Example 10 – Erwin Lutzer on How You Can Know You Are Among the Elect


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Dr. Erwin Lutzer is pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago.  He is a Calvinist and therefore holds to a doctrine of unconditional election.  Here he seeks to answer the question, “Who are the elect?”  Lutzer states,

“Finally, I want to zero in on the word “elect.”  “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?”  So who are the elect?  They are the ones whom God marked out from the before the foundation of the world, that he would overcome their darkness, overcome their unbelief, and savingly believe on Jesus.  Well you say I don’t like that at all.  I mean – you motor boaters – yeah but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but, but.  Well let me tell you something.  Don’t complain too much.  Because you can find out whether or not you are a member of the elect.  That fair enough?  What you need to do, if God has worked in your heart, is to believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone and then you will know that you are elect.  That’s the only way you can know – is by coming to Christ in humble repentance and receiving, by faith, the gift of eternal life.  And then you can know, and you will know it by the work of the Spirit, by the assurance of the Word of God, and if you struggle with assurance – and that can be very normal, all of us do from time to time, and that’s why here at the Moody Church we have prayer partners after the service, we want to help you in those areas – but the fact is this, that, you and I must be aware of the fact that when we come to Christ he will receive us, he will not cast anybody out who comes.  So if the Spirit is working in your heart, you come, and you’ll be a member of the elect.  Then you’ll know you are a member of the elect.”[1]

We can make the following observations.

            Note first that Lutzer holds to the standard Calvinist definition of “election” as an unconditional, unilateral choice God made before the creation of the world as to which individuals will be saved.  “The elect” are “the ones whom God marked out from the before the foundation of the world, that he would overcome their darkness, overcome their unbelief, and savingly believe on Jesus.”  In the phrase “overcome their unbelief” we also have expressed the doctrine of “irresistible grace” or the “effectual call.”  As an unconditional divine determination, these people will most definitely be saved and all others cannot and will not be saved.

            Secondly, therefore, the very reasonable question arises, “Who are the elect?”  But note what is happening.  The question is no longer “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30, 31), but “How can I know I am among the elect?”  A serious diversion and shift in emphasis has taken place.  The gospel, as the proclamation of the “good news” that because of God’s great love for all sinners he has made a way by which each and every individual can be saved and therefore are assured of God’s loving, salvific will and desire that they be saved, along with the certain promise that they may appropriate this salvation to themselves by faith, is being pushed aside.  The “good news” that God desires that no one should perish, and therefore calls all sinners to receive “the gift of eternal life,” that is, the salvation that he accomplished in Christ, who by his death on the cross took their sin upon himself, making it so that this salvation can be appropriated by any and all who hear this gospel message by simply putting their trust in Christ, has faded away.  Rather than a joyful, universally applicable salvation message of divine saving love and grace demonstrated in the cross of Christ which can be sincerely offered to all and freely received by all by simple faith alone, the dark cloud of an unconditional deterministic salvation has taken front and center.  The gospel as “good news” takes a back seat.

            Again, the emphasis has shifted dramatically from the proclamation of the “good news” that God has provided salvation for all sinners, assuring them that God loves them and desires them to be saved, and that they have access to this saving grace through faith in Christ, to a preoccupation over their predestined fate.  Due to this deterministic definition of the doctrines of election and predestination people are now concerned about what God has decided for them, not what they need to decide about the salvation God graciously provided and offers to them.  The person is completely removed from what will or will not happen to them with respect to their relationship with God and their eternal destiny.  The assurance that God’s love and Christ’s work is savingly relevant to everyone has been removed.  The assurance of God’s love and the saving applicability of Christ’s death on behalf of you or me or anyone else is placed in doubt.  The emphasis has shifted from the salvation disclosed to all and available to all that is found in Christ, to an unknown decision of God made in eternity past regarding everyone’s eternal destiny.  Once a doctrine of unconditional election is introduced and accepted as true, the gospel as “good news” vanishes.  Rather than the gospel being truly evangelistic (“evangel” means “good news”), that is, confidently and genuinely proclaiming to all people that God has made a way of salvation and that they too can be saved by putting their faith in Christ, it is inverted into a particularistic, exclusivistic, mysterious determinism that causes people to want to know whether they have been divinely assigned to eternal life or eternal damnation.

            As we see here with Lutzer’s “gospel invitation,” the issue becomes informing people about how to detect whether or not they are unconditionally elect.  New anti-gospel, deterministic prospects come into play.  It is a very real possibility that you might be among the non-elect.  The sinner now becomes preoccupied with the questions, “Who are the elect?  How do we know?  Am I included?”  But where has the gospel gone?  The message of God’s love and grace demonstrated in Christ in whom salvation can be found through believing is transformed into a dark mystery.[2]  We are being diverted from the well-lit gospel highway of “good news” into the dark cul-de-sac of theistic determinism.

            Thirdly, note that here we have an example of the suppression of reason and the diversion of inquiry characteristic of Calvinism.  Those who raise questions and concerns – the so-called “motor boaters” whose reaction is “I don’t like that at all” – are told that they ought not “to complain too much.”  Lutzer’s “bargaining” question, “That fair enough?”, is ironic given that a concern and substantive criticism of the doctrine of election as unconditional has to do with God’s character as just and fair.[3]  If Lutzer is going to talk about what is fair, then it is both fair and legitimate to ask what is fair about unconditional election.  I deal with this “fairness” issue in detail elsewhere, but it is sufficient to observe here that people’s common sense responses to unconditional election need to be stifled and redirected.  And Lutzer’s redirection – “you can find out whether or not you are a member of the elect” – is not helpful at all, does not address the fundamental problem here and totally misses the point as I will explain below.  The point is still that God unconditionally elects only certain people to salvation.  Whether I can know I am among the unconditionally elect, something Lutzer in the end fails to provide people, still leaves us with the problems attending this doctrine.  In addition, Lutzer’s redirect in assuring people they can know they are among the elect is somewhat self-centered and narcissistic.  “As long as I can know I am among the elect that is fine.  I really don’t care (or more accurately), I really can’t care about anyone else.”  The Calvinist will object to this assessment.  But how could they?  Given unconditional election does God do the same?  It certainly seems that they must admit that God has taken that very same attitude.  There are those for whom he cares (i.e., the elect), and therefore all the rest for whom God cares less, indeed creating them for the very purpose of predestining them to eternal damnation.  The Calvinist would be objecting to the character of their own God and his own decree.

