The evangelical blogosphere is all abuzz over a new book entitled Love Wins by the influential evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell, in which he argues for universalism, the notion that God will save everyone, whether or not they have faith in Christ. I had assumed that this debate did not concern us Lutherans, since we have our theology thoroughly worked out and this is just not an issue in our circles. But now I learn that Bell enlisted Martin Luther in his cause, quoting a letter from 1522 in which he said that no one could doubt that God could save someone after death.
Now Luther, in his long and tumultuous and developing career, said all kinds of things, including things that were flat out wrong. They mean nothing for Lutheran theology, which is defined by the confessional statements collected in the Book of Concord. But Westminster Theological Seminary Professor Carl Trueman dug out what Luther actually said (with Bell’s quotation in italics):
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. 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.
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. (Works, 43, ed. and trans. G. Wienke and H. T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], 53-54; WA 10.ii, 324.25-325.11)
Talk about taking something out of context! Bell takes a sentence out of Luther while ignoring what he says about it! And ignoring Luther’s conclusion, that, yes, faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.
HT: Cap Stewart