The Reformed Gospel of Wrath: Luther and Calvin

Martin Luther


The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when a German priest demanded official answers to nagging questions. Martin Luther was not opposed to Original Sin, or Purgatory or even Limbo.  He had no ambitions to abolish the Roman Catholic Church or most of its traditions. The reform that Luther sought was centered on the practice of collecting money to ‘pardon’ the sins of souls in Purgatory.  Pardoners were the equivalent of modern day televangelists who promise blessings, healing, and prosperity in return for generous donations to ‘the Church.’ The root of the problem was the disturbing ambiguity concerning the doctrine of Purgatory.  Who went there?  How long were they confined?  How did they get out?


Family and friends wanted their loved ones out of Purgatory as soon as possible. Initially, the Church said it would be helpful to souls in Purgatory if their loved ones offered prayers and paid for a mass. During the Crusades (1100 AD -1300 AD), the Church granted purgatorial pardons to soldiers who fought in the Holy Wars, and to wealthy benefactors who donated money to enable the fighting.


Selling Purgatorial pardons became a great source of revenue for the Christian Church, which had become as powerful and wealthy as the men who ruthlessly manoeuvred to become its spiritual and political leader.  By the time Martin Luther was a young priest, the sale of Indulgences had become a notorious practice. Luther publically condemned it:  If the Pope has the power to free souls from the torments of purgatory for money, why will he not do it for love? 


With a single question Luther tore the foundation out from under the Indulgence industry.  Luther’s main complaint was pragmatic rather than theological: all the money being sent to Rome to build Papal palaces should stay in Germany to relieve the suffering of orphans, widows and paupers.  


Pope Leo excommunicated Luther, but many German nobles protested that Luther was asking good questions and they wanted to hear the answers. Pope Leo did not have good answers and he did not want to abandon a lucrative source of revenue.  Cities, states, and entire countries began to question Papal authority.


Luther began his career as a Catholic priest, faithful to the Pope.  Leo refused to answer Luther’s questions and excommunicated him.  Had Pope Leo taken Luther’s questions seriously, and realized how many Christians shared them, the Catholic Church may have engaged in a long-overdue process of reform rather than being torn asunder. Instead, Pope Leo attempted to silence Luther. It was a fatal miscalculation that divided Europe into two camps:  Reformers who opposed the Pope, and Loyalists who supported him.


Revolution was in the air.  In 1525, an army of 300,000 German peasants began to demand social reforms. They expected Luther to support their appeal to be freed from serfdom - the medieval system of slavery. Instead, Luther wrote a tract against the peasants: Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab them secretly or openly. Remember that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. This was an ironic position for a man who has become synonymous with rebellion against Papal authority. Luther, Pope Leo, and the Princes of Europe were all equally opposed to dangerous ideas about personal rights and freedoms. By the time the Rebellion was crushed, 100,000 peasants were dead.  Their crime was to demand a more equitable distribution of wealth and human dignity.    


The German Peasants’ War of 1525 was peripheral to the Protestant Reformation, and yet it helps us understand the stakes in this larger conflict and its outcome.  Martin Luther was a monk of the Augustinian order.  In the thousand years since his battles with Paganism, Augustine had come to be viewed as a relic of the Primitive Church.  His views about infant damnation were totally rejected.  His doctrine of Original Sin and his ideas about inherited depravity and predestination no longer dominated Christian theology. Most theologians had adopted positions closer to those of Augustine’s arch-enemy Pelagius, recognizing the importance of the human will and the need for personal collaboration with the Holy Spirit in matters of salvation and sanctification. The Church had become Semi-Pelagian.


When Luther launched his campaign for a dramatic reformation of Christian theology he made Saint Augustine his champion.  Luther admitted that 1,000 years of Christian theology and tradition were against his reformed Gospel of Wrath, with one or two exceptions. Luther was prepared to defy the entire Christian establishment as long as he had Augustine at his back.  My adversaries say that their system has been unanimously acclaimed for many centuries by a great array of learned men, expert Bible scholars, saints, martyrs, miracle workers, plus theologians, schools, councils, bishops and Popes. They say that on my side I stand alone except for the heretic Wycliffe.  They do not mention Augustine, who is entirely with me!


