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Presbyterians and Lutherans have a great deal in common with each other. Hopefully, this became apparent to readers as Jackson Presbyterian Examiner did a survey last year of Lutheranism’s best known statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession. Both groups agree that man is a fallen creature, enslaved to sin, in need of a Savior. Both agree that nothing we can do of ourselves can help to save us. Both agree that the gospel is about what Christ has done for us, not about anything we do. Both agree that God is good and merciful, not willing that any should perish. Both agree that it is not God’s “fault” that any perish; our own willful breaking of God’s law, which comes natural to all of us, is the cause.
All that said, there are some important differences between Lutherans and Presbyterians in how they understand the topic of predestination. Recently, on the Lutheran Hour, Rev. Ken Klaus tackled the difficult question of why some are saved, while others are not. To illustrate his point, he used a popular analogy sometimes called the “life preserver” analogy.
1. The life preserver analogy explained
“There was no way we could save ourselves. We were doomed. The Lord, motivated by grace and mercy, decided to affect a rescue. To mount this rescue effort, it was necessary that His Son die to pay the price God's justice demands for sin. Which brings us to right here and now. Let's illustrate it this way: we were all drowning in sin. God is here, throwing out life preservers, an unlimited supply of life preservers. There's one for everybody, if they want it. Those life preservers are faith in His Son. What's more, God even puts the Holy Spirit in the water with us to drag us over to those life preservers... to put us into those life preservers and buckle us in. But... some people say, ‘No, thanks. I'm going to try to save myself.’ They refuse the life preserver. Others think there must be other life preservers—just as good—that they can trust, so they also turn down what God is offering. Again and again, God offers help and salvation and forgiveness and heaven. But people turn Him down, they refuse His offer.”
Klaus went on to say that on Judgment Day, the redeemed will be overjoyed. “God didn't have to save them, but He chose to,” Klaus said. “He didn't have to sacrifice His Son, but He did. It was a tremendous act of love. But how should those folks feel about those who aren't saved? Should they be angry at God for not having done more?” To this question, Klaus’ co-host said, “God did all He could, but many didn't want what He was offering.”
In closing, Klaus said, “Those who thought they were good enough swimmers on their own, who thought there were other ways they could get into heaven, who refused to admit they were drowning--God ultimately gave them what they wanted.”
2. The life preserver analogy critiqued
Of course, there is much that is commendable about this analogy. It portrays mankind’s situation as being serious, requiring rescue from God. It shows that people are unable to rescue themselves, and need God to intervene. In describing humanity's stubborness, it is reminiscent of Christ's words to Jerusalem: "How often I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing!" In portraying God as offering life preservers to all people, with the decision to receive them or not left up to the individual, God is shown as being “fair” to humanity. There are, however, problems with the analogy as well, mainly in that it ascribes to the human will an ability that Calvinists don’t believe fallen humans have. The Lutheran Hour’s use of the life preserver analogy shows the extent to which Lutheranism has yet to fully come to terms with Martin Luther’s own teaching about election and predestination.
First, the analogy presupposes that fallen human beings still possess a will that is free enough to be able to choose Christ. Martin Luther himself opposed any notion of free will, arguing that what we have instead is an enslaved will, a will that is helplessly bound up in sin and unable to choose Christ apart from the Holy Spirit.
Doesn’t Klaus, though, concede this point when he says that the Holy Spirit drags us to the life preservers? The problem is that, presumably, Klaus believes that the Holy Spirit drags not a few, but all, to the life preservers. This implies that all people in this life have access to the gospel, which unfortunately is not true—many live and die without ever hearing the name of Jesus. If the only way to be lost is to reject the life preserver—as the analogy implies—then people who haven’t ever heard the gospel could justly complain that they never had a life preserver in the first place.
This raises the question: Is it fair for God to condemn people who haven’t even had a life preserver presented to them? Biblically, though not all people have specifically committed the sin of rejecting Christ—refusing the life preserver—all have fallen short of God’s standard in some way. It is fair for God to condemn all sin, though of course we know God prefers to show mercy over fairness.
The point of this article isn't to convince those who disbelieve the Reformed position to adopt it, but rather simply to question whether either Calvinists or Lutherans could use the life preserver analogy without departing, at least in some ways, from their own confessional standards. In the life preserver analogy, the difference between those who accept the preserver and are saved and those who refuse and are lost is ultimately their own will—some comply with God's invitation, while others resist. Ultimately then what distinguishes the redeemed from the non-redeemed is a decision they made. If all fallen human beings have a sinful will, unable to choose Christ, and yet some do in fact choose him, this—from the Reformed perspective—means that God does a miracle for the people he has chosen from eternity to belong to him that he doesn’t do for humanity in general.
If all are offered the exact same wooing grace and only some respond to it, this leaves us with nothing else to conclude but that the elect are those who choose Christ, while the non-elect are those who do not. Biblically, though, the elect are not described first and foremost as those who’ve chosen God, but rather those who have been chosen by God. The initiative lies with God, and the human decision flows out of having first been chosen by God (1 John 3:19).