            All the problems that attend the doctrine still remain, including, despite Lutzer’s assurances, whether or not you, I or anyone else can know they are among the elect.

            Calvinists admit their theology contains logical and moral difficulties. These difficulties, I submit, are insuperable because they are real incoherencies and contradictions.  But Calvinists choose to minimize these by diverting attention from them onto what they believe provides some resolution to their doctrinal problems.  The typical answer to the person who questions Calvinist unconditional election is to quote Romans 9:20, “Who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God?”  Again, this presupposes the truth of unconditional election and is an example of the suppression of reason.  Usually the Calvinist will then simply assert that what seems a contradiction is not and is ultimately an incomprehensible mystery.  But somewhat surprisingly here Lutzer takes a different tack.

Come to Christ and Know You’re a Member of the Elect

            How does Lutzer answer his question, “So who are the elect?”  Lutzer attacks it head-on.  He boldly asserts “…you can find out whether or not you are a member of the unconditionally elect.”  So how are we going to find out our status as among the unconditionally elect or the reprobate?  Are we really going to be let in on the premundane choice of God as to who has been unconditionally elect and who has not?  I thought that this was something no one is privy too.  No one really knows who is elect and who is not.

            So how does Lutzer provide resolution to his problematic doctrine of unconditional election?  How does he answer the question “Who are the elect?”  What does he tell people as to how they can know they are “a member of the elect?”  He does so by circumventing and contradicting his doctrine of unconditional election by making a free offer of salvation to all based upon the sinner fulfilling certain conditions that presuppose the sinner’s ability to perform and the truth of libertarian free will.  Let’s carefully examine what he does.

            Note first that given unconditional election, this promise of knowing the status of our eternal destiny seems strange in that Calvinists typically respond to such an inquiry as being a futile attempt to pry into the secret counsels of God.  And as to the non-Calvinists point about the insincerity of offering the gospel to the non-elect, the Calvinist typically responds by “But we do not know who the elect are.”  So it is surprising that Lutzer is going to tell us how we can know who the elect are and whether we are among them.  So how can you or I or anyone else “find out whether or not you are a member of the unconditionally elect?”

According to Lutzer,

“What you need to do, if God has worked in your heart, is to believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone and then you will know that you are elect. “That’s the only way you can know – is by coming to Christ in humble repentance and receiving, by faith, the gift of eternal life.”

Note that Lutzer ultimately abandons the unconditionality of his doctrine of election by recognizing that the sinner needs to do something to know he is among the unconditionally elect and receive salvation or “the gift of eternal life.”  But note that it is incoherent to tell someone their salvation is unconditional and then present salvation as conditional by calling upon them to do something to be saved.  When Lutzer calls sinners to do something to know if they are elect – “believe on Jesus,” “stop trusting…,” “trust wholly in…,” “transfer your trust…,” “coming…” and “receiving” – he is making their election or salvation contingent or conditional upon these dispositions and actions of the person themselves.  But this is incoherent with his doctrine of election as unconditional.  He cannot coherently call them to do certain things of a conditional nature, implying that that they may decide not to do them, while claiming that God’s choosing of certain people to salvation is unconditional.

Now, a more consistent and accurate explanation of what Lutzer tells people they must “do,” that is, “believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone,” are all produced by God only in the elect.  The people Lutzer is speaking to cannot and do not do these things contrary to how Lutzer makes it seem that they do.  And if the Calvinist argues that the people are to do these things, to be consistent with his doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace or effectual call, he must only mean this in an instrumental sense.  Hence, to avoid being disingenuous Lutzer ought to be clear about that.  He should more accurately indicate that these particular experiences are the evidences of their unconditional election. They are not things that the persons themselves are called upon to do in the sense that the decision comes from them and they could do otherwise.  But that is the way he makes it appear.

Note that Lutzer seems to realize that telling people “what you need to do” is inconsistent with his doctrine of election as unconditional and attempts to be consistent by adding the phrase “if God has worked in your heart.”  I will say more below about how this is eroding the “good news,” but here we can note that Lutzer is inserting his doctrine of an “effectual call” which is a corollary to unconditional election.  But this is in conflict with the “free will” implications of Lutzer’s statement that I have pointed our above.  The point here is that since election is unconditional, it is incoherent and disingenuous to speak as if there are conditions which the persons themselves must fulfill to receive “the gift of eternal life.”  It is incoherent to speak of fulfilling conditions to know that you are unconditionally elect and by virtue of that election God has chosen you to be saved.  When you perform the conditional act of believing you will know you are unconditionally elect.  This is obviously incoherent.  Note that it is no longer a matter of knowing that you are saved because you believe in Christ who is presented in the gospel as your Savior.  A drastic shift has taken place to needing to know whether you are among the elect by God working faith in you because you can do nothing with respect the issue of your salvation and eternal destiny.  Believing only happens to the elect because it is effected by God only in the elect.  So salvation is not a matter of believing the good news of your salvation that is found in Christ, it is by being among the elect whom God has decided will be saved and will cause to believe.

