Those that have read Jackson Presbyterian Examiner for any length of time know that a recurring theme is the relationship between Presbyterianism and other Christian traditions out there. On the web site of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) an inquirer recently posed this question —what distinguishes Lutherans from Presbyterians?
The answer given, which focused on the issue of the sacraments and predestination, was partially correct, but also partially somewhat misrepresentative of Reformed theology. Let’s look closer.
1. The sacraments
Speaking of baptism, the WELS web site said:
“Like other Protestant (non-Lutheran) churches, Presbyterians do not believe that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace—forms of the gospel through which the Holy Spirit gives and strengthens faith.”
This assertion about the sacraments by the WELS site is inaccurate. Consider question 88 of the Presbyterian church’s Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. What are the outward and ordinary means by which Christ gives to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means by which Christ gives to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, and all these are made effective in the salvation of the elect.
Prayer, preaching and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are acknowledged as means of grace. A sacrament is defined in question 92 as, “a holy ordinance appointed by Christ, by which, by visible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed and applied to believers.” The answer to question 91 says, “The sacraments become effective means of salvation not because of any power in them or in him who administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in those who receive them in faith.”
Like Lutherans, Presbyterians very much believe that baptism and communion are not simply symbols, but means by which God imparts and strengthens faith. Yes, differences do exist between the denominations, but it is not that one church regards the sacraments as a means of grace while the other does not.
The WELS site said, “Confessional Lutherans believe that as believers receive Christ’s body and blood under the bread and wine they also receive the forgiveness of sins. Presbyterians do not believe communicants receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in his Supper.”
This is not exactly fair. Question 96 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament in which, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is proclaimed, and those who receive rightly are by faith (and not by the mouth in a physical manner) made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.”
The difference between Lutherans and Presbyterians is not that one church believes communicants receive Christ’s body and blood while the other disbelieves this. The difference is about how communicants receive Christ. Presbyterians believe that Christ is really present in Communion and that communicants really participate in his body and blood. They believe, though, that this occurs “by faith” and “not by the mouth in a physical manner.” All of the benefits of Christ’s body and blood, all the “spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” that comes from Christ, are received during Holy Communion.
Question 79 of the Heidelberg Catechism (which asks, “Why then does Christ call the bread his body and the cup his blood, or the new covenant in his blood, and Paul use the words, a sharing in Christ’s body and blood?”) further illustrates how similar Presbyterians are to Lutherans when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. The answer given states, “Christ has good reason for these words. He wants to teach us that just as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life… We, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance, and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and made satisfaction for our sins.”
The disagreement between Lutherans and Presbyterians is not whether Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper; it’s a question of how he is present.
Regarding baptism, Lutherans believe people are regenerated via baptism, while Presbyterians historically have a somewhat different perspective. Chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession says, “Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.”
Due to the heavy emphasis on election, Presbyterians believe that baptism only serves as a means of grace for people who are elected to salvation. When people who are non-elect are baptized, it does not regenerate them; it really only amounts to an “empty sign”. Westminster says, “By the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto [meaning the elect] according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”
Lutherans say all the baptized are, by virtue of their baptism, regenerated and joined to Christ. Presbyterians tie salvation more to God’s secret election than to sacraments, meaning that people who are already convinced on other grounds of their status as elect children of God may take comfort in their having been baptized into Christ’s church, but there is no inherent comfort in having been baptized; non-elect people, when baptized, remain dead in their sins. Practically speaking, when doubts about whether you are really saved arise, Lutherans encourage people to recollect their baptism and assure themselves, on that objective ground, that they are truly Christ’s. Presbyterians, on the other hand, encourage people to gain assurance by, in the words of St. Peter, making their “calling and election sure”, which leads to a somewhat more subjective, introspective approach.
2. Perseverance of God’s elect
On the question of assurance and, more specifically, whether or not believers can fall away and be lost, the WELS site says:
“Historically, Presbyterians believed that it is impossible for a believer to fall from the faith. Confessional Lutherans believe that it is possible for believers to fall from faith.”
In his 2011 book, For Calvinism, Michael Horton says that Lutheran theology, in affirming both unconditional election and the possibility that the truly converted can fall away and be lost, is “inconsistently monergystic”. How can salvation be all of God, all of grace, and yet still somehow hinge on human perseverance? It is true that Martin Luther did teach that true believers can and sometimes do fall away permanently from grace. Upon hearing this, some Presbyterians may worry that Luther must have believed that Christians must “keep themselves saved” by their good works. While acknowledging that Christians may fall away, in his classic Bondage of the Will Luther rejects the idea that perseverance hinges on our work:
“Man, before he is regenerated into the new creation of the kingdom of the Spirit, does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his new creation into that kingdom, and after he is re-created does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone effects both in us, regenerating us and preserving us when regenerated.”
We don’t save ourselves and we don’t keep ourselves saved; if we do not fall away, this is God’s work in us, not anything we can glory in. In Bondage of the Will, it’s clear that Luther believed that God’s elect could fall into sin for a season, but that they couldn’t permanently and totally fall away. All of the elect would persevere. Not because they were, in themselves, above falling away, but rather because God preserved them. Consider his words:
“Even if we should grant that, that some of the Elect are held in error through the whole of their life; yet they must, of necessity, return to the way of truth before their death; for Christ says, (John 10:28) ‘No one shall pluck them out of my hand.’”
Luther believed that none of God’s elect could permanently fall away and perish, but he, like Augustine before him, believed that not all the regenerate were necessarily elect. All baptized people are, at their baptism, regenerated and born again. Not all persevere. Those that do persevere are God’s elect. In the Calvinistic framework, anyone who is truly regenerate is, as a matter of course, elect.
Luther’s view of baptism seems to have shaped his perspective on this matter. As the WELS web site said, “Confessional Lutherans believe that Baptism gives new life (Titus 3:5) and cleanses from all sin (Acts 2:38).”
No one disagrees that some babies, baptized in infancy, do not grow up to embrace the faith into which they were baptized. Presbyterians would say these are examples of people not truly converting, whereas Lutherans necessarily view these as examples of converted people falling away.
For unity to exist between Lutherans and Presbyterians to exist, it’s important for both sides to really understand each other. On the sacrament question, to get the most accurate grasp of where both churches stand perhaps the best place to begin to is Four Views on Baptism, edited by Paul Engle and John Armstrong. The book can be purchased by going to www.zondervan.com.