Martin Chemnitz and God’s Election of His Own

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Amy Mantravadi shares about the importance and influlnce of Martin Chemitz in the predestination controversy.

In contrast to the early days of the Reformation filled with larger-than-life personalities, the second generation of Lutheran scholars is less heralded. That is a shame, for their work was critical in shaping the Lutheran Reformation. Perhaps the most well-known Lutheran theologian of that generation was Martin Chemnitz. 

Chemnitz was born in the Margraviate of Brandenburg into a merchant family that fell on hard times after the death of his father. His early adult years were spent gaining whatever education he could with the limited funds he possessed, then using those skills to pursue knowledge on his own. In 1545, he was able to move to the University of Wittenberg, where he was fortunate to attend lectures by Martin Luther shortly before the great reformer’s death. However, outbreaks of war and plague forced him to move to East Prussia, where he finally enjoyed a long-time period of theological study.

In 1553, Chemnitz moved back to Wittenberg at Philip Melanchthon’s invitation, joining the theological faculty the following year. After being ordained to the ministry by Johannes Bugenhagen, he became ecclesiastical superintendent for the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. It was there that he preached an important sermon on the topic of God’s election of his own to salvation.

By the 1560s, the Lutheran movement was roughly split into two groups, commonly called the Philippists (those who held to a certain interpretation of Philip Melanchthon’s teachings) and the Gnesio-Lutherans (from the Greek gnesio meaning “genuine”). They had theological disagreements over many issues, including their reception of Martin Luther’s teaching in The Bondage of the Will, that great treatment of election written in response to Desiderius Erasmus. 

Throughout the mid-sixteenth century, predestination to salvation had received less attention among Lutheran theologians than their Reformed counterparts. However, it soon garnered greater attention thanks to the efforts of Cyriakus Spangenberg, preacher in Luther’s hometown of Mansfeld. In 1567, Spangenberg delivered a series of sermons that directly addressed divine election. These sermons were then published and distributed throughout the German lands. 

Spangenberg thought he was simply reiterating Luther’s position on the issue, but his theological opponents suspected him of secretly endorsing something like the Reformed position of double predestination: that God elects some to salvation and others to damnation. 

Chemnitz was hesitant to weigh in on the dispute. He wrote to a friend, “I have read Spangenberg’s little book on predestination, and I do not see that it teaches anything false or any newly invented formulations,” and stated that he did not wish to “arouse controversy, especially in this embattled time, which offers more than enough other disputes.” Nevertheless, he admitted, “Certain things are not explicated sufficiently in Spangenberg’s book, and they could give occasion for arguments that it would be better not to stir up”[1]. The controversy brewed for a few years before Chemnitz finally entered the lists, as Robert Kolb explains.

“At that time some ‘misunderstandings’ regarding divine election did elicit a request from his prince, Duke Julies of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, that the superintendent preach on the subject ‘for the sake of Christian unity’ and agreement on the subject. Chemnitz complied with a sermon in the ducal chapel in Wolfenbüttel on the Gospel lesson for the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity, Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, which includes the words ‘Many are called but few are chosen’ (v. 14). It was published the following year”[2].

In the sermon, Chemnitz stated unequivocally, “It is certain and clear from God’s Word that all those who are to inherit eternal life were foreknown, elected, and predestined to that end by God before the foundation of the world was laid”[3]. He objected to the Erasmian notion that the doctrine of election should simply be avoided, but conceded that “in this article, human reason can quickly and easily reach too far or climb too high”[4]. He therefore attempted to strike a delicate balance in line with that of Martin Luther, emphasizing the God revealed in his Word rather than a hidden God of pure speculation.

“Whatever lies beyond that lies in the abyss of God’s wisdom. I have no business delving into this. I will stick with this parable and give thanks to my dear Lord Christ that He has summed up this lofty article in such a simple story. And if I stick with it, I know that I can neither err nor go astray. On the contrary, I will know and have as much from this article as I need to know from it in this life for salvation”[5].

Chemnitz explains that, in the parable, the king represents God the Father, the king’s son represents God the Son, the servants represent ordained preachers of the gospel, and the invited guests represent the different sorts of people on planet earth. Those who attack the king’s servants and refuse the summons represent people who reject Christ. Those who accept the invitation but show up improperly dressed are those who attempt to present their own works to God for justification. The ones who come gladly and with proper dress are the elect clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Throughout the sermon as in his other works, Chemnitz focuses on the way God’s will is revealed in Word and Sacraments: a creative Word that brings into being things which do not exist, making saints out of sinners. “He would reveal this secret counsel of His to the world through the Word, and He would call men to His kingdom through the spoken Word,”[6] Chemnitz states, emphasizing the importance of the preached Word by which God calls us.

...Chemnitz focuses on the way God’s will is revealed in Word and Sacraments - a creative Word that brings into being things which do not exist, making saints out of sinners.

“If I want to know what God, in grace, concluded concerning my salvation, I ought not to climb up into heaven, which is too high for me, but I can be informed of this through the call that is brought before me in the preaching of the Gospel and that is sealed and confirmed through the Sacraments. For I should by no means imagine that, if my dear God has called me by His Word to salvation, He actually intends something else”[7].

This is the Christian’s assurance of salvation: that God has revealed in his preached Word and administered Sacraments what our status is before him. He has given us himself, not based on our own works or any faith we have manufactured, but his unconditional and eternal promise. While Chemnitz does admit, “I recognize God’s righteous wrath toward those who do not have God’s Word—which we would all merit and deserve together with them,” he states that those who have heard God’s Word and received him by gifted faith need never fear that they are not elect. “And that is a beautiful, glorious comfort, that I can know and learn through the call of the preached Word, what God concluded concerning me and my salvation before the foundation of the world was laid”[8].

In summary, “we cannot and should not judge differently from what God sets before us in His Word; namely, that it is His will to be effective in us by means of His Word and to work in us the ability to receive the offered grace by means of His gifts, strength, and working”[9].

Chemnitz went on to become an important contributor to the Formula of Concord, which brought an end to much of the controversy over predestination by establishing an official position for the Lutheran churches. We would do well to remember his admonition: “For there is only one form of attire that is permitted at this wedding, only one garment that avails for salvation, namely, when we, through Word and Sacraments, put on the Lord Jesus Christ by faith (Gal. 3)”[10].

[1] Letter to Conrad Schlüsselburg, translated in the following: Kolb, Robert. Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord, Lutheran Quarterly Books, ed. Paul Rorem (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 226.

[2] Kolb, Robert. Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord, Lutheran Quarterly Books, ed. Paul Rorem (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 227.

[3] Chemnitz, Martin. “A Christian Sermon on God’s Foreknowledge or Election to Salvation” (Eine Predigt uber das Evangelion Matth. 22 Von dem König der seinem Sohn Hochzeit machet etc. Dahin der hohe Artickel von der Versehung Gottes auffs aller einfeltigest erkleret wird), trans. Paul A. Rydecki (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2016), 7.

[4] Chemnitz,  7.

[5] Chemnitz, 10.

[6] Chemnitz, 12.

[7] Chemnitz, 18.

[8] Chemnitz, 36.

[9] Chemnitz, 37.

[10] Chemnitz, 32.