Setting the Record Straight on Lutheranism: Four Myths

Calvinists and Lutherans have a complicated history. Both traditions are rooted in the Protestant Reformation understandings of justification (sola fide) and authority (sola scriptura). Calvin himself acknowledged his debt to Luther and was even accused of being a Lutheran. In their early years, the two movements were able to find much common ground, and at the Marburg Colloquy (1529) the only unresolved point of contention between the Swiss and German Reformers was over the Eucharist (see Myth #2 below). But as time progressed, the differences between Calvinists and Lutherans became more apparent. And unfortunately, in recent years many of those differences have become exaggerated to the point of caricature.

My goal here is to dispel four of the common misconceptions that we Calvinists have about Lutherans. If we desire to be people of the truth, then we have a responsibility to speak truthfully about others, and especially about our brothers and sisters in Christ. To be sure, there are real and important disagreements between Calvinists and Lutherans, and even in the caricatures there may be some kernels of truth. But fruitful dialogue requires that we learn to distinguish myth from reality. For each myth, I will try to clarify where the difference really lies.

Myth #1: Lutherans are Arminian. Perhaps the biggest problem with this myth is that it is anachronistic. Martin Luther died in 1546, well before Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was even born. Moreover, Arminianism was an offshoot of the Reformed tradition, not the Lutheran tradition. Arminius’s views were defended by the Dutch Remonstrants and subsequently condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the source of the so-called “Five Points” of Calvinism, also known as TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). So from a purely historical standpoint, Arminianism has more affinities with Calvinism than with Lutheranism.

Theologically, there are also significant differences between Lutherans and Arminians. Lutherans tend to have a rather dim view of “free will” compared to Arminians, as is evident in Luther’s famous work On the Bondage of the Will (a book that, incidentally, helped move me from Arminianism to Calvinism while in college!). Similarly, the Lutheran Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article 11 states: “It is false and incorrect to teach that not only the mercy of God and the most holy merit of Christ but also something in us is a cause of God’s election, and for this reason God chose us for eternal life.” This is why Lutherans (like Calvinists) describe their position as monergistic rather than synergistic—that is, salvation is of God only, not of man cooperating with God. Moreover, Lutherans do not hold to the Arminian teaching on prevenient grace, whereby every person’s will is freed so that it might accept the gospel as a precondition of salvation.

  • Where the difference really lies: Although Lutherans describe God’s saving work as monergistic, they still see his grace as resistible, and on this point they are agreed with Arminians over against Calvinists. Likewise, Christ’s atonement is seen as universal rather than limited, and the grace of salvation can be lost. So if one were to measure Lutheranism by the yardstick of TULIP, Lutherans would align with only the first two points, and then only with qualification. But it does not follow that they are Arminian. For more information on this point, see Douglas Sweeney’s article on The Gospel Coalition, “Was Luther a Calvinist?” and Lutheran pastor Jordan Cooper’s evaluation of the Five Points of Calvinism.

Myth #2: Lutherans believe in consubstantiation. This one may come as a surprise to many. Lutherans themselves generally prefer the term “sacramental union” to describe their view of the Lord’s Supper. The difference is subtle but important: most Lutherans don’t like the rationalistic/metaphysical connotations of the idea of “consubstantiation.” The word implies that Jesus’ body and blood can be described in local or spatial terms, as if one could plot the precise coordinates of Jesus in the Eucharist. By contrast, the doctrine of sacramental union states that, while Jesus is physically present with, in, and under the bread and wine, this physical presence is still a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended by our senses. [Update: I have just learned that most Lutheran theologians do not ordinarily use the word “physical” to describe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist; the words “corporeal” or “bodily” might be more apt. However, the point below about the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity is still valid.][1]

  • Where the difference really lies: Reformed and Lutheran views of the Eucharist have important similarities that set them apart from the Roman Catholic view on the one hand and the Zwinglian (Baptist) view on the other [Update: I am using the term “Reformed” here in the narrower sense of what Calvin himself taught, but that does not preclude broader uses of the term in other contexts]. Unlike Catholicism, neither Calvinists nor Lutherans hold to transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine metaphysically transform into the essence of Christ’s body and blood. And unlike Zwinglians, who see the Lord’s Supper as a merely symbolic commemoration, both Calvinists and Lutherans believe that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. That is, God is actually doing something for us through the sacrament (this is also known as “sacramental realism”). But the difference is that Calvinists teach that Christ is only spiritually present in the sacrament, not physically. By contrast, the Lutheran Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article 7 states: “We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally… in a supernatural, heavenly mode, because of the sacramental union.” This disagreement is in turn based on differences between Reformed and Lutheran Christologies. Lutherans hold to a doctrine known as the communication of attributes, whereby properties of Christ’s divine nature (such as ubiquity) are transferred to his human nature. On the other hand, Calvinists have been more thoroughgoing in keeping Christ’s divine and human attributes distinct, such that Christ’s human nature can only be in one place at a time (hence not physically present in the Eucharist). This has sometimes led Lutherans to accuse Calvinists of being Nestorian, while some Calvinists have in turn accused Lutherans of being Eutychian (neither charge is accurate). For more on this point, see Gavin Ortlund’s reflections on the doctrine of the extra Calvinisticum.

