by Matthew C. Harrison
As a young man in high school, I became involved in a local chapter of an evangelical Christian organization for athletes. It was positive and urged athletes to commit to Christ, avoid drugs and alcohol, and be a good influence on teammates. I was also attending my LCMS church consistently but did not realize I was being led into a view of Christianity quite different from what I’d been taught in my LCMS congregation. College football followed, and I continued the course as I got involved in an evangelical group of Christians in college. I was beginning to have thoughts of leaving my Lutheran church. I was asked to speak during the Bible class hour at my LCMS congregation and told the assembly, “God has done everything He could for you. Now it’s up to you to decide for Christ.” I had come to believe that after becoming serious about Christ, it was my job as a victorious person who had largely put sin behind me to disciple others to make the right choice for Jesus too. Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper played no real role in my thinking.
After some time, I began to realize more and more that something was off. The religion of the Law produces either arrogance (I made the right choice and am living holy, and so things are going great for me! Why don’t you choose the same?), hypocrisy or despair. The Gospel-less “gospel” of my choice began to crush me. I realized I was living a lie. And it’s not in the Bible. The Law always accuses. And even if my hands, feet and mouth were doing right (they often were not), my mind was full of sin and evil.
“Midweek school” at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Sioux City, Iowa, forced us to memorize and recite the catechism every Wednesday evening. I inevitably looked at the text at the last minute and limped through the recitation in front of a parent. But for some reason, one part of the catechism stuck with me: the Third Article, Explanation. “Answer: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.” Notice God is doing all the verbs. It’s all Gospel.
I realized what I’d learned in the catechism is just what the Bible teaches. “I believe … that I cannot believe.” If the “choice” for Christ is mine, it’s based upon something in me. But what Jesus said to His apostles holds for us too: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). My faith in Christ, my eternal life, my Christian life from beginning to end is His doing. Paul repeatedly calls coming to faith a resurrection. Dead men don’t decide. It’s all gift.
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 Christ … . 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 them. (Eph. 2:4–5, 8–10)
Later I was confronted and comforted by the Formula of Concord with this truth that no one “decides for Christ.” All of our pastors and workers and congregations are sworn to uphold this truth, and the Formula teaches it wonderfully.
Consider especially the affirmative theses:
FORMULA OF CONCORD
Epitome, Article II: Free Will
The will of mankind is found in four different states: (1) before the fall; (2) since the fall; (3) after regeneration; and (4) after the resurrection of the body. The chief question in this article is only about the will and ability of mankind in the second state. That is, what powers in spiritual matters does a person have after the fall of our first parents and before regeneration? Can a person by his own powers — prior to and before his regeneration by God’s Spirit — get ready and prepare himself for God’s grace? Can a person accept ‹and apprehend› or reject the grace offered through the Holy Spirit in the Word and holy ‹divinely instituted› Sacraments?
The Pure Teaching about This Article, according to God’s Word
1. This is our teaching, faith, and confession on this subject: in spiritual matters the understanding and reason of mankind are ‹completely› blind and by their own powers understand nothing, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The 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.”
2. Likewise, we believe, teach, and confess that the unregenerate will of mankind is not only turned away from God, but also has become God’s enemy. So it only has an inclination and desire for that which is evil and contrary to God, as it is written in Genesis 8:21, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Romans 8:7 says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Just as a dead body cannot raise itself to bodily, earthly life, so a person who by sin is spiritually dead cannot raise himself to spiritual life. For it is written in Ephesians 2:5, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ.” And 2 Corinthians 3:5 says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”
3. God the Holy Spirit, however, does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written in Romans 1:16, the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Also Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is God’s will that His Word should be heard and that a person’s ears should not be closed (Psalm 95:8). With this Word the Holy Spirit is present and opens hearts, so that people (like Lydia in Acts 16:14) pay attention to it and are converted only through the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, who alone does the work of converting a person. For without His grace, and if He does not grant the increase, our willing and running, our planting, sowing, and watering (1 Corinthians 3:5–7) — are all nothing. As Christ says ‹in John 15:5›, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” With these brief words the Spirit denies free will its powers and ascribes everything to God’s grace, in order that no one may boast before God (1 Corinthians 1:29; [2 Corinthians 12:5; Jeremiah 9:23]). (EP II 1–6)
I encourage you to read the rest of the article. It’s the Gospel. It’s full of comfort. It’s true. Before we are converted, we have no free will in spiritual matters. We are dead. The Spirit does what we cannot; He makes us alive, gives us faith in Christ and keep us in the one true faith. Thanks be to God. “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).