Now, this is surely a distortion of the “good news” of the gospel.  The good news has been distorted because the preaching of Christ has become irrelevant to a host of non-elect sinners hearing the “good news.”  Indeed, unconditional election has contaminated the gospel so that it is no longer “good news.”  The truly good news has also become irrelevant to the elect within the framework of unconditional election.  The gospel message no longer directs the sinner to look to Christ in whom they can find salvation by believing and trusting in his death on the cross for their sins.  Rather, the sinner has been diverted into being preoccupied with how they can discover whether or not they are among the elect whom God will cause to believe.  This has things backwards.  It is a strange confusion of legitimate biblical language, concepts and doctrines that understood in their proper context do actually serve the gospel as “good news.” 

The point is that people are not hearing the gospel as the “good news” that it is.  If Lutzer is employing “gospel” language, or even touching upon the genuine “good news” about salvation, he undermines it by his unconditional election.  Ultimately the hearers are presented with the fact of an unconditional election that overturns the “good news” that they are loved by God and provided salvation in Christ and that salvation can be theirs if they willingly agree with God that they have sinned and that they need cleansing, forgiveness and justification.  That they surrender to his way of salvation and put their faith and trust in Christ to receive that gift of salvation and eternal life.

I submit that unconditional election cannot be put into the service of the biblical gospel because it is not “good news” to the hearers.  The unknown roadblock of unconditional election has been placed in the sinner’s path to Christ and the universal, sure and free offer of salvation.  Unconditional election precludes presenting Christ to sinners with the assurance that he is their savior and that they can be saved by placing their faith in him.  The direct relationship between the sinner and their Savior and the salvation which is found in him is interrupted by the obstacle of a premundane divine decree that has determined who will and who will not be saved.  The bottom-line concern becomes whether God has chosen you to be saved or not.  The sinner’s response of faith in Christ alone as sufficient for the receiving of salvation is undermined by an unconditional election that is determinative of who will and who will not be given the faith to believe and be saved.  Determinism precludes presenting Christ as the savior of all sinner’s, who upon hearing the gospel can receive Christ and be saved.  Given the Calvinist “doctrines of grace” the “good news” is no longer good.  Therefore, Calvinism is christologically deficient because it is Christ that is presented to the sinner as the ground and source of their salvation, not an unconditional election.  God loves all sinners and desires that they all be saved and has demonstrated this in the death of Christ on their behalf.   Unconditional election is therefore a concept foreign to the gospel as “good news.”  It is no part of the “good news” message.  In fact, unconditional election shuts down the message as “good news.”   

Given Lutzer’s deterministic definition of election, the only way the question “who are the elect?” can be answered is by examining what the individual is experiencing.   The way you find out whether you are a member of the elect is by assessing your personal spiritual experience.  As such, God will bring about in the elect whatever needs to occur in their desires, attitudes, beliefs and actions so that they will “savingly believe on Jesus.”  God will work to “overcome their darkness, overcome their unbelief” and they will “savingly believe on Jesus.”  In that election or salvation is unconditional this is solely the work of God.  There is nothing anyone can do to become saved.  They cannot even believe.  Faith has to be divinely causally effected in those that are elect.  And this work is irresistible.  They have no choice in the matter.  It is an effectual work.  But inconsistent with this, Lutzer presents this election as dependent upon “what you need to do.”  Here is what you need to do to know you are among the elect – “to believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone.”  But these conditions for which the sinner is responsible to do are obviously incoherent with Lutzer’s doctrine of unconditional election and irresistible “grace.”

So we learn about who is elect by looking inward to see if God is at work upon our desires in a positive way, determining our beliefs, responses, decisions and actions.  Since no sinner can want God (total inability), God must and does cause his elect to want him.  Lutzer mentions what causes one to “savingly believe on Jesus.”  Note again that the descriptions are conditional.  But he also injects his unconditional election into the mix.  The first injection is “if God has worked in your heart,” and the second is “if the Spirit is working in your heart.”  These have direct bearing upon how we understand the nature, content and function of the gospel message.  The non-Calvinist understands God to be speaking to everyone in the same manner with the same purpose in the gospel message.  Since it is good news to all who hear, God, by the Spirit is at work in each heart of those hearing the gospel.   Now, look what Lutzer does with this work of God and the Spirit.  He makes them conditional.  He states, “if God has worked in your heart” and “if the Spirit is working in your heart…”  The implication is that God either works in our heart or not, and that the Spirit either works in our heart or not, depending upon whether God has chosen us for salvation or not.  Therefore, God and the Spirit may or may not do this “work” in a particular hearer because they are not elect.  But this description of the divine working lacks any objective grounding in gospel truth and is in conflict with both the biblical definition of the gospel as “good news” and the nature of faith which throughout Scripture is spoken of as the responsibility of the hearer and not something the hearer of the gospel waits for God to produce in them.  On Lutzer’s message of unconditional election the work of God and the Spirit happens or does not happen, is experienced or not experienced, for one reason only, that is, because a person is elect or not elect.  God’s work and the Spirit’s work occurs for each person on the basis of an unknown unconditional election to salvation or an unknown unconditional reprobation to eternal perdition.

Note again, that this is not the gospel.  The gospel is not “if God has worked in your heart” or “if the Spirit is working in your heart” then consider this a sign of your unconditional election.  Rather, God through the Spirit are always at work in each and every person’s heart and mind who hears the preaching of the biblical gospel message.  We know this by virtue of the universal call that applies to each and every person who hears the gospel.  This universal call is an essential part of the gospel as “good news” and implies the sinner’s enabling to respond positively to the gospel and be saved.  We also know this by what Lutzer himself points out about the call to trust in Christ – “believe on Jesus, stop trusting your goodness, trust wholly in the work of Christ, transfer your trust to Jesus alone… [come] to Christ in humble repentance and [receive], by faith, the gift of eternal life.”  If the gospel calls all sinners to do these things then all sinners can do these things.  It is they who must accept the gospel.  It is they who reject the gospel.  The gospel calls all sinners to trust in Christ so that we may be saved.  The gospel is not “make sure that you are unconditionally elect by trusting in Christ.” The Spirit accompanies the message according to its content as “good news” to sinners.

