In a recent series I addressed the issue of why there are no “Lutheran Baptists”, while there are, presumably, “Calvinist Baptists”. There, I zeroed on the Christology that underlies every non-Lutheran Protestant group. In this series, we focus on the issue of “free will”, a topic I introduced in a post yesterday. I also think this might offer some a good explanation of why other Christian groups – sadly – seem to see confessional Lutheranism as absolutely antithetical to their traditions (many have observed that confessional Lutheranism seems to “straddle the middle” in wider traditional Christendom, with its emphasis on both the sacraments and the importance of Biblical preaching, for example).
When serious Lutherans talk about spiritual conversion – individuals being brought from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light – we focus on how it is God who converts – granting us repentance towards God and faith in His Son Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacraments (it this talk about the Sacraments is confusing to you, please see my series about why there are no Lutheran Baptists). We also talk about the issue of the individual “choosing God” via free will – but only in the context of growing in the grace of God after a person has been converted, regenerated, justified. In other words, the issue of “free will” – here defined as the ability of an individual to exercise freedom in matters of faith towards the one true God – is something that can only be sensibly discussed within the context of sanctification.
If that sounds intriguing to you, this series might be for you. Other posts that I have done on this topic are
here (“That’s how easy it is to receive salvation”),
here (“When did you decide that I was your father?”),
here (“Our conversion is the miracle of creative love”)
and here (If you want salvation you already have salvation!).
And here we go today.
Years ago I ended up teaching a high school religion class at a Lutheran high school in formerly communist Slovakia – and this without any formal theological training. As I taught about faith, one student asked me “isn’t faith totally a gift from God”?, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I had resisted abandoning my Lutheranism during my Campus Crusade for Christ-saturated college years, but that did not stop me from eventually replying: “maybe the ability to have faith is the gift God gives us”.
I thought that was good enough – attributing the first move to God. But I was wrong. Really wrong.
Now I know that Lutherans are firmly against even this kind of “decision theology” (where an unbeliever makes a decision to follow Jesus, with or without God making the first move) – even more so than a Calvinist theologian might be. And yet, as many of us like to say, remembering that we are baptized into Christ, we who are already believers in Christ should decide to follow Him every day of our lives. We continually look to hear His word so that we might receive His Spirit! Though on our journey we walk in danger all the way and in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for He is constantly fighting for us to give us forgiveness, life and salvation – through His perfect life (righteousness) and innocent death (blood) – until our final breath.
Now when people talk about the matter of free will in the Christian life, they generally are talking about the matter of an unbeliever becoming a believer, moving from darkness to light. Many in the Christian world see this as a conscious act of the will that the unbeliever, perhaps aided by the Holy Spirit, makes of his own free power. My first point would simply be that for many who come to Christ in their adult years, it is in fact not like this. Several examples could be given, but perhaps the most prominent among them is C.S. Lewis (I also think of Marvin Olasky, the editor of the Christian news periodical, World magazine), who could not recall any exact moment in which he came to believe on the Lord Jesus – even if there was surely a time when he had crossed the threshold. In short, it was God’s mysterious work, and not his.
Many have similar experiences. I now teach an online introductory class to the Bible and during a recent course, I stated at one point that there were many places in the Gospel of John where the author makes it clear how we become children of God by His will and not our own.
One of my former students replied to that statement in the following way:
I can see this, of course it is all His will. He wants us to accept Him and puts that in our hearts but it is always Him making these things happen. I have a personal account to this, I had no intentions of being Christian, I never wanted to have children, figured I’d be a professional traveling the world. Well, at 19 I had a baby and named him Elijah, which brought about conversations about the prophet (which I had no idea about) and I found myself in Bible studies with people in my neighborhood. It was at that point in my life I accepted Jesus [my note: she cannot say exactly when this happened], but without really knowing how or why, but I did, He did it. That was the beginning for me, and I have since struggled (until about 3-5 years ago) with really realizing my Christianity and being comfortable with it. Regardless, I see how He has worked in my life ever since that point, well actually before, but so much more since that time. My baby Elijah, my gift, brought even greater gifts in my life! (quote used with permission)
In a course I am currently teaching (an introductory course to the Bible), one of my better students, clearly enjoying the class, noted that not too many years ago, he, as an adult, “found [himself] believing the word, finding hope and trusting in Jesus.”