Predestination, Grace, and Free Will in the Thought of St. Prosper of Aquitaine and C.F.W. Walther: A Comparison and Evaluation

—By Jordan Cooper Throughout the history of the church, the doctrine of predestination has often been contentious. The name Augustine is usually associated with the doctrine of predestination in the Patristic period, and John Calvin during the sixteenth century Reformation. These theologians represent a strict form of predestinarianism. In contrast to this double predestinarian view, several theologians throughout the centuries have attempted to formulate a balanced view of predestination by affirming both that God's election of grace is unconditional and that God's grace is universal. This view, which can be labeled mild Augustinianism, was adopted as the orthodox position at the Second Council of Orange in 529. Various theologians throughout the church have represented this mild Augustinian position.

The Formula of Concord adopted the mild Augustinian position, whereas the Calvinistic Reformation adopted a strict form of predestinarianism. While Reformed writers have commonly utilized the writings of Augustine, most Lutherans have little knowledge of their mild Augustinian forebearers in the early church. Lutheranism must reclaim its catholic predestinarian tradition. This article will evaluate one such semi-Augustinian in the early church: Prosper of Aquitaine. After the death of Augustine, Prosper was the most outspoken and prolific defender of the preeminence of God’s grace. Following this is an evaluation of C.F.W. Walther, who, in my estimation, is the most articulate defender of the mild Augustinian position on grace in the post-Reformation Lutheran tradition. It will be demonstrated that the positions of both these writers are compatible with one another. The Lutheran Reformation is thoroughly Prosperian.

The Semi-Pelagian Debate

Though the Pelagian position lost influence after the Augustine/Pelagius debate was settled in favor of Augustine's contention for the necessity of divine grace,1 the church's doctrine of grace, predestination, and free will was far from uniform. In reaction to Augustine's strict predestinarian views, several schools of thought arose contending for their own approaches to the relationship between free will and sovereign grace. Several theologians adopted tenets of the Augustinian position while attempting to maintain the Pelagian emphasis on free will and the universality of the saving divine will.

The most competent and influential proponent of the mediating position later known as Semi-Pelagianism, was the monk John Cassian.2 Cassian admired Augustine, but feared his emphasis on grace at the expense of human free will would lead to sloth among the monastics. Cassian wrote his work Conlatio 13, in response to the Augustinian position on behalf of the ascetics of Gaul who opposed a strict understanding of absolute predestination.3 In this work, Cassian argues that grace is present and necessary for the salvation of anyone. This grace, however, is aided by human free will. God offers grace prior to, during, and consequent to, conversion. Salvation is a synergistic act. God offers grace initially that the human agent then has the ability to accept or reject. When the will assents to grace, this initiates the process of salvation, wherein both the human subject and divine activity cooperate. This cooperation continues until perfection is attained. Thus, according to Cassian, both God's grace and human free choice can be affirmed without damage to one another.4

In Cassian's approach, divine grace usually precedes conversion and thus has priority. Cassian is willing, however, to admit that grace does not always precede faith. Though humans are fallen creatures, the effect of depravity on man's will is not total. Enough goodness remains in humankind that human agency may initiate the process of salvation. This first step, taken solely by one's will, is then aided by grace. Cassian thus avoids the Pelagian claim that salvation is possible apart from grace, while rejecting Augustine's doctrine of irresistible grace.5 In Cassian's view, this synergistic approach to salvation avoided both extremes inherent in the fifth century predestinarian disputes.

Prosper of Aquitaine

The chief opponent of the Semi-Pelagian party was St. Prosper of Aquitaine. Not much is known of Prosper's origins. He was born sometime in the late fouth century in Gaul. He received a an education in Aquitaine and published his first book “On the Providence of God,” De providentia Dei in 416. Some time between 417 and 425, Prosper came into contact with the Pelagian controversy. During this period, in which he wrote nothing, Prosper became a student of Augustine, adopting the bishop of Hippo's teachings on grace and free will as the catholic position. Eventually, Prosper would become Augustine's most ardent and competent defender.

Prosper's doctrine of predestination can be divided into an early and later stage. In Prosper's early writings, he defends Augustinian double predestination. He teaches limited atonement, and limits grace to the elect. However, later in life, Prosper tempered his predestinarianism, arguing that grace is universal, yet that grace precedes faith. Thus Prosper later holds the important tension between divine monergism and the universality of the gospel.

Prosper's Early Writings

Prosper wrote various works in his early career defending Augustine's teaching on predestination and grace. These letters and treatises were primarily written against John Cassian and the theology of various Semi-Pelagian monastics from Gaul. In these writings, Prosper defends divine monergism against the Semi-Pelagian attacks on Augustinianism.

