Thursday, August 18, 2016

Fundagelical Newness of Life

When I go out of town I love to read the newspaper, particularly when I’m in a small, isolated, rural community. You get a feel for the local culture. For example, when I worked for the Desplaines Valley News in Summit, IL, it was completely natural to find novenas and other Roman Catholic prayers interspersed among the advertisements. Though it is now changing, the population of the area where the paper was widely circulated was Polish, Hispanic, and Irish…and Roman Catholic. Reading the Daily Corinthian, Corinth, Mississippi, caused some religious culture shock. The predominant religious culture in northeast Mississippi is what I call American Fundagelicalism[1]. It is as ubiquitous in that area as Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism was in the area where I grew up. Reading the paper one morning, I came across an ad for a Church of Christ which, in part, read:

Once a person has been baptized for the remission of sins, he is a “new creature.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Paul said to the saints at Rome that we have been “buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) Baptism of the penitent believer who has confessed Jesus as God’s Son puts one into a new relationship with God. Old sins are washed away (Acts 22:16), and he or she is able to live a new and different life in Christ. What a great thought: to know that we can leave the burden, the baggage, and the condemnation of sin at the cross, and start over (Carothers 2016).
One of the reasons I like being Lutheran is that it is the practice of our theologians to speak where the Bible speaks, and to remain silent where the Bible is silent. This is tough to do since we human beings want to explain everything, and expect that everything can be understood and explained to our satisfaction. Since confessional Lutherans, however, have the Bible alone as our rule and norm for determining doctrine[2], we are obliged to confess what scripture says. In fact, the word confession means, “to say the same as.” This is why confessional Lutherans subscribe to the Book of Concord; it says the same thing as Scripture.

This also gets us into trouble. It frustrates people to hear, “The Bible doesn’t go any farther than that,” or “Scripture is silent, so we can’t say.” Moreover, people become indignant when we make concrete assertions. When we confess, for example, that Baptism saves us[3], we are called arrogant for daring to say that we understand what Scripture says, thus condemning the interpretation of others.

Many in American Fundagelicalism believe that they are literal interpreters of Scripture when, in fact, they are not. I know many personally who believe that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days, but do not believe it is possible for God to be present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, even when a plain reading of the text leads us to that interpretation[4].

Likewise, this sermonette is a good example of how literalistic interpreters of scripture read a text and, far from taking the plain meaning of the entire passage in context, superimpose a logical human view of how the spiritual things described in the passage should work so that they make sense to our puny human minds.

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:1-14).
In Romans six Paul lays out how, through Baptism, we are made alive in Christ by being joined to his death and resurrection. Paul says, in verse four, that since we have been crucified with Christ and joined to him in this way, we are no longer alive to sin. Since we are now dead to sin and alive in Christ, we should, to quote Luther, “…by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation 1986). It is through our sorrow for our sins and our repentance that we resist and overcome evil desires. The thing is, repentance and faith are gifts given to us by Christ through the means of his word[5]. A person’s decision to accept Christ doesn’t put that person into a new relationship with God, as Rev. Carothers writes. Rather, God makes Christians when and where he wills, through the tools he has chosen – the means of Grace. Rev. Carothers treats the astounding thing that Paul tells us as a mere figure of speech – that our baptism unites us to Christ. The reason: to the human mind such a thing is inconceivable, so it can’t possibly mean what the plain reading in context says. Our connection to Christ, his death, and resurrection, isn’t simply a symbol in this passage, it is a spiritual fact accomplished by God’s work through our baptism; If it is not then “the likeness of His resurrection” to which we are also joined through Baptism must also be symbolic.

If you believe that Baptism is simply a symbolic act through which you demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment to Christ, then of course you wouldn’t think that it has the power to do anything. You would look at it as a human work which has no power to save. The real power, in that scenario, is in your decision to follow Christ (which is also a human work, though Fundagelicals can’t, for some reason, see this). My Fundagelical friends would disagree at this point and say that the power by which they are saved comes from their faith in Christ. Moreover, an infant, in comparison to an adult “penitent believer,” cannot believe because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to choose Christ, to believe with their heart and declare with their mouth[6]. They would be correct about the intellectual capacity thing, since the Bible says that men are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ. However, I would also point out that, without the working of the Holy Spirit, adults are just as incapable of faith as infants. Neither infant, nor adult can, by their own reason or strength, believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him. To be saved by God’s grace – his undeserved good favor – means that the decision belongs to him, not to us. Emphasizing the fact that scripture says all people are spiritually dead and inclined to turn away from God, and that we are unable, in our natural state, to understand spiritual things[7], St. Paul writes this in Ephesians:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Nowhere in Scripture is Baptism tied to a decision to believe. The disciples are not commanded to baptize penitent believers. Instead, they are commanded by Christ to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. Baptism is tied to teaching[8]; it is tied to salvation, forgiveness, and repentance; it is tied to receiving the Holy Spirit[9]. If Baptism is something man does to demonstrate his obedience to God, Baptism could claim none of this. If, however, the work of Baptism belongs to God and not to man, then what we have in Baptism is undeserved gift rather than ordinance.

