Are We Following Luther or Arminius? by Joseph Herl

(My choir director pointed out this article written by a friend of mine (a prior choir director) at practice before church this morning .. I thought it so well written that I asked permission to post it for the edification of BJS members and readers, Norm Fisher, BJS Technical Director)

I am increasingly of the opinion that American Lutherans are Arminians at heart. According to Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian active around 1600, salvation works like this: Way back in the mists of eternity, God looked ahead to see which of His fallen creatures would, if they had free will, turn to Him and be saved. Based on this foreknowledge, God then marked, or predestined, these people for salvation through Christ. The teaching was current in various guises even before Arminius, and some 16th century Lutherans thought it sounded pretty good. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s closest colleague, came close to asserting it. Luther, on the other hand, wouldn’t touch it. He said that if our salvation depended on anything we do or might do, even deciding to believe in Christ, then it is no longer a free gift of God, but rather something we earn. Faith then becomes a good work, something we do to merit God’s favor. It is Luther’s view and not that of Arminius that became enshrined in the Lutheran Confessions.

But Luther’s view has not held up well in today’s church. The pitch goes something like this:

Evangelism guru: “Would you give up your life to save your grandson from drowning?”
Grandpa: “You bet.”
Evangelism guru: “Then would you give up your music to save your grandson from going to hell?”
Grandpa: “Well, I … uh …”

The assumption here is that God is not fully responsible for a person’s salvation. If He were, then He would find a way to save the grandson regardless of what style of music Grandpa’s church employed. If the kind of music really makes a difference in who is ultimately saved, then salvation depends on our actions, and what we do or fail to do can affect not only our own salvation, but someone else’s as well. That is flat-out Arminianism, and it is a terrible burden on the Church.

It is not the first time the Missouri Synod has been confronted with this. It happened in the 19th century when revivalists such as Charles Grandison Finney were trying to light a fire under people so they would turn from their sluggish depravity and obey God. Finney believed that if the Church just did things in the right way, in a way calculated to excite people, then the natural and inevitable result would be that people would turn to God in great numbers. For Finney, the mark of the Church’s success was how many people came to know Christ. While Finney was best known for his “anxious bench,” later revivalists such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday would make extensive use of music to draw people in and convince them to accept Christ. In 1890 Missouri Synod president H.C. Schwan took aim squarely at the revivalists when he wrote that the danger in moving to English as the language of worship was the American spirit, “that shallow, slick, indifferent, business-tainted spirit in which also spiritual matters are handled in this country; that sentiment which … seeks salvation in sweet sensations and in a much busied workery of all kinds.”

We see something similar a century earlier in German Lutheranism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, church music was considered good if it glorified God and carried an appropriate text. But in the 18th century, writers began to assign a more significant role to it: “to edify the audience, to arouse them to devotion, in order to awaken in them a quiet and holy fear toward the Divine Essence,” in the words of Johann Adolph Scheibe, chapel master to the King of Denmark. Writer after writer presented similar ideas; namely, that the purpose of church music is to manipulate emotions in order to move people closer to God. As with the revivalists, the more people it brings to Christ, then the better the music.

In truth, music does not bring people to Christ. God does. God may use music as His vehicle; but we must not think that music, by itself, has the power to save souls, nor that individuals moved by music are able to choose to be saved. That is all God’s doing, working through His appointed means of grace. I am reminded of the U. S. senator who visited Mother Teresa’s clinic and home for the dying in Calcutta. On seeing all the illness and poverty there, the senator asked her how she could possibly cope, how her work could possibly be successful. She replied, “I am not called to be successful; I am called to be faithful.”

We too are called to be faithful. Do we select our music in church to be successful in moving people, in reaching them for Christ, in convincing them to become Christians? If so, welcome to Arminianism and the Law. Or do we choose music that glorifies God and conveys as well as possible through its texts and associations the fullness of Christian teaching? If so, welcome to Luther and the Gospel.

Dr. Joseph Herl
Associate Professor of Music
Concordia University, Nebraska
Joseph.Herl at

Joseph Herl has written Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict; also available in paperback.

Reprinted from ISSUES in Christian Education, Volume 42, No. 2, Fall 2008, a publication of Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Are We Following Luther or Arminius? by Joseph Herl — 16 Comments

  1. Why didn’t this get posted on the main page? I would have missed this great post if I hadn’t clicked the Editors Blog in search of something else.

    Now if I could just remember what I was actually looking for.