Prosper argues that Cassian's approach to free will allows for the possibility that human merit could precede grace in opposition to the New Testament insistence to the contrary. According to Prosper, no mediating view between the Augustinian and Pelagian position is possible.6 Ultimately, one either has to decide whether salvation is solely a divine work or a work of cooperation. Responding to the assertion that both man and grace can be the initiating cause of conversion, Prosper states, “The alliance between the two which your new system advocates does not reconcile them in any way; it unduly presents the Catholic position as wrong and the Pelagian one as correct.”7 For Cassian, some conversions are initiated by grace and others by human will; in Prosper's mind, this presents an incompatible system that ultimately leaves one with a Pelagian understanding of grace.

Like Augustine, Prosper argues for a robust doctrine of original sin: “But all have sinned in one: in punishment of Adam's sin the whole race was condemned. Therefore, all have lost what Adam lost. He lost faith in the first place; and if faith is the first gift we all lost, it is also the first gift we have to receive it again.”8 Humankind's solidarity with Adam necessitates the acquisition of Adamic sin. This includes unbelief. Thus, in Prosper's approach, the human will is bound. Faith is an impossibility apart from the grace of God. Thus, to admit, as does Cassian, that in some cases free will may take the first step toward conversion denies the reality of the fall.

The entire process of conversion and salvation is a divine work in Prosper's theology. This begins with an acknowledgment of the reality of one's sinful situation.

Until man receives from his Physician the very knowledge of his unhappy state, his soul delights in its misery, ever enamored of its errors and embracing falsehood for truth. The beginning of its cure lies in its conceiving dissatisfaction with itself and hatred of its inherited weakness. The next step is its desiring to get cured and knowing who it is that can cure it. Though all these acts are previous to its cure, yet it is He who will cure the soul that inspired them. Else, since they cannot arise in the soul without producing their effect, the soul would seem to have been cured by its own merit and not by grace.9

Prosper recognizes—as Luther later would—that an illness cannot be cured without an acknowledgment of that illness. In later Lutheran terminology, Law precedes Gospel. Yet even a recognition of one's sinful state is impossible apart from grace. The soul curved in on itself inherently loves its miserable state. Apart from divine intervention, this would never be realized. God's grace opens the eyes of a sinner to recognize the evil of sin. God both diagnoses the sickness and provides the cure. Because even recognition of sin is part of the cure for Prosper, the contention of the Gaul theologians that one could begin the process of conversion in any sense would rob God of his glory.

Prosper does not deny free will in a Manichean fashion. In Prosper's understanding, free will is damaged by the fall. Due to man's Adamic nature, rather than reaching out toward God, the will is captured by carnal desires. The will of man does not then need to be destroyed but repaired. Grace does not oppose human will but heals it.

This grace, sweeping aside the embers of worldly opinions and dead works, rekindles the dead log of his heart and sets it aflame with the desire of the truth; it does not bring man into subjection against his will but makes him desirous of that subjection; it does not draw him without his knowledge but shows him and leads the way. For his free will, which still exists, created as it was by God together with his human nature, does not of itself withdraw from the vain desires to which he turned when he neglected the law of God; it is the Creator that works this change. And so, the whole cure of fallen man is effected neither without his co-operation nor by anyone else than by his Physician.10

Like Augustine, Prosper provides a view of grace and freedom which both leaves the human will and person intact after the fall, while maintaining the Pauline concept that salvation is monergistic. God's grace does not work against will but changes the will to desire the good.11 Man directs his love and affection inward, and God's grace causes that love to be sent beyond the self, up toward the Holy Trinity.

This saving grace does not simply begin the conversion process only to be replaced by the renewed will but is operative continually in the Christian's life. Prosper views Paul's experience of struggle as outline in Romans 7 as the experience of a converted person: “He means to say that, when we have received the gift of desiring what is good, we are not at once able to do it but must ask and desire and knock and be given to do it by Him who inspired the desire. For these words, For to will is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not, are the words of one who was called and given grace already.”12 Throughout Christian existence, one is repeatedly confronted with the fact that sin is a continual reality. Though a desire to obey God's Law is inherent in the regenerated person, the ability to fulfill that desire is not always present. God does not immediately heal the Christian of all sin, because he desires his people to continually reach out for divine assistance. In Prosper's theology, grace is needed to aid the Christian's journey in life. It continues to heal the soul and offer forgiveness.

