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

Thursday, January 16, 2014

More People Who Have Issues...

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Corinthians 15: 1-11).

Dr. Reza Aslan, The author of the New York Times best seller, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" was the subject of a "straight from the horse's mouth" interview on Issues ETC the other day (you can listen to the interview HERE). What that means, is that the host, Rev. Todd Wilken, asks his guest probing questions so that they can clearly and concisely lay out their ideas for the listener. These interviews are often painful for the confessional listener, as Rev. Wilken often does not dispute the obvious points of contention with Christian theology in the guest's answers, but they do provide a valuable service. These types of interviews allow Christians to hear just what their detractors in the media and academia, in their own words and in no uncertain terms, think of them.

People see a book like "Zealot" on the shelf and think that it's something it's not. They see a picture of Jesus, a NYT bestseller sticker, and a PhD's name on the cover and think this is some new scholarship regarding Jesus, or the Bible, or Christian theology. What they get instead is 200 year old liberal theology that has one heck of an axe to grind against all of those things.

The Higher criticism method of biblical interpretation, also called Historical Criticism, was a development of liberal theologians over the past 200 years or so, and examines scriptural writings like witnesses in a court of law. It developed out of the the Tübingen School in Germany and can claim Friedrich Schleiermacher, the "father of liberal theology" as a foundation-layer. Scripture, using this method, must be “interrogated” and evaluated primarily according to human reason. Therefore, anything supernatural - such as Jesus rising from the dead - must be discounted, because the dead do not rise. Following this method, scripture is treated as any other human writings, subject to human failings. Higher criticism gives the individual interpreter, not Holy Scripture, ultimate authority and is incompatible with the “Sola Scriptura” principle of Lutheranism.

During the interview Dr. Aslan made three basic points: 1) the ancient mind did not have the same conception of history as the modern mind, 2) the Gospel writers (whoever they really were) intended to convey "truth", not "fact", and 3) the gospels were written long after the life and death of Jesus and are unreliable as historical documents.

That sounds quite scholarly and groundbreaking on the face of it, but it's really the same thing that the disciples of the Higher Criticism method off biblical interpretation have been saying for 200 years. Basically, they're trying to get people to believe that 1) the early Christians didn't care about the facts of the events they experienced, only their "beliefs", 2) they lied about what they wrote, and 3) the gospels weren't written by their purported authors, but developed as mythology written, not by individuals, but by communities of Christian believers well after the fact.

For example, Dr. Aslan claimed as undisputed fact the late date of the gospels. He stated during the interview that Mark's gospel was written in the 90's AD "for a fact". To the contrary, serious biblical scholars don't even consider a date later than the 70's AD for Mark. D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris in their work, "An Introduction to the New Testament", believe that the bulk of the evidence put Mark in the late 50's to middle 60's.

Mark, then is to be dated either in the late fifties or the middle sixties. While the latter is the majority view, we favor the late fifties. Indeed, we are required to date Mark before A.D. 60 if our assumptions about the ending of Acts and the priority of Mark are valid...Dating Mark in the fifties does go against the earliest traditions about Mark having been written after the death of Peter. But other traditions affirm that Mark wrote while Peter was still alive, so the early evidence is by no means unanimous on the subject (Carson, et. al., 1992).

And what of the gospels authorship? The gospel of Mark is anonymous, as are the others. The title was probably added later, certainly by the second century, to distinguish it from the others. Early church fathers such as Papias wrote that Mark was Peter's interpreter, and got the majority of his information from him.

Mark's connection with the second gospel is asserted or assumed by many early Christian writers. Perhaps the earliest (and certainly the most important) of the testimonies is that of Papias, who was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor until about A.D. 130. His statement about the second gospel is recorded in Eusebius's History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica), written in 325...Those who are skeptical of the reliability of Papias conclude that the author of the gospel is unknown. Yet, as we have seen, there is nothing in the New Testament that is inconsistent with Papias's claim that Mark wrote the second gospel. And since we have no indication that anyone in the early church contested Papias's claim, we see no reason not to accept it (Carson, et. al., 1992).