  2. I think it’s just natural that people end up being drawn to the Arminian way. Wrong, but natural. That’s why we need to be constantly reminded how we can’t do anything to save our wretched selves. Why we need the confession and absolution weekly. And the Gospel! Thank God it doesn’t depend on me, but on Him!

  3. This makes complete sense and causes me to hearken back to my pre-Lutheran evangelical days where the Arminianism as you have described it was utterly tyrannical. The salvation of souls was dependent upon our efforts in putting together the right kind of events, including constant adjustments to the worship service, making sure that we included everyone’s personally favorite components. And numbers were the measuring standard for success. I just left a Lutheran parish I served as musician for many pressing professional reasons. But this notion was definitely in the mix. The pastor there has even said that numbers would pretty much be his “metric” moving forward. I wonder how seriously a pastor like that can take the Augsburg confession’s instruction that the Holy Spirit “works faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (AC V). I guess we should add the caveat there that the music has to be just so too, lest the Holy Ghost be rendered unable to do his work.

    There is freedom in using a variety of musical styles, old and new, but the purpose of all of them is to be the living voice of the Gospel and to teach all that Christ commanded. They are not there to provide an atmosphere preferable to certain people, or as a pep rally, nor are they there to be the personal expression of people in worship. They are there for the purpose that the Holy Spirit has designated – to present the Word through which he creates faith in the heart.

    Behind the drumbeat for contemporary music are Arminian tendencies, to be sure, but also a selfishness that does not receive the Word of God unless it is presented in the preferred musical style (a style that is, lamentably, often vapid of theological richness and precision). This selfishness is nothing more than the old Adam who would rather be entertained in church than instructed by those who have come before in their hymns and canticles. Pastors, too can easily adopt prideful attitudes where their efforts to be relevant, approachable, clever or even just pleasant are presumed to be of great use to the Holy Ghost. All of these attitudes need to be catechized out of such people and not catered to.

  4. Sam — many people who read articles on this or other blog sites use RSS to keep track of which articles they have read and which they haven’t. We’ve written an article on use of RSS — you can also access this by clicking on the “BJS News” found at the bottom of every page of this site. You should subscribe to both RSS feeds — articles and comments. The easiest method to make sure you read all articles is to use the Google Reader at

    While I have your attention, we’ve also added a Promote BJS link at the bottom of each page which will help you if you want to promote the BJS site from your own blogs.

  5. Does anyone have the reference to the Schwan quote so that I could read it in context?

  6. Norm,
    Thanks for the suggestions. I did see that the site is RSS ready now but I have never subscribed to an RSS feed before. So I just hadn’t gotten motivated to figure it out. But I will check the “How To” link you provided and give it a try.

  7. Rev Bergstrazer —

    Here’s the reference:

    Carl Stamm Meyer, ed., *Moving frontiers: readings in the history of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod* (CPH, 1964), p. 356.


  8. I’m not disagreeing but I remember somebody once saying that Martin Luther wrote a number of songs in his day to contemporary (for his time) tunes even popular drinking songs so that his church members could sing them to a familiar tune. If so wouldn’t it be good for our times to write some new songs with Christological lyrics to be sung with popular tunes. I agree that most of the popular praise songs are not Christ-centered, but couldn’t there be someone who could write some lyrics to go with the popular praise song tunes? Just wondering.

  9. From Joe Herl in reply to Rev. Bob Eggers above:

    With one exception, Luther did not set text to secular tunes of any kind, much less drinking songs. The exception is “From heaven above to earth I come.” At first it was sung to a secular tune, but when Luther published it, he used a new tune. The story about Luther and drinking songs is a myth. His most common sources for tunes were (1) Gregorian chants he simplified; (2) pre-existing religious folk songs (think Christmas carols, but not necessarily for Christmas); and (3) tunes he wrote himself. Luther, by the way, was quite an accomplished musician. For details, see Robin Leaver’s book *Luther’s liturgical music: principles and implications* (Eerdmans, 2007). After reading Leaver’s evidence, I would guess that Luther probably played lute and composed music at a level comparable to a graduate student in music today.