This is where we must press the Calvinist on the matter of the precise content of their gospel message.  Lutzer’s message here is confused.  As much as Lutzer feels bound by his traditional doctrine of unconditional election and to somehow relate that to “the gospel,” we can see that Lutzer must, in the end, affirm the universal and conditional elements of the message of salvation for it to be “good news.”  He is going to tell them what they must do to be saved.  But in doing so his deterministic doctrine of unconditional election becomes irrelevant.  His doctrine of unconditional election becomes irrelevant because he is compelled to do what the non-Calvinist does in their free offer of salvation to all and call to believe which presupposes libertarian freedom.  That any sinner can be saved is essential to the “good news.”  In Lutzer’s presentation his unconditional election becomes an awkward hindrance that finds no fitting place in the gospel as “good news.”  It is smuggled in by phrases like “if God has worked in your heart.”  Phrases that refer to his doctrine of the effectual call which is rooted in unconditional election.

The point is that theologically and practically, unconditional election nullifies the gospel as “good news” to the hearers.  The reason why the “motor boaters” rightly raise “buts” about unconditional election is precisely because for each and every person who is hearing about their need of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross to be received by faith, the doctrine of unconditional election obscures the knowledge of God’s positive salvific will for each of them.  That is, there is no way for any of them to be assured that they are included in the number of God’s elect.  That Lutzer tells them to believe so that they can know they are unconditionally elect is to beg the question.  It presupposes the truth of unconditional election and merely presumes it to be the explanation of the sinner’s repentance and faith at the invitation for them to come to Christ and be saved.  There is no way to prove the doctrine of unconditional election by salvific experience and no way for its content to play a part in “good news” evangelism.

Unconditional election relegates everyone’s eternal status to an unknown decision of God made before anything was ever created.  Ultimately everyone’s eternal destiny is solely God’s decision, unconditional, and therefore shrouded in mystery.  It has nothing to do with the person who is totally passive therein.  I don’t see how that is consonant with anything that can be called “good news.”  To direct people to attempt to examine whether or not God is working in their heart as if under the preaching of the gospel he may not be doing such a work depending upon whether God predestined them to salvation or reprobation, is merely to presuppose the truth of unconditional election and point people away from their salvation in Christ and towards an unknowable decision of God made in eternity past regarding their eternal destiny  They should not be attempting to detect the working of God as an indication of their unconditional election but note the definite working of God in the message of salvation being delivered to them which includes the imperative that they respond positively so that they may be saved.

Now if God and the Spirit are “working in your heart” Lutzer then tells that person “what you need to do.”   But according to “the doctrines of grace” if God is working in your heart, there is nothing you can do and God will do it all.  Calvinists hold to monergism.  Calvinists insist that salvation is “all of God” and “all of grace.”  What they mean by this is that salvation – from start to finish in terms of what a person believes, experiences and does – is all the work of God.  Hence the descriptive phrases “doctrines of grace” or “sovereign grace.”  But here is the inconsistency.  From the passive stance of waiting for God to work in them, once a person senses this work, once they find that God is working in their hearts, Lutzer then tells them what they need to do.  But this is to promote synergism – that cooperation between God and man in salvation that Calvinists so vehemently object to.  To all people Lutzer says, “if the Spirit is working in your heart, you come” as if they are responsible for the “coming” and could do otherwise.  But to place some responsibility on the person by saying “you come” implies that the Spirit may be working and yet the person may not want to come or reject the working of the Spirit and not come.  But this is incoherent with irresistible grace, which is what Lutzer is referring to when he says “if the Spirit is working…”  But “if God is working” and “if the Spirit is working…” then the person’s salvation is inevitable because they have to be regenerated before they can believe.  According to Lutzer’s Calvinism “if God is working” and “if the Spirit is working…” just are that person’s regeneration.  According to Lutzer’s soteriology a person cannot resist the Spirit’s work.  Therefore, their “coming” is not only inevitable, but to say to them that they need to “come to Christ” as if that is a necessary step in their salvation or something they must do is both incoherent and redundant.  So to say “if the Spirit is working in your heart, you come” as encouraging the person to respond to the Spirit’s working and present it as necessary to salvation is to say something that is not accurate according to Lutzer’s Calvinist soteriology.  Rather, these elect people will unfailingly come and “if God is working” in them then they are already regenerated and they will unfailingly believe. So when all is said and done Lutzer is not properly representing his own soteriological doctrines in what he is communicating to his hearers.  What Lutzer should say is “if the Spirit is working in your heart, you will come.”  It should be a statement of fact, not an invitation or encouragement to “come to Christ” and “believe” as if these depended upon their will to do so.  What then is the meaning of “you come?”  This seems to be both inconsistent and disingenuous.  The point is that Lutzer ought to speak consistent with his soteriological doctrines.  He ought to say, “You in whom the Spirit is working are elect.  The Spirit will continue to work until he has produced in you the effect he has predetermined – faith.  The Spirit will cause you to believe.  And those who do not sense the working of the Spirit could be among the elect, but we won’t know that at this time.”  This is a seriously flawed “gospel,” don’t you think?

