Doctrine of Justification, Predestination, and Doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation


(From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board, 1933], pp. 60-61, 9-17, 73-75.)

Doctrine of Justification

If there is one doctrine on which the Lutheran Church may be said to be a unit and on which it presents a united front, it is the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, a doctrine which was the material principle of the Reformation. And yet many writers ignore or overlook a feature which constitutes the foundation of this doctrine and which is necessary for it’s right understanding, viz., Objective Justification.

Objective Justification may be defined as God’s declaration of amnesty to the whole world of sinners on the basis of the vicarious obedience of Christ, by which He secured a perfect righteousness for all mankind, which God accepted as a reconciliation of the world to Himself, imputing to mankind the merit of the Redeemer.

While this form of Justification is not what is usually understood by the term, it has abundant testimony from Scripture, as the following quotations will show:

“Therefore as by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men unto condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19).

“Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25).

“To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19).

“For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

“And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).

Subjective, or Personal or Individual Justification, or the act of God by which, out of pure mercy and grace for Christ’s sake, He pronounces the believers free from guilt and punishment and actually clothed with the imputed righteousness of Christ while he is in a state of faith, is the actual acceptance by faith of the Objective Justification.

In the Gospel God announces to all men His grace and mercy in Christ, offers to all who hear it the forgiveness of sins and the merit of Christ, and actually operates these affects wherever they are not rendered void by obstinate resistance. (Cf. 2 Thess. 2:10,13; Rom. 1:16; Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41-42).

If personal or subjective Justification is the acceptance by faith of objective Justification it is manifest that it does not take place “in view of faith.” Thus a synergistic view of Justification is avoided. This is the chief advantage in treating the subject under these two forms.


This doctrine is one on which perfect unity has as yet not been attained in our Lutheran Church, although it is treated at length and with great clearness in Article XI of the Formula of Concord. If the distinction made in the beginning of this Article between God’s foreknowledge and His predestination or eternal election had been accurately observed, much confusion would have been averted, many differences avoided, and our Lutheran Church would have been more closely united on this doctrine than is at present the case. The teaching of the Scriptures and of our Confession on this subject is set forth in what follows.

The doctrine of Predestination or Election is a great mystery. We cannot with our finite minds penetrate into the secret counsels of God. Neither can we lay down rules according to which He must govern Himself in His dealings with men. Before His eternal counsels we can only marvel and exclaim with St. Paul: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor? Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto Him again?” (Rom. 11:33-35.)

The first thing that we note as we consider this doctrine is, that unlike the Gospel, which is universal, Predestination or Election is not universal, but limited. It is restricted to true Christians, to believers who constitute the holy and beloved children of God. It is essentially an election of grace. As such it has no counterpart -- no decree of reprobation, as in the Calvinistic system. It has absolutely nothing to do with unbelievers, who merely reap the due reward of their evil deeds. Wherever in the Scriptures the term Election is used, it is applied only to the believing children of God. (This is the application in all the passages, about 70 in number, in which reference is made to election in the Scriptures.) This is a point of which we must not lose sight if we would think or speak rightly concerning this mysterious doctrine. If this one point had been borne in mind, much controversy might have been avoided; and this doctrine, instead of being looked upon as a dangerous doctrine, would have been regarded as one of the most comforting doctrines of our holy religion.

It should be self-evident that we can gain nothing by viewing this doctrine from the standpoint of pre-mundane eternity. This would result only in endless discussions and fruitless speculations. No man knows or can know what took place in God’s mind in the eternity of the past. It would be presumption also to judge of this from the final outcome, and to say that God must have acted according to certain rules which we infer from the result of His purpose. Since God’s election is concerned with the children of God alone, the only proper approach to the conception of this doctrine is from the standpoint of the child of God. Every true Christian should be absolutely sure of the great central fact of his salvation -- a salvation which is his by faith in Christ Jesus his Lord. Every Christian desires such certainty. The great question with each one of us is, How am I to attain this certainty? The Holy Scriptures afford us an answer to this question so vital to our hearts. They assure us that God in eternity concerned Himself not only with the plan of salvation in general, but also with every detail of its application to each individual Christian. I may therefore say with all confidence: Christ has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature; the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel; I am justified through faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me; I am sanctified by the Holy Ghost through the Word of truth: I have also the promise of perseverance and ultimate glorification, “being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in me will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]. Upon these things I can depend with perfect assurance; for I can regard this as nothing else than the execution of God’s eternal decree of election in its reference to me. Of this abundant confirmation is offered me in many passages of Scripture: Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2: 13; Eph. 1:4; 5:11; Acts 13:48. (See Cremer’s Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, English edition, pp. 160, 161, on proginosko.)

