Love Wins: Luther’s Letter
By Rev. Bill Wangelin, Hudsonville, MI
The following letter from Martin Luther to Hans von Rechenberg addressed an issue that Christians of all generations have wrestled with, and that is the ability of a loving and saving God to bring judgment and eternal punishment upon unbelievers. People of the Middle Ages struggled just as many do today over the same issue. Martin Luther’s response to this Christian nobleman is an example of a pastoral, evangelical, and humble approach to dealing with this question.
This letter was cited in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (p. 106). Bell first writes, “And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime.” To give credibility to the ‘others’ he just claimed, Bell then quotes Luther writing to von Rechenberg (full letter below), “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” This seems to imply that Martin Luther would allow for a “second chance” after death so that all people could eventually be saved. In his letter, however, Luther argues the exact opposite.
The first point that Luther makes is that this topic should only be dealt with by mature Christians. Those who are weak in faith or too confident in human reason do not have the ability to address it with the necessary humility, trust, and confidence in God’s goodness. Second, Luther points to the clear passages of Scripture that promise eternal life only to those who believe in Christ, and he reminds us that nowhere does God say that people are saved otherwise. If this is not true, then God makes himself out to be a liar. Finally, Luther instructs people to first spend time contemplating Christ’s humanity, so that Christ may lead us to the ways of the Father, rather than examining the Father’s judgments apart from Christ and his work. Without Jesus, our opinions and examinations of God can become disastrous.
This translation of Luther’s letter is based on the St. Louis edition of Martin Luther’s works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1903), 2002 ff.) with consultation of the Weimar Ausgabe (WA 10II, 322-326) and is intended to be copied and distributed freely. Another English translation, which is under copyright, may be found published in Luther’s Works, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press (1968), 43:51-55).[Translation:]
A Letter to Hans von Rechenberg of Freistadt from Martin Luther, 1522 On the question of whether or not God may or will save those who die without faith
Grace and peace in Christ, Amen.
Respected Lord! My gracious Lord Count Albrecht of Mansfeld has put it in my mind to write to you a written instruction regarding the question of whether or not God may or will save those who die without faith. With this, respected sir, after you have physically battled against the unbelievers, may you have the proper spiritual armor and a strong and proper footing with which to engage those who raise this question.
There are those among us, since the times of Origen and his followers, who have considered it too hard, too severe, and contrary to God’s goodness that he should cast people away and create them for eternal torment. They look to texts such as Psalm 77:9,10 which says, “Shall God cast away forever and never again be gracious? Or should he cut off his mercy completely and forget his mercy, and withhold his compassion in anger?” There is also Psalm 85:6. And St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:4, “God wants all people to be saved and come to acknowledgment of the truth.” On the basis of these verses, they have gone even further and maintained that even the devil will finally be redeemed and not be eternally damned, and similar things that they simply make up.
But in order to give an answer to this, we need to distinguish clearly between our ponderings and God’s truth. We must not accuse God of being a liar, but must allow all people, angels, and devils to be lost forever, rather than saying that God should not be truthful in his word. Such questions come from innate speculation of human nature, which is greatly disturbed that it cannot know the cause and reason for such a strict and solemn judgment of God. Yet it is totally willing to disregard it, as though it were not God’s judgment, and as though it were absolutely frivolous, violent, and unjust.
And truly this is not the smallest offense that the devil uses to afflict us and makes our faith to look askance at God. Also, he knows that the most noble and precious virtue of faith is, in this circumstance, to close its eyes and simply refrain from such investigation and gladly lay it all before the Lord. It does not need to know why God does these things, but nevertheless considers God to be the highest good and righteousness, even when everything here, contrary to and above all reason, sense, and experience, seems to be simple anger and unrighteousness. For here faith is called “the sign of that which is not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Therefore it is the highest act of honor and love for God, yes the highest level of divine love and honor, when man in the midst of all this can stop and praise Him as good and righteous. For the natural eyes must be plucked out so that only faith can see. Otherwise terrible and dangerous offenses will follow. It is common for people to want to begin with the highest thoughts, and for those who are young and inexperienced in faith and want to look upon these things with the natural eye, they run the risk of taking a great fall and secretly developing a resentment and hatred toward God. After this happens it is very difficult to counsel them.
Therefore, in order that they remain unconfused about God’s judgment, they should be counseled to think upon the sufferings and humanity of Christ, and his lovely life and conduct, until they are better established in their faith. St. Peter says in his first epistle (1 Peter 2:2) that we should crave milk and wait for such strong wine. Otherwise it will happen to them as it says in the Proverbs of Solomon: “Whoever strives to uncover the majesty will be crushed by the glory.”