Prosper frames his theology of grace within the context of predestination.13 In a statement summarizing his position on the issue, Prosper states that “the predestination of the saints is nothing else but the foreknowledge and preparation of God's grace by which He saves them without fail.”14 Prosper follows Augustine's interpretation of foreknowledge, viewing the term as a reference to God's foreknowledge of his own future actions. This is in opposition to the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian approach, which argues that foreknowledge refers to foreseen future merits on behalf of elect individuals. The predestination of God is both unconditional and immutable. God predestines unto salvation unconditionally; merits are never the cause of predestination but its effect.15 The number of the elect are only those who are finally saved and will infallibly reach eternal salvation. Christ's death was only given for these select individuals.16

At this time in Prosper's career, double predestinarianism is affirmed, albeit in a moderated fashion. Prosper argues that it is “grace that distinguishes a believer from an unbeliever.”17 God's free decision of election involves choosing one person out of the mass of damnation over another. It is God who both “opens the hearts of the first and closes the hearts of the second.” Thus, God is active in both salvation and reprobation. Prosper holds a comprehensive view of God's sovereignty, claiming that “all things are ordained by God's decree.”18 This includes both salvation and reprobation, though both are accomplished in different manners. “Both God' mercy and His justice are operative in the very wills of men.”19 Even though Prosper adopts a strict predestinarian theology in line with Augustine, there are some important qualifications to be made. First, Prosper does not make a direct equation between salvation and reprobation. Predestination to life is always unconditional whereas predestination unto death is conditioned upon foreseen demerit.20 Second, Prosper is not willing to base assurance of one's salvation purely on election or to cause his readers to discover their election within God's hidden decree. In a pastoral manner, Prosper exhorts, “[T]rust that you are not excluded from the number of the predestined who are His people, because it is He Himself who gives you the grace to make this prayer. God forbid that you should despair of your salvation, for you are commanded to place your hope in Him, not in yourselves.”21 Prosper's predestinarian views are strict, but he still approaches them with a pastoral spirit.

The Later Prosper: The Call of All Nations

Prosper's magnum opus is his later writing, The Call of All Nations. This work portrays a moderated Augustinianism, wherein it is argued that salvation is due solely to grace and also that God's saving will is universal. It is particularly noteworthy that the sixteenth century Reformers often referenced this work. Luther recommended it as one of his favorite Patristic works,22 and it is cited in the Augsburg Confession.23 This work echoes the later position of the Formula of Concord regarding the preeminence and universality of grace. Prosper defines the purpose of this work with the following words:

A great and difficult problem has long been debated among the defenders of free will and the advocates of the grace of God. The point at issue is whether God wills all men to be saved; and since this cannot be denied, the question arises, why the will of the Almighty is not realized. When this is said to happen because of the will of men, grace seems to be ruled out; and if grace is a reward for merit, it is clearly not a gift but something due to men. But then the question again arises: why is this gift, without which no one can attain salvation, not conferred on all, by Him who wills all to be saved? Hence, there is no end to discussions in either camp so long as they make no distinction between what can be known and what remains hidden.24

Thus Prosper attempts to answer the question: why are some saved and others not? In contradistinction to his early writings, Prosper takes it as a given that the cause is God’s saving will. Yet, since he is still self-consciously monergistic, Prosper faces a dilemma. How can grace alone save, and yet not all are saved even though God earnestly desires that they be?

Prosper begins his discussion with the same conviction that salvation occurs sola gratia, arguing that original sin causes the will to be fallen.25 Good works never precede grace, but are a result of prevenient divine action. In the same manner, human reason is unable to approach God apart from grace: “We conclude that neither the learned nor the illiterate of whatever race or rank come to God led by human reason; but every man who is converted to God is first stirred by God's grace.”26 He defends the concept that the work of grace is thoroughgoing. Grace gives one the realization of sin, an understanding of the gospel, the desire for the gospel, conversion, and perseverance in the faith. He writes that “a man's merit from the beginning of faith to final perseverance is a gift and work of God.”27 Monergism describes the entire process of salvation in Prosper's approach.

In Prosper's theology, grace is not usually given through a spontaneous conversion experience—such as Augustine’s radical experience—but is primarily a sacramental reality. He confesses that “in baptism all sins are forgiven.”28 This is consistent with the sacramental approach that he discusses in his earlier writings. “This is why now, until man is cured of that deadly poison by eating the flesh of the Son of God and drinking His blood, his memory is weak, his judgment erring, his step staggering; nor is he at all capable of choosing and desiring the good gifts which he cast off of his own free will.”29 Election is not abstract, a mere ideal in the mind of God, but is realized through concrete events. Baptism converts, changing the will from a love of self to a love of God; the Eucharist continually brings grace to the recipients, giving forgiveness and the power to obey God's moral will.