If Lutzer were to object by saying, “It is part of my gospel to say to people “you come” and “whosoever will may come” in the sense that they are responsible for doing so and all may come,” then this only makes the point that Lutzer doesn’t take coherence on board in his interpretation of Scripture or his soteriology.  For to say on the one hand that God predestines certain people to salvation and on the other hand talk about “whosoever will come” and that those who do and do no come are personally responsible for their coming or not coming is to speak nonsense. 

Furthermore, if we are talking about how one can know they are elect, the corollary also applies, that is, we should be able to know who are the non-elect or reprobate.  Lutzer has told us,

“…you can find out whether or not you are a member of the elect.”

Therefore, people should be able to find out if they are not among the unconditionally elect.  We presume that they will find this out by not having the experience of the Spirit’s working that is the evidence of one’s election.  They will not “believe on Jesus.”  They will not “stop trusting [their] goodness.”  They will not “trust wholly in in the work of Christ.”  They will not “transfer [their] trust to Jesus alone.”  They will not come “to Christ in humble repentance,” and they will not receive by faith “the gift of eternal life.”  But note that it is not they who are rejecting the “good news,” rather, it is God who is not working effectually in them to accept it as one who is chosen by God for salvation.  God does not want them to be saved and therefore has not predestined them to salvation.  Since this election is unconditional there is nothing they can do to transfer themselves from the one category of person to the other.  That is why a deterministic unconditional election and deterministic unconditional reprobation is an umbilical distinction.  The distinction is not between the elect and the non-elect, but between the saved and the unsaved.  One my go from being unsaved to being saved by faith in Christ, but one could never go from being non-elect to being elect.  In the former, a person’s eternal destiny is not fixed.  There is “good news” to be proclaimed and heard.  “Come to Christ and be saved!”  In the latter, a person’s eternal destiny is fixed.  There is no “good news” to be proclaimed.  There is just “news” as to the way thing have been predetermined to be.  Sinners do nothing with respect to their salvation and eternal destiny.  There are the unconditionally elect and the unconditionally damned.

But the problem is that all these “workings” of God and the Spirit were presented by Lutzer to all those hearing him as if they can and should do something with them so that they may be saved.  So we see how inconsistent Lutzer is given his “free will” presentation in light of his deterministic soteriology of unconditional election.  We also see how inconsistent these doctrines are with the “good news” of the gospel.  There is no “good news” for the non-elect.

Lutzer’s unconditional election leaves us with an “if” with respect to the working of God and the Spirit.  And if a person is elect, what they will evidence must be the list of things Lutzer describes –  “believe on Jesus,” “stop trusting…,” “trust wholly in…,” “transfer your trust…,” “coming…” and the “receiving…the gift of eternal life.”  Thus, this Calvinist “if” is the great mystery, the great qualifier, the indicator and separator of the elect from the non-elect.  One’s personal spiritual experience becomes the evidence of one’s unconditional election or predestination.  But as I pointed out elsewhere, this experience is untrustworthy, because according to Calvin the Spirit can give such evidences for a time to the non-elect, but removing his presence in the end.

The non-Calvinist agrees that the salvation of a sinner is a work of the Spirit.  One is only born again or regenerated by the Spirit of God.  But the Spirit’s work in a person through the proclamation of the gospel is not irresistible.  It is necessary, but it is resistible. A person can reject the salvation offered to them even though accompanied by the work of the Spirit who enables them to believe. Therefore, it is at the time the sinner humbles himself, gives assent to the message of the gospel, confessing their sin and trusting in Christ’s death on their behalf that God’s saving work is applied to them.  That salvation is a spiritual happening.  It is not something natural that can be accomplished by the devices and works of the sinner as a natural man.  It is a supernatural event that happens upon the sinner believing.

The non-Calvinist maintains that the Spirit is at work in all sinners by virtue of their hearing the “good news” of their salvation.  The Spirit is at work in those who hear the gospel because of the content of that gospel message which contains the “good news” of their salvation and the invitation to come to Christ by faith and be saved.  In that God is a God of truth, we know therefore that that invitation is genuine and therefore applies in the same way for the same purpose all those hearing.  There are not two groups of sinners – elect sinners and non-elect sinners.  Moreover, the Calvinist misconception regarding faith as merit was dealt with elsewhere, but suffice it to say here that God calls all sinners to be saved by the gospel message.  And since he calls all to salvation, he enables all to that end.  And since God has ordained faith to be the condition upon which a person receives salvation, it is a serious misconception to characterize it as a meritorious work and thereby requiring that it be included in in unconditional election as something God gives only to the elect.  God means what he says when he commands or invites a sinner to respond in repentance and faith to the “good news” of their salvation wrought on their behalf by Christ’s death on cross and resurrection from the dead.  He does not cause the sinner to believe.  That is their response of love and gratefulness to God for the salvation he has accomplished for them in Christ.  For the call to salvation to be sincere, honest and genuine it must apply to all who hear it.  In that God cannot lie, he speak of a salvation to the elect and his words not mean the same for the non-elect.  Therefore, there is no such distinction in Scripture, as the Calvinist presents that distinction, between an elect and a non-elect.  What God offers as to salvation he offers to all and it therefore applies to all.  The reason a sinner remains unsaved is because they themselves reject the working of the Spirit that accompanies that message of the “good news” of their salvation.

Therefore, a different scenario, one which is more plausible and consistent with Lutzer’s own presentation, is that the “good news” of God’s salvation is confirmed by the Spirit as the truth which applies to all who hear it and that any absence of these evidences of salvation – “believe on Jesus,” “stop trusting…,” “trust wholly in…,” “transfer your trust…,” “coming…” and “receiving” may be attributed to the person themselves rejecting the message they are hearing.  It is they who do not want to humble themselves, trust and believe.  It is not God who does not love them nor desire their salvation.  That is clear by some of the content of the message that Lutzer himself preaches.

