The Will in Conversion: Protestant Rationalism versus Lutheran Adherence to Scripture

A recurring issue in Christian conversations is: what is the role of man’s will in conversion.

Some say this is no better than arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This issue really matters, however. It is a question of who we trust, God or ourselves, and the blessings and curses that follow trust. What could be more opposite to trusting God than trusting man? What could be more opposite to faith than trusting ourselves? What could be more lethal to salvation than unbelief?

Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. . . . Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is in the Lord. . . . The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:5, 7, 9)

Fallen man’s will is a slave to sin, yet it fancies itself free. This fancy is a trait of being lost, blind, proud, at enmity against God, and dead.

In this article we will see:

  • some of the common ways this issue is discussed
  • the proper role of reason and the error of rationalism
  • what rationalism in this context actually is
  • how the Lutheran teaching is nothing else than scriptural simplicity


To begin, much of American Christianity views this as a conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism. They have the impression that the universe of ideas about free will is completely embraced in those two isms, oblivious to Lutheran thought.

For all the ferocity of the dispute between Calvinism and Arminianism concerning free will, here is a key thing: the structure of thought is the same in both. Only Lutheranism has a different structure of thought. We will see this as we trace how each of them deals with two cases concerning the will of man.

Calvinism, Arminianism, and Lutheranism all must deal with the two cases: the case of the saved and the case of the lost. What is the role of man’s will in the case of the saved? What is the role of man’s will in the case of the lost?

Calvinism first takes up the case of the saved. From Scripture, Calvinism reads that the saved are saved by the will of God. While reading Scripture, it uses reason to see what Scripture says. The use of reason by itself is not rationalism because what is feeding reason is the text. Reason isn’t feeding itself.

Calvinism then proceeds to the case of the lost. It reasons from the case of the saved – see what happened there, not from the text of Scripture but from the case of the saved – to the case of the lost. It reasons that since the saved are saved by the will of God, therefore the lost are lost by the will of God.

The key is that, whereas in the first case, Calvinism reasons from the text of Scripture, in the second case, Calvinism reasons from its conclusion about the first case. Structure means, reasoning from where? Reasoning from the fruit of reason – making reason’s conclusions the feeder of the next round of reason – is where rationalism sets in.

Arminianism follows the same structure, but just happens to begin with the opposite case, the case of the lost. That changes the conclusions, but the structure is the same. Realizing this error of structure will help us see our way to the truth when we reach the Lutheran teaching.

From Scripture, Arminianism reads that the lost are lost by their own will. While reading Scripture, it uses reason to see what Scripture says. So far, so good.

Arminianism then proceeds to the case of the saved. It reasons from the case of the lost rather than from the text of Scripture to the case of the saved. It reasons that, since the lost are lost by their own will, therefore the saved are saved by their own will.

Just like Calvinism, when Arminianism comes to the second case, it reasons from its conclusions about the first case rather than backing up to begin the second case at the text of Scripture. This structure of rationalism is the same as the structure of Calvinism. The two differ only in starting with opposite cases first.

Of course, both Calvinism and Arminianism cite Scriptures in support of their teaching about their respective second cases. Procedurally, however, that was accomplished by backfilling proof texts. Rationalism, not the text of Scripture, forced the view of the second case.

Luther does not follow that structure. In each case, Luther backs up to the text of Scripture and starts there. He uses reason, but he reasons from the text, not from conclusions reason generated in a prior round of thought. Consequently, it does not matter whether he begins with the case of the saved or the case of the lost.
He can begin with the case of the saved, as Calvinism does, or he can begin with the case of the lost as Arminianism does, and his conclusions will be the same.

His conclusions for the second case to be considered are not controlled by which was considered first and which case is considered second. His conclusions are controlled by the text. Let’s trace Luther’s steps and see how this is so.

For the case of the saved, Luther begins at the text of Scripture. He sees that Scripture says the saved are saved by the will of God. But he does not let the reasonable reading of Scripture about the case of the saved control his thinking about the case of the lost. He does not begin from there, as Calvinism does, and reason to the case of the lost.

Instead, he backs up to the text of Scripture and he sees that it says the lost are lost by their own will. While reason is used in reading the text of Scripture, Luther does not fall into rationalism because what feeds reason always is Scripture. In Luther, all conclusions are children, not grandchildren, from the text of Scripture.

Calvinists love to accuse of Luther of being inconsistent because he says the saved are saved by the will of God while the lost are lost by their own will. When they say inconsistent, they mean rationally inconsistent. To that we may gleefully admit, because that frees us to be scripturally consistent. What we confess about both the saved and the lost is consistent with Scripture.

But if we must speak of rational consistency, we can compete on that ground. Can you think of anything more different than saved and lost? Why, then, is it rational to presuppose that two such opposite things must be alike? Who is being irrational? Doesn’t it make sense that the case of the saved and the case of the lost, being as opposite as can be, would work differently?