In Book Two of his work, Prosper expounds upon the question of why some are saved and others are not. He writes,

First, we must confess that God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Secondly, there can be no doubt that all who actually come to the knowledge of the truth and to salvation, do so not in virtue of their own merits but of the efficacious help of divine grace. Thirdly, we must admit that human understanding is unable to fathom the depths of God's judgments, and we ought not to inquire why He who wishes all men to be saved does not in fact save all.30

Once again, Prosper confesses two clear Biblical truths. First, God's saving will is universal. God desires all to be saved indiscriminately. Second, all that are saved are converted by grace alone. Merit never precedes grace. But in some sense grace is irresistible; election is immutable. Because these two truths are seemingly incompatible, Prosper does not attempt to solve the dilemma but appeals to divine wisdom.

Prosper makes a clear and definite distinction between God's predestination and foreknowledge. Regarding the apostasy of Cain, for example, Prosper writes that God “worked to bring him back to his senses from that frenzy of impiety.”31 Though God gave grace to Cain, desiring his salvation, God also foreknew the outcome of the mercy shown. “God foreknew to what extremes his madness would drive him; yet, because of this infallible knowledge of God we may not conclude that his criminal will was urged on by any necessity to sin.”32 Not all that is foreknown by God is decreed, nor is it necessarily God's desire, but merely his allowance. Prosper urges that “this eternal and ever serene knowledge does not impose on us any necessity of sinning, and no iniquity can spring from the source of all justice.”33 The good accomplished by man is predestined, and the evil done is only foreknown so that God is not in any way the cause of evil.

Prosper expounds upon the nature of universal grace. He describes several different manners in which God's grace is universal. First, God has shown general kindness to the world: “He has given the life-giving air, regulated the alternations of day and night, granted fertility to the fields, growth to the seeds, and fecundity for the propagation of mankind.”34 This general kindness has been active since the foundation of the world and continues in all nations. Second, God's grace is universal in the sense that Christ's atonement is universal: “There can, therefore, be no reason to doubt that Jesus Christ our Lord died for the unbelievers and the sinners. If there had been any one who did not belong to these, then Christ would not have died for all. But He did die for all men without exception.”35 Prosper rejects his earlier position that the cross's intent is particular in nature.36 Third, God's grace is universal in that God's saving will is universal: “Whether, then, we look on these last centuries or on the first or on the ages between, we see that reason and religious sense alike make us believe that God wills and has always willed all men to be saved.”37 In this context, Prosper makes a distinction between general grace and special grace. General grace is given to all, whereas special grace is given only to some. It may at first appear that Prosper is utilizing the later Calvinistic distinction between common grace and efficacious grace,38 but his intent is different. He clearly qualifies this distinction by admitting that the only reason special grace is not given to all is due to human refusal to receive it. He writes that God, “wished to make it clear from both that He did not refuse to all mankind what He gave to some men, but that in some men grace prevailed and in others nature recoiled.”39 Prosper's position is that salvation is due solely to God's grace, which is universal, and that damnation is solely due to the rejection of grace on the part of sinners.

The later Prosper has a balanced view of the nature of divine grace. He retains the sola gratia principle, confessing that salvation is achieved by grace alone. Election is unconditional, preceding any good in the human person. Yet this election is also singular, encompassing only those who are saved; there is no predestination unto death. Prosper affirms the universal nature of grace. God intends all to be saved, leaving the cause of damnation in the disobedient human will rather than God's decree. Ultimately, Prosper leaves the answer to the question of why some are saved and not others as a paradox. He writes, “It is clear, then, that in a countless variety of ways God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. When they do come, then God's help is their guide; and when they do not, the fault of the refusal lies with their own obstinancy.”40 The reconciliation of these two ideas is a divine mystery.

Predestination in the Lutheran Tradition

Since Luther wrote his book On the Bondage of the Will against the famed humanist Erasmus in 1525, the subject of predestination, grace, and free will has been prevalent among the Lutheran branch of the Reformation. Luther took a strong predestinarian stance, arguing for the bondage of the human will, unconditional election, and the necessity of persevering grace. After Luther's death, a controversy arose among the Lutheran reformers over the cause of human conversion.41 For the Gnesio-Lutheran school, the word of God and the Spirit are the sole causes of conversion, the human will being purely passive. The Philippist school, under the leadership of Johann Pfeffinger and Viktorin Strigel, argued that the human will is active in conversion alongside of the word of God and the Spirit. Nikolaus Gallus, Matthias Flacius, and other Gnesio Lutherans fought against this perspective with a robust monergism, following Luther's Augustinianism.