Myth #3: Lutherans don’t believe in the third use of the law. I probably hear this myth repeated by Calvinists more often than any of the others. The claim often made is that Lutherans recognize the law as a means of restraining evil in society (first use), and as a means of exposing sin and driving us to the cross (second use), but not as a guide for the redeemed (third use).[2] Some even make the charge that Lutheranism is tantamount to antinomianism (the denial that Christians are still under the moral obligations of the law). But even a passing glance at the historical evidence disproves this claim: Luther was strongly opposed to the antinomian Johannes Agricola in his day. Further, the Lutheran Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article 6 explicitly affirms the third use of the law. Although it is true that some radical Lutherans in the twentieth century denied the third use (such as Gerhard Forde), that is not the traditional, confessional Lutheran position.

  • Where the difference really lies: I have written about the true differences between Calvinists and Lutherans on this point here and here. Although both sides affirm the third use of the law, what each side ends up doing with the third use is somewhat different. Lutherans have traditionally maintained a sharper distinction between “law” and “gospel,” such that the law has no bearing at all on our “vertical” relationship with God (except as a reminder of our guilt and need for mercy). Rather, they see the law as serving only a “horizontal” purpose in promoting love of neighbor through our earthly vocations. This corresponds to Luther’s teaching on the Two Kinds of Righteousness—the first kind referring to our passive righteousness coram Deo (“before God”), which is granted by faith alone, and the second kind referring to our active righteousness coram mundo (“before the world”), on the basis of good works. Calvinists would agree with much of this—Calvin himself said something very similar to Luther’s two kinds of righteousness in Institutes 3.17.10. However, unlike Lutherans we tend to see more of a vertical role for the law to play in our sanctification. That is, obedience to the law can actually strengthen our relationship with the Lord (without affecting our legal standing—that’s based on Christ’s righteousness alone!) and our assurance of salvation.

Myth #4: Lutherans don’t believe in engaging culture. This myth is probably the result of various factors. It stems partly from the Lutheran Pietist movement of the 17th-19th centuries, and partly from H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous (if somewhat flawed) taxonomy of views on Christ and culture. The resulting picture has sometimes been that Lutherans are only concerned with the “vertical” aspect of the Christian life (faith, justification, etc.) but are relatively unconcerned with the “horizontal” realm of human affairs (politics, culture, etc.). Lutherans are thus thought to promote a form of “quietism”—an implicit affirmation of the cultural status quo (critics often point to the failure of most German Lutheran churches to speak out against Hitler during WW2).

In truth, however, Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (which should be distinguished from modern Reformed Two Kingdoms theology) maintained a robust place for Christians to engage culture. To be sure, Lutherans have generally insisted that such cultural engagement is not redemptive, and they keep a sharp distinction between the kingdom of God (the realm of gospel) and the believer’s earthly vocation (the realm of law). But Lutheranism does teach that culture is still under God’s providential lordship, and as such it is subject to his law—as revealed in nature and in Scripture.

  • Where the difference really lies: Calvin’s own doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is almost indistinguishable from Luther’s, although Calvin devoted comparatively little space to the subject in his writings. And in truth, Calvinists today are divided over the issue of cultural engagement, some siding more with Lutherans and others less so. I mention here some of the differences between Lutheranism and the branch of the Reformed tradition with which I personally align most closely—neo-Calvinism, which stems from the Dutch Reformed church in the late nineteenth century. Neo-Calvinism stresses the comprehensive claims of Christ’s redemptive (not merely providential) lordship over all areas of life. Since sin is understood to have affected every realm of human activity, God’s grace is likewise understood to extend far as the curse is found. This means that the kingdom of God is not restricted to personal salvation or the institutional church, but has an impact on all spheres of life. Neo-Calvinists understand their own vocations as “kingdom work,” not in the sense that they are “building” God’s kingdom through their own efforts, but rather in the sense that they are advancing foretastes of it in anticipation of its arrival. And unlike Lutherans, neo-Calvinists see civil government not as a necessary evil or a product of the fall, but rather as a creational good instituted by God before the fall.

It should be clear at this point that Calvinists and Lutherans are not as far apart as some would imagine. There are indeed some important differences, but if we hope to engage in constructive dialogue, then we need to set aside the straw men and work toward understanding what each side actually believes.


[1] I do wonder if perhaps we could simply redefine “consubstantiation” as sacramental union? To my knowledge, not even the critics mean the rationalistic caricature when they use the term. Nevertheless, out of respect to our Lutheran brothers, we should avoid applying the term to them unless they embrace it themselves.

[2] I should note that, among Calvinists, the first two uses are usually given in inverted order.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

3 Responses to “Setting the Record Straight on Lutheranism: Four Myths”

  1. Zwingli was the founder of the Reformed Church, so it is historically inaccurate to suggest a distinction between the Reformed and Zwinglian view of the Supper. The Zwinglian and Calvinist views of the Supper are both part of the Reformed tradition. Zurich and Geneva issued a joint statement at one point which remains a consensus Reformed statement.

  2. Thank you


  1. Review: Baptized into Christ, by Jordan Cooper | Allkirk Network - August 12, 2016

    […] and he has helped correct many of my misconceptions about confessional Lutheranism (see my post here, for example). He has also helped me to find much common ground between Lutheranism and my own […]

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