Martin Luther on Predestination

Martin Luther is best remembered today as the Reformer who defended the doctrine of justification by faith alone against the constant assaults of the Roman Catholic Papacy. However, this was but one conflict that Luther was engaged in during his lifetime. Another significant conflict of Luther’s day involved the doctrine of divine predestination and would, in part, lead to one of Luther’s greatest works, The Bondage of the Will. At the end of this work, which is a rebuttal to Erasmus’ writings and part of a debate concerning God’s election of sinners and man’s free-will (or lack thereof), Luther writes:

Moreover, I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like—trifles, rather than issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.[1]

While justification is the “doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls,” Luther saw the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and predestination as the “hinge on which all turns.”

The doctrine of predestination teaches that God, in His perfect sovereignty, has both elected a certain number of sinners to salvation and has ordained all that comes to pass. Not one thing is outside of His sovereign and controlling decrees. For many, this is a doctrine of great comfort; the Triune God reigns, and so we can rejoice. Our election to salvation is certain because God has predestined all that comes to pass. But, for others, there is perhaps no stranger and no more hated doctrine than this. Some have even gone so far as to say that they would not worship a God who predestined all we experience in this life. A large question that many ask is, “If God has predestined all things, whatsoever they may be, then can man be truly free?” Luther was at the center of this argument in the sixteenth century and defended the sovereign, predestining decrees of God over and against those who lauded the free-will of man above God’s power.

Luther understood that, despite man’s confusion, predestination is taught in Scripture[2] and the one who desires to be faithful to God and His Word must faithfully handle what God's Word says about predestination. Committed to biblical fidelity, he desired to be faithful to God’s Word even if it provoked the ire of others. 

Perhaps most surprising is that, when one studies Luther on the doctrine of predestination, it quickly becomes apparent that he believed in what has been called "double predestination." In this teaching, it is recognized that the same God who sovereignly predestined the elect to salvation also sovereignly passed over others; that is to say, some are predestined to eternal life and some predestined to judgment. Luther held this view. Take his understanding of God as the potter and the Christian as the clay, as an example. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther writes:

From the entire context surrounding Paul's words and statement, you can see that the point which he is making concerns the different characters and uses of vessels. So his meaning is this: ‘When so many depart from the faith, there is no comfort for us but our certainty that the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His. And let everyone that calleth upon the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’ (2 Tim. 2:19). The intent and force of the simile are limited to this one point, that the Lord knows his own. The simile then follows—that there are different vessels, some to honour and some to dishonour. By this is proved the doctrine that it is not the vessels themselves, but their master, who prepares them for their intended use. This is the meaning of Paul’s statement in Rom. 9, that ‘the potter has power’, etc. Thus, Paul’s simile holds good, and proves most effectively that there is no such thing as freedom of will in God’s sight.[3]

Typical of Luther in this passage is his strong language, which is helpful in determining his own views.

First, he recognized that because “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” there are different “vessels,” as Paul teaches in Romans 9. Some people are predestined in election as “vessels” for honor and others are passed over in election and become “vessels” for dishonor.

Second, Luther recognized that the Scriptures teach that the sovereign God has predestined who would be what kind of vessel. Man has no “free-will” in this sense. All depends on the sovereignty of God, who, as the potter, “has power” to predestine all that comes to pass.[4]

Third, all that comes to pass depends on the sovereign, predestinating purposes of the Triune God according to His own will. While God does not will evil, He does permit it. The promise of Romans 8:28 is that, because God controls everything, Christians can rest assured that, in all situations, God is accomplishing our greatest good and His greatest glory. This, Luther taught, is the vital and glorious hinge on which all else turns.


Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. He is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2003), 319.


[2] Ephesians 1:5, 11-12: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will… In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

[3] Ibid., 231.


[4] Rather than hinder evangelism, this should promote it. God will save His elect through the preaching of the Gospel. We must simply be faithful to preach the Gospel to others.


Jacob Tanner