The Formula of Concord ultimately followed the Gnesio Lutheran school in defending divine monergism, while rejecting the particularism of the rising Calvinist theology. The Formula of Concord states that “the eternal election of God, however, or praedestinatio (that is, God's preordination to salvation), does not apply to both the godly and the evil, but instead only to the children of God, who are chosen and predestined unto eternal life “before the foundation of the world was laid” (SD XI, 5). Thus in response to the double predestinarian views of Calvin, the Lutheran reformers confess that predestination is single, only referring to those who are saved, not the reprobate. God foreknows, foresees, the punishment which is to be given to unbelievers but is not active regarding sin and evil. Further, God's election is not based upon foreseen faith or merits but is gracious and unconditional. “God's eternal election not only foresees and foreknows the salvation of the elect but is also a cause of our salvation and whatever pertains to it, on the basis of the gracious will and pleasure of God in Christ Jesus” (SD XI, 8). Thus the Lutheran Confessions—with Prosper—confess both the unconditional nature of election and the universality of the divine saving will.

After the writing of the Formula of Concord and the rise of scholastic theology, the monergistic, confessional approach to election was gradually lost. It became commonplace among the seventeenth century scholastic writers to speak of election intuitu fidei. In the intuitu fidei approach, God's predestination unto salvation is in view of faith, thus making faith the cause of election rather than the conviction of the Lutheran reformers that election is the cause of faith. This approach was challenged by various confessional Lutherans in America during the nineteenth century, who sought to restore a theology consistent with the confessional documents rather than a strict adherence to seventeenth century scholastic categories. Chief among those seeking to revive the confessional approach to election was C. F. W. Walther.

Walther presented a number of addresses at the Synodical Conference of North America between 1877 and 1880 that dealt specifically with the doctrine of election. One of Walther's colleagues, F. A. Schmidt, quickly attacked Walther's position. According to Schmidt, Walther's view of unconditional predestination was not consistent with Scripture or the Lutheran tradition. To deny the intuitu fidei approach is to fall into crypto-Calvinism. A series of publications came from Schmidt and his supporters against the Waltherian party. Walther responded with several treatises and sermons on the subject. The controversy was never ultimately resolved within American Lutheranism. The Wisconsin and Missouri synods adopted the Waltherian view of unconditional predestination, whereas many other Lutheran synods followed the intuitu fidei language of Schmidt.

Walther's View of Election and Grace

In Walther's view, monergism is a necessary confession of any consistent Lutheran. Sola fide only exists within the context of sola gratia; these two concepts can never be divorced from one another. Walther opposed the intuitu fidei party because “they declare predestination to be nothing more than the following: in the first place, the foreknowledge of God that certain persons will receive the gospel in true faith and perseverance in this saving faith unto the end, and secondly the decree that He will actually save the persons that persevere in faith.”42 This reverses the biblical and confessional order that predestination is the cause of faith. Walther is willing to admit that it is only foreknowledge that pertains to reprobation, rather than a divine decree, but defends adamantly that salvation occurs through divine decree and assistance. He writes,

According to our Confession, therefore, predestination is not only a decree of God according to which He is willing to save men, provided that they persevere in faith unto the end, but it is rather such an ordination of God which is such a CAUSE of salvation of the elect as to, “procure, work, aid, and promote” at the same time “whatever pertains to it,” namely, to their surely obtaining salvation, consequently also, to their being led to repentance, conversion, and faith, and to their persevering unto the end.43

This decree effects the salvation of particular people—namely, those who will be finally saved—rather than a general plan of God that he desires the salvation of God through faith.

The intuitu fidei approach, in Walther's perspective, amounts to nothing short of Pelagianism. He warns, “But woe be unto you, if you take this glory from God and Christ, and attribute it to yourself, even in part! This is the most terrible idolatry which you can practice with yourself, and is the sure road to condemnation.”44 It is a denial of the gospel of grace to confess that any part of conversion is due to the human will. The synergistic Lutherans allow for a small movement of the human free will toward faith, making God's grace a response to human action. This is an iteration of the Pelagian heresy and nearly identical to the theology of the legalistic medieval church Luther fought against. To argue that faith is the cause of election denies the central truth of Luther's Reformation.

