Differences Between Luther and Calvin

Luther-CalvinLuther and Calvin were two men that God used mightily in the Protestant Reformation. Both men loved the Lord, both men held to the 5 Sola’s, Christ Alone, Faith alone, Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, and everything to The Glory of God Alone. But they did have their differences. Today’s post in a just a brief survey of some of those differences.

–      Justification and Good works.

While Luther and Calvin both agreed that justification is a forensic act in which God imputes and alien righteousness to believers, they understood the outworking of this justification differently. Luther grounded good works in imputation/justification; whereas Calvin grounded good works in union with Christ.[i]

Calvin taught that good works have a positive soteric value (Melanchthon did not teach this). His understanding is that justifying faith is not a faith the merely rests on Christ alone (passive), but is an obedient faith which while it rests on Christ alone also perseveres in the pursuit of holiness.[ii]

Many in Reformed Theology actually hold the Lutheran view, that sanctification is the natural consequence of justification. However Calvin taught that as one comes into Union with Christ both justification and sanctification occur in Christ. The implication of the Lutheran view is that there is the possibility of a person being truly justified but not yet sanctified.[iii] It is important to note, it is not that Luther rejected this ‘faith that bears fruit’, but it was stressed in a more vital way by Calvin

–      Unity of the Bible

Calvin made an effort not to stress the New Testament over the Old. He emphasised the continuity of God’s revelation throughout the whole Bible. Unlike Luther, Calvin did not play with whimsical allegory. It is true that Luther brought the Bible into the fore of theology and life, however Calvin put the structure down for Biblical study and exposition. Calvin’s city of Geneva became a respected place of Biblical exposition during his time.

–      The Lord’s Supper

Calvin and Luther disagreed about the Lord’s Supper. Calvin did not believe that Christ was literally in the bread and wine (obviously, since Christ is literally, physically as the right hand of the Father).He also disagreed with others who argued that the bread and wine are merely symbolic. Calvin reasoned that when we take the bread and wine, Christ’s presence come to us. Jesus communes with us as we partake.

Calvin explained it using the analogy of the Spirit coming in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism; he wrote, “Our Lord, wishing to give a visible appearance to his Spirit at the baptism of Christ, presented him under the form of a dove. St. John the Baptist, narrating the fact, says, that he saw the Spirit of God descending. If we look more closely, we shall find that he saw nothing but the dove, in respect that the Holy Spirit is in his essence invisible.[iv]” In the same way, though the bread and wine are symbols, Christ really does come to us and is truly present if we partake by faith.

–      The Doctrine of Election

It has been said that Calvin taught double predestination and Luther only single predestination. Double calvin-and-lutherpredestination is that God determined by the council of His will, who would be saved, and at the same time passed over others thus predestining them to damnation. Single predestination only acknowledges the first positive kind (that God elects those he will save), but denies that God is involved in reprobation (passing over others and thus reprobating them). Interestingly it appears that Luther did indeed hold to double predestination, but it was his followers after him that denied reprobation. Thus Calvin and Luther agreed on this, but Lutherans and Calvin disagreed. For more on this issue read this helpful article.


[i] Mark Garcia in his book Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology :260.
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Mark Garcia in his book Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology :264
[iv] John Calvin, Short treatise on the Lord’s Supper – 1540

  2 comments for “Differences Between Luther and Calvin

  1. Noreen Wahome
    November 11, 2013 at 10:26 am

    How riveting!!!

    Thank you so much for posting on this Tyrell! It has most definitely helped me understand the Reformation more deeply. I will be sure to grasp all of this as its truly vital especially in terms of my beliefs & where I stand.

    Once again, thanks! Lord bless

  2. November 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    As far I can tell, the difference between single and double predestination is illusory
    This is why commited Lutherans are Calvinists and vice-versa.

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