To the Higher Critics, however, none of this information matters. The testimony of the early church fathers doesn't matter. The actual historical context and content of the gospels doesn't matter. The actual words written on the page do not matter. None of these things matter because, to the Higher Critics, the gospel writers lied about what they wrote. Supernatural things are impossible and, therefore, discounted as mere mythological elements to express and explain the spiritual "truth" that the gospel writers were trying to convey. They did this, the author contends, because the Apostles had to invent a new interpretation of what the Jewish Messiah was so that they didn't look like fools. After all, their leader Jesus failed in his attempt to establish an independent kingdom of Israel, just like all the other zealots before him.

This is a far cry from the method of interpretation used by those who respect Holy Scripture as the revealed word of God. Using the Historical-Grammatical method of biblical interpretation an interpreter seeks the native, literal, or intended sense of the text, derives the meaning from the text and allows Scripture to interpret itself. In order to discern God’s intended meaning, the Scriptures must be read as historical, literary documents. This method of interpretation seeks the meaning of scripture in the text itself, not from some special revelation or extra-biblical source. The interpreter must also recognize that the Holy Scripture is the written word of God – not a primarily human witness to revelation, and thus not subject to human failings. In the historical –grammatical approach, the interpreter must always remember that scripture, like our Lord, has two natures – the human and the divine – and has them equally and fully.

The thing is, if supernatural things are impossible, if the gospel writers - for whatever purpose - lied, if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, I'm not really interested in what the gospels have to say, or who the "historical" Jesus is. St. Paul felt the same way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

We could argue with men like Dr. Reza Aslan all day, and none of it would make any difference because, as he admitted in the interview, Dr. Aslan is not a Christian and does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. That's fine. As Christians all we can do is be patient, endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness so that, as St. Paul writes to Timothy, "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" (2Timothy 2:24-26).

The Gospels, however, are not simply some collection of mystical writings which have no real relationship to history. They do not convey some vague spiritual "truth" at the expense of historical fact. They have been demonstrated, time and again to be reliable.

I am not a great theologian or biblical scholar, though I am interested in and do study such things with great eagerness (Incidentally, if you'd like to hear a world class apologist and theologian, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, respond to Dr. Aslan's interview, you can listen HERE.). There have been many men, more eloquent and better educated than I, who have written to explain, from a scholarly point of view, why we can have confidence in the historical accuracy and overall reliability of both the Old and New Testaments. I could not begin to do those men justice by trying to encapsulate their ideas here. I trust what they say about the number of New Testament manuscripts available to compare for accuracy (over 5,000 to date). I believe their theories, based on scholarly research and evidence, that the Gospels were not written by "communities" of Christians who were trying to justify their faith in a failed zealot, but are reliable historical accounts of what Jesus did and said, as St. Luke claims in his own writings. I accept their evidence showing that, rather than developing over the period of 70 or more years after Jesus crucification, the belief in Jesus' resurrection was proclaimed from the beginning of Christianity, from the time his disciples found the empty tomb. If someone wants to hear the scholars speak on these, and other important issues, the volumes are widely, and inexpensively, available (I would recommend, "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel as a starting place for those who wish to introduce themselves into this kind of scholarship).

No, I am moved by the words of St. Paul quoted previously, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." In his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul talks about the things which he and his fellow believers had seen and heard. They claimed to be witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Paul wrote his letters while those who knew and interacted with Jesus were still alive, as he himself testifies. Certainly, if he had been making up the gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead as the atoning sacrifice for mankind's sin out of whole cloth, someone who knew the real truth would have opposed him. Someone would have pointed the finger at the fledgling group of Christians for changing their story. No one did. Paul, a die-hard opponent of Christianity bent on murdering it's adherents turned Apostle "untimely born", was opposed by the Jews for teaching contrary to the teachings of the the rabbis and Judaism by proclaiming Christ as Messiah, and atoning sacrifice for sin.

There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, with the exception of St. John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways that could be devised by the depraved human mind, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their lives, simply to save face. They were crucified, beheaded, shot with arrows, thrown to wild beasts in the arena, burned alive and used as torches along the road. These horrors were sanctioned by the governing authorities and could have been averted by a simple denial of what they confessed. The Apostles, and scores of martyrs after them, were compelled by the Spirit to listen to God rather than men. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them; though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true (according to the legitimate meaning of the word). Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Works Cited

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992. Print.

Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009. Print.