Q & A Follow Up: What Luther Says About Those Who Die Without Saving Faith.

For the first posting on this topic, click here.

Several weeks ago in the Brothers of John the Steadfast “ask the pastor” segment I wrote a brief response to a reader’s query about what happens to those who die without having heard the gospel. Thanks to my friend, and brother in the Office, Rev. Joshua Scheer, I have found a few quotations from Luther, enough that a brief follow up post is warranted. Apparently, Luther had answered this question already and in far less words with far more wit than I did. Below I have reproduced several key quotations with some brief annotation, attempting to let the primary source document do the talking. The full letter, originally sent from Luther to a man by the name of Hans von Rechenberg, can be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, volume 43 Devotional Writings II.  According to the editorial notes in the preface, the letter was most likely written in 1522, perhaps in mid-August. There also appears to be a sermon that in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s Works that is cited as having been born out of this letter which treats the topic at greater length.

Luther opens the letter by phrasing the question in a brief historical context in addition to the alleged Scriptural proof of those who have erred in providing and answer to this question, namely, Origen, who taught that all men and angels, including the devil, will be saved. Clearly this question predates any modern use of it to critique or attack the Christian faith.

My gracious lord, Count Albrecht of Mansfeld, etc., has requested me to instruct you, gracious sir, by letter on the question whether God can or will save people who die without faith. Thus after your many physical battles with unbelievers,1 gracious sir, I am to equip you with spiritual armor, with cogent and convincing proof, with which to confront these and others2 who might inquire regarding this question. For the opinion that God could not have created man to be rejected and cast away into eternal torment is held among us also, as it was at all times by some of the most renowned people, such as Origen3 and his kind. They regarded it as too harsh and cruel and inconsistent with God’s goodness. They based their opinion on Psalm 77 [:7 ff.], where the Psalmist says, “Will God east off for ever, and never again be gracious? Has his steadfast love for ever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” [They also cite] Paul, I Timothy 2 [:4], “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.” Proceeding from this premise they argued that in the end even the devils will be saved and will not be eternally damned, etc., etc., one step following from the other.[1]

Luther then goes on to rebut the conclusions of Origen and his ilk by saying:

To arrive at an answer to this question it is necessary to separate our opinion from God’s truth. We must be scrupulously concerned that we do not give God the lie. We must rather admit that all men, all angels, and all devils are lost than to say that God is not truthful in what he says. Such questions issue from the innate inquisitiveness of human nature, which is so loath to reconcile itself to the fact that it is not supposed to know God’s reasons for such severe and stringent judgments. Our human nature is prone to conclude that if it were not God’s judgment that all men be saved, it would be an outrage, tyranny, and injustice.[2]

Towards the end of the letter, Luther addresses again the idea of “giving God the lie.”

Now for our answer we have formidable passages of Scripture [to the effect] that God cannot and will not save anyone without faith. Mark 16 [:16] says, “He who does not believe will be lost.” Also Hebrews 11 [:6], “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Also John 3 [:5], “Whoever is not born of water and the Spirit cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Also John 3 [:18], “He who does not believe is condemned already.”

If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself [II Tim. 2:13]. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to hold this wine—yes, is unable to hold and contain it.[3]

In the previous paragraphs Luther also reveals his answer to the question. If faith and trust in Christ is lacking, then confidence and hope in salvation is as well for Christ does not save any apart from faith in Him since He is the way, the truth and the life.

One other point is worth mentioning here. Luther takes great pastoral concern in answering this question. Who is asking? Why are they asking it? These are important questions behind the question and something everyone should ask when this topic comes up. Luther’s compassion and concern is further expressed in the manner of the Christian to whom one is giving an answer. To the spiritual infant, Luther instructs us to leave this question for later catechesis. This question is best suited for the spiritually mature and those who have a great depth of understanding in the Scriptures and a great strength of faith so as not to be offended. Luther is careful, as we should be, not to trouble consciences who are weaker in faith, but rather, wait until the person is in a position – if they are not already – to receive the whole food of God’s word instead of the spiritual milk.