    There are certainly decent texts being set today to music in a popular style. You just have to know where to look. When I was music director at a Lutheran campus chapel in the early 1990s, we did the communion liturgy in a setting for praise band, with students playing various instruments, including keyboard, electric bass guitar, and drums. (It was an unpublished setting by Philip Gehring, retired from Valparaiso University.) The Catholic publisher GIA has been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and there was a setting by John Ylvisaker that was seriously considered for inclusion in the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. Last summer at the LCMS worship conference the praise band played and sang my tune for the hymn “Hope of the world,” which I had written with praise band in mind. The problem is, you don’t hear this stuff on Christian radio, because, let’s face it, it’s not Lutherans or Catholics who own and operate those stations. We don’t have the media and publishing presence that the evangelicals have.

    Setting new lyrics to existing pop tunes and praise songs is actually not a bad idea in theory, but I’m afraid the copyright law wouldn’t allow it. In order to set new words to an existing tune, you would need the permission of the copyright holder, and I can’t imagine any such holder actually granting it.

  10. Interesting!!!

    I wonder if anybody has pointed out a connection between Charles Finney’s Arminianism and the “Predestinarian Controversy” between the old Ohio Synod and Missouri? Ohio held that God elected man in view of the faith he would hold (intuitu fidei) and the Missouri ascribed it all to grace. At first glance, I’d say that while eventually the Ohio Synod gave up the false notion of “intuitu fidei,” that we are now closer than even in Missouri to holding to Finney’s false views.

    Lack of doctrinal supervision in the LCMS reaps its harvest of more weeds.

    A brief reference to the controversy and other links is found at:

  11. Rev Eggers: Sorry I misidentified you initially.

    The reply to your comment was from Dr. Joe Herl, the writer of the original article. As for me, it’s Norm Fisher, not a Pastor, just a technical guy who helps out as my talents allow me to.

    Norm Fisher
    BJS Technical Director

  12. Arminius is one of the most misunderstood theologians. You should go and read his works. I’m a christian (not arminian, not calvinist, not lutheran). I follow Christ alone. That said, let it be abundantly clear that Calvin, Luther, and Arminius all agreed that salvation is by grace alone, through face alone, in Christ alone. Salvation is the work of God alone, man contributes nothing to his salvation. Salvation is not a “decision” that man makes based on his free will, this was never taught by Armnius. Arminius as well as Luther taught that God’s grace can be resisted and is resisted, Calvin on the other hand taught irresistible grace. This theological difference only applies to the reprobate, where Luther and Arminius would argue that man’s sinfulness and the devil are the cause of reprobation, Calvin would teach that God’s will is the ultimate cause of reprobation ( even when Calvin does not excuse that the sin of the unbeliever rightly condemns him). But with regard to salvation Calvin, Luther, and Arminius agreed that salvation has to be credited 100% to God’s work and 0% to man. It was actually Charles Finney the first prominent theologian / evangelist who credited salvation to man’s free will, and decision theology was born, where man makes a decision for Christ.

  13. I have been a Lutheran for 30 years. I have spent most of it in the Missouri Synod. The last few years have been in the Wisconsin Synod, due to necessity. The MS Church in my location is notorious for liberalism, in the view of many. Enough said about that. As a Synod, we have good doctrine. Nearly every message on Sunday is faith vs works. What we don’t spend much time on is the rest of the Bible. The Bible is Gods in-errant Word for salvation (we teach that) and correction (we don’t spend much time on that). We also don’t place much importance on fellowship in the Word. My perception is that most Lutherans believe that they got all the guidance they needed preparing for confirmation. Once a week on Sunday is all most think they need. Most just attend the service. My experience is that Lutheran Sunday schools are poorly attended. Weekly Bible studies and fellowship groups also get weak support, and mostly fizzle out. Many Lutheran pastors don’t put much effort into bible study. It’s a sad commentary. The Bible is also a book of instruction, rich in information and strategies for living the Christian life. Yes, I am saved by grace. But now what? That is where our churches mostly leave it. I want learned help, support, and guidance to live a better life, modeled after Christ. The Bible is an instruction book for doing that. Teach us to live like Christ! Teach us the rest of what their is to know. Help us to fail less. Arm us to face the world with sound Biblical teach on living like our Savior. Good works might not save us, but they do translate our faith into action. In my perception, Lutherans (as a group) are lazy Christians. Enough talk about faith or works already. In 500 years we have talked the issue to death. We need need more stewardship. Faith without works is a dead faith.

  14. WHO’S GOD?*

    *(this questions is a conclusion after reading “Fatal Discord” by Michael Massing, Harper, 2018)
    **(this is the title of a sub-chapter that opens with the “iconic Earthrise photograph taken by William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968” – [] ref.:Light of the Stars, Adam Frank, 2018)

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