It is hard for us to imagine how bold it was for a relatively obscure priest to defy the entire Church establishment based on the authority of a long-dead Bishop whose writings had been questioned and discredited. Luther realized that Augustine’s struggle had been virtually identical to his own. The Pagan Roman Empire had possessed unlimited power to crush heresies. So did the Catholic Church.  Augustine arrived at a moment in history when a Christian Emperor was prepared to fight against Paganism. Augustine provided theological ammunition for a campaign of Mass Conversion:  Pagans might be able to kill their adversary’s bodies, but only the God of Wrath had the power to torment men’s souls for all eternity in Hell. It was a powerful argument which Luther wielded skillfully to rally German princes to rise up against the Pope.


Once Luther was forced to fight for his life, he proclaimed that all the presumed power of the Catholic Church was a fraud; that the Pope, priests and sacraments had no power over sin or salvation. All power existed in one place and one place only; God alone determined who was saved and who was damned.  The true revelation of God was found in the Bible alone, not in the false teachings and traditions of the (Pagan) Church of Rome. Luther arrived at a moment in history when the printing press could spread his seditious Gospel and German nobles were prepared to stand against the Pope. 


Luther was only superficially a revolutionary; at heart he was profoundly conservative.  Luther believed strongly in authority, and for Luther Supreme Authority rested in God alone. Some of that authority was delegated to Kings and the Church, none to individuals.  To understand Luther, we must understand how he interpreted Augustine. The cornerstone of the system is the doctrine of Original Sin.  Because of Adam’s rebellion, we are all born depraved – totally depraved– and condemned to eternal torment.  God alone elects a chosen few to salvation. No one can be saved by passionate preaching or the holy rites of the Church. No one can be saved by right thinking or good deeds.  The predestined elect are saved by God alone while predestined reprobates are condemned; these decrees have been fixed since the dawn of creation.


As a young man, Augustine had written about freewill as essential to salvation. As an old man he turned against freewill because his doctrine of Original Sin required every child to be born totally depraved. Luther formally eradicated every last trace of freewill.  In his book The Bondage of the Will, Luther wrote that the human race is not merely tainted with the Original Sin of Adam, but we are all born utterly corrupt, depraved and at war with God.  ‘God has no time for freewill heresies and practitioners of self-reformation. The elect will be reformed by the Holy Spirit, the rest shall perish unreformed. Note that Augustine says only some men’s work will be rewarded.  You ask: Who will believe that such a God loves them? I reply: Nobody! Nobody can! But the elect believe it and the rest shall perish without believing it, raging and blaspheming!’

The second important principal that Luther shared with Augustine was the belief that kingdoms have the right, and obligation, to impose a single state religion. To prevent a religious civil war, the Holy Roman Emperor proposed a treaty to ensure religious unity throughout the Empire. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) established the principle of cuius regio, eius religion (the ruler of the kingdom shall determine the religion of the kingdom) which allowed Holy Roman Empire's princes to select either Lutheranism or Catholicism within the domains they controlled. Subjects, citizens, or residents who did not wish to conform to the prince's choice were given a period in which they were free to migrate to a different region in which their desired religion was the prince’s choice. Lutheranism quite comfortably became the official state religion of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, as well as a number of north-eastern states of Germany. The Augsburg policy of religious freedom did not prevent the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and this political compromise would have outraged Augustine and Luther.  


Augustine had believed Paganism was a diabolical religion that must be fought with every available weapon until every last Pagan had at least superficially converted to Christianity. Luther advocated the use of violence to combat the diabolical Church of Rome just as he had called for extreme violence to crush the Peasants’ Rebellion. For Luther, the Pope had become the Vicar of Satan and everyone who remained loyal to the pope was an enemy of God.  Luther created a poisonous environment in which men were convinced they were doing God’s work by slitting their neighbours’ throats:  These three things I pray for the Church of Rome: pestilence, famine and war. This be my trinity.’


In response to the order for his arrest Luther wrote, ‘I was wrong, I admit it, when I said that Indulgences were ‘the pious defrauding the faithful.’  I recant and I say, ‘Indulgences are the most impious frauds of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the property of the faithful’. ... ‘Previously I said the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. I recant. Now I say the Pope is the adversary of Christ and the Vicar of the devil.’ Luther’s incendiary words rang out like a Protestant fatwa against the Pope and his Catholic henchmen.  


