Is it permissible to speak of a “preparation” for conversion and of “acts preparatory” (actus praeparatorii) to conversion? It is necessary that we reach a mutual understanding in regard to this point. Since the seventies of the last century it has come up for discussion, and has quite recently been brought forward again in Kirketidende.
Two things must be stated regarding this matter: 1. It accords with the facts in the case, and is quite Scriptural, to speak of a “preparation” for conversion. 2. It is a fact that Semi-Pelagians and synergists have ever used the term “preparation” as a repository for their notions of man’s merit and man’s cooperation for conversion. Accordingly, theologians who are careful about their language, from Chemnitz to our own day, adopt this course, viz, they retain the expression “preparation” as in accord with Scripture and the facts in the case, but reject the error which hides under the correct expression.
We are face to face with error in every instance where we meet with the teaching that man in some way prepares, or is able to prepare, himself for conversion. The words: “So, then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,”) apply to anything that man can do or omit doing before his conversion, also to his outward probity and the external hearing and study of the Bible. Very properly, therefore, the Formula of Concord rejects the teaching that man, when grace is offered to him, in any way “can qualify and prepare himself for grace.”) On the other hand, it is correct and Scriptural to say that God prepares man for conversion. Conversion in the strict and narrower sense consists in the bestowal of faith in Christ. “And a great number believed and turned unto God.”) With still greater clearness the [[@Page:105]]fact that being converted is brought about by becoming a believer is stated by the Greek text: Πολὺς ἀριθμὸς πιστεύσας ἐπέστρεψεν ἐπὶ τὸν Κύριον. Faith in the Gospel, however, originates only after God has by the Law worked a knowledge of sin. Even in instances of sudden conversions, so-called, as, for instance, in the sudden conversion of the Apostle Paul (which, by the way, took place not in Damascus, but on the road to Damascus), the knowledge of sin worked by the Law preceded faith in point of time. Luther was accustomed to express this matter thus: Man will not flee to Christ unless he has first tasted hell. And this having-tasted-hell is a necessary praeparatio for conversion. In this sense the Scriptures call the Law a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ”: ὁ νόμος παιδαγωγὸς ἡμῶν γέγονεν εἰς Χριστόν.) The Law is not in itself a schoolmaster unto Christ, or a guide unto Christ. In itself the Law only works either self-righteousness or despair, thus making man a fugitive from Christ. But when employed by God, the Law becomes a schoolmaster unto Christ, and prepares the way for Christ and the Gospel. Luther comments on [[Gal. 3, 24. 25 >> Gal 3.24-25]]: “The Law prepares for grace (ad gratiam praeparat) by revealing and augmenting sin and by humiliating the proud, in order that they may desire help from Christ.”) Chemnitz stigmatizes as slander the Romanist charge that the Lutherans taught no “preparation” for the acceptance of justifying grace. He says: “It is untrue when they charge in the 9th canon) that we deny that any motions [[@Page:106]]of the will, imparted and quickened by God, precede the acceptance of justification. For we do teach that repentance or contrition come first, and these cannot exist without great, sincere, and earnest motions of the will. But we do not say that penitence or contrition precede as something meritorious.”) This statement of Chemnitz is preceded by another, as follows: “If they (the Romanists) would ascribe what according to the Scriptures precedes, not to human energies, but to the grace of God and the working of the Spirit, and would not, because of these preparations, set up a claim of a merit or worthiness on account of which we are justified, we could easily come to an agreement about the word ‘preparation,’ correctly understood according to Scripture. Nor did Luther show an aversion to this word. He says, commenting on the 3d chapter of Galatians: The Law in its proper office serves grace and prepares for grace (esse praeparatricem ad gratiam), because it serves to open up an entrance (aditum) to us for grace. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that the Law in its office may subserve justification, not because it justifies, but because it drives (urgeat) man toward the promises of grace and makes these sweet and desirable.”
It is a patent fact, however, that the Scriptural term “preparation” has been misused. The Romanists as well as the synergists, of early and recent times, have used the expression in order to teach man’s cooperation in his own conversion, justification, and salvation. The Roman doctrine, as is well known, is this: If man does what he can by means of his natural powers, God gives him grace. They called this human activity, which guarantees to man the grace of God, meritum congrui, merit by fairness. It were but fair, the Scholastics said, that God would grant His grace to those who did as much as lay in their powers. After the Reformation the Romanists began to be ashamed of the word “merit.” For meritum congrui they substituted the word [[@Page:107]]“preparation” — praeparatio or dispositio. Man must be “prepared” or “disposed” for the acceptance of divine grace. It is Chemnitz, again, in his Examen of the canons of the Council of Trent, who proves in a very thorough manner that the Romanists understand by praeparatio exactly the same thing which they had formerly designated as “merit by fairness.” “Mark well,” he addresses the reader, “that by the expression ‘preparation’ or ‘disposition’ (vocabulo praeparationis et dispositionis) the Council of Trent understands the same as that which the Scholastic theologians used to teach by means of the term ‘merit by fairness,’ meritum congrui.”)
