this recommendation also requires (1) that they recognize each other as churches in which the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the Word of God; (2) that they withdraw any historic condemnation by one side or the other as inappropriate for the faith and life of our churches today; (3) that they continue to recognize each others’ Baptism and authorize and encourage the sharing of the Lord’s Supper among their members; (4) that they recognize each others’ various ministries and make provision for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament; (5) that they establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches; (6) that they commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service; (7) that they pledge themselves to living together under the Gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow.”

But further, I would add, that when asked now, the conservative factions within the various groups will weigh in very differently on any number of matters.

The bottom line being that, even if you did manage to demonstrate any number of differences between Calvin & Luther, you can’t remotely project those onto today’s Protestant denominations.

I don’t see how Jon was misleading in the least, though I agree 100% with you that the faith professed by the ecclesial bodies named above is not congruent with that of their fathers’.

In any case, the fact that some ‘protestant’ groups do not subscribe to absurd documents like the Agreement above only supports the fact that Jabronie was trying to make: the divisions between Earth’s communions are real, whether between Lutheran and Reformed or Catholic and Reformed, or any other combination.

The Lord’s Supper can be tricky too, if you are trying to separate Lutherans and Calvinists, because while many Calvinists (particularly “Presbyterians”) went for an idea of symbolic or non-literal presence later, Calvin himself was very critical of positions like Zwingli’s and clearly has an account of real presence in the Lord’s Supper. So Calvin himself is actually closer to Lutherans and Catholics than many 19th and 20th century Reformed folks like (Calvin’s own position is making something of a comeback… and, even back in the day, had its defenders in people like Philip Schaff at Mercersberg in PA, for a while.

As someone else pointed out earlier, the differences between Luther and Calvin on salvation, election, faith (sanctification might be a slightly bigger deal) is really in the very fine print.

Differences themselves aren’t even necessarily bad (Aquinas and Anselm don’t say the exact same thing, for example, on the significance of the death of Christ, i.e., the atonement, but they still ‘agree on the essentials’, so to speak… or Thomists vs. Jesuits/Molinists on predestination, to use an example that was very contentious in its time).

You would probably have better luck making positive connections between Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, of which there are many. Peter Leithart might be an interesting resource for your friend; he is a fairly conservative and very orthodox Westminster style Calvinist who is very Catholic-friendly. Best of luck to you both.

Oh, indeed I can.
First of all, forgive me for not being clear. I come from an orthodox confessional Lutheran view, despite the fact that I was in the ELCA up until about 15 years ago. But that said, from the LCMS website:

Q: What are the major differences between the Missouri Synod and Reformed churches?

A: Just as there are many significant differences in theology and practice between Lutherans of varying denominations, the same is true when it comes to different churches within the Reformed tradition. Differences exist among Reformed churches even regarding such fundamental issues as the authority of Scripture and the nature and centrality of the doctrine of justification.

Historically, however, most Reformed churches adhere to the five points of Calvinist theology commonly summarized by the acrostic “tulip” as these were set forth at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). On page 41 in his book, Churches in America, Dr. Thomas Manteufel reviews these five points and explains how they compare and/or contrast with what Lutherans believe regarding these matters.

T (Total Depravity) The Calvinists rightly teach that all descendants of Adam are by nature totally corrupt in spiritual matters. People do not have freedom of the will to turn to God in faith or cooperate in their conversions (Eph. 2:1; John 3:5-6; Rom. 8:7).

U (Unconditional predestination) Scripture does teach that it is by grace that God has predestinated the elect to eternal salvation and given them justifying faith. It is not because of any condition fulfilled by them (2 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 1:4-6; Phil. 1:29). However, the Bible does not teach, as do the Calvinists, that some are predestined for damnation. God wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4).

L (Limited atonement) It is true that Christ died for the church and purchased it with His blood (Eph.
5:25; Acts 20:28). Furthermore, His atoning death does not mean that all people are saved (1 Cor. 1:18). However, Jesus died for all (2 Cor. 5:15).

I (Irresistible grace) We agree that God makes us alive by His mighty power, without our aid (Eph. 2:5; John 1:13). But Scripture warns that we can resist God’s gracious call (Matt. 23:37; Acts 7:51; 2 Cor. 6:1). And some people do resist God’s grace, or all would be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Furthermore, God warns us not to resist His grace (2 Cor. 6:1; Heb. 4:7).

P (Perseverance in grace) We affirm with Scripture that those who are predestined to salvation cannot be lost but will continue by God’s power to a blessed end (Rom. 8:30; 1 Peter 1:5). Scripture does not teach, however, that those who come to faith cannot lose that faith (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-29; Ps. 51:11). God urges His people not to continue in sin but to live in repentance and faith (Rom. 6:1-4).

Churches in America by Dr. Thomas Manteufel; p. 41 (St. Louis: CPH, 1994).

These are not minor difference in the fine print, or differing perspectives with the same conclusion. These are doctrinal distinctions that cannot and should not be overlooked.


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