So it is not difficult to answer this question, but we should be very cautious about where we find those who can suffer and bear such an answer, that we do not lead children to this strong wine or give it to them to drink. Nature and reason cannot bear it, but they are terrified by it. Weak faith also cannot bear it. It is too offended by it. This is as Christ says in Matthew 9:17, “If anyone puts wine in old wine skins, the wineskins will burst and be ruined.” In the same way, this answer destroys these weak and rational people and it is beat down and despised. How should this then be? “New wine skins” – he says – “should hold the wine.” That is, when dealing with the judgment of God, we should renounce ourselves, until we are completely strong and secure. Otherwise any thoughts that we can write and say about it are futile and harmful.
Therefore it is my counsel, respected Lord, that you carefully consider with whom you discuss this matter, and who speaks about it. Decide if they should speak or be silent. If they are lofty, intelligent people of natural reason, they will avoid this question. But if they are simple, deeply spiritual and tested
people of faith, then there can be nothing more beneficial than to deal with these matters. For just as strong wine can be deadly to children, it can be a quickening of life for adults. Therefore one cannot discuss every doctrine with just anyone.
In order to now answer this question, we have very powerful passages stating that no one will or can be saved without faith. In Mark 16:16 Jesus says, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned,” and in Hebrews 11:6 it says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” John 3:6 states, “Whoever is not born anew of the Spirit and water cannot see the kingdom of God,” and in John 5:18, “Whoever does not believe is already judged.”
Now if God were to save someone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and make himself out to be a liar. Yes, he would be denying himself, and that is impossible. For, St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “God cannot deny himself.” As impossible as it is for divine truth to lie, it is just as impossible for him to save someone without faith. This is clear, easy, and simple to understand, even if the old wine skins are reluctant to contain this wine – yes, they simply cannot hold it.
It would be a completely different question to ask whether God could grant faith to a few at the moment of their death or after death and thereby save them through faith. Who would doubt that he could do this? But no one can prove that he does do this. For we only read that he has already raised the dead and given them faith. No matter what he does, whether he grants faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise all preaching and the Gospel and faith itself would be futile, false, and deceptive, since the entire Gospel makes faith necessary.
It does not make sense when they conclude from the Psalm cited above that God will not stay angry forever, because the entire Psalm speaks of the various sufferings of the saints on earth as the words before it and after it, hence the entire context, prove. For those who are suffering always think that God has forgotten them and will be angry at them forever. And the saying of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:11, “God wants all men to be saved,” is not compelling, for in the preceding verses it says that God wants us to pray for people in all estates, to teach everyone and preach the truth, and to be helpful to everyone physically and spiritually. Because he commands this of us and wants us to do these things, St. Paul speaks the truth: it is God’s will that everyone be made well – for without his will it does not happen. But it does not follow from this that all people are saved. And if more verses are brought up on this point, they must be considered accordingly. Otherwise the providence and election from eternity, which St. Paul stresses so emphatically, would be brought to nothing.
These are the things that I wanted to write to you, respected Lord, out of love, and I ask you to not permit the high minded and flighty spirits to deal with these matters. Instead, as I said, let them consider Christ’s humanity, in order to teach them and strengthen them, until they have sufficiently matured. For how could the man Christ lead us to the Father if we ignore him and pass him by and with our own reason fly into heaven to examine God’s judgments? There is no better place than in Christ’s humanity to learn what is necessary for us to know, that he is our mediator, and that no one can come to the Father except through him. “I am the Gate; I am the Way” he said to Philip in John 14:6, when Philip asked about the Father apart from Christ. For “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him” Colossians 2:3. I hereby entrust you, respected sir, to God’s grace and offer my Christian service to you always.
Issued from Wittenberg on the Monday after the Assumption of Mary [August 18], 1522. Dr. Martin Luther.
Translated by Rev. William Wangelin of Hudsonville, MI
Editor’s Note: Rev. Wangelin serves a congregation that is “literally just down the road” from Mars Hill, which is Rob Bell’s church. Rev. Wangelin writes: “Our members were very interested in the quote from Martin Luther cited in Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” Since the Luther’s Works translation is under copyright and may not be distributed electronically, I made my own translation so that it can be freely transmitted and distributed, and so Luther himself can join in on the electronic conversation that is happening. He has some great words to share on the topic of “May God save someone without faith?””
Previously on concordiatheology, Rev. Ben Haupt discussed this letter as it was used in “Love Wins.”