The Bible speaks of those to whom God comes with the message of salvation and yet they reject him, they reject Jesus and they resist the Spirit.  It also talks about those who persist in this rejection as hardening their hearts.  And if they continue in this rejection, it is God’s prerogative to harden their hearts further to achieve other goals (Rom. 9-11).  This scenario is actually affirmed by Lutzer when he states, “What you need to do…”  Lutzer calls for people to respond to God and Christ.   So we see that the way Lutzer tells people what they need to do and calls upon persons to respond to God and Christ in humble faith and trust is not consistent with his presupposition that election is defined as God having a limited number of people he has predestined to save, and that the whole process is unconditional.  It is these incoherencies that need to be pointed out.  They demonstrates that his attempts to support his doctrine of unconditional election lead to inconsistency, confusion and in the end are not the gospel message.

So, if man is characterized by total inability, and election is unconditional, and the call is effectual and grace is irresistible, how is it that the person needs to do something as if it is they who can do it or not do it?  To say “you need to do…” is to presuppose a conditional election and conditional situation regarding salvation.  Given these “doctrines of grace” it is incoherent to talk about “what you need to do, if God has worked in your heart.”  It is just what God will do in you and apart from you.

So a person has nothing to do with “finding out whether they are a member of elect” or not, except to wait and see what happens.  Despite Lutzer’s leading us to believe otherwise, nothing said here is up to the person themselves to do.  The elect don’t “need to do” anything because they are “altogether passive therein.”[4]  And if Lutzer is just referring to what God will do in the elect and talking about it as if they need to do it in the sense that it comes from their will and they could do otherwise, then he is being disingenuous and incoherent with his own soteriology.

The Gospel Irrelevance of Unconditional Election

Also, the fact that Lutzer is calling upon the sinner to do certain things to be saved renders his doctrine of unconditional election irrelevant.  What Lutzer does is no different because of his doctrine of unconditional election than what he would do if he didn’t believe in unconditional election.  So what’s the point of unconditional election here, except to cause confusion in the minds of the hearers and distort the gospel as “good news?”  Whereas the non-Calvinist also calls upon sinners to do those same things that Lutzer calls them to do, the non-Calvinist does so that people might receive salvation, not to discern their unconditional election.  Now these two ends are very different and have important ramifications for the gospel and it proclamation.  People need to know how they can be saved, not whether they have been predestined to salvation by God.  The non-Calvinist maintains that God wants to save them.  That is not so given the Calvinist’s unconditional election.  But inconsistent with his unconditional election, Lutzer believes, “Whosoever will may come.”  Once you have called people to “believe on Jesus,” “stop trusting your goodness,” “trust wholly in in the work of Christ” “transfer your trust to Jesus alone,” come “to Christ in humble repentance” and receive by faith the gift of eternal life” a doctrine of unconditional election makes no sense or practical difference.  You have invited people to be saved by faith.  Either Lutzer means it as a real possibility in the way he has expressed it as contingent upon the hearer’s willing reception of the offer of salvation, or he should explain it consistent with his “doctrines of grace” which are the sum total as to why and how a person becomes saved.  According to the biblical gospel, people are told how they can be saved, not that they are either members of a predestined elect group or not and what is the way to find that out.  Lutzer has also told them how it is that any one of them can be saved which is incoherent with his doctrine of unconditional election.  When Lutzer says, “That’s the only way you can know – is by coming to Christ in humble repentance and receiving, by faith, the gift of eternal life”, what a person is coming to know is that they can be saved, not that they have been unconditionally elected.  What Lutzer has told them to do to be saved does not prove that they are unconditionally elected by God to salvation.  It has nothing to do with being unconditionally elected.  It has to do with the way of salvation.

What does a doctrine of unconditional election have anything to do with what can properly be said to be “good news?”  Whether a person has been unconditionally elected by God to salvation is unknowable, except by their presupposing the doctrine is biblical and then reading it into their experience.  The odd thing is that they first create the experience which they then assign to their being unconditionally elect.  And the experience they create is not even coherent with their election as unconditional.  It is full of conditions they need to do.  When Lutzer calls sinners to “do something” it is not as if they can know that by doing those things that they are unconditionally elected to salvation.  That can only be presumed as an explanation of the matter.  Rather, when Lutzer calls sinners to believe he should assure them that they can know that they have the gift of eternal life – a gift that they receive by faith – because God loves them and Christ has died for them.  That is where the assurance of salvation must be grounded and that it can be found.  Note that the language of “eternal life” as a “gift” implies the ability of any sinner to receive it.

Therefore, in light of the promise of salvation by faith in Christ which Lutzer presents to all sinners, his doctrine of unconditional election is rendered pointless.  Knowledge of one’s unconditional election has no relevance.  The confirmation of such knowledge is also irrelevant and immaterial.  When a sinner puts their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins they are saved.  Even on Lutzer’s own presentation he calls for human decision and action.  We therefore have no reason to see any of this as the working of an unconditional election.  To call people to “believe on Jesus,” “stop trusting your goodness,” “trust wholly in in the work of Christ” “transfer your trust to Jesus alone,” come “to Christ in humble repentance” and receive by faith the gift of eternal life” is no proof at all of an unconditional election at work.  That has to be read into the believing.  What all this is proof of is that the gospel must be presented as the “good news” that it is and the sinner invited and challenged to believe it.