Faith, St. Paul says, comes though hearing and hearing comes through the word of Christ[10]. In other words, the means through which the Holy Spirit creates faith in unregenerate people is the word[11]. The sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are ways God has given to his church to deliver that faith-creating word to people. A sacrament is nothing other than God’s word of promise connected by God to a physical element such as bread, wine, and water. An infant, for example, though considered to be innocent by the theology of much of American Fundagelicalism, is considered by God, according to Scripture, to be a lost and condemned creature that is, by nature, sinful and unclean[12]. This infant needs to receive God’s faith-creating word just as much as an unrepentant and unregenerate adult does. God has graciously given a way for that infant, who is unable to receive the preached word as an adult does, to come to faith and receive the Holy Spirit.

Those who can receive instruction are to be baptized after being instructed as the Ethiopian and the jailer were[13]. Little children, however, should be brought to baptism by those who have authority over them, just as little children under the old covenant were brought to circumcision by those who had authority over them. After all, Baptism, Paul writes, is the circumcision of Christ:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:11-15).
But we could argue about Baptism all day and not get anywhere. The real issue lies, again, with who is doing the work. To the author of this message, the Christian life is defined by the law and a person’s keeping of it. “Jesus requires us to live differently if we are to wear his name,” Rev. Carothers writes. Indeed. To understand the “living differently,”  however, as a precondition to entering Christianity, as this message suggests, is once again to put the emphasis in the wrong place. We don’t “live differently” in order to become Christians, to be admitted to Baptism, and be justified. We are saved by God’s unmerited favor through faith in Christ, who died on the cross as the propitiation for our sin and rose again from the dead.  Baptism unites us to Christ. Because we have been united to Christ, and his death and resurrection, through Baptism, “We too can and must daily overcome and bury [sin]” (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation 1986). This daily struggle to mortify sin in our lives is the natural reaction of the regenerate man – he wants to fight and kill the Old Man. It is certainly not the first step down a road of obedience, at the end of which waits for us a crown of life…if we did all that we were supposed to do.
















Works Cited


AndreƤ, Jakob, et. al. "Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: The Comprehensive Summary, Foundation, Rule and Norm." Book of Concord. 1580. http://www.bookofconcord.org/sd-ruleandnorm.php (accessed August 17, 2016).

Anonymous. "Fundagelical." Urban Dictionary. April 21, 2005. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fundagelical (accessed August 17, 2016).

Carothers, Rev. Tim. "Newness of Life." The Daily Corinthian, August 11, 2016.

Issues, Etc. Encore: Reaction to the Tim LaHaye Interview on the Rapture - Dr. Kim Riddlebarger. Podcast. Lutheran Public Radio. Collinsville, IL, August 10, 2016.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.




End Notes

[1] The secular world defines this contrived contraction of the words fundamentalist and evangelical as, “Someone who believes in a totalitarian world rule with an American Christo-theocratic party dictating legislation based on limited interpretation of scripture they consider applicable…James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Fred Phelps are leaders in the Fundagelical movement” (Anonymous 2005). This adversarial anti-Christian definition is not the sense in which I use this term. Rather, my definition of this term is based on the actual meanings of the terms fundamentalism (a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture) and evangelical (a member of the evangelical tradition in the Christian Church). I find this term useful for differentiating confessional Lutheranism from popular and main-line American Christianity, groups with which confessional Lutheranism could not be more at odds. The first time I heard this term was on The God Whisperers podcast; if you are offended, it’s their fault.

