The Lutheran Difference: A Matter of Perspective

Last week, I shared how Lutherans don’t buy into the whole “make a choice for Jesus” rhetoric that we hear in other Christian traditions. We believe in something called “the bondage of the will,” meaning that we believe that, in an unsaved individual, sin makes it impossible for us to make that choice. It takes God working in us to bring about salvation. More specifically, for the Lutheran, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who creates faith in individuals, making it possible for us to confess that Jesus is Lord and actually mean it. Luther put it this way in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

But how do we explain what so many new Christians go through? If you were to ask most of the recently converted if they decided to become a Christian, most of them would say that they did. So who’s right?

Well, in my not-so-humble opinion, we both are, but it all depends on what your perspective is. And to explain what I mean, I want to tell you a story about playing chess.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first decided I wanted to learn how to play chess, but I do remember how I taught myself: I went to the local library and checked out one book on how to play chess. I then read the first chapter that explained how all of the pieces moved. Armed with this knowledge, I decided to could skip all the difficult to understand chapters that followed (about things like strategy and moves and stuff like that) and just play chess. And boy, was I good at chess. Why, after teaching my brother (who’s seven years younger than me) how the pieces moved, I could beat him every time! I was convinced I was the next Gary Kasparov, even if I had no clue who that was at the time.

Shortly thereafter, my family went to our congregational campout. This was a time when about half of the congregation would take over a campground for a weekend. There would be barbecues and games and swimming and all that good stuff. Well, that year, my parents encouraged me to befriend a foreign exchange student who was being hosted by one of the congregation members (being a pastor’s kid has all sorts of pitfalls like that). It was awkward at first; the kid was from France, but he spoke English well enough. But we had little to nothing in common. At least, it didn’t seem that way until one of us (I think it was him, but I can’t be sure) asked the other one, “Do you play chess?”

It turns out we both did, and the kid had brought a chess set with him. So he set up the board and I prepared to take this poor French kid to school.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. The French kid cleaned my metaphorical clock and badly. I was suddenly and painfully aware of my ineptitude, so much so that I wanted to flee from the picnic table and find somewhere to lick my psychological wounds and screw on some dignity again.

The French kid wouldn’t let me. Instead, he started quizzing me on how much I knew about chess strategy. When I admitted that I knew nothing, he set up the board and made us play again. Only this time, he gave me a lesson on reading the board. He explained that a true chess player isn’t just playing the board as it is in that moment, he or she is also playing the board as it will be several moves down the line. I had to pay attention to what moves he could make in response to mine, and what I could do to counter whatever he might do. As we played that second game, he wouldn’t accept my moves unless I explained exactly why I moved where I did. And I distinctly remember at one point I lucked into a good move without realizing it.

Since that humiliating lesson, I’ve learned that many grandmasters can work out patterns and strategies up to ten to fifteen moves ahead of time. If I were to play one of these grandmasters, while I was struggling to figure out what my next move should be and what his might be, the grandmaster would be piecing together the rest of the match. As a matter of fact, the grandmaster could even start positioning his pieces in such a way as to trick me into making a game-losing move. I would think that it’s my idea to do that, but in reality, it was because the grandmaster decided it earlier in the match.

I think that’s similar to the way it works when it comes to our journey to faith. We may think we’re the ones in charge, the ones calling the shots and making the decision, but in reality, it’s God, working through the Holy Spirit, setting up the board and positioning the pieces so that, when the time is right, we’ll “lose” by coming to faith in Him (the metaphor is, admittedly, a little imperfect in terms of the whole win/loss part). From my perspective, I think I’m the one making the choices about where to move. In reality, though, the grandmaster is the one making the decisions.

One of my professors in the Seminary used this example once, and it really stuck with me:

Let’s say that I’m a non-believer with a Christian coworker. One day, my coworker and I strike up a conversation about Christianity and faith. This one conversation turns into several. At first, I’m very resistant to the ideas and concepts that we’re discussing, but slowly, I start to become curious and then, maybe even a little receptive. So my coworker invites me to go hear Billy Graham preach.

And it’s an awesome experience. I’m swept away by the music and whatever it is Billy has to say. And at the end of the night, when the altar call comes and we’re asked if we want to be saved, I raise my hand or say the prayer or whatever it is.

My professor said that, for some Christians, that becomes the point where the Holy Spirit is able to enter my life. Up until then, the door has been shut, but once I decide to open the door, He enters in and is able to do His thing.

But that’s not how a Lutheran sees that story. No, for the Lutheran, the Holy Spirit is all over that story. He’s the one who prompts the coworker to start talking about faith. He’s the one who starts wrenching open my heart as we keep talking about God. And He’s the one who opens the door for me because, in my sinful state, I can’t do it for myself. It may seem like, from my perspective, that I’m the one who made the choice, but it’s really God who did the choosing for me.

A friend of mine summed it up really nicely once. He was quoting someone and, for the life of me, I can’t remember who (so if it was you, I apologize for not attributing you): he said that conversion is like coming up to a house that has a sign over its door that reads: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” But upon entering the house, you discover signs that say, “It is by grace you have been saved, and not by what you do.”

Again, I realize that some of you may not buy what I just said. But this is what Lutherans believe when it comes to our journey to faith. It’s not something that I do. Instead, it’s something that God calls me to, something that God does for me completely. He’s the one who saves me from my sins. He’s the one who creates faith in me. He does it all because I can’t contribute anything.

Wow. This turned into a long one, didn’t it? Well, we’ll move on to the last sola next week.

So who does the deciding? It kind of depends on your perspective. Click To Tweet


  1. Since we who are saved contribute nothing to our salvation and God is love, why isn’t everyone saved according to Luther?

    • I have seen some (very liberal theologically) Lutherans argue for universalism, that the grace of God extends to everyone regardless of their faith. The arguments they made were interesting to read but, to me, unconvincing.

      To answer your question more directly, I believe Luther’s answer would be that original sin and the bondage of the will keeps all people from being automatically saved. We are so lost and fallen that, like you said, we can do nothing.

      I know that seems like an irreconcilable paradox, but Lutherans are kind of like that in our theology. We get wary when presented with an either/or sort of thing and prefer to live with both/ands.

      • What is the difference between simple self-contradiction and paradox? If we can resist God’s grace as you have suggested then you really do believe we do something to aid our salvation. Otherwise all to whom God extends grace would be saved.

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