When Lutzer instructs people to detect their unconditional election or reprobation by believing or not believing, and yet Lutzer also makes salvation conditional and dependent upon whether one believes or not, unconditional election losses its substance and meaning.  It holds no practical evangelistic value or gospel relevance.  Lutzer ends up challenging the sinner to receive the salvation God provided by his grace and is offered to all to be received by faith.  That is “good news.”  Lutzer says, “Well, you can all be among the elect by believing.”  This has not only got things backwards, but it is driven by having to make relevant to the process of salvation his a priori doctrine of unconditional election.  And in the process he reveals how superfluous the doctrine really is.  There is a biblical doctrine of election that speaks a profound truth to those who choose to put their trust in Christ and how God has thought about those persons as his special one’s chosen in Christ from before he created the world.  But that concept of election is very different than the Calvinist’s unconditional election which is the result of misinterpretations of certain key passages that has been supported by embracing a hermeneutic of incoherence.

Lutzer’s doctrine of unconditional election proves to be irrelevant.  He is preaching just what the non-Calvinist would preach – that the sinner needs to do something – trust in Christ for salvation.  Lutzer’s qualifier “if God has worked in your heart” is just what always occurs upon hearing the gospel.  We can take out the “if” – by which Lutzer is hinting at his doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling – and put in “when.”  We should say “When God works in your heart you need to respond in humility and faith.”  It is God’s message and he is always present by the Spirit in its proclamation to convict and enable the sinner to respond positively to it.  Whether or not they do so is left up to them by God.  The Spirit is at work in people’s hearts when the gospel is preached because that gospel is telling them God’s message that they should come to Christ and be saved.  That’s what makes it “good news.”  God enables them to respond positively to that “good news.”  At the point of hearing the message the sinner needs to respond, which, contrary to Lutzer’s doctrines of total inability, unconditional election and effectual calling, is just what Lutzer is saying.  These doctrines are ancillary to the core of the message as “good news” to the hearers.  And because they confuse, erode and are incoherent with that “good news” they are no part of biblical soteriology.  They are misinterpretations of the controverted texts.

Hermeneutical Conclusions

So what is Lutzer doing here?  Intellectually he knows his doctrine of unconditional election is problematic for the gospel as “good news.”  But as a Calvinist who believes it is biblical teaching he must give it its due.  Somehow he must make it apply to salvation and it must apply as the full and final explanation as to why and how a person ends up saved.  That’s what Calvinists claim for their “doctrines of grace.”  Lutzer therefore wedges it into his “gospel” no matter what incoherence or irrelevance it has to what he tells the sinner they must do to be saved.  His unconditional election confuses the message, and rather than pointing people to Christ as sufficient for their salvation and in whom their salvation is found and may be obtained through faith, he sends the sinner on a fact finding mission regarding whether or not God has unconditionally elected them to salvation.  The sinner is sent out onto a dark soteriological wilderness in search of knowing that premundane decision of God regarding their eternal destiny – whether they were predestined to heaven or hell.  The gospel as “good news” goes by the wayside.

Lutzer is convinced his doctrine of unconditional election is taught in Scripture.  But the only reason he can be “convinced” of that is because he does not take logical and moral reasoning on board in his hermeneutic.  In typical Calvinist fashion, Lutzer ignores the logical and moral incoherence of his doctrines and his problematic explanation of them to the people.  He does not think this incoherence is interpretively significant.  Moreover, therefore, he has learned to suppress his logical and moral reasoning and manufacture creative rationalizations to tell to his people; rationalizations which only plunge him deeper into incoherence.

What is the bottom-line of Lutzer’s answer to the question “How does one know if they are among the elect?”  His answer is that you know you are unconditionally elect by believing on Jesus.  In effect, Lutzer has taught that people determine their unconditional election by fulfilling the condition of believing on Jesus.  He adds, “if God has worked in your heart…” which we can take as the doctrine of the effectual call.

How confusing is Lutzer’s “gospel?”  It goes something like this.  Lutzer calls upon people to believe to be saved, but in order to believe you must experience the effectual working of God in your heart as one of God’s unconditional elect, and to experience that you must be unconditionally elected by God to salvation, and if you are unconditionally elected to salvation he will cause you to believe, so it is not really you who are believing but it is God who is causing you to believe although I am calling on you to believe and holding you responsible for that believing and for your unbelief.  Furthermore, if you are not unconditionally elected to salvation you cannot respond to the invitation to believe and be saved.

But this seems to be circular reasoning, or at least mere presumption that unconditional election is the explanation of those who believe at Lutzer’s invitation for them to do so.  The unconditionally elect are those who evidence believing in Jesus when they are invited to believe in Jesus.  How then do we know that the believing in Jesus is a direct result of their unconditional election?  We don’t.  That has to be presupposed and read into the situation as the cause of why a person believes.  But it could just as well be that they believe because they are responding to the “good news” of the gospel.  They want to be saved and therefore they believe.  It is not at all evident that those who believe in Jesus are doing so because of their unconditional election.  The total depravity, unconditional election and effectual call of the Calvinist soteriology are all presupposed here and offered as the explanation of why a person believes.  But none of these propositions need be the explanation of what happens when a person believes.  Indeed, there is no way of knowing that they are the true explanation of a person’s faith and salvation.

The whole matter seem to be tautological. Those who are unconditionally elect, believe, and if you want to know whether you are unconditionally elect then believe.  But this makes no sense.  How does one discover their unconditional election which would cause them to believe by performing the condition of believing?  And to say that those who believe are unconditionally elect is not at all necessarily deduced from their believing.  From those who are believing it is more plausible to deduce just what the Bible says is happening – the person is making a decision to believe to the salvation of their souls.  The Bible also communicates the opposite.  It speaks of people refusing to believe to the damnation of their souls.  And the persons are responsible for their belief or unbelief.  God does not cause the one or the other on the basis of unconditional election.