[2] Since for thorough, permanent unity in the Church it is, above all things, necessary that we have a comprehensive, unanimously approved summary and form wherein is brought together from God's Word the common doctrine, reduced to a brief compass, which the churches that are of the true Christian religion confess, just as the ancient Church always had for this use its fixed symbols; moreover, since this [comprehensive form of doctrine] should not be based on private writings, but on such books as have been composed, approved, and received in the name of the churches which pledge themselves to one doctrine and religion, we have declared to one another with heart and mouth that we will not make or receive a separate or new confession of our faith, but confess the public common writings which always and everywhere were held and used as such symbols or common confessions in all the churches of the Augsburg Confession before the dissensions arose among those who accept the Augsburg Confession, and as long as in all articles there was on all sides a unanimous adherence to [and maintenance and use of] the pure doctrine of the divine Word, as the sainted Dr. Luther explained it. 1. First [, then, we receive and embrace with our whole heart] the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged (AndreƤ 1580).

[3] 1 Peter 3:18-22

[4] Kim Riddlebarger, one of the hosts of “The White Horse Inn” radio program, uses the term “literalistic” rather than literal to describe how Fundagelicals interpret Scripture, interpreting things such as prophecy and poetry according to a strict literal reading, and symbolizing passages where human reason says they “must” be figurative, all the while disregarding the intended meaning of such passages in proper context (Issues, Etc. 2016).

[5] 2 Timothy 2:25

[6] Romans 10:9

[7] Romans 8:7

[8] Matthew 28:18-20

[9] Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Peter 3:21

[10] Romans 10:17

[11] 1 Corinthians 1:17-18

[12] Psalm 51:5; Psalm 58:3

[13] Acts 2:41; 8:26-39; 16:25-33

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Baptismal Regeneration: A False Gospel?

Caitlyn's Baptism - 2004
St. John's Ev. Luth. Church - Chicago, IL
I am consistently amazed at the visceral reaction of those who deny the efficacy of Baptism to any talk about how Baptism is efficacious. One person wrote a long response to my article, “Three Examples of How Lutherans DenyJustification by Faith Alone: A Response – Part One of Two,” decrying baptismal regeneration as a false gospel, and calling “water baptism” merely a symbol, commanded to be carried out on/by those who are believers. His comments are too long to reproduce here in their entirety (if you want to read them, simply go to the original article and scroll down to the bottom). I will, however, respond to two points the person made, as I think they get to the heart of the matter. Firstly, he writes:

“Water baptism is simply a remembrance. It is not the means of grace through which God provides salvation; that is simply ‘warmed over’ Roman Catholicism. The Bible asserts unambiguously that an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Trying to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel. Any ecclesiastical (church) procedure plays no part in justification.”
First, we have to deal with this term “water baptism.” To talk about “water” baptism is akin to talking about “food” eating. There is no baptism without water, as the Greek word “baptizo,” from which we get our word baptism, means to apply water either by immersing, dipping, pouring, or sprinkling[1]. Certainly we hear about things such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said that the one to come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire[2]. Understanding how language works, though, we know that when one applies a word like baptism (which means “to apply water”) to something which is not water, one understands from context that the speaker is using analogy. Continuing with our food/eating parallel, one might say, after reading an interesting book, “I devoured every word!” One would not mean that he engaged in any type of actual eating. Rather, he is saying that the book was interesting and he read it with enthusiasm. So, we must agree with Paul that there is only one baptism, and can dispense with the rather annoying and theologically loaded term “water baptism.”

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Second, I understand what this person thinks they are trying to say, but he misses the mark. Perhaps this is just me knit-picking, but the Bible does not assert that “an unregenerate sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.” I know this, because what this person is attempting to use in his argument, though he may not realize it, are the “solas” which came from Luther's theology and the Lutheran Reformation (you’re welcome, by the way). As I stated in the original article, Paul says we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ, and even this faith does not come from us. Back to Ephesians two, yet again:

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
So, how does that faith, which is God’s gift, get to us, since it isn’t by work, so that men are deprived of boasting? It comes through his means – His Word. And, when God couples his word of promise with a physical element…voila! You get a sacrament. When God couples water and his word of promise, you get Holy Baptism, which is the washing of regeneration.

For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by his grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).
So, you may say all day long that baptism is simply a remembrance and that it is not a means of grace. I challenge you to show me in Scripture where it says such a thing. You cannot. I, on the other hand, can, as countless orthodox Christian theologians have for 2,000 years, point to the words of St. Peter:

There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).
Emma's Baptism - 2006
Immanuel Ev. Luth. Church - Hodgkins, IL
Did you catch that? Peter says that baptism now saves us! And he clarifies, just so we don’t mistakenly think that he means the physical act of washing dirt away by itself. Baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What wonderful news! If the commenter wants to maintain that, “…to assert that water baptism plays any part in regeneration is simply a false gospel,” he may take that up with the Apostle Peter if he likes. I will cling to the plain reading of the words of Scripture in their context.