But also within the Lutheran Church the word “preparation” has been employed in an effort to cover up human merit and man’s cooperation in conversion. In the seventeenth century, Latermann, Musaeus, and their respective associates ascribed to man, before conversion, a self-decision for grace, a good conduct over against grace, a desire for grace, a cooperation unto conversion. Charged with Semi-Pelagianism and synergism by the dogmaticians, they, too, sought refuge in praeparatio. They asserted that when referring to a self-decision in favor of conversion, a willing of conversion, cooperation unto conversion, etc., they did not mean a natural will, but a will prepared (voluntatem praeparatam) by grace. The dogmaticians point out the deception here involved. “Latermann indeed claims,” says Quenstedt, “that man cooperates with divine grace in conversion by means of powers which God gives him, and that he presupposes a will prepared by God. But he says nothing that the Jesuits, Bellarminus, and others, have not said, who have nevertheless been accused of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism by all our theologians; he says nothing that has not been claimed by the synergists. They, too, presuppose the gift of grace, and loudly insist that they assume a will prepared by God.”) We are forced to remind our [[@Page:108]]readers of things, and, in part, to repeat quotations, which we have pointed out in a previous chapter. The dogmaticians advanced a twofold argument against Latermann. First: A will “prepared” in such a way that it can decide in favor of grace, and can will grace, is already converted. Secondly: When Latermann speaks of a self-decision for conversion, he does not mean a decision by means of powers conveyed by grace, but by natural powers. The Strassburg Faculty, quoted before, asks Latermann to consider the following facts: What manner of human power is that with which it rests … whether a person wills his conversion and also wills not to be converted, as Latermann says? He will not say that these are the powers and ability conferred by the Holy Ghost. For what sort of declaration would this be: It rests with the new powers and imparted faculties to furnish, or not to furnish, that which is necessary for conversion, to will, or not to will, conversion! Are these new powers, then, indifferent as regards conversion or rejection, willing and not-willing? There must be previous to the imparting of powers by the Spirit a faculty in man by means of which, with the aid of superadded grace, that which is necessary for conversion is performed, by means of which man is brought to will conversion. And that is Pelagianism and synergism.”) Just so Dr. Stellhorn, in 1872, as mentioned above, argued against the Iowaans that they violated the doctrine of original depravity by teaching: Hence the cause why one is lost and the other saved must be sought in the dissimilar conduct of man over against proffered grace, in the individual personal decision.
In view of such misuse of the term “preparation” and “preparatory acts,” the question suggests itself whether it were not best to reject these expressions entirely and to outlaw them from theology. But this will not do, as it would involve a departure from the Scriptures. We have noted above that the operations of the Law which precede [[@Page:109]]the working of faith are subsumed in Scripture under the notion of “preparation.” Chemnitz here indicates the right mode of procedure. He does not reject the term “preparation” on account of its abuse at the hands of the Romanists, but proceeds to rule out the false conceptions which the Romanists have introduced into the term. Just so the later dogmaticians over against Latermann and Musaeus. Dr. Walther employed the same terminology, as when he says: “Conversion, indeed, does not occur ordinarily without several preparatory phenomena (Vorgaenge) within man, and in this sense conversion is accomplished by degrees, gradually; but conversion itself in every case occurs in an instant.”) The dogmaticians take issue with Latermann and Musaeus on account of their doctrine of “a will prepared by grace” in the sense that man decides for conversion, is able to will or not to will conversion. But they themselves speak of “preparatory acts” (actus praeparatorii), in the sense, however, that not man prepares himself for conversion, but that God leads man to conversion. Under all actus praeparatorii man remains spiritually dead, subjectum convertendum; he never becomes active under the preparatory acts, but merely experiences influences from without. The dogmaticians present the matter as follows: Conversion, in the real and narrow sense of the word, so far as it consists in the kindling of faith, is never a process, but always occurs in a moment (conversio semper momentanea est). There is no such thing as a status medius between death and life, between the converted and the unconverted state. In what sense, then, can our theologians still speak of “preparatory acts”? They concede that, as in the instance of Paul, God could work every conversion in a moment, without “preparatory acts” extending over days, weeks, months, possibly years. But as a rule, God is pleased to proceed differently. “It pleases the Holy Spirit,” says Quenstedt, “according to His free will, to proceed not always [[@Page:110]]by means of a sudden commotion as in the conversion of Paul, but more frequently by slow and successive degrees.”) It must be admitted that this statement is materially correct. As regards the element of time God needs no preparatory stage. He is able to convert every sinner instantaneously, even in the very commission, externally, of some infamy, and in external outbursts of malice. Thus Paul was converted in the midst of persecuting fury, when he was “exceedingly mad,” when his hands were gory with the blood of Christians and