The doctrine of Predestination is always set forth in the Scriptures for comfort to believing Christians in the midst of their trials and temptations. (See Cremer’s Lexicon on eklego, p. 402 flg., and on ekloge, p. 405 flg., also note of American editor of Meyer’s Commentary of the N. T. on 1 Thess. 1:4. Cf. Acts 13:48 and St. John 17:2,6,9,11,24.) It is to this that the words of St. Peter, so often misapplied, refer: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet. 1:10-11). Here the meaning is that Christians are to make this matter sure to themselves, and by no means intimates that there is anything doubtful about it as far as God is concerned. The consolation of this doctrine, when rightly understood, is beautifully expressed in the Formula of Concord, Art. XI, 45 flg.:

“Therefore this doctrine affords also the excellent, glorious consolation, that God was so solicitous concerning the conversion, righteousness, and salvation of every Christian, and so faithfully provided therefor, that before the foundation of the world was laid He would bring me thereto and preserve me therein. Also that He wished to secure my salvation so well and certainly that, since through the weakness and wickedness of our flesh, it could easily be lost from our hands, or through the craft and might of the devil and the world be torn or removed therefrom, in His eternal purpose, that cannot fail or be overthrown, He ordained it, and placed it in the almighty hand of our Saviour Jesus Christ, from which no man can pluck us.” (John 10:28).

Hence Paul says (Rom. 8:28-29) : “Because we have been called according to the purpose of God, who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ?” And this is indeed the only way in which the doctrine can be a source of comfort to the Christian believer. If Predestination, as some Lutherans hold, is regarded as taking place “in view of faith,” no one can know whether he will abide in faith until the end of life. Only the issue will tell; and then the doctrine is of no further use to him. But if the whole matter of our salvation is in God’s own hands and has been included in His eternal purpose, then we can say to ourselves: God’s Word and Promises are true. They have come to me; and I know that they are earnestly and seriously meant. If God had not desired my salvation, He would not have redeemed me; He would not have given me the Means of Grace, or called me by the Gospel; He would not have received me into His covenant or given me assurance of adoption as His child in Holy Baptism; He would not have bestowed faith upon me or regenerated me; He would not have sanctified me by His Holy Spirit through the Word; He would not now be continuing the good work which He has begun in me by keeping me in steadfast faith in Jesus Christ my Lord; He would not have assured me of the forgiveness of all my sins in the Absolution and in the Holy Supper, which I have so often received to my soul’s comfort; He would not now be sustaining me with hope of final salvation and glory that I now enjoy. All these things are evidences of His good and gracious will to me and give me positive assurance that I am among those who are “the called according to His purpose.” Therefore I must consider myself among the number of His elect.

Our whole comfort and assurance does not lie in our curious investigation into the secrets of the counsels of God, but in the fact that all the promises of the Gospel which God is so richly fulfilling to us are but the execution in time of His eternal decree of Predestination as far as that is related to us. To give to His beloved children this assurance is the sole purpose of the revelation of this doctrine in the Holy Scriptures. Otherwise it serves no practical purpose. A careful reading of the Scripture passages treating of this doctrine will clearly show that wherever it occurs it is set forth for the assurance, comfort and encouragement of true Christians to guard them against falling into temptations to despair, unbelief, and other great and shameful sins. This is a unique feature of the Biblical doctrine of Predestination.