Unconditional election has been overlaid on the experience.  Presuming it to be true, it therefore becomes the explanation of a person’s believing.  But also, inconsistently, Lutzer makes it seem that the sinner themselves is responsible for their believing.  In that Lutzer requires the sinner to do something to know that are unconditionally elect, he renders his doctrine inconsistent and irrelevant while making his explanation incoherent and self-refuting – when you do this condition, that is, believe – you will know you are unconditionally elect and effectually called, which by definition states you can’t do anything with respect to your salvation.  That’s reasoning in a circle.  And of course Christ will not cast anybody out who comes, because only the elect will come.

So Lutzer has the sinner determining whether they are among the unconditionally elect by having them believe.  So do people, by coming, prove themselves members of the unconditionally elect, as it seems Lutzer has lead us to believe, or, do people show that they are already members of the limited number of the unconditionally elect, and therefore only come by an effectual working of God, which Lutzer has also lead us to believe and must believe as a Calvinist?  We are left confused.

So Lutzer’s soteriology is a matter of who can and cannot be saved.  It is preoccupied with a static unalterable inclusion of the elect to salvation, which entails a static unalterable exclusion from salvation for everyone else.  This is incompatible with a gracious inclusion of all sinners in the saving work of Christ and therefore a genuine call to a decision to accept Christ as savior.  If Christ is rejected it is because the person wills not to receive salvation.  It is not because God has predetermined them to be among the reprobate who cannot and will not accept Christ.

Whereas the non-Calvinist does not have to travel into this cul-de-sac of confusion and inconsistency, Lutzer has to deal with this question of who is and who is not unconditionally elected to salvation.  Therefore, Lutzer tells people that anyone can be elect by believing.  What else can he say that is “good news” to the hearers?  But this renders Lutzer’s unconditional election pointless.  Lutzer ultimately tells people that they must believe to know they are unconditionally elect.  He never tells them that “if you find yourself believing, you will know you are elect” because he knows that is nonsense in light of the biblical revelation of the gospel and the nature of faith.  The Scripture always places faith in the context of the response of the individual to what they hear in the gospel.  But in that Lutzer believes and presents the call to believe as an irresistible work of the Spirit based on an unconditional election, and yet also presents the call to believe as a response the sinner has to make to the preaching of the gospel, this shows up unconditional election as the hollow doctrine that it is.  In his attempt to inject some “good news” into his “doctrines of grace” he has nullified his own doctrines.  Whether you are unconditionally elect or not is immaterial.  You must believe to be saved.  And in presenting the gospel in this way Lutzer presupposes libertarian freedom.  And that is the non-Calvinists gospel message in a nutshell.  The Bible never says that you must believe to know you are among the unconditionally elect.  Lutzer ends up telling people the “good news” that they can be saved by faith, and that they must believe.  This is completely contrary to his Calvinist soteriological doctrines.  What this also demonstrates to us is that the Calvinist soteriological doctrines cannot be put into the service of evangelism.  There is no “good news” in Calvinist soteriology.

When this doctrine of unconditional election is lurking behind the scenes, it turns the gospel and human responsibility on its head.  Practically it has no implications or meaning.   And doctrinally it presents a distraction from the “good news” and confuses the hearers.  And rather than turn his soteriology right-side up to be consistent with what he speaks to the people, Lutzer has to get us to stand on our heads to get a glimpse of what he is saying.  But when salvation understood as the Bible presents it, the explanation for a person’s unbelief is that they are willfully refusing to believe and are rejecting the salvation God offers to them in Christ.  And when salvation is understood as the Bible presents it as “good news,” it is calling all people to believe and be saved.  But according to Lutzer, a sinner conditionally believes in Christ to be able to say that they are unconditionally elect, rather than the sinner conditionally believing in Christ to know that they are saved.  God has sovereignly determined that each sinner will determine their eternal destiny by what they do with Christ.  Unconditional election seriously distorts and confuses people with regard to the truth of the gospel as “good news” for all sinners. As a Calvinist, if Lutzer were to be consistent with his soteriological doctrines, what he should be telling people is that because of your total inability as a sinner to do anything having to do with God and salvation, therefore you cannot believe.  That is precisely what you cannot do.  Only the elect will be caused to believe unconditionally due to God’s irresistible and effectual call.  Only those thus called can presume that they are among the unconditionally elect.  But again, that is not at all what the Bible teaches and makes nonsense of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence / Table of Contents / Home


[1] Erwin W. Lutzer, Sermon Series “The Power of a Clear Conscience,” Forgiven Forever, Part 4 of 4, Oct. 20, 2018.  Accessed 10/31/2018. https://www.moodymedia.org/radio-programs/running-to-win-15/forgiven-forever-part-4-1/#.W9oOJo-WxD8  (6:57 – 8:45) 

[2] This dark mystery has its roots in erroneously thinking that faith is a meritorious work and that man in his “total inability” is incapable of confessing what God requires him to confess – that he is a sinner incapable of saving himself and that he must put his trust in Christ for salvation.  This every man can do, even as a sinner “dead in trespasses and sins,” because God calls upon him to do it.  It is an essential element in the content of the gospel.  God is not duplicitous.  He does not call people to a salvation that he has predetermined they should never receive. The possibility that all may repent and believe are essential to the message as “good news” and therefore they are the sinner’s responsibility.  In the content of the gospel message the Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of the hearers.  The content of the massage assures them of God’s salvific will towards them.  They either resist the Spirit and reject the salvation being offered or humble themselves in accord with the Spirit’s working and believe.

[3] I deal elsewhere with the Calvinists response to people’s observation and objection that to choose some for salvation while simply ignoring all others and leaving them to die in their sin with no opportunity to escape their fate of eternal damnation certainly seems to make God out to be unjust and unfair.  The Calvinist response that “You don’t want justice, otherwise we would all be damned” is theologically superficial and that “God did not have to save any sinners and to save some demonstrates his grace” only begs the question by presuming the truth of Calvinist unconditional election.

[4] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), X.2, p. 88.

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