eager to shed it anew. Thus, according to ancient report, a pagan actor was suddenly converted while he was acting a travesty on the sacrament of Baptism. Thus Dr. Sihler, as related by him in private company and recorded by him somewhere, experienced a sudden conversion.) Persons thus converted are able to state the exact time of their conversion. But in most cases the [[@Page:111]]outward course observable in conversion is a different one. Most converted persons have not been converted at the first contact with the Word of God. They receive impressions of the operations of the Law and Gospel extending through a longer or shorter period of time. They experience motions (motus) which through their own fault remain ineffectual. But the Lord does not yet turn away from them. He continues to work upon their hearts by His Holy Spirit through the Word. When, finally, the moment arrives which God has determined) for the enkindling of faith, the change of a will utterly opposed to the Gospel into a will assenting to the Gospel is wrought in a way imperceptible to human feeling, and so divinely gentle that few converted persons are able to state the hour of its occurrence; as Chemnitz says: they are unable to state the moment when the natural acts (actus animales) were turned into spiritual acts (actus spirituales), or when the liberated will (voluntas liberata) became active.)
What manner of motus in man, then, precede conversion? Later dogmaticians here, over against Latermann and Musaeus, use a more exact terminology than the earlier theologians. Chemnitz had occasionally spoken of “pious” motions before conversion, as when he says: “After the Holy Spirit has called forth a holy intention, wish, or endeavor, it does not rest with us to change our will in the direction of something better, but God works in us to will.”) Calovius and Quenstedt, on the other hand, in opposition to the teaching of Musaeus, reject the doctrine that, before conversion is consummate, “good motions, holy thoughts, pious longings, good endeavors,” awakened by [[@Page:112]]prevenient grace, may be attributed to man. The Holy Spirit indeed calls forth motions before conversion. And if their origin (causa efficiens) be urged, one might call them spiritual motions. But since man’s hostile will, before conversion is accomplished, has yet undergone no change, it will not do, with reference to man, to speak of “pious” or “holy” motions at this stage. We have quoted before the words of Quenstedt and Calovius: “Where there are such motions” (viz., good motions, holy thoughts, pious desires), “man is already roused from death, already lives by virtue of spiritual life, and hence is already converted.”) Of the later dogmaticians, Calovius before others gives luminous and clear-cut expression to the truth that before a person’s conversion is accomplished for the first time, no spiritual motions can be ascribed to him. He says: “Though unconverted persons at times gladly hear the messengers of the Word, this is because of the outward talents of the latter, or from some other carnal desire (ob aliam quamvis cupiditatem carnalem), as in the case of Herod. [[Mark 6, 7 >> Mk 6.7]], and is not due to an inclination for the Word of God (ob affectum erga Dei verbam), since such inclination is a product of faith (e fide redandat), which originates only from hearing the Word, [[Rom. 10, 17 >> Rom 10.17]]. Before conversion there is no such spiritual desire (desiderium spirituale) nor any such inclination towards the divine Word, because the Word is foolishness to natural man, and meets with his resistance, [[1 Cor. 2, 14 >> 1 Cor 2.14]]; [[Rom. 8, 7 >> Rom 8.7]].”) And again: “If in the unconverted man pious motions, holy thoughts, beginnings of faith, a struggle of the spirit against the flesh are imagined (finguntur), this involves a self-contradiction; for where such motions occur, man is awakened from death and already lives through spiritual life. … Briefly: 1. To assume holy thoughts previous to regeneration, conversion, and faith, is pure and genuine Pelagianism. 2. To assume holy motions previous to the work of the Holy Spirit, places [[@Page:113]]the effect before the cause. 3. To assume in the corrupt heart of non-converted man a pious longing, amounts to producing good fruit while the tree is still corrupt. 4. To imagine, in him, a struggle of the flesh with the Spirit, is a contradiction in terms. 5. To assume the beginnings of faith where regeneration has not occurred, when, in fact, faith originates through regeneration, is the same as assuming the child to exist before the father.”) And still there is no material contradiction between Calovius and Chemnitz. Although Chemnitz refers to a “pious” desire (pium desiderium) called forth by the Holy Spirit before conversion, he is careful at once to add: “It is not within our power to change our will in the direction of something better” (non est in nostra potestate mutare voluntatem in melius). Chemnitz, accordingly, has in mind only such motions as are produced by the Holy Spirit from without, by means of which, however, man receives as his own no spiritual powers by means of which he were able to conduct himself rightly and desire conversion. Hence Luthardt’s remark that Calovius in his rejection of all cooperation in conversion goes even beyond the Formula of Concord (sc. Chemnitz), is not well taken.) That Chemnitz’s pium desiderium before conversion has reference only to motions which are produced by the Holy Spirit from without, and by no means refers to motions which man has received as his own through an indwelling spiritual power, is clear from the fact that he expressly terms these motions “natural” ones (naturales), as distinguished from the “spiritual” (spirituales), when he says that man has no cognizance of the moment when the operationes animales change into operationes spirituales.