That context is the comparison Peter makes between baptism and the flood and Noah’s Ark. Eight people were saved in the ark, “through water,” Peter writes, and in the next sentence likens this salvation (the shadow) to the salvation given by God in baptism, through the resurrection of Jesus. Luther, in his Small Catechism, explains it this way:

How can water do such great things? Answer: It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost as St. Paul says, Titus, Chapter three…this is a trustworthy saying (Luther 2008).
In the end, it is a question of what you see baptism to be. Is it God’s act, or man’s? Is it something God does to you, or a work of obedience you offer to God? Scripture is clear that baptism is God’s work, done using the hands of a pastor, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to deliver His gifts to us. It all comes from outside of us.

This brings me to the second point of contention. If baptism is so important in regenerating people, why did Paul say he was not sent to baptize? The commenter writes:

“It is interesting that Christ did not send the apostle Paul, his chief evangelist, to baptize, isn’t it? Instead, he was sent to preach the gospel. That is where the power is…in the gospel, not water.”
My friend, you and I agree. The gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes[3]. As we have discussed previously, that is why baptism is able to work forgiveness of sins, deliver from death and the devil, and give eternal salvation to all who believe this: It is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s word! That Gospel, of which we are not ashamed, is the power working in baptism.

Yes, Paul did write that he was not sent to baptize. He was, as he says sent to preach the Gospel. Here is the entire passage in context:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
Paul did not baptize. He was sent to preach. Well, except for Crispus and Gaius…and also Stephanas’ household…and maybe some others he doesn’t recall…but he didn’t baptize! Paul is addressing the issue of sectarianism among the Corinthians and he is making the point that it’s good he didn’t personally baptize a bunch of people, otherwise these wretched Corinthians might say he was doing it to gain a following. Certainly Paul is not saying that his mission was only to preach separate and apart from baptism. Paul’s mission is the same as that of the other Apostles:

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:16-20).
So, the disciples are sent here by Jesus to baptize and teach, but not to preach? Right, that was going to be Paul’s job…how absurd. Jesus gave the same mission to all the Apostles. The baptizing, preaching, and teaching can’t be separated out and any one thing omitted, because it is all part of them delivering the means of grace – God’s Word – to unregenerate sinners so that God could, by the power of His Spirit, do his work of making these sinners into regenerate Christians, when and where he willed to do so.

God comes to we who are spiritually dead from outside of ourselves, by means. Jesus is delivered to us through the external word, whether by reading, preaching, or through the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit uses those means, as he wills, to create believers out of unbelievers or, as the confessions say, willing persons out of unwilling ones. This faith is more than intellectual assent and knowledge and comes to us without our work, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Repentance? Another gift worked in us by God the Holy Spirit, and not something done of our own will.

That’s really as far as I know how to take this, so I’ll end with the words of the Small Catechism (which are really the words of St. Paul, because in this passage, Luther ends by quoting Romans):

What does such baptizing with water signify? Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Where is this written? Answer: St. Paul says, Romans, chapter six: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as he was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Luther 2008).



Works Cited

Catholic Answers. "Baptism: Immersion Only?" Catholic Answers. August 14, 2004. http://www.catholic.com/tracts/baptism-immersion-only (accessed June 22, 2016).

Joersz, Dr. Jerald C. "Baptism: Dunking, Sprinkling, or Pouring?" The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: News and Information. October 5, 2010. https://blogs.lcms.org/2010/baptism-dunking-sprinkling-or-pouring-10-2010 (accessed June 22, 2016).

Luther, Dr. Martin. "The Small Catechism." The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. September 2008. http://www.bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#baptism (accessed June 22, 2016).







[1] According to Strong’s Concordance, baptizo means “submerge” or, literally, “dip under.” It is used in the New Testament, however, to also describe the washing of things which would have been impossible to immerse (such as dining couches), or were not normally washed by being fully submerged under water, (such as the hands of the Pharisees prior to eating). See Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38 (Catholic Answers 2004). One Greek dictionary widely used by translators today gives examples of acceptable ways to translate the term and then says: “such expressions do not necessarily imply the quantity of water, nor the particular means by which the water is applied.” In some churches in Luther’s day the pastor poured water from the baptismal font over the infant’s head. Others immersed an infant three times in the baptismal font. Luther expressed a personal preference for this latter practice because of its symbolic significance (Joersz 2010).  

