Luther on predestination, hell, and divine justice

I have been reading Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, and I was deeply struck by George’s summary of Luther’s defense of the doctrine of predestination against the objection that it impugns the justice and goodness of God on pp. 77-78. Luther, like Calvin, believed in a strong and unflinching doctrine of double predestination: God has eternally decreed some to everlasting life, and others to everlasting death, to the praise of his glorious grace and justice. He calls this doctrine “strong wine, and solid food for the strong.”

Luther defends his view of election against the criticism that it makes God evil and/or capricious by radically centralizing the value of the glory of God. He claims that objections to divine election generally place human destiny in the center, and God’s glory in the periphery, which is bound to skew justice. For Luther, only the regenerate heart which has tasted the glory of God as the infinite value and reference point that it is can see justice rightly. In other words, the huge problem of divine sovereignty and hell is ultimately swallowed up in the even huger reality of the glory of God. Only by being regenerated can one see – and taste – how this is not a non-answer.

Luther also distinguishes between the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory. I find this distinction very helpful. Just as there are many things that we see in the light of grace that we could not possibly understand by the light of nature, so there will be much that we will see in the light of glory that we cannot possibly understand in the light of grace. Therefore Christian faith has a drama, a mystery, and a tension to it as it waits for the eschatological vindication of its content.

Finally, Luther’s pastoral advice to those struggling with doubts about their election is telling. To weaker Christians, he says, “thank God for your torments!” They are evidence that God’s grace is at work in your heart. To stronger Christians, Luther encourages them to “resign themselves to hell if God wills this” – in other words, to so love the glory of God as to be content to be damed if only it would further the glory of God.

Wow. I find this emphasis on the radical centrality of the glory of God gripping. I do not claim to have it mastered, but I want to see more of it. This is “strong wine” indeed!

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