"Luther's Only Truly Congenial Disciple"

It was said of famed Luther-scholar Karl Holl that he regarded John Calvin as "Luther's only truly congenial disciple." This high estimation of Calvin shocked the Lutherans, who have always nursed a grudge against Calvin and Calvinists. It might have surprised Luther, who was inclined to lump Calvin with the despised "sacramentarians." 

Luther and Calvin were contemporaries, although Calvin was twenty-six years younger than Luther. For about ten years, until Luther's death in 1546, they labored together on behalf of the Reformation, Luther in Germany and Calvin in Geneva and Strasbourg. 

They never met. They did not even correspond. The closest contact that Calvin had with Luther was Calvin's friendship with Melanchthon, Luther's colleague in Wittenberg. 

Luther knew of Calvin. On two occasions, Luther spoke well of Calvin. In a letter to Martin Bucer, a common friend (at those times when Luther was not incensed with Bucer), Luther wrote: "Please greet reverently Mr. John Sturm and John Calvin. I have read their books with special pleasure." Melanchthon once reported to Calvin that Luther had referred to Calvin as "a gifted man"—praise that pleased Calvin immensely.

Nevertheless, Luther's violent condemnation of all who denied a physical presence of Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper—the "sacra-mentarians"—fell also on Calvin. It is likely that Luther intended his condemnation to reach Calvin. And Calvin felt the sting of the great reformer's diatribe.

On his part, Calvin esteemed and praised Luther highly. He was well aware of Luther's serious weaknesses, especially his furious outbursts against those who differed with his doctrine of the Lord's Supper. David Steinmetz observes that "while Calvin agreed with Luther that the defense of the truth required theologians to engage in polemical discussions ... he could not agree with the ferocity of Luther's attacks on other Protestant reformers ... or overlook the self-indulgent character of Luther's piques and rages" (Luther in Context, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 85, 86). In response to one such outburst by Luther, Calvin wrote: "I am thoroughly ashamed of him [Luther]," although he prefaced the remark with the words, "From my heart I reverence him."

Despite Luther's assaults upon him for his doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Calvin continued to hold Luther in the highest esteem. In 1544 (two years before his death), in the work, "Short Confession of the Lord's Supper," Luther savaged the Swiss, Calvin, and even Melanchthon for their views of a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. Calvin reacted in a letter to Bullinger of Zurich: "I have already often said that were he to call me a devil, I should still continue to venerate him as a distinguished servant of God, who, while excelling in extraordinary virtues, also labors under some great faults." 

According to David Steinmetz, "among the non-Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth century, none was more reluctant to disagree with Martin Luther or more eager to find common ground with him than John Calvin" (Calvin in Context, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 172).

Calvin's esteem for Luther was not hero-worship. It was not even the Christian virtue of respect for a great man of God in spite of his flaws. Calvin esteemed Luther highly because Calvin was "Luther's only truly congenial disciple." Calvin saw that Luther was the man whom Christ had chosen to recover the gospel for His church. This was why Calvin, always careful with his words, could refer to Luther as an "apostle." The fundamental doctrine of the gospel that Luther recovered, Calvin embraced, taught, developed, and handed over to the church that would follow. Thus, Calvin promoted the essential work of Martin Luther on behalf of God and His church. Only Calvin laid hold of Luther's fundamental doctrine and promoted Luther's essential work.

The fundamental doctrine of Martin Luther was the glory of God in Jesus Christ in the salvation of elect sinners by free, almighty grace, apart from the works, worth, and will of these sinners. Luther believed this truth with all his heart and confessed it with a prodigious outpouring of mouth and pen. He believed it because this truth is God's own Word about Himself, Holy Scripture. "(Salvation) is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (
Rom. 9:16). This doctrine exposed the Roman Catholic Church as a false church, and destroyed it. This doctrine reformed the true church, which had been corrupted by the lie that God will try to save those who show themselves worthy, and established her—in genuine Protestantism—as the glorious, indestructible kingdom of God in the world. 