It is incomprehensible to many modern Christians that the Islamic world is plagued by violence that pits Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims. It seems incomprehensible that members of the same religion can slaughter one another; destroying entire cities, butchering civilians. We need only examine the Protestant Reformation which triggered the most violent bloodbath Europe had ever seen. Christianity, viewed from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, must have appeared to be an incomprehensibly barbaric religion. How many people were killed in the Thirty Years War? Millions. Christians butchering Christians, purely because they had embraced the wrong kind of Christianity. The British Westminster Confession (1646) states the pope is the antichrist, that the Roman mass is idolatry, that civil rulers have authority to punish heresy, and it forbids marriage with non-Christians.


Humanists of the Enlightenment looked upon warring Christians with the same horror with which the modern world regards blood-thirsty Islamic terrorists, and wanted to create a society safe from religious fanaticism.  The Protestant Gospel of Wrath turned multitudes of thoughtful, compassionate Christians into humanists.   


John Calvin


The other great leader of the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin (Jean Cauvin). Like Luther he was raised Catholic.  During his studies at the University of Paris, Calvin was attracted by the Protestant Reformation and converted. Calvin was 25 when he became a Protestant. Two years later he published a book that defined the Protestant Reformation - Institutes of the Christian Religion. How did such a young man, and one so new to Reformed thought, lay down the foundations of Protestant theology? Almost every page of the Institutes of the Christian Religion quotes Augustine.  This reformed religion was Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath on steroids.


Calvin was not an incendiary holy warrior like Luther. He was cold, calculating and dogmatic.  Calvin admitted that his revived Gospel of Wrath was dreadful. The foundation of his theology was pure Augustine:  All sin, suffering evil and death began in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve’s rebellion. The entire human race was condemned because of that Original Sin. However, Calvin removed the power of salvation from priests and restored the power to God Alone.  No one, under this new theology, could influence their salvation by their own works or deeds. God alone would decide who was saved, and there was no reason why one person should be saved and not another except that God had ordained that some should be elected for salvation while others should be left in their reprobation. It was a terrifying theology except for the elect few.


How can anyone be saved if priests can no longer provide salvation through baptism?  God alone decides who is saved.      

Who is Saved? The elect. 

What do you have to do to become one of the elect? Nothing.  Baptism is powerless to provide salvation. Good works are powerless to earn salvation.  God alone chooses who is saved.

What do you have to do to be chosen?  Nothing.  The elect were predestined before the creation of the world.


Those who rejected Reformed Christianity considered it a merciless, loveless, incomprehensible creed in which a Wrathful God took pleasure in tormenting suffering humans.  Augustine had understood that infant baptism was difficult to reconcile with freewill and personal responsibility. Luther and Calvin understood that their new theology required the complete and utter extermination of freewill so that God alone could reign gloriously supreme.


Luther:  More than half the Scriptures are promises of grace, by which God offers the elect mercy, life, peace and salvation.  But not a single word of mercy, promise, or comfort supports this blasphemy of freewill.


Calvin: The fall of Adam involved all nations and their infant children in eternal death without remedy. Why? Because God willed it! The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknow what the end of man was to be before He made him. God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity, but arranged it for His own pleasure


This Reformed Gospel of Wrath was remarkably simple – to be elected for salvation required less effort than baptism. And as an added bonus, if you were one of the elect you couldn’t lose your salvation, no matter what sins or crimes you committed. And as a final bonus, the minute you died you went straight to heaven – no pains of Purgatory - to enjoy eternal bliss. For the elect few, this was the most wonderful religion ever devised.


Most modern Calvinists and Lutherans have changed their views regarding freewill, and have returned to an Early Christian belief that salvation is a gift freely offered by God for the eminently sensible reason that to eliminate human freedom to choose salvation also eliminates God’s love, mercy and justice. What kind of cruel God would pretend to offer salvation to suffering humanity while denying it to multitudes?


Modern Lutherans - particularly those in Denmark, Sweden and Norway - have become staunch disciples of Anti-wrath.  Scandinavian countries set the standard for religious tolerance and liberal values. Many modern Calvinists, particularly Presbyterians, have also become conspicuously tolerant and liberal.   


Meanwhile, a new form of the Gospel of Wrath has emerged, merging hardcore Augustinians, Lutherans and Calvinists. Fundamentalist creationists are often dismissed as marginal crackpots. That is a serious mistake.  They believe themselves to be the true defenders of Christianity and they are engaged in a Holy War against everyone who opposes their theology and traditions. 


return to The Original Gospel of Wrath - Augustine


 or continue to 


4 – The Creationist Gospel of Wrath 


5  - The Gospel of Anti-wrath  


6  -  Rational Atheism 


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