The saved are born by the will of God, not by the will of man.

As many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13)

“It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)

The lost resist grace by their own sinful wills.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7:51)

Man is not to credit for salvation, and God is not to blame for damnation. We see this from Scripture, and this reading of Scripture is rational. But when reasons starts to feed itself premises for the next round of thought, it becomes rationalism, and falls into grievous error.


See also:

A Simple Map of Conversion Terminology

Conversion: To See Decisions Dead People Make, Visit the Cemetery

Conversion: Trusting God’s Word for Your Regeneration and Resurrection


About T. R. Halvorson

T. R. Halvorson was born in Sidney, Montana on July 14, 1953, baptized at Pella Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sidney, Montana on November 8, 1953, and confirmed at First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota in 1968. He and his wife, Marilyn, are members of Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Sidney, Montana. They have three sons and six grandchildren. T. R. farms at Wildrose, North Dakota, and is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, Montana. He has been a computer programmer; and an author, conference speaker, instructor, and consultant to industry in online legal information. He is among the authors of the religion column in the Sidney Herald at Sidney, Montana. He is the Editor of


The Will in Conversion: Protestant Rationalism versus Lutheran Adherence to Scripture — 18 Comments

  1. What is meant at the end by “grievous error”?
    Are my Calvinist friends not going to heaven?

  2. @Carl H #1

    You are kinda proving the point of this article to conclude from your reasoning that “my Calvinist friends are not going to Heaven”.
    You are implying; “If God is pleased to keep his people in the truth, therefore, those who are deceived into grievous error will be condemned to hell.”

  3. @Carl H #1

    “Of course, personal salvation is not merely a matter of external membership in or association with any church organization or denomination (including the LCMS), but comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

    All those who confess Jesus Christ as Savior are recognized as “Christians” by the Synod—only God can look into a person’s heart and see whether that person really believes. It is possible to have true and sincere faith in Jesus Christ even while having wrong or incomplete beliefs about other doctrinal issues.” –

  4. @Carl H #1

    Hi Carl,

    Thank you for the question.

    You asked what is meant by “grievous error” in the last paragraph. Examples are in that paragraph itself.

    The paragraph says:

    “Man is not to credit for salvation, and God is not to blame for damnation. We see this from Scripture, and this reading of Scripture is rational. But when reasons starts to feed itself premises for the next round of thought, it becomes rationalism, and falls into grievous error.”

    It is a grievous error to credit man for God’s work. It is a grievous error to blame God for man’s fault.

    It is a grievous error in evangelism to call upon people to convert themselves by their own power. It is like Pharaoh commanding the Hebrews to make bricks without straw. Sinners don’t have the straw needed to make bricks. To call upon a person to make a decision for Christ adds to the grief of being a slave to sin.

    Instead, sinners should be directed to the Word and Sacraments, to trust the Word in preaching, the Word in Baptism, the Word in Communion, the true body and the true blood of Christ in Communion, and that one who receives the blood of Christ has what it was shed for, the remission of sin. All this directs a sinner to put confidence in Christ and in his chosen means of delivering the forgiveness of sins, his chosen means of acquiring faith, as a gift.

    Sometimes people give answers in Sunday School or the Pastor’s Bible Class that are error, and yet, all the while, their hearts really are not trusting in what they confessed, but actually are trusting in something else. A person can confess the pure Gospel with their lips, and yet be trusting themselves. A person can confess decision theology with their lips, and yet really not be trusting in that, but trusting in Christ having grabbed a hold on them. By felicitous inconsistencies, those confessing Calvinist or Arminian errors still could be a saved person, and the numbers of people like that could be considerable. But, that is no reason to teach error and hope people don’t actually trust what we teach, and hope that somehow apart from what we teach, they get the truth from somebody else.

    In evangelism, we should love sinners well enough to proclaim the saving truth as well as we can.

  5. @T. R. Halvorson #5

    I really liked your article. The graphics are great and easy to follow. I’m not quite as fond, however, about your response to Carl…

    I think both Calvinist and Arminian Christians are trusting in Christ for their salvation. They’re confused about the details of how that happens, but I don’t think those confusions are so great that their theology entails trusting in their selves, rather than trusting in Christ. I don’t think they need to have a trust that is inconsistent with their theological position in order to be saved. I would agree that they’re in error, but I believe you’re over-stating the extent and implications of their error in your response to Carl. Maybe I’m wrong, though…

  6. @Ken Miller #6

    Thank you for your kind words.

    What you said about confusion is true of many people I know. That confusion is probably what usually accounts for the discrepancy between what some people confess and what they actually are trusting in. What is actually happening with them is one thing, but in their confusion about what is happening, they confess something else. In this way, what you and I are saying might not be so far apart.

    But, I have been close to many people who confess in an Arminian-like way, and after awhile it became clear that in their thinking, their decision for Christ is a little synergistic work that set them apart meritoriously from others who have not made the decision. You might agree, that is a danger zone.

