VI. Conversion “by Means of New Powers Imparted by Grace.”

Thesis 5 d of the Norwegian Agreement rejects the doctrine that faith is the resultant of a power “imparted by the call of grace,” enabling man to decide for grace. Is this rejection justifiable? If real unity is to be attained in the American Lutheran Church with reference to the doctrine of Conversion and Election, an understanding must first be reached concerning the phraseology frequently employed in former centuries as well as in our own day, viz., that man is converted (converts himself) by means of “powers offered or imparted to him by grace”; specifically, that by means of powers so conferred he decides for conversion, conducts himself rightly over against grace, ceases to resist willfully, etc. At the first glance many may regard this mode of speaking as altogether void of design. It seems to render all honor to God, and seemingly excludes all cooperation on the part of man, as he is by nature, in his conversion. However, this impression is specious. In reality, this phraseology has been invented and employed for the purpose of covering up the actual state of affairs. What is intended by the phrase, “powers imparted by grace,” never denotes, in reality, powers of grace, but natural powers. That is the sense connected with this phrase both by those who employed it in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by those who have used it in the 19th and who are now using it in the 20th century. Schmauk is quite right in saying: “Man’s will is able to decide for salvation through new powers bestowed by God. [[@Page:37]]This is the subtle synergism which has infected nearly the whole of modern Evangelical Protestantism, and which is, or has been, taught in institutions bearing the name of our Church.”) Just so Walther: “All these ingenious fabrications, viz., those notions of persons conducting themselves rightly, or deciding in favor of divine grace, by means of ‘Gnadenkraefte,’ have no other purpose than to dissolve the mystery that man is saved by grace alone, and is damned through his own fault.”)

Keep this in mind: previous to his conversion, or before the light of faith is kindled in his heart, man is spiritually dead, and can, previous to his conversion, employ the spiritual powers offered in God’s gracious call as little as one who is physically dead can employ the physical vitality if it were offered him. If, notwithstanding this, the ability to apply spiritual powers imparted to man, for determining his attitude, or for correctly conducting himself toward the gracious offer of God, is attributed to him prior to his conversion, or regeneration, that amounts to attributing to him at least so much of natural moral powers that he is able rightly to employ the spiritual powers offered him. This fact was very ably set forth by Dr. Stellhorn in 1872 over against Iowa. The Iowaans, too, made use of this mode of speaking, viz., that a self-determination, or right conduct, for conversion is made possible through the spiritual powers offered to man by God. Dr. Stellhorn wrote): “According to this doctrine, natural man only lacks powers; he is, as it were, a fettered prisoner who desires to be free, or who, in his natural state, at least may be found to possess a will or desire to be saved in the right manner, and to decide for God; he has, by nature, or at least may have, the right inclination and quality of the will, and only lacks the powers for deciding as he desires, or, to say the least, is able to [[@Page:38]]desire. I hold that this is attributing too much to natural man. He does not only lack the power to will or do what is good, but he — or, what comes to the same, his will — has an inclination or nature which is radically wrong. And so long as this is the case, all powers offered him can profit him nothing. For by reason of this nature or inclination [of his will] it would never occur to him to employ said powers towards doing or willing that which is good.” Dr. Stellhorn, accordingly, declares that this Iowaan doctrine of a decision in favor of the Gospel, rendered possible to man by powers imparted to him by grace, is a doctrine at variance with Holy Writ, “because it militates in defectu against the Biblical doctrine of original depravity,” i. e., it does not say enough about that depravity, because it does not regard natural man as being dead in sins, but predicates of him a natural quality which permits him, while still unconverted, rightly to employ the powers proffered by grace.

By this same argument Lutheran theologians in the 17th century succeeded in making clear their objection to the teaching of Latermann. Latermann, too, while conceding that man by nature resists the Gospel, formulated his teaching so as to declare that under the influence of the Gospel man may decide for conversion by means of powers which grace offers to him. The theologians pointed out the self-deception involved in this formula, since Latermann evidently assumed in man before his conversion the existence of natural “good powers” by means of which man is enabled to employ rightly the powers offered by grace. The Strassburg faculty declared: “Latermann’s utterances are ambiguous and confused. For what sort of power is that because of which it rests with man by means of grace to do, or not to do, that which is necessary for conversion? With which it rests to desire conversion, or not to desire it, to use Latermann’s expressions? He cannot say that this is the power and ability conferred by the Holy Spirit. For what manner of statement would this be: ‘It rests with the new powers and abilities imparted by the Holy Spirit to [[@Page:39]]perform, or not to perform, what is necessary for conversion, to be, or not to be, converted’! Are these new powers, then, indifferent as to conversion or aversion, as to inclination or declination? Accordingly, there must be in man, previous to the impartation of spiritual gifts through the Holy Ghost, an ability which by the aid of supervening grace performs what is necessary unto conversion, and by means of which the inclination to become converted is produced. And this is Pelagianism and synergism.”) The Strassburg faculty was altogether right. In every instance where it is claimed that before his conversion man determines himself for, or assumes a right attitude toward, the powers of grace offered him, there are ascribed to man in his natural state good powers by means of which he is well able to make the right use of the proffered powers of grace. This position assumes that man in his unconverted state has a natural facultas se applicandi ad gratiam, which is merely roused into action (exitatur) under the sound of the Word.

However, it becomes evident in still another way that in the statement: Man conducts himself correctly by means of the grace of God, the intended meaning is that man does so, not by the grace of God, but by his natural powers, by some good quality naturally inherent in him. For this conduct is made to explain the mystery why some are converted and others not. “The dissimilar conduct of men over against grace,”) according to a statement made quite recently, “well explains the dissimilar working of converting, saving grace.” Conduct resulting from grace alone would explain nothing, since the powers offered by grace are offered to those who remain unconverted, as well as to those who became converted. The insistence upon conduct as an explanation is positive proof that not spiritual, but natural powers are meant. As stated before: if an understanding is to be reached among the Lutherans in America with reference to the doctrine of Conversion and Election, we must not even for the sake of the argument concede that men mean powers [[@Page:40]]of grace when they speak of powers of grace. What men have meant to express in the past, and still mean to express at present, by such phraseology is a conduct of man that is owing to his natural powers. Thus there is assumed in man, as he is by nature, a cause — and that, the cause which ultimately turns the scale and decides the matter — for his own conversion, salvation, and election. The same idea is expressed in a very direct manner when grace and human conduct are put in opposition to each other, as is done in the oft-repeated assertion that conversion and salvation do not depend on God’s grace alone, but also upon man’s right conduct.