Sunday, January 26, 2014

Born Slaves: Thoughts About Conversion and Free Will

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life...My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 3:16; 10:27-28).

Human beings are arrogant and self-centered. I know that might come to you as a shock, but it is true. Even followers of Jesus, people who have been turned to repentance from their sin and given faith by the Holy Spirit, must battle with their inclination to sin every hour of every day. St. Paul explains this to the Romans in chapter seven of his letter to them. We do not do the good we want to do, but the evil we no longer want to do (because we are a new creation in Christ), that is what we persist in (because of our human nature, utterly corrupted by sin)[1].

This concept is never far from my mind, as I am no exception to St. Paul’s rule and also continually struggle with sin. The arrogance of humanity was amplified to me, however, as I read Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case For a Creator”. The book is a wonderful and invaluable resource for Christians who want to do as St. Peter writes and always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is within them[2]. Strobel's books are incredibly detailed in exploring all the arguments which show why faith in God is not merely a refuge for the simple minded, but a reasonable proposition for all people. It has been a fantastic resource for more than one person struggling with doubts and difficult questions about God, as Strobel’s other works have been.

I want to be clear: I admire Lee Strobel, and am a fan of his work. This is not intended to attack him or to demean his writings. Reading his book simply churned this issue up in my mind.

That being said, I got a strange dissonant sort of feeling listening to the book in the car the other night. At one point in the book, as in his other works, Strobel recounts how a non-Christian was evangelized by a believer, how that non-Christian rationally investigated all of the evidence for the faith (again, of which there is quite a bit), had some kind of emotional experience having to do with Jesus, and decided to accept Jesus into their heart as their personal savior.

Living in the Midwest, one would assume that I would be used to this, the standard American Evangelical script for “witnessing” to a non-Christian. I am but, being a Confessional Lutheran, this language of decision causes cognitive dissonance in my brain every time I hear it.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure...So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant[e] 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 (Philippians 2:12-13; 2 Timothy 2:22-26).

Let’s forget for a minute that God is the one who grants repentance and faith in Christ since we wretched creatures, corrupted from our very conception, are dead in trespass and sin[3]. Let’s forget for a minute that, left on our own, our inclination would be to flee from God, since the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth[4]. The idea that one could choose Jesus and decide to believe in him after all the Bible has to say about God’s grace and man’s depravity is just plain self-centered on its face. The so-called “decision for Christ” takes God’s act and makes it man’s.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Christians should not use their reason and senses when proclaiming God’s word to those who do not know him. I’m not saying that Christians should abandon apologetic arguments as a delivery mechanism for law and gospel. I am saying that we must recognize that if a person is to be converted it will be done by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the means of the word, and not by how craftily we can turn a phrase, or how hard we can make them cry. We cannot reason, or emotionally manipulate, people into the faith.

I know that we all like to think that we have free will, but we don’t, at least prior to our conversion. Before our conversion our will is bound to sin. We can decide to accept Jesus as our personal lord and savior about as much as a corpse can “decide” to come back to life. When St. Paul writes to the Ephesians that we are dead in our trespasses that is precisely what he means. Regarding the will, the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, section II, line 67 (FC SD II 67), says this:

There is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized people. According to the teaching of St. Paul in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized in to Christ have put on Christ,” and are made truly regenerate. They now have a freed will. As Christ says, they have been made free again (John 8:36). Therefore, they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to agree with it and accept it, although in great weakness (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Prior to baptism our will is bound and we are incapable of coming to and believing in God. After baptism (or hearing the preaching of the Gospel, or reading God's word etc), God will have converted us by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus freeing our will to either: 1) continue along with God, cooperating with him, by his power, or 2) resist his conversion and sanctification efforts, thus grieving the Holy Spirit (allowing God’s grace to be bestowed on us in vain, so to speak), leading to an eventual withdrawal by the Holy Spirit, who then gives us over to our depravity and hardens our heart. The point is, God must first convert the unregenerate and give them understanding before they can cooperate with him, otherwise their will is bound to sin.

Let's apply this idea to the Ethiopian eunuch[5]. He was in his chariot reading the scriptures. Prior to his coming into contact with God’s Word, his will was bound and he was, as are all unregenerate men, hostile to God, and blind and dead in all matters spiritual. He unrolls the scroll and begins to read God’s Word, which is the means of grace. As he reads the Holy Spirit uses the means of grace to convert him – to free his will. At this point, after God has through his means drawn the eunuch to himself, the eunuch is now able, because of his freed will, to admire and love, rather than to despise, God’s Word and continue to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit’s power. This is, in fact, what seems to happen when Phillip comes by and preaches to the eunuch, who then desires to be baptized.

