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. (accessed June 22, 2016).

Joersz, Dr. Jerald C. "Baptism: Dunking, Sprinkling, or Pouring?" The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: News and Information. October 5, 2010. (accessed June 22, 2016).

Luther, Dr. Martin. "The Small Catechism." The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. September 2008. (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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trinity Sunday and the Athanasian Creed

By Rev. Joel A. Brondos

This past Sunday, Trinity Sunday, our congregation made its annual pilgrimage to the Athanasian Creed. Sure, there was an explanatory paragraph in the bulletin. That paragraph was not only intended to be informational, but to buck up the congregants for plunging into the thing with gusto.

Modern Christians (both clergy or laypeople) seem to need the reminder that the size of that ecumenical creed is commensurate to the size of its historic significance. And yet, the reading in unison of this confession no doubt left many members with the painful thought that on some occasions, the spirit might be as unwilling as the flesh is weak. And that is precisely the point.

On these Trinity Sundays, the credal behemoth is juxtaposed with the appointed Gospel reading for the day: the account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night in John 3. How appropriate. From the lectern the people hear “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” From the nave they then respond with “it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Whether Nicodemus and Jesus or Athanasius vs. Arius, it’s all about flesh and spirit: Was Jesus God incarnate, true man and true God, the Word made flesh? Are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve nothing more than the dust of the ground? Can flesh be reborn of the Spirit?

Before continuing, a brief aside: the word “flesh” is used in at least two ways throughout the Scriptures. In some instances, “flesh” means skin and bones, body and blood. In other passages, it refers to the sinful nature. While the Scriptures describe a constant war between flesh and spirit, still, the one cannot ultimately be divorced from the other.

Without this crucial distinction, some have been led to imagine that God is to be blamed for creating sinful flesh and blood, while others have opted for mystical asceticism, trying to divorce their pure spirits from sinful physiques.

It would be a worthwhile investigation to track how flesh and blood became so closely identified with the sinful nature (or to ponder whether body and soul can be equated with flesh and spirit . . . but while you are catching me in flagrante delictu exceeding the 500 word limit for this article, I admit that, even without a license for prolixity to match the 660+ word quantity of the Athanasian Creed, I cannot even begin to approximate its quality.)

All this is especially significant for those who claim to be spiritual, but not religious -- by which they mean that their carcasses will never be found taking up any space and time located physically in a church pew. They never seem to take the time to contemplate and embrace the grace and gravity of the incarnation. Spirits are neither crucified nor baptized. Spirits seem quite impervious to thorns and nails. While it may flow quickly off a duck’s back, water doesn’t even do that much to spirits.

The wondrous and marvelous thing, however, is the coming together of flesh and spirit in Jesus Christ. In Him, the God who is spirit (who must be worshiped in spirit in truth, John 4:24) becomes the incarnate, body-and-blood Word made flesh for our forgiveness, life, and salvation in body and soul. In Christ the Spirit of truth comes to the sinful nature. All this happens where Christ gathers the bodies and souls of His people around Word and Sacrament, incarnational means of grace: water, Word, and Spirit; body and blood joined to bread and wine by word and Spirit. In the Divine Service, religion is never divorced from spirituality.

And so, the Nicodemus who learned by night about being born again by water and Spirit was one who came to remove the body of Jesus from the cross (John 19:39). This grisly act was no spiritual reverie, but one which has Nicodemus with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven joining with us in the confession of the Athanasian Creed, not as tedium but as Te Deum.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments

April 24, 2016

By Joseph D. Klotz

When you publish your writings on the internet, you must be prepared to be criticized. I mean, it’s not like anyone asked me to do this, I just enjoy it. Writing is also a good way for me to work through questions and ideas. If others can benefit from my mental exercises, so much the better. The internet can, however, be a brutal place. Thankfully, as a hateful jerk, my interactions with others in my personal life have more than prepared me to weather, and also to defend myself against, people with whom I don’t agree. This approach to life, while satisfying in the individual moments, generally tends to feed into the whole “hateful jerk” paradigm and causes one’s total life experience to be, over the long term, rather disagreeable. The police academy, however, taught me a valuable life lesson. I try to live according to it every day since I learned it, and apply the principle in every situation. Doing so has proved to smooth things out, so to speak, and by a great deal. I pass that lesson along to you all now: If it feels good, don’t say it.

I mention this here because internet comments make it not so easy to keep the proverbial mouth shut. On the advice of a friend, I have generally made it a practice to simply ignore comments on my writing. This practice has made life a lot more enjoyable. Ignorance is, after all, bliss. Once in a while, however, there comes along a comment which simply must be addressed because, to let it go without response might give the wrong impression to other readers, and perhaps lead them to think that I have no appropriate rebuttal. It’s like when the guy on the traffic stop refuses to give you his driver’s license because he read online someplace that he didn’t have to (FYI - in Illinois it is a class A misdemeanor to refuse to hand over your license to a police officer on a traffic stop), and now he is going to show you that he knows his rights. A traffic cop can’t let this go. There is an appropriate response to the driver’s erroneous assertion. He needs to be educated so that he won’t cause himself further trouble and embarrassment in the future. And, this is one of the few times where we’re allowed to say the thing that makes the other person angry but feels so good.

I recently received the following comment on my article, “Why I Quit the Gideons.” After reading it, I knew that I had to open my mouth. I’ll present the entire comment to be digested, and then address it in smaller pieces:

It's the heart that matters. The bible [sic] may not mention anything about asking Jesus into your heart but so what. Do you really think that Jesus cares if we do? I'm sure He does care and probably with a smile on His face. As His children we should never be afraid to ask. Many of us don't receive because we don't ask. So why make such a big religious issue out of it. It's these silly arguments that divide us and that prevent many from coming to Christ. Why don't we celebrate and discuss the things we do agree on. For all the other things, let's simply ask for God's wisdom and agree to disagree if necessary.