[2] Matthew 3:11

[3] Romans 1:16

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Conversion and Repentance

The Good Shepherd, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
I was recently asked this most reasonable and logical question regarding our “decision” to become a Christian, in the comments section of a previous essay (In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments): Don’t we decide to accept the gift of salvation, or at least decide not to reject it? I’m compelled to respond because, for years, it was also my question. Well, sure, the thought goes, we don’t do the work of salvation – the dying on the cross, or works to atone for specific sins. It would surely follow, however, that if Jesus wants to give us a gift (forgiveness), we would have to decide either to accept or reject it.

The bottom line is this: Is there any part of my salvation that is left to me to do? I generally sum up this question by asking another – Who does the verbs? If there is something left for me to do to complete God’s saving work (synergism), then I must be sure to complete my  or I won’t be saved. If God does everything and leaves nothing to me (monergism), then God is the one responsible for my salvation from beginning to end. If that is the case, then I can have a solid assurance that it is finished and my salvation is secure (as secure as God’s promise, anyway). If, however, even the smallest part of my salvation is contingent upon something I must do, then in reality it is entirely dependent upon me and what I must do. Decision Theology, which portrays man’s decision to accept Christ as the work man does to complete God’s work of salvation, relegates Jesus to the role of a partner.

The Bible teaches that the work of salvation is monergistic, that is, it is God’s work from beginning to end. He converts us. He gives us repentance and faith. He keeps us in that faith. This is a hard pill to swallow for all people, but especially for the independent-minded American. Scripture, however, cannot be denied. What Luther wrote on a scrap of paper while lying on his death bed is surely true: Wir sind alle Bettler. Hoc est verum[1].

How does God complete this work? He doesn’t simply zap us with lightning bolts. He comes to us through means. Jesus is delivered to us through the external world, whether by reading, preaching, or the Sacraments, which are the word coupled with a physical element (bread, wine, water). The Holy Spirit then works faith in a person when and where He wills it. Repentance? This is also a gift given by God, and not something we do of our own will. This was the understanding St. Peter and those to whom he reported the conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 11 had:

“If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:17-18).
God converted those Gentiles through the word preached to them by Peter. God demonstrates this by granting them the gift of speaking in tongues, the same gift given to the Apostles. When Peter recounts all this to “those of the circumcision,” their conclusion is that God granted those Gentiles repentance. Or, said another way, God “repented” them.

Similarly, St. Paul also thought that repentance was a gift given to men, rather than a work to be performed:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Paul instructs Timothy in the way he, the Lord’s servant, must act when teaching and dealing with others, especially his opponents. He is to be patient and kind, correcting error with gentleness. To what end? That he may reason his opponents into the faith using carefully crafted and rhetorically complex arguments? That they would, through an act of their will, intellectually agree with and voluntarily accept his teaching? No. Timothy is to deliver the word, as Paul describes elsewhere, “in season and out of season[2],” and God, the actor in terms of salvation, may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. The Book of Concord (FCSD II 89), quoting Luther sums all this up nicely:

Luther says about conversion that a person is purely passive. This means a person does nothing at all toward conversion, but only undergoes what God works in him. Luther does not mean that conversion takes place without the preaching or hearing of God’s Word. Nor does he mean that in conversion no new emotion whatever is awakened in us by the Holy Spirit and no spiritual operation begun. But he means that a person by himself, or from his natural powers cannot do anything or help toward his conversion. Conversion is not only in part, but totally an act, gift, present, and work of the Holy Spirit alone. He accomplishes and does it by his power and might, through the Word, in a person’s intellect, will, and heart, “while the person does or works nothing, but only undergoes it.” It is not like a figure cut into stone, or a seal pressed into wax, which knows nothing about it, which neither sees him nor wills it. Rather it happens the way that has just been described and explained (McCain, et al. 2005).
Consider the example of the shepherd which Jesus uses in his Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. The shepherd and his interaction with his sheep can offer us insight into man’s role in his own conversion and repentance.

