Saturday, December 12, 2009

Luther on Limited Atonement Revisited

There is a popular quote (as found on websites like these) from Luther in which he appears to advocate limited atonement:

“God will have all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), and he gave his Son for us men, and he created man for the sake of eternal life. And likewise: Everything is there for man’s sake and he is there for God’s sake in order that he may enjoy him, etc. But this objection [to God's sovereignty in salvation] and others like it can just as easily be refuted as the first one: because all these sayings must be understood only with respect to the elect [emphasis in original], as the apostle says in 2 Timothy 2:10, “All for the elect.” Christ did not die for absolutely all, for he says: “This is my blood which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20) and “for many” (Mark 14:24)- he did not say: for all- “to the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). [Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, translated and edited by Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 252.]

This quote comes from an early writing of Luther's. I have gone on record stating those using this quote to prove Luther's view of limited atonement do so incorrectly. I've never found any evidence that Luther maintained such a view throughout his life on the extent of the atonement.

A blog visitor left a recent comment and url about Luther's view of the atonement:

I have heard you mention before that the only time Luther taught limited atonement was in his 1515 Romans lectures, but I found some evidence that he held on to that view at least a few years later. Just something I thought may help in your Luther research.

Thanks for thinking of me. I always appreciate tidbits like these. As a point of clarification, my position is not "the only time Luther taught limited atonement was in his 1515 Romans lectures." What I maintain is that it appears limited atonement was an early view Luther held. His later writings strongly imply a different conclusion on the extent of the atonement. Those people (particularly Reformed people) use the Romans commentary quote at the expense of Luther's entire written corpus, thus caricaturing his view. It is typically the only quote they use (probably because it's the only one they can find, and I unfortunately doubt they're actually looking).

I have heard it argued by some reformed Christians, including Timothy George, that Luther taught limited atonement. Clearly, in his later writings he teaches a universal atonement. However, in his lectures on Romans in 1515 he seems to teach that the atonement was only for the elect. While I had previously thought this was the only time Luther made such a statement, I have found something in an early sermon which teaches something similar. In an exposition of Hebrews chapter 1 Luther states that Christ "has poured out his love for us and made purification for our sins. The apostle says "our," "our sins;" not his own sin, not the sins of unbelievers. Purification is not for, and cannot profit, him who does not believe." (Complete Sermons of Martin Luther volume 3.1 pg. 180) Unfortunately, this sermon does not have a date in the volume, though it his clear in his discussion of the two natures of Christ that he has not yet engaged the issue of the communication of attributes of the divine to the human nature. Thus, it is one of his earlier sermons. It seems that Luther did hold to a limited atonement at the beginning of his reformational career. He did eventually abandon this and clearly teach a universal atonement while still retaining the doctrine of predestination.[source]

Tedium & Bibliographic Information
Not meaning to nitpick, but the reference is incorrect. The quote is from volume 3.2, not volume 3.1. Each of the first four volumes of the 2000 reprint (which I believe you're using) contain two books in one. Indeed, there isn't a sermon date, yet another problem with Lenker's series. As the editors of Luther's Works point out, Lenker's edition of the postil was "translated uncritically and inadequately"(introduction, LW 51). Lenker ironically foresaw such a criticism. He explains in his own introduction that "Unmerciful critics will be heard from in due time" as to his translation and collection (Complete Sermons of Martin Luther Vol. 1.1, p.7). If one reads through both Lenker's introduction as well as that in LW 51, you'll see the incredible mountain of trouble a translator and editor has when undertaking the task of producing a critical version of Luther's Church Postil. That being said, I treasure Lenker's collection, and appreciate his efforts!

The sermon in question ("Third Christmas Sermon") can be found here. From Lenker's and LW's introductory material, the Christmas sermons date from 1521-1522: "Luther wrote the Christmas and Advent postils (in that order) at the Wartburg in 1521 and these appeared in print in 1522" (LW 51). Is this sermon from this time period? I can't say for sure. The Postil went through many revisions, even during Luther's lifetime. This question can only be answered by a true Luther scholar.

The Luther Quote & Context
Luther's sermon was on Hebrews 1:1-12. He's expounding on verse 3 "who being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he made purification of sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high."

32. The apostle says “our,” “our sins;” not his own sin, not the sins of unbelievers. Purification is not for, and cannot profit, him who does not believe. Nor did Christ effect the cleansing by our free-will, our reason or power, our works, our contrition or repentance, these all being worthless in the sight of God’, he effects it by himself. And how? By taking our sins upon himself on the holy cross, as Isaiah 53:6 tells us.
33. But even this answer does not sufficiently explain how he cleanses us “by himself.” To go further: When we accept him, when we believe he has purified us, he dwells within us because of, and by, our faith, daily continuing to cleanse us by his own operation; and nothing apart from Christ in any way contributes to the purification of our sins. Note, he does not dwell in us, nor work our cleansing through himself, by any other way than in and through our faith.

When Reformed people typically speak of limited atonement, they're seeking to determine the extent of the atonement. That is, did Christ die for all people, or a particular set of people? I submit the Luther quote in question doesn't answer in the way his early Romans Commentary quote does. He earlier clearly outlines extent: "Christ did not die for absolutely all." His point in this Christmas sermon is that the atonement is effectual for believers: "Purification is not for, and cannot profit, him who does not believe," "When we accept him, when we believe he has purified us."

An interesting question that I don't have the answer to would be: when did Luther's view shift? I admit to not studying this issue with the depth needed to provide a satisfactory answer. If
this sermon does date from 1521-1522, one would need only to search through Luther's writings from this period to see if he comments on the extent of the atonement. In The Sermons of Martin Luther 1.1 p. 132 (Fourth Sunday in Advent), Luther states, "He alone must take upon himself not only your sins, but the sins of the world, and not some sins, but all the sins of the world, be they great or small, many or few." The Advent sermons are likewise said to be dated from the same time period.

Addendum: Luther Atonement Quotes
"[Christ] helps not against one sin only, but against all my sin; and not against my sin only, but against the whole world's sin. He comes to take away not sickness only, but death; and not my death only, but the whole world's death" [WA 37: 201, Sermon for first Sunday in Advent, 1533]. [Day by Day We Magnify Thee, p. 1]


Jordan Cooper said...

I think the "his own sin" refers to Christ's own sin rather than the author of Hebrews' own sin.

James Swan said...

Good point- I will make the change.

Jugulum said...


There's one translation that does not read "for absolutely all", but rather "For in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all".

Google books search

But then others read like you said.
Google books search

Can you clear this up? Is the German ambiguous? Is it definitely one or the other?

Tony Byrne said...

The original is not in German, but Latin. WA 56 has this for the Latin:

Non enim absolute pro omnibus mortuus est Christus...”