With reference to the motions produced in man previous to conversion, Dr. Walther would use various illustrations, the illustration, e. g., of a besieged fortress. The fortress [[@Page:114]]receives impressions from without: it is bombarded and attacked. The besieged, however, do not make common cause with the besieging force, but try to prevent the taking of the fortress. Then, the image of an India-rubber ball which receives pressure from without. When the pressure from without ceases, the ball resumes its former shape.) “Not until man has yielded to the operations of God, when grace is no longer merely working from without (gratia assistens), but indwelling in him, man may cooperate. Whoever teaches otherwise can do so only from Pelagian premises.”) With reference to the motions produced in the non-converted, the motus inevitabiles, as he is willing to call them, Walther cites [[Acts 26, 28 >> Acts 26.28]] (King Agrippa); [[Luke 4, 22 >> Lk 4.22]] (the inhabitants of Nazareth); [[Acts 24, 25 >> Acts 24.25]] (Felix); and others. Quite properly so. It will not do to interpret [[Acts 26, 28 >> Acts 26.28]], “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” as irony. The entire context forbids such interpretation. Paul had addressed Agrippa with mighty words concerning his conversion, and the death and resurrection of Christ according to the prophets. Paul then turns directly to Agrippa and asks him, “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest!” Then Agrippa replied, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.” The context shows that the whole company was listening attentively, and that Festus and Agrippa were really inwardly moved and powerfully agitated. Such was Paul’s impression, too, for upon Agrippa’s exclamation, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” he replied, “I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day were both almost and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” The concluding words, too, [[vv. 30—32 >> Acts 26.30-32]], where the high dignitaries, “talking among themselves,” argued that Paul might be released, do not indicate irony. The case of Felix, [[Acts 24, 25 >> Acts 24.25]], is just as clear. When Paul was speaking of justice and chastity and the future judgment, Felix was frightened, he [[@Page:115]]“trembled” (ἔμφοβος γενόμενος). Palpably the motus inevitabiles. But likewise motus non irresistibiles, for Felix suppressed the motions and said, “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient time, I will call for thee.” He hoped also that money should be given him of Paul. Walther remarks: “That man cannot prevent his being affected by the Word of God is shown by the example of Felix, who was not at all inclined to be affected, for he heard Paul in the hope of getting money from him. He could not evade the effect of the sermon of the Law; he trembled. But he was able to resist, and dismissed the apostle with the words, ‘Go thy way for this time.’ ”) Also in the preaching of the Law the Holy Spirit is active and convicts man of the wrath of God against sin. And this is accompanied by “great, genuine, and earnest motions (motus) of the will,” says Chemnitz.) Again, that the Gospel causes motions in the heart of men even before conversion is clear from [[Luke 4, 22 >> Lk 4.22]]. The Lord preached a powerful Gospel sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. He read [[Is. 61, 1 >> Is 61.1]], dealing with the purpose and aim of the Messiah’s appearing: Messiah is sent “to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” He returns the scroll to the servant and commences to speak while all eyes are directed upon Him (ἀτενίζοντες). He applies the passage Is. 61, not like De Wette, to the mission of Isaiah “to the captives in exile,” but to Himself, to Jesus of Nazareth: “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” He held forth with much power the Gospel, the acceptable year of the Lord, which had been inaugurated by His coming. And the people of Nazareth were impressed. The impression is described as follows: “And all bare Him witness, and wondered at the gracious words (ἐπὶ τοῖς λόγοις τῆς χάριτος) which proceeded out of His mouth.” However, in spite of being thus impressed, those people were not yet [[@Page:116]]converted, as is clear from the fact that they rose up like one man when Christ touched their Jewish pride, and wanted to cast Him from the brow of the hill.) Nor will it do to interpret [[Mark 12, 34 >> Mk 12.34]], “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God,” as signifying, “Thou art already in the kingdom of God.” Some have urged this meaning in an effort to show that a “moral, just disposition” qualifies for the kingdom of God.) Others had an opposite