  7. It seems to me to be simple. Salvation is entirely God’s doing. Damnation is entirely the individual’s doing. Anything in between is a danger zone. After all, is thinking 95% God and 5% me okay? Then why not 95% me and 5% God? Where is the line that goes from heterodoxy to heresy? Just teach God does it all in aalvation and damnation is entirely man’s work. Scriptural and simple.

  8. Simply explained, my good friends who are non-denominational Evangelicals that believe in decision theology (Arminianism) must have “faith” in their own faith. My assurance as a Lutheran is not the strength of my faith but God’s promises found in Baptism, Absolution and Holy Communion. If you ask an Evangelical Christian and I have; what happens when your faith is weak? The answer is “that’s a problem”.

  9. I belong to the Dutch Reformed URCNA denomination. Yes it is that simple – Monergism: Salvation is all God’s doing ( we would never blame God for the lost. That would be blasphemy) Damnation is all the individuals doing. These two doctrines are found in the Belgic Confession. It is so easy to lump all Reformed Christisns into the same basket.

  10. @Patricia Stotler #13

    In my limited experience, Patricia, LCMS Lutherans tend to read the writings of their own dogmaticians to get an understanding of Reformed theology, rather than actually interacting with Reformed Christians.

    Most Reformed Christians don’t read, and are generally unaware of the existence of, LCMS Lutherans.

    Whether Reformed Theologians actually promote double-predestination, and what they mean when they use that term, varies. It generally doesn’t mean what LCMS Lutherans believe it means when it’s used by the Reformed.

    We do a lot of talking past each other, and very little actually listening to each other. The same can be said with the way in which we deal with Roman Catholics or Baptists, or the way in which they deal with us. It’s far easier to caricature your opponent’s position than to deal with subtlety and nuance. We’re all guilty of creating straw-men, to some extent.

  11. @Patricia Stotler #13

    I think larger church bodies get lumped together because it’s so difficult to discern the differences. On our side, as “Lutherans,” we get lumped in with the ELCA. Those outside of Lutheranism don’t know any better, and it’s too much work to keep everybody separated. What can I say? We’re all lazy sinners! As such, we tend towards stereotypes and generalizations.

    Glad to hear your church gets it right…very few churches (to my stereotypical knowledge) do!

  12. I enjoyed the responses from Ken Miller and jwskud. Very fair minded and loving. ..I was a longtime Lutheran growing up in ELS and recently I spent 7 years with WELS where I learned about the separation from LCMS over fellowship and about the very liberal ELCA. The little I read about Reformed while I was with the WELS I can now see that they did lump all Reformed into one basket. It is so true this is done by all parties.
    I knew Lutheran Theology well. The Book of Concord repudiates Reformed theology. I only left WELS because it had to sell, move, rent with evening worship.
    Due to ill health I could not follow them…evenings too tiring and too long of a drive. I visited the new URNCA congregation because it is so close (they bought the church the WELS sold….my church) There were many similarites as well as distinctives. It was difficult leaving WELS as I so identified being Lutheran (no other Lutheran church close by…my driving is limited) I gave much thought, prayer and study to deciding to join the URCNA. I feel bi-theological. I have come to the conclusion both LCMS, WELS, and URNCA are true churches and the differences in doctrine must be due to the fact the confessions which are the best efforts to reflect the inerrant, infallible scriptures may fall short as the authors were not inspired as were the authors of the Bible. It is a bit disconcerting to have lost the sense of 100% absolute truth (my WELS church taught there are other saving churches, but they are heterodox) When I met with my WELS Pastor he was concerned the error mixed in with truth at URNCA church would hurt my faith:-( Even after joining the URNCA with a clear conscience I still read Lutheran blogs and websites and have a lingering sadness that I would be refused communion at WELS and I think LCMS also has closed communion. It may be moot since I can’t even attend my prior WELS as mentioned above but it still hurts. It has been two years and I still feel a sense of loss and at the same time I am very happy with my new church family….emotions are not rational. Thank you for kindly listening. I find myself in an odd place feeling Lutheran in my heart as well as accepting The Three Forms of Unity, the Confessions of the URNA….I will say again how I wish the Lutherans and Reformed could have offered each other the right hand shake of fellowship….both came forth from the Reformation and sharing the historic creeds. I came to the conclusion due to illness ….fatigue….I cannot evaluate and come to the certain affirmation that one or the other has most accurately reflected scripture in the differing confessions. I instead hold a love of both in my heart.

  13. Thank you for listening I am still adjusting to not being officially WELS Lutheran as I was released to my URCNA congregation Aug 2015 and still dealing with a change I never forsaw thinking I woulld always have a WELS Lutheran congregation. The nearest LCMS was too far from my home as well.

  14. correction my church is URCNA….because of illness and fatigue I did not catch my typos..United Reformed Church of North America is correct…sorry for the confusion if you were trying to figure out the name of the denomination I mentioned in my comment

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