The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Primary source for Martin Luther's postmortem quote?

Please can someone help me out? When I Google this great quote, I only get UR sites. However, I want to check the primary source, just to make sure we are not misquoting…

I heard (maybe it was a blog that was linked from a thread here) that it’s been taken slightly out of context and that Luther wasn’t so sure. But that of course still doesn’t take away from the point.

It was in his work on Galatians, I think? You can find that on Gutenberg.

EDIT: No, I think it was in a letter, don’t remember who to.

This is the blog I read on it before: … in-luther/

Some more interesting material (that I haven’t fully read through yet): … ther-pt-2/

This is a REALLY good analysis of his letter: … alist.html

Looks like it would be better translated as

Which isn’t as clear :frowning:

Um… surely you (or your source) meant “better paraphrased or interpreted”, Alex?

The morphology of the two quotes are almost entirely dis-similar. I took two years of German in college, and while I’m far from an expert I have serious trouble imagining that the German grammar could be read so incredibly different.

To give perhaps the most important example, the first ‘quote’ uses first person while the second ‘quote’ is a generalized non-personal statement. Which means that even (if perhaps only) on the face of it, the first ‘quote’ looks more like a quote and the second more like a paraphrase, comparing between them. (And a verrrrry loose and perhaps overly convenient paraphrase at that.)

On Derek Flood’s blog there is a complete contents list for all Luther’s writings.

I searched for the reference and found this:-

Volume 43: Devotional Writings II

* Personal prayer book (WA 10.II, (339) 375-406)
* A letter to Hans von Rechenberg (WA 10.II, 322-326)
* A letter of consolation to all who suffer persecution (WA 10.II, 53-60)

From what I remember the letter shows Luther speculating with a pastor’s heart in a personal exchange. I don’t think we can honestly claim him as a universalist. In the chapter where Rob Bell quoted from the letter I think he was being a bit cute/sly in implying Luther is part of a universalist stream in theological history - along with Augustine! :laughing:

IMO at best Luther was like maybe most of his ex-Catholic friends hopeful universalist in secret and pushed the party line in public…

To be fair, post-mortem salvation isn’t the same thing as universalism (though it’s a component one way or the other.)

"]… Since it is not that easy to find a good English translation of Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenberg, which contains the quote mentioned above, I have been asked to have a look at it in its original language to confirm if this is really a true statement of the German Reformer. …

One also needs to understand that even though German is my first language, that the letter is very old and written in a no longer common German dialect. Since Luther was the first one that began to develop and reform the German language, it’s obvious that the way he wrote is quite different from how the German’s would use words in writing these days. This makes it very difficult of course, for anyone who, not speaking the German tongue, to translate the mentioned phrase, let alone the whole letter, into English.

At first it was quite difficult to determine which part of the letter contains the controversial quote, as I couldn’t find anything in the German original that looked remotely like the phrase that believers in Universal Salvation so often quoted as evidence that even Martin Luther was secretly inclined to it.

After a while it became clear that those who claim the statement to be a overly exaggerated translation are actually right. The sentence from which the mentioned quote derived is better translated

… Seeing also that the very often quoted verse is very difficult to translate into English, however, I don’t think that the overly exaggerated phrase was translated intentionally in such a way to mislead people. Those of us who have come to see the Restitution of all things, however, need to be careful concerning the evidence that is brought forth for this wonderful truth, lest our hope loses credibility in the eyes of the Body of Christ and the world at large.

"]… Luther is also surprisingly very much aware that the belief of Universal Restoration was quite common in the Early Church and he seemingly counts Origen, a major proponent of the doctrine in the 2nd Century among the most renowned people of his days. He then continues to try to refute some of the scriptural arguments brought forth in his own day by those who held to this view, without really rejecting the idea altogether. In fact, he even writes in the very beginning of the letter

By this however he seems to speak about certain groups in his locality not about himself, having been an admirer of the already mentioned Anabaptists in his earlier years. (Later on he would turn against, and even violently and brutally persecute them as heretics.)

Thanks revdrew61for that link, now I just have to find A letter to “Hans von Rechenberg (WA 10.II, 322-326)”, however, that might be tricky

"]This complete table of contents lists all the works in the 55 volumes of the American edition of Luther’s Works with cross references to their sources in the Weimar Edition (WA).** To my knowledge it is not available any where in print, certainly not in digital (i.e. searchable) form.**

Doesn’t seem to be on … &query=155
Only as hardcover on Amazon … … y_b_text_b

However… combining … rch_anchor

"]It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does this.It’s interesting that it’s identical to Florian Berndt’s translation above :confused:

Hi folks,

Alex wrote to me about my Luther Table of Contents, and since I have access to the original German of Luther’s Works, I thought I would clear this up. The original German from the Weimar Ausgabe reads:

This is Alt Deutsch (“old German”) so in contemporary German (“Hochdeutsch”) this would be:

I would translate this as:

My above translation is quite close to the American translation of Luther’s Works:

Note that Rob Bell, when he quotes this is using this LW translation as well “who would doubt God’s ability to do that” (Love Wins, p. 106).

As noted, this is all very different from the translation cited in many universalist texts:
“God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.”

There is really no way to get this from the above German text. So the only thing I can conclude is that this translation is based on another source. All of the books that quote this are quite old, or are quoting from these older books. So it is conceivable that they are working from another version of the letter that predated the Weimar Ausgabe’s version (which began being compiled in 1883). Since these older works (usually from the 1930s) do not cite their source material very accurately, it is really hard to determine just what those sources were. So this is all just an educated guess. At any rate, the German Weimar Ausgabe and corresponding American Luther’s Works translation into English is much more reliable.