interest in urging this interpretation, viz, to exclude from the start every thought of praeparatio for the entrance into the kingdom of God. In order to justify the interpretation, “Thou art already in the kingdom of God,” [[Acts 17, 27 >> Acts 17.27]] has been appealed to, where Paul says that the Lord “is not far from every one of us.” In this passage, in Acts 17, a litotes must indeed be recognized. By saying, “God is not far from us,” the apostle intends to say, “God is very near to us, we are in God.” But the apostle himself says that his words in this place should be understood by litotes, for he adds: “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” As a corresponding explanation is lacking in the text of Mark 12, it is not advisable to add one, but the words should be taken as they read, without a figure of speech, thus: “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” The act of being led to the kingdom of God is here conceived as a stretch of road or a process where one is nearer the goal than the other. Here, too, the context shows how “not far,” οὐ μακρὰν, is to be understood. The scribe no longer criticised Jesus, but was even now impressed by the words of the Lord, observing that He had answered the Sadducees “well” (καλῶς). Then, too, he had gained the knowledge that the real content of the Law is to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. He had given up the delusion that by the outward accomplishment of the works demanded by God, burnt offerings and sacrifices, v. 33, the [[@Page:117]]Law of God is kept. In this condition the scribe was not yet in the kingdom of God, still he was nearer the kingdom than those scribes who believed that their outward performance of the works demanded by the Lord was a fulfillment of the Law, and who merely criticised the Lord’s sayings. Dr. Walther remarks: “When the Lord says: ‘Thou art not far from the kingdom of God,’ [[Mark 12, 34 >> Mk 12.34]], He would say: There are in thee even now preparatory effects of the Spirit; for the scribe here addressed had already yielded to a better understanding of the Law.” But in the same connection Walther rejects every status medius. He says: “Whoever teaches that a man may be converted, and yet not be entirely converted, contradicts the Scriptures, which know but two states, death or life. Whoever is not under grace is under wrath; whoever is not in life is still in death; whoever is not on the way to heaven is on the way to hell; whoever is an unsaved person is a damned person. There is no twilight stage, no middle state between light and darkness.”)
In order, then, not to be compelled to use forced interpretations of Scripture, it should be maintained, on the one hand, that there is indeed a “preparation” for conversion. On the other hand, it is to be maintained with equal emphasis that only by the enkindling of faith spiritual life enters into man, and that under all “preparatory acts” man remains spiritually dead, subjectum convertendum. There are indeed previous to conversion motus “from the Holy Spirit, but not with the Holy Spirit.” These motus may be termed “spiritual” or “good” motions only inasmuch as they are called forth by the Holy Spirit, but viewed from the standpoint of the condition of man, whose will is still at enmity with God, they are carnales or animales, as expressed by Chemnitz and Calovius. “It sounds very fine,” says Walther, “when modern theologians say: When God gives strength to unconverted man, he is able to cooperate towards his conversion. But that is wrong; for a dead [[@Page:118]]person cannot make use of imparted powers as long as he lacks the strength necessary for the employment of such powers, that is to say, as long as he lacks life. You may roll a dead body back and forth, and by applying electricity cause him to open his eyes or his mouth, and so on, but all this remains a result of forces affecting him from without. Only he who has become subjectively a possessor of power can move himself.”)
Adverting once more to the Norwegian Articles of Agreement, we would, in this connection, urge that the wording of Thesis 5 d should not be censured, but should be acknowledged as correct. Thesis 5 d rejects the teaching that faith “is the result of a power or ability imparted to man by the call of grace and therefore now dwelling in, and belonging to, unregenerate man, to decide himself for grace.” According to the wording of this thesis, two facts are here expressed: There are motions in man called forth by the Holy Spirit before conversion; divine powers are operating on man before conversion, but man is not able, by virtue of such powers, to decide for the Gospel, because these powers are not yet indwelling in him, have not yet become his own. [[@Page:119]]