Assurance of Salvation in the Reformed and Lutheran Traditions

Reading Time: 5 mins

In this article Amy Mantravadi give a short but helpful summary of the differences in Lutheran and Reformed thought regarding assurance.

Assurance of salvation was a central issue in the Reformation. The quest for certainty was the driving force behind Luther’s own evangelical breakthrough, and it shaped the emerging Lutheran and Reformed traditions. But while the question was usually the same—“How can I know I am righteous before God?”—the answer took on a confessional flavor as different theologians strove to arrive at explanations faithful to God’s Word.

I will briefly compare the Lutheran and Reformed approaches on the issue of assurance. Neither tradition is a monolith. I will therefore rely on the chief confessional documents for each group: the Book of Concord for Lutherans, and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Three Forms of Unity [1] for the Reformed.

The Common Foundation

We must not overstate the differences between the Reformed and Lutherans on this subject, for both look chiefly to Jesus Christ and his finished work as the source of their salvation, and therefore the comfort for their consciences. Each tradition sees the work of salvation as an entirely divine act from beginning to end. Humans contribute nothing to the process but are raised to life by the power of God’s Spirit.

Key to the Lutheran and Reformed understanding of salvation is the concept of imputed righteousness. Since humans must meet God’s standard of righteousness, and they have no capacity to do so by their own power, Christ’s righteousness is credited to them.

Each tradition sees the work of salvation as an entirely divine act from beginning to end.

The Westminster Confession states that God justifies sinners “by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God” [2].

It is sometimes thought that this doctrine of imputed righteousness is distinctive to Reformed Christians, especially among those who are only familiar with the Augsburg Confession. That document says people “are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor,” and that, “This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight” [3]. Here we find no explicit mention of Christ’s active obedience, for it represents an earlier period of Reformation thought. 

In the later Formula of Concord, the doctrine of imputation is further developed. It states that God “presents and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience, on account of which righteousness we are received into grace by God, and regarded as righteous” [4].

Our assurance comes from knowing that we have Christ’s righteousness credited to us and are therefore justified before God


While the Reformed and Lutherans agree about imputation, they diverge on their understanding of baptism. Given the emphasis Lutherans place on baptism as a source of assurance for believers, any difference here could be seen as critical. While the Reformed affirm baptism as a means of God’s grace, a declaration of the gospel in water and the Word, and a sign and seal of God’s covenant promises, they do not believe that all who are baptized will be given the gift of faith, but only the elect. 

While the Reformed and Lutherans agree about imputation, they diverge on their understanding of baptism.

Luther’s Small Catechism is clear on the significance of baptism.

“What does Baptism give or profit?"

Answer: It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” [5].

This is the Lutheran attempt to do justice to Scripture’s teaching that, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” (Mark 16:16) and “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” (Romans 6:3)

But there is a tension with the issue of baptism: some who are baptized eventually reject Christ. All Christians must wrestle with this issue, but for the Reformed, it relates especially to their understanding of predestination. Romans 8:30 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The Reformed therefore conclude that all who are predestined will be justified, and all who are justified will persevere in faith. As not all who are baptized persevere, this logically forces the Reformed to acknowledge that some who are baptized are not justified.

As the Westminster Confession puts it, “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved…”[6]. For Lutherans, this would mean God had lied when he said that baptism saves. “But what God institutes and commands cannot be a vain, but must be a most precious thing, though in appearance it were of less value than a straw” [7].


This naturally connects with the issue of God’s sovereign will. Lutherans and the Reformed agree that all who are saved were elected by God before the foundation of the world. Both groups use this fact to provide comfort to troubled consciences. But again, there is an obvious tension: if only some are elected to life, how is one to know if he or she is elect?

Explaining the position in the Formula of Concord, Lutheran theologian Robert Kolb asserts, “The Word, not speculation on the secret counsel of God, is the only source of Christian assurance. Thus, the Formula affirmed Luther’s espousal of the universal validity of Christ’s death for sin. It did so in order to affirm what believers know from God’s election and his promise in the forms of his Word of gospel, that their salvation rests on him not on them” [8].

The Reformed were historically more willing to plumb the depths of the doctrine of election, and they concluded that God elects some to life and others to damnation, a doctrine known as double predestination. “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death”[9]. Reformed theologian Carl Trueman argues that rather than compromising assurance, this doctrine helps to reinforce it.

“It is precisely because God does not elect all but only some that those who are elect can truly know how free God’s grace is. This might seem somewhat counterintuitive to us, but it does not seem to trouble Calvin at all. The key doctrinal point is that such an election destroys any notion of human merit as a basis for salvation, thus undergirds the idea of justification by grace through faith, and thereby sets assurance on the solid ground of God’s action, not on the human response” [10].

Confession and Absolution

Another area where the two traditions diverge is private confession. 

Both reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance, concluding that confession was meant to provide comfort to consciences rather than binding them further. By confessing our sins, we receive the word of absolution and know we are forgiven by God. 

But while both groups acknowledge the value of confession and absolution as a means of assurance, Lutherans have traditionally placed a greater emphasis on it by maintaining the practice of private confession before a minister of the gospel. The Reformed include a time for confession and absolution in the divine service, but generally eschew private confession.

By confessing our sins, we receive the word of absolution and know we are forgiven by God.

Lutherans see an important role for private confession when believers’ consciences remain troubled despite hearing the Word and receiving the sacraments. As the Formula of Concord states, “we also retain private absolution, and teach that it is God’s command that we believe such absolution, and should regard it as sure that, when we believe the word of absolution, we are as truly reconciled to God as though we had heard a voice from heaven…”[11].


We live in a world marred by sin, in which doubt is bound to gnaw at our souls. The Lord has granted us assurance of salvation in Word and sacraments, in the testimony of the Spirit, and ministry of the church. But human beings are individuals with their own anxieties, and the best theological arguments can sometimes be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotion. 

Whether a person is Reformed or Lutheran, and however they conceive of the doctrines of election, baptism, and absolution, they will ultimately be brought back to the same place for assurance: the Savior who was crucified and rose again.

Perhaps the great summary of assurance in the Reformation period was the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him [12].

In that confidence, we have a real and living hope of union with Jesus Christ and eternal life in his presence.

[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt



[4] Ep III, Affirmation 2.




[8] Kolb, Robert and Carl R. Trueman. Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 100.


[10] Kolb and Trueman, 107-8.