Walther carefully distances himself from a Calvinistic approach to predestination. “Whoever, therefore, tries to make you believe that we teach that horrible Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, grossly transgresses the eighth commandment, in bearing false witness against his neighbor and slandering us . . . for with heart and soul we condemn Calvin's doctrine of predestination, so help us God!”45 For Walther, the primary problem with the Calvinistic approach to predestination is its denial of gratia universalis. Grace is universal in its intent and application. Reformed theologians argue that the gospel call is universal. The gospel is truly offered to all men externally through the word.46 However, according to God's secret will, the internal call is only intended for the elect. Walther refers to this Reformed doctrine of the “external call” as “pretend and unreal.”47 Walther refutes this approach purporting that “through [the call] God reveals his will: namely, that in those whom he thus calls, he will operate through the Word, so that they may be enlightened, converted and saved.”48 Alongside of the truth of predestination, which is particular, stands the truth that God's grace is universal. Both the gospel call and the inward call of the Spirit are given indiscriminately through word and sacrament.

This distinction between a monergistic Lutheran perspective and a Reformed view of predestination is further defined through Walther's distinction between foreknowledge and predestination. He urges that “the difference between foreknowledge (praescientia) and eternal election (praedestinatio) of God ought to be accurately observed.”49 Foreknowledge is universal; God foresees every action and outcome of human beings before hey occur. But, “this is not to be understood as if it were God's gracious will that they should occur.”50 Evil actions of humans are thus not predestined according to the divine will but are simply foreseen and allowed. This is distinct from the Calvinistic view that the objects of foreknowledge and predestination are identical. For the Reformed, all actions are determined by decree. In Walther's view, predestination is only used in reference to the good and righteous actions of men.

In Walther's view, predestination does not involve peering into the secret will of God. Walther does not attempt to discuss or dissect God's eternal decrees according to their nature and order, as do some Calvinistic writers,51 but views election as a practical doctrine. He urges his readers to “meditate on it in the manner in which the counsel, the purpose, and the ordination of God, in Christ Jesus, who is the right and true book of life are REVEALED unto us through His word.”52 Election is not to be sought in God's secret will but in what God has revealed through Christ. God promises he will “justify all those who in true repentance embrace Christ in genuine faith, genuinely receive them, and adopt them as His children and heirs of eternal life.”53 Election is tied to this promise, so that assurance of one's salvation comes not through God's decree but through looking to the objective gospel promise through word and sacrament.

The importance of the word and sacraments cannot be overemphasized in Walther's doctrine of election. For Walther, election comes about through concrete means. He argues that the “merit of Christ and His benefits should be offered, administered, and distributed to us, through His Word and Sacraments.”54 This is not the concept of spontaneous regeneration promoted by Calvinistic theologians. Though Walther does admit that God appoints the exact date, time, and circumstance of conversion,55 only the external Word works conversions. “Now God does not call without means, but through the Word.”56 Not only is the word efficacious unto conversion, but God “also seals it with the Sacraments, which He has attached as seals of the promise, and thus He confirms it to each believer in particular.”57 The Waltherian doctrine of election is thoroughly sacramental.

Walther's view of election is also thoroughly Christocentric. There is no decree of election apart from the person and work of Christ.

[P]eople are taught that they must SEEK eternal election IN CHRIST and His holy GOSPEL, as in the book of life. For the Gospel excludes no penitent sinner, but calls and invites all poor, all troubled and afflicted sinners to repentance, to the acknowledgment of their sins, and to faith in Christ; it promises the Holy Spirit for their purification and renovation.58

The election of grace does not occur apart from Christ, and is not separate from the doctrine of justification, but serves as a reinforcement for the Reformation principle that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. “It confirms most forcibly the article, that we are justified and saved by pure grace for the sake of Christ alone, without any of our own works and merit.”59 Walther says, “This eternal election of God must be considered in Christ, and not apart from, or without Christ.”60 To gain assurance of election, one need not look at the eternal decree but at the universal redemption achieved by Christ's cross and resurrection. This is done primarily through the means of word and sacrament, which serve as instruments of assurance.

Those who are damned were not destined unto death, but willingly chose to reject God's grace. “The reason that all who hear the Word of God, do not believe, and, therefore, meet with a deeper condemnation, is not found in God's willingness to bestow salvation.”61 Walther rejects any notion of double predestination, whether the decree of reprobation is passive or active. In Walther's view sinners are at “fault, because they so hear the Word, not to learn, but only to scorn, to blaspheme, and to profane it, and because they resisted the Holy Spirit, who desires to operate in them through the word.”62 Thus, Walther leaves the question of why some are saved and others not in a paradox. Those who are saved are so because of divine action and election. They were chosen unconditionally in Christ. Those who are damned were not predestined to that fate but are solely damned due to their own fault and rejection of grace. Though these two truths appear incompatible, Walther trusts in the wisdom of God. He gives the wise advice to “leave the counsels of God unsearched and do not wonder that God knows more than you, and that He does not permit us poor-sighted mortals, yea, not even angels and archangels to look into His secret counsels, until the day of the revelation of His glory.”63 The question of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is solved by giving God all of the glory for salvation, and man all of the blame for damnation, while leaving the seeming contradiction between the two concepts as a divine mystery.