The specific denial of God's sovereignty in salvation that prevailed at the time was the false teaching that a sinner becomes righteous before God by his own good works. Therefore, Luther, who always practiced the rule that one must defend the truth at the precise point where it is presently being attacked, emphasized justification by faith alone. The justified sinner is righteous before God apart from any work of his own, including the good works that faith produces and faith itself as a good work.

Luther's emphasis was a righteousness for guilty humans consisting only of the obedience of Jesus Christ in His life and death. But his fundamental doctrine was God's sovereign grace in the salvation of elect sinners. Because the divine sovereignty in salvation was his fundamental doctrine, Luther taught election and its necessity.

On your view [says Luther to a defender of the heresy that God merely helps willing people to save themselves], God will elect nobody, and no place for election will be left; all that is left is freedom of will to heed or defy the long-suffering and wrath of God. But if God is thus robbed of His power and wisdom in election, what will He be but just that idol, Chance, under whose sway all things happen at random? Eventually, we shall come to this: that men may be saved and damned without God's knowledge! For He will not have marked out by sure election those that should be saved and those that should be damned; He will merely have set before all men His general long-suffering, which forbears and hardens, together with His chastening and punishing mercy, and left it to them to choose whether they would be saved or damned, while He Himself, perchance, goes off, as Homer says, to an Ethiopian banquet! (The Bondage of the Will, tr. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, James Clarke, 1957, pp. 199, 200).

Because Luther taught biblical election, he taught that the eternal decree appointing some to salvation included the ordaining of the others to damnation. Luther taught eternal, sovereign reprobation: "God ... of His own mere will abandon(s), harden(s) and damn(s) men" (Bondage, p. 217). 

In their perceptive "Historical and Theological Introduction" to their translation of Luther's The Bondage of the Will, Packer and Johnston call attention to Luther's fundamental doctrine.

The doctrine of free justification by faith only ... is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers' theology, but this is hardly accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centred upon the contention of Paul ... that the sinner's entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. ...To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ's sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort. "Justification by faith only" is a truth that needs interpretation. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia (pp. 58, 59).

For Luther, religion is not man-centered, but God-centered. Not man and his happiness (achieved in the final analysis by man himself!), but God and His glory (accomplished by God Himself!) is the heart of the Christian gospel. This is why Karl Holl regarded Calvin not merely as Luther's best disciple but as Luther's only truly congenial disciple. Correctly, Holl was critical of the notion of contemporary scholarship that the formula "seeking the glory of God" is "a Calvinistic concept." "Here too," Holl declared, " Calvin only continued Luther's work" (Karl Holl, What Did Luther Understand by Religion? Fortress Press, 1977, p. 106).

The only truly congenial disciple of Luther was John Calvin.

Where are the truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin today?

They are not the Lutherans, most of whom (contrary to their own creed) teach that God's salvation of sinners is dependent upon sinners' choosing Christ by their own free will. The rest teach that God saves those who do not resist, which comes down to the same thing: man is sovereign in salvation. That the Lutherans are not truly disciples of Luther is evident from their embarrassment at Luther's The Bondage of the Will.

They are not the fundamentalists and evangelicals. These are outspoken that salvation depends on men's decision for Christ, that God does not even know who will be saved and lost, and that God exists to make people happy.

Neither are they the majority of the Reformed and Presbyterians. They are no truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin who insist that the gospel is God's saving love and earnest desire to save all without exception, which love and desire are frustrated by the unbelief of many. They are no truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin who make faith a condition that the sinner must fulfill in order to make God's general promise effective and thus obtain salvation for themselves. They are no truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin who are teaching (albeit coyly and damnably obscurely), and receiving those who are teaching, that sinners are justified by faith and by the good works of faith. They are no truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin who, as soon as they hear a good, hearty, consistent confession of the sovereignty of God in salvation and damnation, turn white and gasp, "hyper-Calvinism!" or turn red and protest, "But man is responsible!"

Where are the truly congenial disciples of Luther and Calvin in A.D. 2001?

They exist, as surely as Christ will not let His work in the sixteenth century Reformation of the church come to nothing.

Wherever they are, there are the gospel and the true church.

 — DJE

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