The real issue is taking Luther in the broader context of this letter, rather than basing a view on an isolated (and questionably translated) sentence. In his letter to Hans von Rechenberg, Luther is (as always) concerned with the question whether one can be saved apart from faith. Will God “just save everyone” regardless of their repentance? Luther’s first concern in the letter is that people not lose faith, thinking that God is unfair or cruel. He counsels that this is an issue for those who have developed a deep trust in God. Next, he argues that God cannot save people apart from faith. I think in this Luther reflects the sentiment of many evangelical universalists who believe that there is real brokenness in us that God really does need to heal, and that a belief that all will ultimately be saved does not mean that God will simply “look the other way” but that (as Rob Bell says) that love will win us all over, changing and healing everyone. That is something that we need to respond to. So when love “wins” this means God’s love “wins us over” and we surrender in trust to the Lordship of Jesus and his way of grace and enemy love. Thus Luther writes

Meaning that salvation needs to involve a real transforamtion in us that includes our willing participation of trusting in God and aligning hearts and lives with God’s way of love.

Luther insists that salvation needs to involve our faith/trust, but allows that God could still save us in this way after we die. He writes

Here I think the stress is on how we still need to preach the gospel, that we still need to actively work to transform people’s hearts towards Jesus, and heal our world.

So Luther does leave the possibility open (just a small crack in the door) to God saving us even after death, but also stresses that we not fall into many of the errors that are common here: on the one hand those with a immature or wounded faith rejecting God as cruel, and on the other those who think that believing in love means thinking that there is no problem with us and our world and thus not working to heal it.


Fantastic, Derek. I thoroughly enjoyed reading that analysis, thank you! :smiley: Do you think you could give the wider immediate context to that original quote in question (a few sentences before and after)?

Also, would you consider sticking around? I think we’d all like to hear more of your thoughts. That was a great first post. :mrgreen:


Sure, here’s the fuller context:

Awesome to see you here helping out, Derek! (He and I have crossed paths a few times over the years, mainly at Victor’s DangIdea journal if I recall correctly.)

Also, mindboggling forum nickname. :mrgreen:

I absolutely second the invitation for you to hang around a while and contribute, pro or con!

Thanks for the warm welcome Jason and Justin! :smiley:

Jason, I don’t think I had seen the “Dangerous Idea” blog before. I have a hunch that you are thinking of Darek Barefoot, who I see you conversed with there. I’m Derek Flood. You might know me from an article I wrote on Christus Victor. As I recall, we conversed a bit on Christian Cadre over some posts JD Walters had written about my stuff.

Thanks heaps Derek, that clears the matter up for me :slight_smile:

Yep, that’s probably it; I happened to run across that discussion just this morning when doing a bit of administration cleanup on the site. (A spambot weirdly posted to that article, and I was the first admin to notice so I was deleting the bot’s “comment”! Providence is freaky sometimes. :wink: ) And DarekB is a long-time Victor contributor whom I’ve appreciated a lot (since even before there were weblogs!). I’m sure I conflated you two by accident.

wow seems like much to do about nothing. whether we accept

“God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.”


It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. ***Who would doubt God’s ability to do tha***t? No one, however, can prove that He does do this.

in ***neither *** case does Luther advocate universalism and in neither case does he advocate post mortem salvation. What he does, however, do, in both cases, is assert that post-mortem salvation is POSSIBLE and that (by implication) the scriptures nowhere deny this teaching.

The major difference , as i see it, is that in the second quote he asserts that it CANNOT be PROVEN or DISPROVEN from scripture. In other words, by implication he seems to be saying that post-mortem salvation is not addressed in the Bible at all one way or the other.

Of course, as an evangelical universalist, I would strongly disagree. Natch!

i see a flaw in his reasoning there…it implies faith comes first, and then the salvation. but i think Jesus says unless He calls us, we won’t come…


also, St Paul’s experience was one of being “forceably” saved, on the road to Damascus…faith came after!

but it is interesting how many Christians have secretly or publicly hinted at a post mortem salvation, or a kind of purgatorial experience of hell which doesn’t necessarily last forever. this is especially interesting for Luther, as one of his turning points was the blasphemy of indulgence selling, to save you from Purgatory.

What a fascinating thread – I think Pog could put Luther down as a disputed wide hoper then?

I think I can say what the original secondary source is, if not the primacy source.

According to D.P. Walker this contention about Luther is made by the Lutheran Pietist Universalist Johann Wilhelm Petersen (1649-, 1727). I’d hazard a guess that it is the original source too: Petersen went to great pains to try and justify his Universalism in terms of his Lutheranism for obvious reasons – he was pastor to a Church in Hanover for a time but was eventually ejected.

Walker – who can be trusted for objective and carful scholarship - has the following to say:

**He [Petersen] makes great efforts to bring Luther into his camp, and is at least able to show that [the early?] Luther believed in the possibility of gaining faith after death (Walker ‘Decline of Hell p.237) **I’d love to follow this up – but I cannot read German. Walker gives the following references to Pertersen’s work regarding his contention about Luther:

T.I, Ewiges Evang., pp. 25-32, Gesprach II, p.24, T.II, Vorrede, pp. (18-20), (26). Cf. supra, p.60…