Conclusion: Comparing Prosper and Walther

Now that the views of both writers have been examined, some conclusions can be reached. There are many similarities between Prosper and Walther’s perspectives on predestination, grace, and free will.64 First, both writers adopt the concept of the bondage of the will. Through the fall, Adam lost spiritual freedom. The will must be healed by the Spirit for conversion to take place. In this construction, faith is a gift of God rather than a human possibility. Conversion is a divine act, wherein a sinner's heart is changed to understand sin, receive forgiveness, and begin to love God. Disobedience is changed into obedience.

Secondly, both agree with the central aspects of the doctrine of predestination. Both Prosper and Walther argue that predestination is an act of God wherein he elects individuals unto eternal life. It refers only to those who are actually saved and is an act which promotes and effects conversion and perseverance. There is no double predestination. There is a distinction between predestination and foreknowledge; predestination is only used in reference to the good that occurs in the world, whereas foreknowledge encompasses all acts, both good and evil. God causes good, but never causes evil actions. Predestination is not based upon any foreseen faith, repentance, or merits on the part of individuals, but it is unconditional. Works never precede grace but are a result of prevenient grace given.

Third, both writers place election within a sacramental context. Conversion in Prosper and Walther is not spontaneous. It comes through the act of baptism and the proclamation of the word. This grace is continually given, and one's spiritual life is sustained by the Eucharist. The word and sacraments are always connected to the Spirit, not merely for the elect. This assures that the grace of God is universal in intent. The atonement is also universal in its intention.

Finally, both writers answer the question, “Why are some saved and others not?” in the same manner. There is no precise equation to answer this dilemma. While Arminians and Semipelagians have typically answered “man” and strict Augustinians and Calvinists have answered “God,” both Prosper and Walther cannot answer both parts of the question with the same answer. The reason why some are saved is solely due to God's grace and election. There is no merit or faith that makes the elect any more worthy of grace than the damned. On the other side of the equation, those who are damned are so only because of their decision. Grace is given to them, as to the elect, but they reject that grace, and thus bring damnation upon themselves. This seeming paradox has no answer and must be left to divine mystery.


Rev. Jordan Cooper is pastor of Hope Lutheran Church, Brighton, Iowa. He blogs at


As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on BLOGIA are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.