I certainly think that we Christians should celebrate the issues on which we agree. I don’t advocate fruitless arguments. And, of course, God instructs us in the book of James to pray for wisdom and promises that he will answer our prayer[1].

The general message seems to be 1) so what if people want to believe that they are asking Jesus into their heart? and 2) lets all just get along. If I am getting this wrong, Hans Bischof, I apologize. It is not my intention to create a straw man to tear down. This is how I understand your comment. If I am mistaken, I apologize.

Holy Scripture teaches that we take no part in our conversion and salvation. We are dead in trespasses and sins. I won’t dwell on this too much here; if anyone is interested in reading more about our spiritual state, let him go to the original article. Sufficient for our discussion here are these three passages of St. Paul:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedienceamong whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christby grace you have been savedand raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in themThe natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (Ephesians 2:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:4-6).

That being said, no, it’s not all about the heart, if we are talking about a person’s salvation, unless you mean that the heart is the problem. Scripture is clear about the state of a person’s heart. It says a man’s heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick[2]. Consequently, our heart (that is, our will) is the thing which needs to be converted, and would not turn to Jesus on its own. We also can’t submit our will “give our heart” to Jesus. Why, to paraphrase Bo Giertz[3], would he want such a wretched thing in the first place? The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, describes it this way:

This is certainly true: in genuine conversion a change, new emotion, and movement in the intellect, will, and heart must take place. The heart must perceive sin, dread God’s wrath, turn from sin, and see and accept the promise of grace in Christ, have good spiritual thoughts, have a Christian purpose and diligence, and fight against the flesh. Where none of these happen or are present, there is no true conversion. But the question is about the effective cause. Who works this in us? How does a person have this? How does he get it? Therefore, this teaching informs us that, since the natural powers of mankind cannot do anything or help toward it, God out of His infinite goodness and mercy, comes first to us. He causes His Holy Gospel to be preached. The Holy Spirit desires to work and accomplish this conversion and renewal in us. Through preaching and meditation on His Word God kindles faith and other godly virtues in us. They are the Holy Spirit’s gifts and works alone (FC SD II 70-71).

So, in conversion, God makes willing people out of unwilling people, by the power, working, and drawing of the Holy Spirit, by means of His word. We play no part until after conversion. After such conversion, in the daily exercise of repentance, a person’s regenerate will is not idle, but also cooperates in all the Holy Sprit’s works that He does through us[4] (McCain, et al. 2005).

As for the statement, “The bible [sic] may not mention anything about asking Jesus into your heart but so what?” I say, that is the whole point. Not only does the Bible not mention that we should ask Jesus into our heart, it teaches that we are incapable of doing so. How can we, who call ourselves Christians, be so flippant as to dismiss Holy Scripture in this matter? Such cavalier treatment of God’s Word is a sin for which we must repent.

As I wrote in the original Gideons article, the problem with the idea of decision theology is that it puts the decision in man’s hands rather than God’s. It gives people the false idea that their own work of making that decision is what saved them, rather than Christ’s holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. To call rebutting this false teaching with what the Scripture teaches about how God has saved us through the person and work of Jesus Christ a “silly argument” that divides and hinders people from coming to Christ is simply untrue. We are not supposed to simply agree to disagree and have some kind of false unity. Christians in general and pastors specifically are to teach sound doctrine and to rebuke false teachers. St. Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to do this in his letters to them. In fact, St. Paul says that the man who teaches contrary to sound doctrine is the one who is guilty of being “puffed up” and craving controversy, not the one who answers him:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naiveIf anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gainHe [the pastor] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Romans 16:17-18; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 1:9).

The fundamental misunderstanding betrayed by this position is one of who, in God’s saving work, does the verbs. If mankind is the actor in conversion, by doing the work of making a decision, or anything else, then salvation depends on man. If this is the case, a man must be convinced, and in many cases manipulated, to commit an act of will and declare himself for Christ. I understand how we can be seduced to believe such a thing. It seems logical. As logical and reasonable as this may seem, however, Scripture says otherwise. To maintain this Pelagianism is to take Christ’s work away from him.

If, however, God is the one who does the verbs who chooses, who converts, who saves, who declares righteous we can have tremendous comfort. We should marvel at how God deals with us. As I wrote in a previous article, not only has he redeemed us by His grace, through faith alone in Christ, He has given us his external word, by which we can be certain of God’s promises of forgiveness and eternal life, even when we feel the weight of our sin, and do not feel “saved.” That can sustain and comfort us when our bosoms cease to burn, our inner illumination goes dim, and we remember what kind of rotten sinners we are, undeserving of God’s favor. In those times we can look to God’s external word; whether in Scriptures, in the preaching of a faithful pastor, or in the Lord’s Supper or remembrance of our Baptism, and have assurance that though we are sinners, God has forgiven us for Christ’s sake, and is faithful[5].

Works Cited 

Giertz, Bo. The Hammer of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005.

Klotz, Joseph D. "The External Word." The Hodgkins Lutheran. December 4, 2014. (accessed April 24, 2016).

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.

End Notes

[1] James 1:5
[2] Jeremiah 17:9
[3] Giertz, Bo. The Hammer of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005. See pages 122-123 for the exchange between Fridfeldt and his superior regarding “giving your heart to Jesus.” The passage can be found online here:
[4] FC SD II 88
[5] Klotz, Joseph D. “The External Word.” The Hodgkins Lutheran. December 4, 2014.