The Lutheran Difference: Q & A — Luther vs. Calvin

So a few weeks back, I threw open the floor for questions and answers. A few people took me up on it and today, I thought I would answer the first one I saw, namely this one:

So what’s the difference between Lutheranism and Calvinism? On the surface, it may seem like we should be put in the same category, but most Lutherans don’t consider themselves Reformed (which is odd, since our guy gave the whole Reformation business a good kick in the start button).

I’ll admit, it may seem tempting to lump us together. After all, both Lutherans and Calvinists are at odds with Arminianism when it comes to our understanding of salvation and a person’s participation in it. But there is a distinct difference, I think, one that becomes clear when we examine the Calvinists’ infamous TULIP.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, TULIP is a quick way to summarize the chief points of Calvinist belief, namely:


So do Lutherans hold to these five beliefs? Well, let’s take them one at a time.

Total depravity refers to the belief that human beings have nothing good in them. There’s no spark of original righteousness lurking anywhere within us. On this, Lutherans and Calvinists agree.

Unconditional election means that God chooses to save people, not because of anything within us, but because of the grace that is in Him. Again, this is something that Lutherans and Calvinists have in common.

But that’s the last one.

Limited atonement means that God only intends for some to be saved and not others. Who is saved and who is not is determined by God ahead of time (that whole predestination business). Lutherans disagree on this point. We believe that God desires for all people to be saved and that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, they can be.

Irresistible grace refers to the idea that, once God has chosen a person to be saved, there’s pretty much nothing that individual can do to avoid it. But Lutherans disagree. We believe that people can and do resist God’s grace all the time. We aren’t happy about it. We wish it weren’t so. But it does happen.

Perseverance of the saints means that once a person is saved, they always will be. It’s impossible for someone to fall away from salvation. Calvinists may believe that, but Lutherans do not. We believe that people can and do fall away from saving faith.

It’s true that both Calvinists and Lutherans believe that people don’t choose to be saved, but I think the key difference can be described like this: for Calvinists, God is the one who decides who is saved and who isn’t. Lutherans believe that humans are incapable of making that choice due to sin. It’s what I talked about earlier in this series (namely this one, this one, and this one).

There are other points that we disagree on (communion leaps immediately to mind), but that covers the basics. Next week, we’ll tackle another question.


  1. Great post, I’ve been wondering a lot about the implications of our Protestant theologies, ever since I quit Baptist church to go to RCA church a year and half ago. I don’t consider myself to be a Calvinist personally, but I think I do believe in election in a very abstract sense — I’m definitely more of a determinist. I don’t believe in systematic Calvinism, though, and I think the question of whether or not grace is irresistible or whether believers can fall away is a question of worldly semantics — I can’t find a way to believe in an objectively knowable state of being “saved” in this world anymore. Definitely some people who are as “saved” as anyone can objectively be said to be “saved” based on human knowledge have fallen away, I do believe.

    But I also believe that all who have sought to repent and seek the only true Light will unfailingly find Him. Otherwise, grace would be insufficient, and God who gives the thirst for grace would be incapable of saving all who would come to Him. I do believe that everyone who has truly repented must surely persevere in some way, and ultimately find a place in the New Creation. I believe in perseverance, but I don’t believe in assurance. I think when we sin we need to be rightfully worried about our justified damnation, but I also think that we can strengthen our hearts by remembering that we have truly loved the Light — and because the Light is outside of us and greater than us, that takes the burden of keeping our weak will unwavering away from us. The true horror is when we realize that even our memories and perceptions of our own past graces can be distorted by sin and by fear, since our souls are malleable and always in flux.

    Thank you for helping me to explore this.

  2. Good post, though studying Calvinism, I have a different take (by the way, I’m a neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist, but a kind of an Anabaptistic Dispensationalist Baptist – good thing they don’t still burn heretics). Here’s my understanding on four of the five points (I have no problem with your intepretation of the fourth point).

    Total depravity does include that we have no good thing in us, but takes it a step further that we are not even able to believe until the Holy Spirit draws us. (By the way, some Arminians would agree with this, including the “Reformed Arminian” author in Four Views on Eternal Security.)

    My understand on Unconditional Election is a combination of what you wrote on the subject and your definition of Limited Atonement. Namely, that God elects some. Now, Calvinists vary between a single election for salvation from the entirety of humanity destined for hell and those who hold to a dual election, one of salvation and one of retrobation.

    Limited Atonement deals more with the availability of salvation. Calvinists believe Christ died only for the elect. In other words, assuming Dietrich Bonhoffer was one of the elect and Hitler was not, Christ died for Bonhoffer’s sins but not Hitler’s.

    Finally, your definition of perseverance of the saints sounds more like eternal security. There’s a difference. The issue is Matthew 10:22- “He who endures until the end will be saved.” Eternal security says that those who don’t endure may also be saved, Arminianism teaches we’re saved because we endure, and Calvinism teaches that we endure because we’re saved. One critic (Dave Hunt) points out that Calvinism considers works as evidence that we’re of the elect. I heard one program which pointed out that early Calvinists did not believe you could know if you are one of the elect, but that the elect will live righteous lives, so they lived righteous lives in hope that they were the elect.

    Thanks for writing the article. As one who has very little experience with Lutherans (though I consider Philip Melanchthon one of my heroes of the faith) but plenty with Calvinists, I found it interesting. Though I’ve heard some say Luther was more of a Calvinist than Calvin was.

    • Thanks for the clarification. So here’s my take on this new information:

      Your definition of Total Depravity meshes well with the Lutheran understanding as well, so Lutherans and Calvinists still have that common ground.

      If your description of Unconditional Election is correct, then we lose that common ground because, as I said, Lutherans believe that God desires for everyone to be saved and that He simply wouldn’t cast off His children (the dual election scenario that you describe above).

      Even with clarification on Limited Atonement, Lutherans and Calvinists wouldn’t see eye to eye on that. Christ’s death is (in our grubby little opinion) for everyone’s sins. But the gift can and is rejected by far too many.

      I”ll have to mull over the perseverance business some more. With this clarification, I have some cogitating to do. 🙂

  3. Good response. And as I said, there is variation in Calvinism on especially the second point (Unconditional Election). My pastor is Calvinist but believes that there’s just one election, and I think that’s probably more common. But some do believe in a dual election.

    More confusing is when you add those who call themselves Moderate Calvinists, who basically rephrase the five points (I don’t know if you’re familiar with Norm Geisler and Ron Rhodes, but both would put themselves in that category.

    Me, I’m currently calling myself a non-Calvinist; I used to consider myself a 2.5 pointer. However, more of my heroes of the faith tend to be Calvinistic rather than Arminian (e.g. John MacArthur, Francis Schaeffer, and journalist Cal Thomas).

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