  1. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 318 and again at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Though largely defeated, Pelagius’s disciple Julian of Eclanum—perhaps the most radical theologian of the Pelagian movement—taught his approach to free will and moral living throughout his life until his death in 455. After Julian's death, the Pelagian movement was virtually extinct.
  2. For further information on John Cassian see: Owen Chadwick, John Cassian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), and Stewart Columba, Cassian the Monk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  3. In this work, Cassian does not directly quote Augustine's writings. He is possibly reacting to Augustinians he had dialogued with rather than Augustine himself. Or possibly Cassian refused to mention Augustine by name because of the fame Augustine had gathered by this time. Cassian might have lost credibility had he attacked such an eminent figure directly.
  4. Hwang defines this position saying, “According to the cooperative model, the grace of God initiates and inspires the free will toward the good, but the free will can choose to follow or resist the actions of grace at each stage in the process of perfection. Thus, grace and free will are compatible as long as grace is understood as resistable.” Alexander Y Hwang, Intrepid Lover of Perfect Grace: The Life and Thought of Prosper of Aquitaine. (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2009), 149.
  5. The difference between Cassian and Augustine's views on grace is likely due to their distinct environments. Augustine experienced a life of sin and a radical conversion to the Christian faith; Cassian was raised in a monastic lifestyle, consistently focusing on his pursuit of Christian perfection. Augustine “experienced grace” in a way that Cassian did not.
  6. “You have invented some hybrid third system, disagreeing with both parties, and so you neither find approval with our enemies nor keep in one mind with us. Moreover, how do you not see that, when you assert that men themselves take the initiative of their good works and because of that are given grace, you fall into an error that was condemned and willy-nilly appear to say that 'the grace of God is given in answer to our merits'?” Against Cassian, Chapter 3.
  7. Against Cassian, Chapter 5.
  8. Answers to the Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Excerpt 3.
  9. Against Cassian, Chapter 4.
  10. Against Cassian, Chapter 13.
  11. Another way to speak of this concept is that grace heals nature. As Prosper writes, “Therefore all that pertains to a life of godliness we receive not from nature, which fell in Adam, but from grace, which heals nature.” Against Cassian, 13.
  12. Against Cassian, Chapter 4.
  13. In one of his more extreme statements, Prosper concludes that “whosoever opposes the preaching of this doctrine is an open supporter of the Pelagian heresy.” Answer to Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Extract 9.
  14. Answers to Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Extract 8.
  15. “The divine election is based on grace, not on merits.” Answer to the Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Excerpt 4.
  16. “It may also be said that He was crucified only for those who were to profit by His death.” Answers to the Gauls, Article 9. Prosper seems to be the first writer to approach such a concept. Even though Augustine particularizes certain universalistic texts, he never states a clear doctrine of limited atonement. A teaching of limited atonement is relatively rare in church history prior to the Calvinistic Reformation.
  17. Answer to the Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Excerpt 4.
  18. Letter to Rufinus, 18.
  19. Answer to the Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Excerpt 4.
  20. In other words, Prosper is infralapsarian rather than supralapsarian.
  21. Answer to the Extracts of Genoese, Answer to Excerpt 9.
  22. Luther encourages Spalatin to read this work along with the anti-Pelagian treatises of Augustine. Luther astutely recognizes its non-Ambrosian authorship: “You might also add Saint Ambrose's work on the calling of all heathen; although this book appears from its style, contents, and chronology to have been written by someone other than Ambrose, it is nevertheless a very learned book.” Theodore Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 113.
  23. Discussing the relationship between faith and works in justification, Melanchthon writes, “So that no one may quibble that we have contrived a new interpretation of Paul, this entire approach is supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. In many writings Augustine defends grace and the righteousness of faith against the merit of works. Ambrose teaches similar things in Concerning the Calling of the Gentiles and elsewhere. For in Concerning the Calling of the Gentiles he says, 'Redemption by the blood of Christ would become worthless and the preference for human works would not give way to the mercy of God if justification, which takes place by grace, were due to antecedent merits. For then it would be the worker's wage rather than the donor's gift.'” AC XX, 12–14 (Latin, Kolb-Wengert).
  24. The Call of All Nations, Book One chapter 1.
  25. “For, although it lies in man's power to reject what is good, yet unless it is given him, he is unable by himself to choose this good. The power to do the former was contracted by our nature with original sin; but nature has to receive the ability to do the latter from grace.” The Call of All Nations, Book One chapter 25.
  26. The Call of All Nations, Book One chapter 8.
  27. The Call of All Nations, Book One chapter 23.
  28. The Call of All Nations, Book One, chapter 13.
  29. Against Cassian, 9:3.
  30. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 1.
  31. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 13.
  32. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 13.
  33. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 34.
  34. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 10.
  35. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 16.
  36. Hwang argues that this change is due to the influence of Rome on Prosper's thought, though I am not fully convinced of his thesis. Alexander Hwang, Intrepid Lover of Perfect Grace: The Life and Thought of Prosper of Aquitaine (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America, 2009).
  37. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 25.
  38. The distinction is that God's general kindness is shown to every person, but saving grace is limited in both intent and effect to the elect.
  39. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 25.
  40. The Call of All Nations, Book Two, chapter 28.
  41. For more on this controversy see Charles P. Arand et al., The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 201–16.
  42. C. F. W. Walther, The Controversy Concerning Predestination in: Predestination in Lutheran Perspective (White Horse Inn, 2006), 4–5.
  43. Controversy, 6.
  44. C. F. W. Walther, The Doctrine of Election Presented in Questions and Answers in: Predestination in Lutheran Perspective (White Horse Inn, 2006), 44.
  45. Controversy, 7.
  46. The exception to this is the hyper-Calvinist movement in nineteenth century, particularly Baptist theology, such as in the writings of John Gill. In hyper-Calvinism there is no universal call or offer.
  47. Questions & Answers, 21.
  48. Questions & Answers, 21.
  49. Questions & Answers, 14.
  50. Questions & Answers, 15.
  51. As they did in the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debates.
  52. Questions & Answers, 19.
  53. Questions & Answers, 19.
  54. Questions & Answers, 18.
  55. “God knows without any doubt, and has appointed the season and time of each one's call and conversion; and when He will again raise him up after he has fallen.” Questions & Answers, 28.
  56. Questions & Answers, 20.
  57. Questions & Answers, 23.
  58. Questions & Answers, 36.
  59. Questions & Answers, 24.
  60. Questions & Answers, 30.
  61. Questions & Answers, 32.
  62. Questions & Answers, 32.
  63. Controversy, 13.
  64. Recognizing of course that Prosper did not use this exact terminology.