So He spoke this parable to them [Pharisees] saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons [upright persons] who need no repentance” (Luke 15:3-7).
Jesus, in the parable, describes repentance as being found by the Good Shepherd and carried back to the sheep-fold by him. The sheep can take no action on his own, he is lost. He can only “be found” and rescued by the shepherd. Dr. Ken Bailey, author of “Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15,” explained in an Issues ETC interview that Jesus here means to impure the “Shepherds of Israel” for losing their sheep (Bailey 2015). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had to come and do what they would not. He finds the sheep and carries it back on his shoulders. He “repents” it. This idea is not novel but, suggests Dr. Bailey; it is shown to us also in Psalm 23:

The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:1-3).
This most famous and beloved of the Psalms describes the interaction of the Good Shepherd and his sheep. Again, God is doing the verbs – He makes me lie down; He leads me; He restores. The key word in this passage, however, is “restores.” I always got the image of a person weakened by hunger or thirst, who was restored to vigor again after being fed or given drink, when I read this in the past. Dr. Bailey, however, points out that the word translated “restore” is the Hebrew word Shuwb (pronounced “Shoob”) which means “to turn back,” or repent (Bailey 2015). He (God) repents, or turns back, my soul.

I disagree with Dr. Bailey’s choice of working when, at one point in the interview responding to a similar question to the topic of this essay, he says, “You make a decision to accept to be found” (Bailey 2015). We Lutherans don’t like the word “accept” because it smells of decision theology. The problem is that we are limited to nouns and verbs when attempting to express these ideas using language. On this side of eternity, we will not ever express it adequately.

Decision theology, as stated before, views man’s decision to accept Christ, to give him your heart, to make him lord of your life etc., as the completion of God’s salvation work. God’s work of salvation, to the contrary, is already finished. Or, in terms of the parable, the sheep is helpless to return to the fold of his own accord and the Shepherd retrieves him. The sheep “accepts” the rescue performed by the Shepherd. This act of acceptance, which is really not an act, but rather the sheep’s passive acceptance of an action done to it, does not complete the Shepherd’s rescue. Every part of conversion and repentance is effected upon us by God of his grace, through means of the external word, done by the power of the Holy Spirit.









Works Cited

Bailey, Dr. Ken, interview by Rev. Todd Wilken. Jesus, the Good Shepherd (May 7, 2015).

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.





[1] When Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546, a scrap of paper was found in his pocket with his
final seven words, a mix of Latin and German. Wir sind alle Bettler. Hoc est verum —“We are
all beggars. This is true.”

[2] 2 Timothy 4:2

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ministering in Corinth: Thursday after Trinity 2

And he [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled byt he Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles"...Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. But Gallio took no notice of these things...Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the bretheren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 18:4-6, 17, 24-28).

To read the entire passage, please click HERE.

Everywhere Paul goes, he preaches Christ. This is in keeping with his calling as an Apostle of Christ. This is what he has been called to do. All through the book of Acts Luke writes that, whenever he entered a town, Paul went to the Synagogue and reasoned with the people there on the Sabbath. Paul’s efforts were successful, not because he was a good lecturer, but because he was delivering to the people the Gospel, which is a means of grace. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross and took the punishment for your sins in your place and, because of what he did, you are reconciled to God. Elsewhere Paul writes to the Romans, “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” So, faith, rather than being something which you decide to do, is a gift given to you. Faith is kindled in you by the working of the Holy Spirit. The means He uses to kindle that faith, establish it, and make it grow, is the preaching of God’s Word.

Not everyone to whom Paul preached, however, welcomed his preaching. Not everyone was converted. Many of the people in many of the synagogues argued and fought with Paul. They sometimes threw him out of the town, beat him, tried to have him arrested and thrown into prison, and tried to kill him. They did all this because Paul explained to them from the Scriptures that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and that Jesus was the Christ. These evil things happened to Paul, they happened to people who listened to Paul and were converted, like Sosthenes, and they may happen to us as well.

Why did they react this way? Why were they not converted by the Holy Spirit? We are not told this in Holy Scripture, so we cannot guess. We know from Scripture that God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Jesus tells us this constantly. We also know from Scripture that not everyone will believe. This is a contradiction that we can’t figure out because Scripture doesn’t explain it any further. Where the Scriptures speak, we speak. Where the Scriptures are silent, we must remain silent. It is our part, as Christians, to repent of our sins and to thank God for the gift of faith he has given us. And, as Paul, Sosthenes, Pricilla, and Aquila did, we are to minister to those around us, in accordance with the vocation into which God has called us, trusting in God to bring the increase in accordance with His will.