According to the Biblical conception, Predestination is wholly an operative act of God. It does not, therefore, stand on a parallel with Justification, which is a declarative act of God. The entire plan of salvation proceeds, as St. Paul shows in Rom. 8:28 flg., out of the purpose of God. In this passage he represents the Call, Justification, and Glorification as successive co-ordinate stages flowing out of God’s Predestination. Neither the one nor the other is placed on a level with it, but each is presented as its result. It is so conceived of in our Confession, which paraphrases Romans 8:30 as follows: “Whom God did foreknow, elect, and ordain, them He also called.” And further the Formula of Concord adds: “But the eternal election of God not only foresees and foreknows the salvation of the elect; but it also, from the gracious will and good pleasure of God in Christ is a cause which procures, works, helps, and promotes what pertains thereto; upon this our salvation is so founded that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.” (F. of C., p. 651:8.)

It might be well to note at this point that Predestination is never to be given the central place in the Christian system. It is to be treated, as St. Paul in Romans shows, only after the exposition of the fundamental doctrines of Sin and Grace, and of Calling, Justification, and Sanctification. This order follows also from the fact that it pertains only to believers and is their appointment by God to eternal life.

Seeing that Predestination is exclusively an act of God, neither the good work of men, nor the use of their free will, nor even their faith was taken into account by God in forming His purpose of election; but only His pure grace and the most holy merit of Christ. (Consult again Cremer’s Lexicon on ekloge, p. 405 flg.)

To this many passages of Scripture bear unequivocal testimony: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help!” (Hos. 13:9). “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” (Rom. 9:15-16). “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth, it was said,” etc. (Rom. 9:11). “What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory, even us whom He called.” (Rom. 9:22). (Compare Formula of Concord, Jacobs’ edition, p. 663:79-81.) “Who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, according as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world,” etc. (Eph. 1:3 flg.)

These and other passages prove conclusively that God was moved by nothing good in man in forming His purpose of election; but that it is grounded solely in His own mercy and the merits of Christ. They are equally clear also in teaching that God prepared the vessels of mercy; that He to whom we owe our salvation called us according to His own purpose and grace given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began, and blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ, having chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world.

The Biblical doctrine of Predestination excludes synergism in all its forms, and assigns all the glory of our salvation to God. This is required by the whole teaching of Scripture, as well as by our Confessions based upon it. (See Formula of Concord, p. 552:7, also 657:43-46.) What Christ said to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” [John 15:16], is applicable likewise to every child of God. And to all His believing people these words addressed by Him to His disciples apply: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” (St. John 10:27-29). It is just this that gives to Christians courage in their conflicts and unbounded assurance of victory at last over all foes, enabling them to appropriate to themselves the triumphant words of St. Paul: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:38-39]. This assurance must be the personal assurance of each believing Christian; for God’s Predestination or Election of Grace does not deal merely with Christians in general, but with each believer individually. This St. Paul corroborates in his own experience, saying: “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me,” etc. (Gal. 1:15). Faith, which is the result of election, is the believer’s guarantee that he belongs to the elect and that he will at length attain eternal glory.

This doctrine has, as we have before pointed out, nothing whatever to do with the non-elect. As God’s ordination to salvation, it extends only over the children of God, who were elected before the foundation of the world was laid. The non-elect are referred to in the Scriptures only as those who do not believe and who are therefore lost. (That the fate of unbelievers cannot be correlated with the doctrine of election becomes clear from an examination of the meaning and application of such words as: eudokia, prothesis, eklego, ekloge, tasso, and orizo in the various passages in which these words occur. Election is everywhere in the Scriptures revealed as a Gospel doctrine, not a legal one.) Their perdition is neither directly nor indirectly attributed in Scripture to any decree of God before the foundation of the world. There is no such thing as an eternal decree of Reprobation. (Any doctrine of Predestination, therefore, which requires a corresponding doctrine of Reprobation is manifestly wrong.) Believers, on the other hand, are described in Scripture as chosen and ordained by God unto eternal life. And God’s choice of them as it is revealed in the Scriptures is not based upon anything in them, not even upon their faith as something He had foreseen; but only the fact that God chose them, and that their whole salvation results from the act of God’s election.

The Biblical doctrine of Predestination is not only consolatory to us as believing Christians, but it is also a great propelling force in our life of sanctification. It keeps our faith burning brightly and makes us strong in our conflicts with the forces of evil. As in harmony with the teaching of Scripture and in full accord with our Confession on this point, the following definition is offered: Predestination or Election is the eternal decree of God, according to which, out of pure grace in Christ, God determined to save out of the corrupt mass of humanity, each and every individual whom He brings to and preserves in faith through the Means of Grace.

Doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation

It is well known that the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church on this subject is a doctrine of doubt. It is generally held that no Christian can be absolutely sure of his salvation except he receive a special revelation from heaven. [Johann Adam] Moehler, who in his Symbolism has written the best defense of Roman Catholic theology that has been written, expresses himself as suspecting a species of diabolical possession when any one claims to be absolutely certain of his salvation. This is surely an unsatisfactory situation. And yet among many Lutheran writers on theology there is something very closely akin to this Roman Catholic conception. They say that we Christians must carefully steer our course between the Scylla of presumption on the one hand, and the Charybdis of despair on the other -- a thing that is not so easily done. And throughout the works of many writers a subtle synergism runs, which is subversive of all assurance.

Now it must be admitted that assurance of one’s personal salvation is a most desirable thing, and that anything short of this is a seriously disturbing factor in our Christian life. And surely the Lord Jesus Christ who redeemed us at so great a cost to Himself does not desire that we should pass through this life without knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are His. It is His good and gracious will that our joy shall be full [John 17:13]. The same thought is expressed by the Apostle St. Paul when he says, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” [Romans 15:13].

But how are we to obtain such assurance? The sincere Christian, as he reflects upon his past life in the light of God’s Holy Word, is conscious to himself that he has come far short of the glory of God, and that, if the Lord should enter into judgment with him, he could not answer Him one in a thousand. He realizes that his own personal righteousnesses are but as filthy rags in God’s sight [Isaiah 64:6]. He can see in himself nothing but sin and death, from which he can in no wise set himself free [Romans 7:23-24]. He will say to himself, I deserve to be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” [2 Thessalonians 1:9]. He can find no assurance in anything that he does. But this does not mean that no assurance is at hand. His reflection upon his life must constantly remind him that he is a sinner, and the more he thinks of this matter the more surely will he reach the conclusion that St. Paul reached with reference to himself, I am the very chief of sinners [1 Timothy 1:15].

But his consolation is this, that it was this very class that Jesus Christ came into the world to save, and that it is just such people, who feel the heavy burden of their sins, whom Jesus calls to Himself and to whom He gives assurance of finding rest for their souls [Matthew 11:28]. There is not the least assurance to be found in any virtue or good thing in us; but our only assurance is in the Lord Himself. If we would attain assurance we must look away from ourselves, from our sins, from our good deeds, from everything within us, and look to Jesus, who is our righteousness, “who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24], “who took away the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, nailing it to His cross” [Colossians 2:14].

It is in God’s grace alone (the sola gratia Dei) that we can find comfort. But, if like the Prodigal Son, we cast ourselves unreservedly upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, assurance can not fail us. St. Paul had such assurance and could say without the least qualification, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day” [2 Timothy 1:12].

The same apostle tells us that where sin abounded, there grace did much more abound [Romans 5:20]; and in his glorious paean of victory in the eighth chapter of Romans he says: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? ... For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [vv. 33-35,38-39].

And this should be our assurance also -- a mighty assurance that should leave us without doubt of our final and everlasting salvation. “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more being reconciled we shall be saved by His life” [Romans 5:10].

We can and we ought to be fully assured of our salvation. Such assurance rests upon a firm and solid foundation, viz., the faithfulness of God. “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” [1 Corinthians 1:9]. God’s grace already bestowed upon us is a blessed assurance that He will bring His work within us to a successful issue: “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work within you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]. Let us not be satisfied with anything short of this perfect assurance.

Carroll Herman Little (1872-1958) was the son of a Tennessee Synod minister and a native of Hickory, North Carolina. He graduated from the General Council’s Mount Airy (Philadelphia) Seminary in 1901, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Lenoire-Rhyne College in 1914, and in 1928 received his Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Chicago Lutheran Seminary. Little served pastorates in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and from 1917 to 1947 was professor of theology in the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada in Waterloo, Ontario, an institution of the United Lutheran Church in America.

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