The highest honor and love of God, yes, the highest degree of divine love and honor is that we can regard and praise him as being kind and just in such matters. Here nature’s eyes must be gouged out entirely and naught but faith be present. Otherwise terrible and perilous offenses will be unavoidable. And when (it is quite common that everyone wants to begin with the most difficult problems) those who are young and inexperienced in faith fall prey to this and want to see these things in a natural light, they are very close to falling into a secret repugnance and hatred for God. After this it is very difficult to counsel [them].

Therefore we advise them not to be confused by God’s judgments. First they must grow up in faith, for as St. Peter says in his first epistle, chapter 2 [:2], they must be nourished with milk and abstain from such strong wine, exercise themselves in the sufferings and the humanity of Christ, and ponder his excellent life and conduct. Otherwise they will experience the truth of Solomon’s saying: “Qui scrutator est majestatis, opprimetur a gloria”—“He who tries to explore the majesty will be crushed by the glory.”[4]

And in an intriguing – and momentary – series of questions, Luther inquires about whether or not faith can be given in other ways but quickly comes to the conclusion that there is no way to prove this and therefore we should not place our confidence in the mysterious will and works of God but rather in his revealed will in the humanity and suffering of Christ which give us everything we need to know for salvation and eternal life.

It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes faith necessary.

Their quotations from the psalm that God will not keep his anger for ever, etc. [Ps. 103:9], with which they would prove their point, are not conclusive; for the entire psalm speaks about all the suffering of the saints on earth, as the preceding and succeeding verses and the entire context clearly show. It always seems to those afflicted with suffering that they are forgotten by God and that he would be angry with them forever. And the verse from St. Paul, that God desires all men to be saved [I Tim. 2:4], is related to the preceding words [which say that] God wants us to make supplication for all estates, to teach and preach the truth to all people, and to be helpful to all men both physically and spiritually. And since God commands us to do that, St. Paul says very correctly that it is God’s will that everyone be saved; for without his will this does not happen.5 However, it does not follow that God will save all men. And in case other such verses are cited, they must be viewed in this light. Otherwise, God’s providence and election from eternity, which St. Paul so emphasizes, would be null and void.

Gracious sir, that is what my love for you prompts me to write to you. And I ask you, gracious sir, do not let the presumptuous and capricious spirits6 have their way in this matter; but, as I said, confine them to Christ’s humanity, and let them first gain strength and be taught until they have matured sufficiently. For why should the man Christ have been given us as a ladder to the Father if we ignore him and bypass him and presume to ascend to heaven and measure God’s judgment by our own reason? Whatever is necessary for us to know is taught us best in Christ’s humanity, since he is our Mediator and no one can come to the Father except through him. When Philip inquired for a way to the Father other than Christ, Christ told him, “I am the gate and the way” [John 14:6], for in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [Col. 2:3].

Herewith I commend you, gracious sir, to God’s grace; and I gladly offer you my Christian services at all times.

Written in Wittenberg on the Monday after the Day of the Assumption of Mary, 1522.7

Martinus Luther[5]




1 I.e., with the Turks.

2 Cf. p. 54.

3 According to Origen (ca. 182–254) all men, as well as the devil, will be saved. Cf. De Principiis, I, 6, 1–4.

[1]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1968 (Luther’s Works 43), S. 43:51

[2]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1968 (Luther’s Works 43), S. 43:52

[3]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1968 (Luther’s Works 43), S. 43:53

[4]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1968 (Luther’s Works 43), S. 43:52

5 I.e., without God’s will no one is saved.

6 Cf. p. 49, n. 2.

7 The date did not appear in the copies printed in Wittenberg. See pp. 49–50.

[5]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1968 (Luther’s Works 43), S. 43:54

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