Let’s take the same scenario as above; The eunuch unrolls and reads the scroll of God’s word as before. As he reads the Holy Spirit uses the means of grace to convert him and free his will. This time though, rather than submitting to the Holy Spirit working in him, he gives in to the frustration he feels at not understanding the things he is reading and calls it all a bunch of confusing nonsense. When Phillip comes by, he engages him in conversation just as before and Phillip preaches to him. This time, however, rather than listening to the Word preached, the eunuch despises it and attempts to figure out by his own reason why what Phillip is saying should be true. This he is unable to do to his satisfaction, so he tells Phillip to be on his way, and take his stupid scroll with him. In this way he would have resisted the Holy Spirit and rejected the grace given to him by God as a free gift, and thus been responsible the state of damnation in which he then stood.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth...O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (1 Timothy 2:1-4; Luke 13-34).

Why, since God wants all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth, some are still lost is not any of our business and cannot be reasoned out. God has simply not revealed this information to us. In his work, "Bondage of the Will", Luther says just that:

But, as I have already said, we are not to pry into God's secret will, for the secret things of God are quite beyond us (1 Timothy 6:16). We should spend our time considering God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom God has made clear to us what we should and should not know (Colossians 2:3). It is true that the incarnate God says: 'I have longed to gather...but you were not willing'. Christ came to do, suffer and offer to all men all that is necessary for salvation. Some men, being hardened by God's secret will, rejected him (John 1:5, 11). The same God incarnate weeps and laments over the destruction of the ungodly, even though in his divine will he purposely leaves them to perish. It is not for us to ask why, but to stand in awe of God (Luther and Pond, Born Slaves).

God comes to us through the means of his word and sacraments, which are simply God’s word connected to a physical element like bread, wine, or water. Through his means of word and sacrament he changes unwilling hearts into willing ones, by the working if the Holy Spirit. And, while we are human beings and our experiences are not divorced from our emotions, our conversion does not depend on whether we get an ushy-gushy feeling in our gut when we pray the sinner’s prayer really, really sincerely or not. Our conversion depends on God. He is responsible for it from beginning to end. He certainly works through means like the preached and read word, but it is his gift to give to us. This does not mean that we who believe are to remain silent. Preaching and the hearing of God’s word are the instruments through which the Spirit wants to convert people. The Lutheran Confessions explain it this way (FC SD II 50):

Out of his immense goodness and mercy, God provides for the public preaching of his divine eternal law and his wonderful plan for our redemption, that of the holy, only saving Gospel of His eternal Son, our only savior and redeemer, Jesus Christ. By this preaching he gathers an eternal church for himself from the human race and works in people’s hearts true repentance, knowledge of sins, and true faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. By this means, and in no other way (i.e., through his holy word, when people hear it preached or read it, and through the holy Sacraments when they are used according to his word), God desires to call people to eternal salvation. He desires to draw them to himself and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them (McCain, Baker and Veith).

Or, to think of it another way, before you decided to go to the altar call at the Billy Graham Crusade and accept Jesus, you had already been converted by the Spirit’s power through the means of the preached word. It isn’t until after a person’s conversion that they have a free will, and are able to begin to cooperate with God.

Perhaps some might think that I’m nitpicking this issue. What does it really matter anyway? It looks like you made a decision; who cares, as long as the conversion was genuine? The problem with the idea of decision theology such as this is that it puts the decision in your hands and not in God’s. It gives people the false idea that their own work of making that decision for Christ is what got them saved. That takes the focus from Christ’s work and shifts it to your work. No one can come to Jesus unless he is drawn by the Father, and it is God who works inside a person to do that.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for his sake…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Philippians 1:29; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14-17).

It is quite tempting to try and help God along by punching up his word with the panache of our personal testimony. We think we have to go out and win people for Christ and we don’t, at least not in the conventional sense. In fact, such an idea is impossible. We are certainly called to proclaim the Gospel. People, however, are not converted from unbelief, they are not raised to newness of life in Christ Jesus, by some clever apologetic argument we might make, or by some heart-wrenching emotional experience which they will constantly seek to replicate in order to confirm their justification before God. God's gift of salvation doesn’t depend on our work, but on God's grace from beginning to end. The work was accomplished for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, while mankind was still his enemy; it is given to us by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. That gift of faith is given to us by God through word and sacrament.

God gives eternal life to all believers and, "Even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own and that no one can pluck me out of his hand" (Luther, The Small Catechism). Quite frankly, I am relieved. I know that I would, sinner that I am, mess up whatever part, however minuscule, that was left to me.

Works Cited

Luther, Martin and Clifford Pond. Born Slaves. Ed. J. P. Arthur M.A. and H. J. Appleby. London: Grace Publications Trust, 1984.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Trans. Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

McCain, Paul Timothy, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

End Notes