Roots of Christianity Pt. 4 “Reformed—Calvinist”


  • Hermann Sasse’s “Here We Stand”, Harper Bros. 1938 (which a witty professor of mine in the late 80’s said would be called “Here We Stood” today) remains the best resource for understanding the real differences between Lutherans and Reformed Calvinists. I’m summarizing it for you. We have a copy for the library (sadly, heavily highlighted).
  • Sasse knew Karl Barth well. He sees him as the paradigmatic Reformed theologian. Sasse notes that it’s sad that outwardly the Reformed and Lutheran churches seem to agree on so much, justification by grace alone through faith alone, and scripture alone. Yet, Sasse argues there is such a profound difference in what we really mean by those sayings that a deep disagreement in the Faith is hidden under an apparent agreement.
  • The Gospel: in a nutshell the Reformed insist that preaching the Law is just as much a part of Christ’s work as Savior as proclaiming the Gospel. For them Law and Gospel are two (equal!) sides of God’s Word and not really fundamentally different. For Lutherans the Gospel is really the sole proclamation of Christ; teaching the law is his “strange” or “alien” work done only so that we might believe the Gospel and rely on Christ in this Way alone. The problem here is the Reformed think of faith as a work which involves obedience to the teachings of Jesus whether they be Law or Gospel. So you have to have a sound dogmatic theology and good works. For Lutherans (following the Scriptures!) faith justifies the sinner without any works of our own because it is not a work; it is simply the non-rejection of Christ’s gracious declaration of righteousness on account of His redeeming work. Faith is pure receiving of the Gift of Christ and Him Crucified. Good works do follow from this and the Law is certainly a guide as to what good works that Christ works in us look like. But they follow freely, naturally, spontaneously like good fruit from a good tree and the works in no way help or count at all for our salvation.
  • Faith: When faith is no longer, as it is for Lutherans, the God-wrought non-rejection of Christ’s free gift of forgiveness of sins and the life and salvation that flows from that, when faith becomes (as for the Reformed) a conscious obedience to all the teachings of Scriptures, both law and gospel, then Christianity turns into a system of morality as the Formula of Concord warned it would that is scarcely distinguishable in its effect from the legalism of Rome. The Bible becomes a “paper pope” as tyrannical and demanding of the white-hated one in Rome. Sasse has quotes from Reformed and Roman theologians condemning Luther in almost exactly the same terms for “over-simplifying” the Gospel into a pure message of the sinner’s forgiveness for Christ’s sake as an utterly free gift and missing the complexity (and systematic legalism) that forms an integral part of the Reformed and well as the Roman churches. (Sasse would agree there are Reformed Christians who, like Roman, live from the scraps of the Gospel that survive in their churches. But this is a precarious life on the margins, not to be commended as safe).
  • Church: the Reformed have a very different view of the Church and her mission. They see two churches, one visible and one invisible and the invisible is the only real one and it is possible only for members of the visible institution. Lutherans know the church is hidden, the saints known only to God. For us there is only one hidden church but with the clear marks of the rightly preached Gospel and ritely administered Sacraments. As Sasse points out it follows from these very different conceptions that for the Reformed the church is “a congregation of believers and obeyers” whereas for Lutherans the Church is only a congregation of believers. Another way to say it is that for Lutherans the Church is like a sinner’s anonymous meeting, where we gather to be forgiven our sins and encourage one another in this pure Faith. For the Reformed the Church is the gathering of right thinking do-gooders who must save the world by their sanctified and missional action. The Reformed believe no one can come to faith outside the visible institution of the Church, whereas Lutherans believe in line with Scripture, that the Holy Spirit works faith where and when He pleases in those who hear the Gospel. Normally He works through Word and Sacraments so these are truly and ever marks of the Church. But He is free to deliver the Gospel through ways and means we cannot detect, as with the Magi and their star. The Reformed bind God to the visible church. Lutherans leave Him free to do as He pleases and bind ourselves happily to the means through which Christ promises to redeem us. Finally, the Reformed think the New Testament demands a certain form of church organization, namely rule by a group of “prebyters”. Lutherans see no such organization in the NT and even if there did exist such, there is no polity prescribed by the Scriptures as necessary for the church of all times and places.
  • Justification and predestination: Lutherans and Reformed agree that justification by grace through faith and predestination of the elect are closely related teachings. But Lutherans subordinate predestination to justification (as the central article) whereas the Reformed do exactly the opposite. Calvin has to have predestination rule, whereas Lutherans are content to let this be a great mystery while the sinner’s justification by grace through faith in Christ is a clearly revealed truth which we grasp with the most certain and confident belief.
  • Incarnation: Lutherans see that God became man in Jesus and humbled Himself to save us. This is what God destined us for! Because Lutherans accept that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Jesus (Col. 2:9) and the Council of Chalcedon’s correct teaching that because of the personal union of divine and human natures in Christ all divine attributes are fully communicated to the human nature, we have no problem confessing that Christ is truly present with His Body and Blood in the Sacrament for us to eat and drink, and no less present in the flesh by His Word. He is with us always, fully human-divine as He promised at the end of Matthew’s Gospel! This is why and how the Gospel predominates with us and not with the Reformed. They have a divine spirit with a borrowed human body stuck in heaven. There is an Arian at worst and Nestorian (at best) Christology in the Reformed that makes pure faith in the divine-human Christ Jesus difficult for Reformed.